11 July 2012

A Description of Dissenters

Recently, while discussing Milton, a professor made mention of a broadside from 1647, called A catalogue of the several sects and opinions in England and other nations : With a briefe rehearsall of their false and dangerous tenents.  It was published by "R.A."  I thought it was fascinating and tracked down a scanned copy.

It was published during the Commonwealth period, after Charles I was beheaded.  Puritanism was on the rise and would soon rule in the person of Oliver Cromwell, but most of the country had a more middling sort of Protestantism.  Some new kinds of Protestant beliefs and a number of different religious and ideological groups that had been thriving abroad, mostly in Germany and the Low Countries, began to enter into an England that was rather more receptive of revolutionary thought than ever before.1  Baptists arose and became a serious force among these groups, known as Dissenters.  Still, there was fierce resistance to more radical beliefs, and the thoughts of many extremists were considered heresy, treason, or both.

The sheet has a short poem for twenty-two of the different extreme "sects" appearing in England, and a small illustration for the first twelve.  Some of the sects are formal organizations, while others are simply loose ideas.

By hellish wiles the States to ruine bring,
My Tenents are to murder Prince or King:
If I obtaine my projects, or seduce,
Then from my Treasons I will let them loose,
And since the Roman Papall State doth totter,
I'le frame my fly-conceits to worke the better.

The Jesuits, or Society of Jesus, are an order of priests in the Catholic Church.  While today they are best known for their educational accomplishments and institutions (I went to a Jesuit high school), they were formerly famous for being "devious" agents of the Pope.  Unlike most priests, they were sworn only to obey the leader of their order and the Holy See, rather than local bishops and archbishops.  Combined with a formidable reputation for intelligence and erudition, this made them appear sinister and gave rise to the still-used adjective "jesuitical" to describe complicated reasoning (with a connotation of obfuscation).  The poet's accusations are colorful and probably need no explanation.

The Jesuit appears to be holding a beer stein as he lectures.  I don't know the significance, but it's probably a veiled accusation of intemperance.  There have always been a lot of smear attacks on the Jesuits, and they're still ongoing, as one modern evangelical tract shows.

By cunning art my way's more neatly spun,
Although destructive to profession;
Obscuring truths, though substantiall,
To puzzle Christians or to make them fall:
That precious time may not be well improv'd,
I'le multiply strange notions for the lewd.

The Socinians are very obscure today, and I was forced to look them up on Wikipedia: they are named for their founder, whose Latin name was Faustus Socinus, and they were famous opponents of trinitarianism (the orthodox belief in a trinity of three persons united in a single godhead).  They held a number of other heretical beliefs, as well, such as denying the divinity of Christ and the doctrine of original sin.

The poet's condemnation of the sect is strangely nonspecific, it seems to me, and could just as easily have described any heretical sect that is wasting the "precious time" of men and "obscuring truths."

Would any comfortlesse both live and die?
Let him learn free wills great uncertaintie:
Salvation that doth unmov'd remaine,
Arminian logic would most maintaine,
And faith that's founded on a firme decree,
Is plac't by them to cause uncertaintie.

This sect has nothing to do with the Armenian people; rather, they are named after philosopher Jacobus Arminius.  It was one of the most dominant strains of Protestant thought, rivaling Calvinism, and held that men had to rationally choose faith, with benefit of the intercession of the Holy Spirit, in order to go to Heaven.  Much emphasis was given to man's role in his own salvation: he might not be persuaded, or might fall to sin even after he received the faith.  This is the "uncertaintie" condemned by the broadsheet.

The Arminian is the most badass-looking of all the heretics.

What they dare to deny, Christians know,
Christ God and Man, from whom their comforts flow,
'Tis sad, that Christians dive by speculation,
Whereby they loose more sweeter contemplation:
Where Christian practice acts the life of grace,
There's sweet content to run in such a race.

The Arian heresy is one of the oldest heresies, and by far the most famous.  Arius was an Alexandrian theologian of the third century, and the heresy he espoused was only resolved by the First Council of Niceaea, the first ecumenical meeting of the Church to determine doctrine, enshrined in the Nicene Creed.  At its heart, the Arian heresy was another denial of the Trinity, with Arius pointing out that because there was a time before Jesus existed, he must be a lesser being.  This assertion is usually still called Arianism, and is exceedingly common among major evangelical groups.

The poet here condemns Arians for "speculation" about the nature of Christ, when they should be busy contemplating Jesus' gift of grace to them.  The depiction makes him look like some sort of monster, but I suspect that's just a mustache that didn't translate very well on the woodcut.

Hath Adams sin procur'd his naked shame,
With leaves at first that thought to hide his staine?
Then let not Adamites in secret dare
Apparent sinfull acts to spread; but feare,
Since Adams sin hath so defil'd poor dust,
Cast from this Paradise by wicked lust.

This religious sect, which I only know because it's hilarious, claimed to have rediscovered an earthly Eden of spirituality.  Accordingly, they practiced religious nudism and rejected the idea of marriage.  They would gather in public squares and dance together, naked, until someone rang up the local soldiers.

Adamites were probably never a very big group, because they are mostly famous only due to constant and loud condemnation.  We very rarely hear about any actual Adamites, although there is a story about a fifteenth-century group in Bohemia, the Picards, that took control of an entire island and gave themselves up to their amazing naked worship ceremonies and communism.  Unfortunately, they were wiped out by the soldiers of Bohemian ruler Jan Žižka, to exterminate the pernicious influence of nudity and an odd sort of pre-Marx socialism.

The famous painting The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch may have been inspired by Adamites.

A pish at sin and open violation,
By willful lust, deserves just condemnation:
Repentance, through a Riddle, this I'le say,
Thou must unfold the same or perish aye.
Then least this holy Law thou yet doth slight,
Shall press thee one day with a dreadfull weight.

This is less a religious sect than what we would still call a libertine today, someone who is a sensualist, indulging in sex and drugs until they rot away and are portrayed by Johnny Depp.  To the poet, this depraved sort of lifestyle is an assault on God's law - thus the "Libertin" is portrayed as smashing the Ten Commandments with a hammer.  The object visible in the background is probably a bedpost, meant to hint at the specific sins of the libertine.

By cursed words and actions to gainsay
All Scripture-truth, that ought to guide thy way,
Without all question, were it in thy power,
Thou wouldst all sacred Rules at once devoure:
Poor man, forebear, thou striv'st but all in vaine,
Since all man's might shall but confirme the same.

Seemingly more of an idea that an organized sect, I was unable to find any information on antiscriptarians as a group.  The name and illustration seem clear enough, though, condemning those who denied the Scriptures and asserting that they would burn all holy books if given a chance.  It seems to have been a common smear against those who believed differently, as one Muggletonian declaims:
[T]he Antiscripturian saith, That God hath
neither body, parts or shape, but yet is an infinite
vast God, filling all things, and is in all places at one
and the same time, and so can neither ascend nor
descend, come nor go, but is every where at once;
as your great Augustine saith.

This is yours and the world's monstrous God:
are those the men that are so capable of Argument ;
if we should be as ignorant in the Scriptures as you,
it were no matter if our tongues should cleave to
the roof of our mouths.2

That souls are mortal, some have dar'd to say,
And by their lives, this folly some bewray;
Whilst (like the beast) they only live to eat,
In sinfull pleasures wast their time and state:
Meantime forgetting all immortality,
To woe or joy for all eternity.

The Soul-sleepers are another one of the strange schismatic beliefs that seem utterly unimportant on their face, but have large implications for the faithful.  The belief that the soul does not remain awake during death, but sleeps until the time of the Resurrection, was stated by Martin Luther in one famous tract as:
Salomon judgeth that the dead are a sleepe, and feele nothing at all. For the dead lye there accompting neyther dayes nor yeares, but when they are awoken, they shall seeme to have slept scarce one minute.
This would not have been controversial, and in fact would be utterly meaningless, but it meant that saints and the dead were unable to intercede on behalf of their loved ones, and that after death there was only oblivion (until the Last Judgment, anyway).  The Anglican church and its affiliates (such as the Episcopalians) still maintain this belief.  But it was shocking and dire for most English Christians in the seventeenth century, when they hadn't worked their way around to agreement and cast off a lingering Catholicism that had been exacerbated by the differing beliefs of successive monarchs.

The inscription over the Soul-sleeper says:
Heer's one blasphemous by
That hee was Christ did say
Such spirits were foretold
To rise ith latter daye

Poore men contrive strange fancies in the braine,
To cleanse that guilt which is a Leopard staine:
'Tis but a fain'd conceit, contended for,
Since water can but act its outward matter:
Regenerate, new-born, these babes indeed
Of watry elements have little need.

The Anabaptists, or "twice-baptized," believed that christening, or the baptism of babies, wasn't valid.  Only a rational adult could choose to be baptized, and thus it was necessary to be baptized again upon reaching maturity.  Many Anabaptists also tried to follow the literal teachings of Jesus, endorsing pacifism and other such ridiculous things actually commanded by Christ.

This is certainly the strongest and most amusing poem.  It suggests that Anabaptists must be doing something for which they feel really guilty, and so they keep getting baptized to try to wash away that "Leopard staine" on their souls.  This repeated christening is fitting, the poet says, because they're essentially children.

In Candide, Voltaire, usually so contemptuous of religion, demonstrates unusual sympathy to the creed.  At one point, he relates a parable:
The Anabaptist, being upon deck, lent a helping hand as well as the rest, when a brutish sailor gave him a blow and laid him speechless; but, not withstanding, with the violence of the blow the tar himself tumbled headforemost overboard, and fell upon a piece of the broken mast, which he immediately grasped.

Honest James [the Anabaptist], forgetting the injury he had so lately received from him, flew to his assistance, and, with great difficulty, hauled him in again, but, not withstanding, in the attempt, was, by a sudden jerk of the ship, thrown overboard himself, in sight of the very fellow whom he had risked his life to save and who took not the least notice of him in this distress.

Were all things Gospel that H.N. hath said,
A strange confused work were newly laid:
A perfect state, like Adams, is pretended,
Whilst outwardly each day God is offended:
No Sabbath, but alike all daies be,
If Familists might have their Liberty.

The small but strange "Family of Love" was more like a very well-behaved cult than anything else.  Doctrinally they were mostly Anabaptist, but they added on a variety of other esoteric beliefs, and emphasized serving their fellow men with love and humility.  This was the first I'd heard about them, and I had to look them up, perhaps because they didn't evangelize and just wanted everyone to get along.

"H.N." is a reference to their founder, Henrik Niclaes, who the Familists believe revealed the doctrine of perfect love, and whose Holy Spirit-inspired writings were superior to Scripture.  Once perfect love was achieved, they would no longer be beholden to either secular or divine law.  The poet here is harsher and seemingly more offended by this doctrine, more than most of the others.

All Ordinances, Church and Ministry,
The Seeker that hath lost his beaten way
Denies: for miracles he now doth waite,
Thus glorious truths reveal'd are out of date:
Is it not just such men should alwaies doubt
Of clear'st truths, in Holy Writ held out.

Rather than an organized church or formal system, a Seeker was someone with one fairly simple belief, and one that kind of makes sense: they argued that all human churches were corrupt, so they determined to hunker down and await direct divine revelation.  Beyond this common factor, they could hold any variety of other beliefs, although they mostly dipped into the common Dissenter pool of Arianism, anti-trinitarianism, and so on.

The Seeker is actually shown with sympathy, as he stands confused and pondering.  This is in keeping with the verse, which seems more pitying than anything.

To warrant this great Law of Separation,
And make one two, requires high aggravation:
Adultry onely cuts the Marriage-knot,
Without the which Gods Law allowes it not.
Then learn to separate from sin that's common,
And man shall have more Comfort from a woman.

Not even Henry VIII could immediately win over his people to divorce.  Divorce has often been one of those situations where "the only moral divorce is my divorce."  The depiction here, though, seems very odd - why would a divorce encourage a man to beat his wife?  Not that domestic abuse is ever acceptable, but forcing a couple to stay together seems like it would make the crime more likely, not less.

The remainder of the sects "described" in this sheet are as follows: Pelagian, Separatist or Independent, Antinomian, Anti-Sabbatarian, Anti-Trinitarian, Apostolicks, Thraskites, Hetheringtonians, The Tatians, and The Marchionites. The poet has harsh words for all of them in the same smug style as above, delivered in rousing defense of a status quo that almost certainly didn't outlive the author.  In short time, these extreme sorts of Dissent would become more and more common, and even as various strains of the above beliefs died out, many others were accepted or only morphed into more respectable versions.

Those darn Hetheringtonians, though, still lurk in the shadows.

1. Wright, Percy.  1841.  Political ballads published in England during the Commonwealth.  Oxford: Percy Society.
2.  Tomkinson, Thomas.  1822.  The Muggletonian principles prevailing : being an answer in full to a scandalous and malicious pamphlet entitled a True representation of the absurd and mischievous principles of the sect called Muggletonians.

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