Article from Church & State, Winter 2005 (Number 79)

The Puritan Millennium

by Stephen Richards

Gribben is of Scottish birth, but of Ulster "stock", lectured for a while in the English Department of Trinity, Dublin, and is now settled in the North again where, I believe, he moves in Reformed Presbyterian and Baptist circles. As one might guess, his book is an extended Ph.D thesis, fittingly published in 2000, and is academic rather than popular in tone. For a breezier sample of his writing we can go to his Archbishop Ussher And The Irish Reformation, but here we have to wade through sentences like: "Textual integrity would be problematized as puritans grappled to theorize the aesthetics of apocalypse and enforce closure on texts representing unclosed history". Still, it's well worth the wading, and I freely confess I've learned things I never even knew.

I was surprised by the extent to which the Puritans were taken up with millennarian issues. We're not talking here simply about the wilder fringes of the movement but about the theological big hitters like John Owen and Thomas Goodwin, who just happened to be flourishing in the middle years of the seventeenth century. It has been said that mythology is a disease of language, so equally millennarianism could be a disease of Christianity, on the basis that history is a purposeful outworking of God's purposes and therefore should be intelligible to the properly instructed. But this has developed into a not always healthy obsession that people who should know better keep coming back to. American culture in particular is steeped in it. It has informed the political imagination of America almost from the outset and dominated its rhetoric, as we can see in Lincoln, Wilson, Roosevelt, Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Reagan and Clinton, with his "place called hope", to name but a few. Bush senior, who couldn't achieve it, memorably dubbed it "the vision thing". Most other Americans don't have to try. Whatever its effect (usually disastrous) on foreign policy, one has to admit that it has all added a certain richness to public discourse in America which is simply missing from British and Irish political life. Tony Blair has millennarian urges from time to time, but is hampered by the lack of anything very appropriate to be millennarian about. So we have the ridiculous spectacle of politicians claiming to be "passionate" about public service reform, pensions, or whatever.

As Brendan Clifford has noted though, people don't just slough off their millennarianism with their Christianity. It transmutes into more virulent strains. The Marxist vision is, or was, typical of this, with its tumultuous process leading to a proletarian utopia, peopled by the New Man, freed from the original sin of acquisitiveness. Hitler's thousand year Reich, by its very title, invokes the millennium, while also neatly recalling the old imperfect Holy Roman Empire. And of course the British Empire, while paying lip-service to God, was aiming towards a godless millennium of some sort, to be characterized by an effortless self-effacing superiority. The English and the Germans alike, as a result of national misadventures, are now bereft of proper pride in their respective cultures.

What they all have in common, the Christians and the post-Christians, is a desire to impose a mathematical kind of patter on the fabric of history with a view to what the theologians called historical astrology. This consummation is inevitable but still has to be helped along by its adherents. The historical arguments are meant to demonstrate the futility of trying to fight against the purposes of God, the worldwide triumph of socialism etc. But, as the Americans say, "stuff happens", to which one response is the rhetoric of Hitler in the bunker. Another is to rewrite the vision.

If the Belfast United Irishmen were using the Book of Revelation as their handy guide to the progress of the French Revolution then, maybe, the excesses of the English Puritans were even more pardonable.

One tends to be put off millennial studies by the frequent references to Antichrist, often in association with the Pope. This seems a ghastly insult to throw at anybody, and it's certainly not meant as affectionate banter. However, it should be understood in its exact signification as someone or something standing in the place of Christ, setting out to do what only Christ can do, and using Christ's authority so to do. This would be an accurate description of how the Reformers and early Puritans viewed the power structure of the unreformed Church of Rome. The allegation was not that the Roman Church was satanic, or that it was not a Christian Church, however grievously in error. In the deepening turmoil of the Civil War years the Antichrist jibe got ever more widely bandied about, by the Puritans against the Laudian Church, the Independents against the Presbyterians, the Fifth Monarchy men against the Independents, and so on.

I should also mention, pace Brendan Clifford, that the elect nation ideology in England apparently predated the Reformation and "can be traced with certainty as far back as the fourteenth century". Surely this would fit in with the Irish experience of English rule, even in mediaeval times, as exemplified by the Statutes of Kilkenny, Poyning's Law and the attempts at cultural dominance. Not to mention the Scottish experience. Even mediaeval England had to believe that it was acting out a moral, even Christian, imperative vis-à-vis the lesser breeds who, in the case of the Scots and Irish, hadn't been fully Romanized (in either the imperial or the religious sense). Brendan might also want to investigate further the interest the early Puritans and the continental reformers showed in drama as a means of propagating the faith. Apparently even John Foxe wrote a play. Gribben mentions that—
"anti-reformation parliaments attacked the 'preachers and scaffold players of his new religion', as pulpits and stages united to produce a militantly reformist agenda".

Anyway, Gribben's book is full of surprising things. Another is the sheer lack of interest shown by the Reformers themselves when it came to the prophetic parts of the Bible and especially Revelation, the one book in the Bible for which Calvin wrote no commentary. Calvin might have agreed with Wittgenstein that whereof one cannot speak one must perforce remain silent. In this the Reformers followed Augustine.

"In 1566, the second Helvetic Confession condemned 'the Jewish dreams, that before the day of judgement there shall be a golden world in the earth…' This statement represented a multinational Protestant front as the reformed churches in Scotland, Hungary, Poland and Geneva all subscribed their assent."

The events of the Münster commune, the Waco, Texas of the 1530s, had reinforced this wariness.

"Zwingli denied that {Revelation} was canonical; Luther only slowly overcame his initial hostility to its contents. Such was the general lack of interest in the book that, as Irene Backus notes, 'Roman Catholic theologians persisted in thinking mistakenly that one of the hallmarks of the Protestant heresy was its rejection of the Book of Revelation'."

The English Marian exiles on the continent were part of this tradition but also, it would seem, subverted it on the basis of their own concerns. John Foxe was the most influential figure in this fairly diffuse grouping. Foxe—

"…found himself torn between the conflicting parties and determined to pursue a more independent path. He separated from the rest of the exiles and settled eventually in Basel, where he devoted himself to writing. …The methodology which he had inherited from the Reforms had emphasized that history was 'essentially ambiguous', but Foxe was quite prepared to move beyond their caution. Recognizing the polemical utility of finding patterns in history, he explicated Revelation to prove that the Puritan refugees, disconsolate and divided, were vital members of history's winning side and were part of the tradition of dissent which characterized the truest English Christianity…

"In the resulting 'Book of Martyrs', the Acts and Monuments (1563), Foxe signalled the linearity of history as a trail of blood from the Apostle to the Marian exiles. It was a historical text twice as long as the Bible… Advancing a robustly protestant apologetic, it explained to the exiles and their supporters why they found themselves and their world as they did. It unpacked their identity under the framework of the continual opposition of truth and error, the unending war between Christ and Antichrist. False prophets and conniving prelates were hell's agents against the elect.

"Foxe's narratives are certainly exciting reading: his heroes were carefully positioned to illustrate the series of historical crises true Christians had faced. He presented the first believers resisting Nero, the aged Polycarp defying Roman demands to offer incense to Caesar, and Athanasius alone defending the Trinity. But the apocalyptic justification of his selection has often been overlooked. Latter--day heroes he found in Dante and Petrarch, 'who called Rome the Whore of Babylon', and among the 'principle [sic] Writers and Preachers' of the English church he selected John Gower and Geoffrey Chaucer as rather surprising representatives of England's millennarian remnant."

Gribben goes on to explain Foxe's schema of church history, starting with three hundred years of persecution of the early church, which is followed by Foxe's version of the millennium, identified as the thousand-year period from Constantine (specifically from the year 324) to 1324, the time of Wycliffe and John Hus.

"The millennium was not a glorious affair of the uninterrupted harmony of the rule of the saints, but a period when the visible church experienced increasing lethargy and intruding error. It began with a 'flourishing time', Foxe's second division of three hundred years' duration, when Constantine formally adopted the Christian faith on behalf of the Roman Empire, but its degeneration quickly followed.

"The third division of church history began six hundred years after the apostles, and was described as a 'declining or backsliding time'. This period also lasted three hundred years, and brought Foxe's history up to the end of AD 1000. In this period the church grew in ambition and pomp, and was 'much altered from the simple sincerity of the Primitive Time'. Foxe lamented that while 'in outward profession of Doctrine and Religion it was something tolerable, and had some face of a Church… some corruption of Doctrine, with Superstition and Hypocrizie was then also crept in [sic].' This was a characterization of the millennium which would find few echoes in the optimism of later Puritan thought. Foxe's binding of Satan could not prevent the spread of heresy. The result of this, in the fourth division, was that the church's 'Doctrine and sincerity of Life was utterly almost extinguished.' …The true church, once an Empire, had become a remnant outside the visible sacramental continuum of the 'disordered Church of Rome.'"

According to this reckoning, by Foxe's time, the fifth period had already lasted nearly three hundred years and the upheavals of Reformation Europe portended some cataclysm on the near horizon.

The exiles were sure Catholic Babylon was soon to fall. Frequently citing Wycliffe as the 'morning star of the reformation', they pointed to England's special role in Antichrist's destruction.

As Foxe's epilogue to his play concludes, "Thus with the catastrophe of everything imminent and the prophecies completely fulfilled, nothing seems to remain except that apocalyptic voice soon to be heard from heaven…" But "Foxe could not offer that voice. He could attempt to close his text but never the history his text described". This is where Gribben gets really interesting. Foxe was prevented from—

"…offering a closure which his subject matter did not allow. There could be no closure in texts which claimed to represent history. Thus Foxe took advantage of the confusion of sign and thing signified to deny that the play could ever really describe the end; all it could provide was a prelude to a history which, for the reader/audience, patently continued… The rest of history was an unwritten appendix to Foxe's text.

"…The Prologue expressly hoped that 'perhaps it will not be long before stage representations will lie neglected; then indeed we will see all with our own eyes, when God sends in actual fact what he now only promises.' In desiring the negation of stage plays—and by implication the Scriptural exegesis they recounted— {Foxe's play} was desiring the negation of it itself. Millennarian iconoclasm was being wrapped up in textual annihilation… As the Reformers pained themselves to establish the authority of Scripture alone over the traditions of the Roman Catholic church, Foxe's play was envisaging and anticipating the extermination of that sole authority."

Adam Nicholson has recently written a history of the King James Bible. In the extract I heard serialized on the radio he was arguing that the English had discovered a kind of architecture of language to rival the various art forms of the continental Renaissance. If what Gribben says is true, then such a suggestion would have met with complete incomprehension on the part of the Puritan authors. The language, even in translations of inspired Scripture, was always pointing beyond itself. This is consistent with St. Paul. As someone has paraphrased 1 Corinthians 13…

"I know it's hard to see these things
As through a dark glass straining,
But when we're standing face to face
The truth won't need explaining".

The dark glass is the Word which is authoritative but provisional only and not to be made the object of idolatry: not an icon but a sign. This ultimate protestant position has a marked likeness to the approach to language of the French deconstructionists, as Gribben tells us. It might also hold a clue to the "secret of England's {literary} greatness", this restlessness, this impatience with form for form's sake, which produced its masterpieces, as the Empire is supposed to have been conceived, in a fit of absence of mind, produced by people who set a premium on "plain speaking".

Gribben continues:

"It was easy for this apocalyptic foregrounding of England to gain social and political credibility. After the accession of Elizabeth, England was the only major power to enjoy a protestant hegemony, as a besieged island outpost of the Reformation. Opposition to the Papal Antichrist was the basis of Elizabeth's foreign policy and of arguments over the royal dynasty. It provided central themes for the literary culture surrounding Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene (1590), in which the English 'godly prince' was to take the leading role in the final cosmic drama. Foxian rhetoric was purposely designed to establish bishop and king."

It would seem that Foxe managed to emphasize two distinct concepts, the 'faithful remnant' and the 'reformed nation'. The Geneva Bible, which was supreme in England's pulpits until the eve of the Civil War, did the same by means of its marginal notes. James Ussher in Ireland struggled to keep faith with the Foxian/Genevan paradigm of the 'godly prince' with increasing desperation as the establishment in Church and State was revealed as antithetical to the interests of the faithful remnant. He, along with Milton, Bunyan and the millennarian experiment in Ireland, will have to await our next instalment.

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