Article from Church & State, Spring 2005 (Number 80)

The Puritan Millennium—Part Two

by Stephen Richards

1643 was the annus mirabilis of Scottish Presybyterian influence in the affairs of the "three kingdoms". The English Parliamentarian alliance with the Scots in the Solemn League and Covenant of that year provided vital relief for the forces of the English Parliament. The Scots naturally expected that this military muscle could be made to count at a theological level, and the invitation of a number of Scottish "commissioners" to join in the deliberations of the Westminster Assembly of Divines seemed to bear this out. The remit of the Assembly was duly widened to include the total review of doctrine, liturgy and church government. With regard to the first two there was remarkable unanimity: the grief and dissension came with the question of church structures. Robert Baillie, a Scottish Commissioner, had remarked early on that "a Presbyterie to this [English] people is conceaved to be a strange monster". But there was more to this difficulty than mutual incomprehension.

On the English side the attraction of Scottish alliance diminished as the need for it became less pressing. This power shift is amusingly depicted in the opening pages of Scott's otherwise unmemorable novel, Woodstock. One senses also that by 1644 the English had become exasperated at the conduct of their allies. It wasn't long before this exasperation took the form of what we now know as negative racial stereotyping. Certainly some of Milton's polemics, and even sonnets, reek of contempt for the Scottish nation, its barbarism, and even its surnames. Maybe that detestation would have been one of the few points of agreement between Milton and that other giant of English letters, Jonathan Swift, sitting in his rectory at Kilroot, County Antrim, sixty years later surrounded by swarms of refractory Presbyterians, "vicious spirits, full of corrupt humours", as Cromwell had called them. Faint echoes of this came down to our own day in the famous dictum of Harold Wilson, provoked beyond belief by the Ulster Protestant community during the Workers' Strike of 1974: "Who do these people think they are?" For there was the rub. These yokels from the Celtic fringes were behaving as if they were equals. Men like Rutherford and the precocious George Gillespie weren't exactly yokels. They had a classical education to rival Milton's. But they were narrow-minded, had a disputatious, dogmatic way with them in the public sphere, and tended to insist on the self-evident superiority of the Presbyterian system in a way that made their English audiences somewhat restive.

The problem for the Scots was that they could not simply ditch their ecclesiology in the interests of unity, not when their understanding of their place in God's purposes was so dependent on their adherence to it. That there would be no compromise was made very clear in Gillespie's sermon to the Commons and the Westminster divines at St. Margaret's, Westminster, on 27th March 1644. He wasn't to know that the tide had already turned against the Presbyterians and this would be their swansong.

After reflecting at some length on the sad and shameful history of the previous five or six years, the enemies outside the camp and the false friends within, Gillespie turned to his text which was Ezekiel 43.11…

"in which", says Gribben, "the prophet is commanded to display to the Israelites the plans of the new temple which God had revealed to him—but only on the condition that the listeners were 'ashamed of all that they had done'. From this text, Gillespie derived the twin aims of his sermon, attempting to bring 'humiliation' on his hearers and to outline God's demands for the establishment of the pure system of church government."

Gribben goes on to comment:

"…the first difficulty Gillespie faced was to justify his drawing from an Old Testament prophecy the organizational principles of a New Testament church. Scottish attempts to establish a Presbyterian church in England regularly appealed to the Old Testament temple-building rhetoric because the Scots had become rather adept at applying the promises of Israel to themselves… Similarly, some of the godly looked upon the work of church reformation as the New Testament equivalent of establishing Judaism among the idols… Gillespie reminded his hearers that the best arguments for Episcopacy, 'antiquity, custom and other defences of that kind', were the same arguments used for the 'high places of will worship' in the former dispensation."

Gillespie then remarks,

"I have no pleasure to take up these and other dunghills; the text hath put this in my mouth which I have said."

On the fulfilment of Ezekiel's prophecy,

"the first fulfilment Gillespie points to is the Jewish Temple as it was rebuilt after the Babylonian exile—'for though many things in the vision do not agree to that time, as hath been proved, yet some things do agree'. Secondly, Gillespie points the reader to the universal church, and quotes twice from the New Testament to evidence the claim that the apostles regarded the early church as the prophetic vision of the Jewish temple."

So far so good, the listeners might have thought, but Gillespie was about to part company with many of them.

"Thirdly", continues Gribben, "Gillespie claims that the prophecy has a particular application to the church as it enters the glory and prosperity of the 'last times'… The institution of the proper form of biblical church government, Gillespie argued, was the 'happiness' which God 'reserved to the last times, to build a more excellent and glorious temple than former generations have seen.' … Gillespie argued that 'the church, the house of the living God, shall not lie desolate for ever, but shall be built again' when 'the kingdom of antichrist shall come to an end.' His audience was to consider the great revolution and turning of things upside down in these our days'; certainly, he felt, 'the work is upon the wheel'. The events of the Westminster Assembly could announce the end of the times symbolized by the wilderness exile of the apocalyptic woman of Revelation 12, and the Presbyterian reformation-in-waiting, which Rutherford had already described, would be complete."

Gillespie produced a whole series of more or less plausible reasons why his audience should be on tiptoe watching for these things to be fulfilled before their eyes. The last of these is the most fascinating. It was that "the time seemeth to answer fitly". For 1260 years had now elapsed since the Council of Constantinople in 383 AD which acknowledged the primacy of the Bishop of Rome. To understand this we have to grasp that the millennium was to be preceded by a period of persecution or "tribulation", which, according to Daniel and Revelation, was to last for three and a half years, or 1260 days. Convert the days to years and we find that the church had been enduring its tribulation, its Babylonian captivity, right up until the date of the Solemn League and Covenant but it was now at the dawn of a bright new day, associated with the establishment of the temple on a scriptural basis. That was why the question of church government was non-negotiable for the Presbyterian party.

This turned on its head the previously accepted Foxian scheme of things whereby the Christian centuries from Constantine onwards, flawed though they were, had constituted the millennium. Says Gribben:

"No longer was the conversion of Constantine the beginning of a golden age for the church; rather it marked the beginnings of the usurpation of Antichrist… Gillespie brings the beast's fall into his own seventeenth century, illustrating his fear that the official conversion of the three kingdoms to the reformed faith had not extirpated Antichrists's influence. The beast had continued to reign through the bishops."

The corollary for his audience was that they could become actors in this cosmic drama and, as it were, finish Gillespie's sermon off for him. Even at this remove, with all our hindsight, we can sense the potency of Gillespie's analysis. I suspect that I for one would have fallen for it.

What a relief to turn from these crazy Nostradamus types to the cool Renaissance rationality of Milton. Well, maybe.

"Milton understood the Scots' attempts to control the press as a serious attack on reformation. In Areopagitica (1644), his extended analysis of the Presbyterian threat, he alluded to the Biblical passage describing the situation of a nation abandoned by God. God intended to 'send even a faintness' into the hearts of the exiled Israelites, 'and the sound of a leafe shaken shall chase them'. (Leviticus 26:36). Milton threatened the fragile Presbyterian theocracy with the vengeance of the God whose kingdom they believed they were establishing: under licensing, he punned, 'when God shakes a kingdom' men would 'fear each book and the shaking of every leaf'. …For puritans, the apocalypse was becoming a curiously textual affair where the earth and its books would be subject to increasing tumult as the final days approached. It was becoming a test of textual authority as much as orthodoxy. A sign of its times, Milton's Areopagitica struggles at the edge of literary expression to contain the forces it describes."

Some common ground with the Scots can be discerned in Milton, in his aversion to the idea of Constantine being a Good Thing, and in his elect nation theory, although in his case that nation was England.

"Why else was this Nation chosen before any other, that out of her as out of Sion, should be proclaim'd and sounded forth the first tidings and trumpet of Reformation to all Europe… God is decreeing to begin some new and great period in his church, even to the reforming of Reformation itself: what does he then but reveal Himself to his servants, and as his manner is, first to English men." (Areopagitica).

And of those English men Milton was, in his own estimation at least, primus inter pares.

Like Yeats, as described by R.F. Foster, he was the Archpoet.

"Nevertheless", writes Gribben, "although Milton criticized the prelates for self-aggrandizement, his 'elect nation' ideology served to accentuate his own status. Milton aspired to be England's greatest national poet and a peer of the classical writers. Consequently, he was highly interested in the cultural implications of England's election… Milton was scripting his own immortality when he imagined history stopping with England ascendant, and himself as the country's greatest literary figure. Of Reformation ends with his imagining the time 'when thou the Eternall and shortly-expected King shall open the Clouds to judge the severall Kingdomes of the Worlde'. Milton's thoughts were on his own millennial role: 'amidst the Hymns and Halleluiahs of Saints some one may perhaps bee heard offering at high strains in new and lofty Measures to sing and celebrate thy divine Mercies and marvellous Judgements in this Land throughout all Ages'."

Milton seemed constantly intent on undermining his own positions as well as everybody else's, so it's remarkable that his millennial theories aren't drastically out of step with those of his contemporaries, and might be even more favourably received in modern fundamentalist churches. The same could not be said for the rest of his theology. The regicides of 1649 were disowned by the French Huguenots, the Scottish Presbyterians and the Dutch Republic, so Milton, impatient with mainstream protestantism, increasingly looked for inspiration to the shadowy heretical fringes of British church history. This attitude was already prefigured in Areopagitica.

The doctrine of progressive revelation, which was familiar enough, was developed by Milton first to try to show that an outbreak of new light had the potential not only to refine but also to contradict what had gone before; and secondly to draw attention to himself as the bringer of the new light. By attempting to codify the truth in tight doctrinal form the Westminster divines were really muzzling the truth and hence the urgency of Milton in getting his retaliation in first, before they had finally reported, and before his riposte would be stillborn under the new regime of limited censorship.

Back to Gribben:

"Milton's position is complicated: his philosophy—that Truth is the result of the battle of books, not merely a contestant in it—forbids its own succinct statement—if it is indeed 'true'. If Milton was simply to state his doctrine, the reader could enjoy no certainty as to its present accuracy—reading it some time after it was written. 'Truth' by this stage could have progressed… Total knowledge can never be achieved and consequently the search for it is useless. It is difficult to know why Milton's reader should struggle to attain something which will never be achieved."

So Milton's slogan would be 'let a hundred flowers bloom', and that is undoubtedly attractive in our Darwinian age. Books are sent out into the world like boxers and their shelf life may be long or short depending how they stand up to the hard knocks of criticism, albeit this frenetic polemical activity hardly seems a fitting prelude to the millennium. Underlying this approach is a belief that truth, rather than becoming a casualty in this war, will actually emerge the stronger out of it. Other Puritans might have agreed that truth can be properly defined only as against its competing heresies, just as in the early Christian era the Arians and Pelagians were in a sense a necessary evil. The difference however was that truth itself had become a moving target, with Milton pointing at its retreating image a bit like a vaguer version of John the Baptist. He himself could leap beyond the static words on the page almost before they were written, embodying in his own being the progressive revelation he believed in. His readers, if they constituted a fit audience, might leap further still in their imaginations as they followed the implications of those words. The texts therefore might appear to be dogmatic but are really only provisional.

"This is what Areopagitica does to the millenarian landscape of the Interregnum. Milton posts and questions, posits and questions, until the attack is as much upon textual authority and the utility of publishing as it is upon the eschatological foundations of contemporary puritan thought… by staking his reputation as a prophet within the credibility of his texts, Milton risks the dissolution of his own character in the constantly fluctuating typology of his tract. Areopagitica's Milton is like Satan in Paradise Lost, who is denied the possibility of independent action and is reduced to fracturing God's rhetoric in an attempt to achieve significance: like Satan's, Milton's actions are re-actions."

Areopagitica has been quoted enthusiastically by anti-censorship activists, traditionally in support of texts that are pornographic or offensive to Christians. To crush a book is to crush the human spirit and we are all the poorer for it. But if bad books can't do very much harm, then how can good books do very much good? According to Milton, even the 'good' books are shot through with so much error and human sin that they may have to be read with many reservations. So it can be argued that Milton was a founding father of this bleak postmodern age where any attempt to persuade others that one belief has more objective validity than another is meaningless. What we believe is an extension of who we are and doesn't need to be validated by reference to any external standard. That is what the American writer James H. Sire has described as "the universe next door". G.K. Chesterton has commented that it's now seen as bad form for people to be confident about their beliefs and the confidence has transferred to their personalities, whereas in times past it was the other way round. In Western Europe at any rate the ultimate questions have become very ultimate indeed and out of bounds in polite society, while we amuse ourselves to death. Society itself has been crushed between the upper and nether millstones of multi-national capitalism on the one hand the encroaching state on the other. As with Frederick the Great, we can say what we like, more or less, and the state does what it likes. But I think it has been shown by recent events, not least in Holland, that societies like individuals need to have some presuppositional framework of belief so that other views can be engaged with. It's impossible for a vacuum to engage with anything. In stating this I feel more affinity with Cassandra than with John the Baptist, but I'm in the company of George Gillespie and Pope John Paul II, whose death has been announced as I wrote. I look forward to a tribute issue of Church & State in his honour.

I've left myself very little space to deal with the millenarian experiment in Ireland. Militarily Cromwell had cleared the way, but he was not much concerned in the positive effort to build up a godly community in Ireland, which was associated with John Rogers. Rogers was no more successful than Archbishop Ussher whose Irish Reformation had run out of steam with the coming of Wentworth. It was believed that with God's blessing the Irish religious landscape could be transformed as thousands of Baptist and other sympathetic settlers moved in. Things did not work out as planned, not least because of a furious row that erupted between Cromwell and Rogers in 1854, just two years after Rogers came to Ireland. But with Rogers the millennium had retreated still further from the realm of what was politically achievable and had become a matter of the inner life in a way that anticipates the pietists of Herrnhut in the following century.

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