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Robert Southey and Millenarianism: Documents Concerning the Prophetic Movements of the Romantic Era, Edited by Tim Fulford

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  • Richard Brothers (1757-1824), originally from Newfoundland, was a half-pay naval officer who moved to London in 1787, where, by the early 1790s, he was admitted to the workhouse for paupers, having refused to draw his pay because it required him to swear an oath (taking oaths being an act that the Quakers and other dissenters regarded as sacreligious). In 1791 and 1792, Brothers had a series of visions and began to prophesy that God was about to bring about the destruction of London and the downfall of monarchs. By 1793 he was announcing himself as the prophet called to lead the lost tribes of Israel back to Palestine, an event which would be precipitated by God’s judgement wreaked upon London and by George III ceding his throne to Brothers himself. Over the next two years, his mission was recognised by William Bryan and John Wright, whose sojourn at Avignon had led them to expect the imminent arrival of a millennial leader. Brothers published A Revealed Knowledge of the Prophecies and Times in 1794; Bryan, Wright and other admirers with whom Southey was acquainted also published pamphlets declaring their belief in his prophecy. The success of this work, and the advocacy of Brothers’ mission by the MP Nathaniel Brassey Halhed, drew Brothers to the attention of a government that was already afraid, in face of unrest caused by food prices and scarcity, of a revolutionary uprising. Brothers was arrested on 4 March 1795, examined before a committee of the Privy Council, and confined to a madhouse, where he wrote A Description of Jerusalem (published by a supporter in 1801). He remained there until 1806, when he was released, and subsequently lived with supporters. By 1802, however, most of his supporters had fallen away, many becoming followers of Joanna Southcott, whose prophetic claims he rejected in his Dissertation on the Fall of Eve (1802). Southey planned to visit him in March 1806, having known his supporters William Bryan, Samuel Whitchurch and James Crease in the 1790s.
  • William Bryan (dates unknown), in a letter of October 1794 Southey wrote that he was to be introduced to a prophet. The prophet was most likely Bryan, by this time a follower of Richard Brothers, and the location of the meeting either Bristol or Bath. Southey knew two other followers of Brothers in Bath, Samuel Whitchurch and James Crease; Bryan was at this time a prophetic healer in Bristol. Later, Southey recalled ‘Bryan I knew personally, & heard from his own lips his history, & his explanation of the system of Brothers’. In Letters from England Southey gives in detail Bryan’s story. A copperplate printer and engraver, and a Quaker, Bryan, after experiencing a vision, went in 1789 with John Wright to join the Society of Illuminés at Avignon where, in that post-Swedenborgian, semi-Masonic group, he received spiritual communications informing him of the coming of a prophet and the imminent millennium. Returning later in the year, Bryan lived in London. In 1793 he was at first suspicious of Brothers’ claims to be a prophet but by 1795 had accepted their legitimacy and become one of his advocates, as he revealed in his A Testimony of the Spirit of Truth concerning Richard Brothers ... in an address to the people of Israel, &c., to the gentiles called Christians, and all other gentiles. With some account of the manner of the Lord’s gracious dealing with his servant W. Bryan (London, 1795). Scholars have recently begun to uncover more details of Bryan’s prophetic career. In his article ‘William Bryan, Another Anti-Swedenborg Visionary Engraver of 1789’, Blake: An Illustrated Quarterly, 34 (2000), 14-22, David Worrall has shown that in the mid 1780s, Bryan acted with two or three other vendors to sell Robert Hindmarsh’s printings of Swedenborg’s A Summary View of the Heavenly Doctrines of the New Jerusalem Church (1785), The Doctrine of the New Jerusalem concerning the Sacred Scripture (1786), The Doctrine of the New Jerusalem concerning the Lord (1786) and The Doctrine of Life for the New Jerusalem (1786). Like William Blake, Bryan interested himself in Swedenborgianism, only to become dissatisfied with the conventionality of its church practice: his trip to Avignon was encouraged by other onetime Swedenborgians. On his return he lived at 51 Upper Mary-le-bone Street, to the north of Oxford St—a ‘minor center of contemporary progressive religious and political activity’ (Worrall, 14). Thomas Clio Rickman, friend and publisher of Thomas Paine, lived at no. 7; by late 1790 the Swedenborgian Carl Bernhard Wadstrom lived at no. 45. Worrall also shows that at this time Bryan came to the attention of the authorities who were monitoring potentially seditious radicals. A letter of Bryan’s, written on 13 December 1789, was intercepted and kept in the records of the Privy Council (PRO, Kew PC 1/18/19). Bryan writes there of the errors of Swedenborg, as ‘revealed to our society by an immediate communication with Heaven’. He also records ‘the following words’ communicated to him by ‘the Angell Gabriell’: ‘Nations the Eternal calls the times, & the time that walks in the shadow over days of darkness, without light, & without strength is coming to change the face of the world & to begin his new reign, the time is near wherein the promises will be accomplished, the Human Blood will flow in large streams, that the enemies of God may subsist no longer & that the true religion may be known all over the world, prepare yourselves, do not cease to pray and do not fear any thing from the calamities which are to happen for you will not experience them provided you continue united & faithful’ (quoted Worrall 21). In 1795, Brothers was to employ very similar prophetic rhetoric: it may be that his understanding of his mission was shaped by Bryan, and by the expectations Bryan had formed at Avignon. Southey’s acquaintance the Welsh poet and scholar Edward Williams (Iolo Morganwg) (1747-1826) offers another contemporary portrait of Bryan, as does Williams’ biographer Elijah Waring (c. 1788-1857), who knew Bryan in later years. Waring’s report of Williams’ conversation, and account of his own acquaintance, is worth giving in full:

    [Williams:] I also knew William Bryan, and in his days of credulity, when he was living near Bristol, in the winter of 1794-5. After Espriella’s letters were published, he found me out in London, (I think it was in 1808,) and I instantly recognised him, though he was then in the complete garb of a Quaker, and apparently of one with whom the world went smoothly.

    The extraordinary part of the Avignon confederacy, is in the arrangement of a scheme which extended so widely, and in the means which the conspirators had at command. They had agents in London to find out such men as Bryan and Wright, and send them on their pilgrimage: and it appears also that they had agents to receive them at certain points upon the way, and to supply them with money. If the whole scheme could be traced, it would form a very singular chapter in the history of those times.

    I will renew my endeavours to get P. Pani’s book from Italy. It is an official report drawn up by him, as acting for the Inquisition, and printed in 1791: so that the society must have been broken up soon after Bryan’s journey.

    [Waring:] William Bryan became an adherent of Richard Brothers, and consequently was deceived by the same cunning mechanism that imposed upon the pseudo prophet: but he certainly had nothing of the conspirator in his nature ; being one of the mildest and most gentle of men, and unfeignedly religious, though imaginative and eccentric. I knew him well, and ever found him full of intelligence, benevolence, and piety. When he related to me, in 1812, his adventures in the Avignon affair, he did it with great simplicity and candour, acknowledging himself dubious as to the real origin of what he had supposed to be a divine intimation, though many public events throughout Europe had fallen out in accordance with the prophetic utterances he had there heard. I was then a young man, and Bryan advanced in years, but still retaining a fine set of features, and a general expression of head, which had often been compared to the best paintings of our Saviour; whilst his speech was peculiarly melifluous. The account of the Avignon prophets given by Southey, in Espriella’s Letters, accords substantially with the personal details communicated to me. William Bryan afterwards emigrated to America, where he had several sons respectably settled, and where he died at a great age, only a few years ago, honoured and lamented by all who knew him. I saw a letter of his, written shortly before his death, which indicated the most sublime Christian hopes and anticipations, blended with a clear intellect. It is remarkable that all the unconscious agents in what appears to have been a deeply concerted political plot, for subverting the governments of Europe, should have been selected from the same class of harmless, devout, and unsuspicious men; such being not only least liable to be suspected, but best adapted to recommend the opinions which were intended.

    Elijah Waring, Recollections and Anecdotes of Edward Williams, the Bard of Glamorgan (London, 1850), p. 92.
  • William Owen Pughe (1759-1835), lexicographer, grammarian, editor, antiquarian and poet. The son of John Owen, he adopted the surname Pughe in 1806 after inheriting property from a relative. A leading member of the Society of Gwyneddigion and the Society of the Cymmrodorion, his publications included: The Heroic Elegies of Llywarch Hen (1792), The Myvyrian Archaiology (1801, 1807) and The Cambrian Biography (1803). In 1796-1797, Southey and Pughe engaged in a (pseudonymous) debate about the Welsh language in the pages of the Monthly Magazine. Southey consulted Pughe about bardic poetry and Welsh history when composing his Welsh-American poem Madoc (1805). Southey also received from Pughe Welsh Arthurian stories from the Mabinogion, some of which Pugh translated in his journal The Cambrian Register (1795-99). Owen’s enthusiastic belief in Joanna Southcott dates from about 1803; one of her Elders, he often acted as the amanuensis of the poetic prophecies she recited.
  • Joanna Southcott (1750-1814), a Devon maidservant and upholsterer who in 1801 began to publish accounts of the prophetic visions she had been experiencing since 1792. Although the Devon clergy proved uninterested in her experiences, her publication The Strange Effects of Faith; with Remarkable Prophecies (Made in 1792) (1801-2) brought her to the attention of followers of Richard Brothers, including Southey’s acquaintance William Sharp. Transferring their allegiance to Southcott, these Brotherites brought her to London, where they and a number of women converts enabled Southcott to publish her prophecies of a coming millennium in England, in numerous pamphlets—many of them bought and collated by Southey in the course of his work on Letters from England, then the best-researched and most-detailed account to have been published. Southcott also embarked on a preaching tour and attracted many thousands of followers, whom she confirmed as adherents by issuing with seals, bearing her symbol and signature and the believer’s. Many of her followers were women, for Southcott empowered the female, suggesting that she herself fulfilled the predictions in Genesis 3, that the woman’s seed shall bruise the serpent’s head, and Revelation 12, that the Woman clothed in the Sun will precipitate a millennium. Southey’s sceptical distrust of Southcott and her movement came to a head in 1814, when she announced that she, a virgin of sixty-four, was pregnant with Shiloh, the returning saviour. She died, without issue, on 27 December, although William Sharp believed that her body might only be in a trance and be resuscitated and the Shiloh discovered. She left behind her a ‘great box’, made by Sharp, containing sealed prophecies and to be opened by the bishops of the Church of England. The Panacea Society announces on its website that the box is today in its safekeeping.
  • John Wright (dates unknown), a Leeds carpenter who was evangelised by the Swedenborgian field preachers Ralph Mather and Joseph Salmon. Wright went to London but was disappointed with the New Jerusalem Church there, finding it too conventional. At Avignon, Wright was told to expect the millennial deliverer prophesied to appear in England by the seventeenth-century Presbyterian Christopher Love. Returning from Avignon, Wright later identified Brothers as this promised deliverer, hailing him as such in A Revealed Knowledge of Some Things That Will Speedily be Fulfilled in the World (1794), which included a ‘Copy of a Letter received from Richard Brothers’.

Published @ RC

July 2012

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