Thursday, 12 January 2017

More on the French Prophets

The French Prophets and their followers were a Millenarian group which for a short time caused a considerable stir in early 18th-century London. Although their main period of activity was before 1715,  their organisation persisted into the 1740s.  It  attracted a surprisingly large number of adherents; the historian of the movement Hillel Schwartz  identified of 525 individuals who were involved in some way with the group,  but believes there may have been more [See Schwartz, The French Prophets, Appendix 1]
The Prophets arrive in London

The original "French Prophets" were three exiles from the Camisard conflict, Durant Fage, Jean Cavalier and Elie Marion, who arrived in London in the course of 1706.  Marion, at the age of twenty-eight, was the oldest and most influential of the trio. A one-time law clerk from Toulouse, he  had first been inspired in 1703.  He had served as a captain in "Colonel" Cavalier's Camisard army and followed his chief into exile.  After a brief stay in Switzerland in 1704, he had participated in a short-lived incursion into the Midi organised but barely supported by the English and Dutch.  After a second defeat, he returned to Lausanne where he was about to take up employment when he "was stopped by the Spirit of God which changed in an instant the dispositions" of his heart.  On 22 July 1706, in the presence of his sister and father, God spoke through his mouth, instructing him to  "quit worldly establishments" and go to England. He arrived on 16 September.  The other two prophets, Fage and Cavalier  shortly  preceded him and had already begun to deliver divinely inspired pronouncements.

The Prophets rapidly gained a small following of wealthy and influential Huguenots, notable among them the lawyer Jean Daudé, Charles Portalès, the secretary to the marquis de Miremont and Nicolas Fatio de Duillier the Swiss mathematician.   They prophesied at first in private houses, later also in hired rooms in taverns. The meetings excited much interest: according to the printer and one-time adherent Samuel Keimer,  those they attracted both "sober and religious people" and those merely "interested in seeing novelties".   The prophetic utterances were accompanied by theatrical convulsions which excited much scorn:  Keimer describes  "very violent and strange Agitations or Shakings of Body, loud and terrifying Hiccups, and Throbs, with many odd and very surprizing Postures",  On one occasion Cavalier was apparently flung onto the ground and commenced to walk on  his hands and feet like a crab. [Keimer, A Brand Plucked from the  Burning, 1718, p. 1-2]

 The town houses of London were clearly  a world away from the open-air gatherings of the Cévennes.  Despite the violent convulsions and agitations which accompanied the manifestations of the Holy Spirit,  the meetings themselves soon took on an ordered and settled structure.  There was a new concern with accuracy and verification: it became standard practice for pairs of "scribes"  to transcribe the words of the prophets and compare notes.  Additional rituals developed, such as the bestowal of "Prophetic Blessings"  by the laying-on of hands.  In June 1707 John Lacy rented premises on Bridgewater Square in the Barbican to serve as an officially licensed meeting house. The Prophets thus rapidly took on the character of a sect, with organised retreats, the preparation of publications and the system of blessings all serving to encourage group cohesion; by  mid-1707 they began to establish  a significant following outside London and  In late 1708 an elaborate structure based on the tribes of Israel was adopted.  In its later years, however, the community became less close and was frequently beset by dissension.  .

The Camisard prophets set their Millenarian predictions firmly in the context of the earthly struggle against Catholicism:  Marion and his companions at first hoped to incite support for a renewed conflict the Midi.  The wealthy Huguenot François Maximilien Misson collected  testimonies from refugees concerning the  prophetic movement in the Midi which he published in March 1707 under the title Le Théâtre sacré des Cévennes (translated into English by John Lacy as A Cry from the Desert).  Marion's "Prophetic Warnings" were published at about the same time.  Although his political aim was not made explicit, his language reflected an Old Testament piety,  saturated with military imagery and aggressive in its call to repentence:
"My Child, I tell thee, the Days approach like a Furnace:  They are coming down, as a Whirlwind upon the Earth.  Sinners, flatter you selves no more:  Prepare you selves: behold the bottomless Pit open'd to receive you" (p.137)

Not surprisingly, the French Protestant church in London, well-to-do and conformist,  looked upon the new arrivals with suspicion. In January 1707, following a series of interviews, the Soho consistory declared that the Prophets' trances were feigned and  that their prophecies contained “nothing new but the grimaces”. At the end of March 1707, at the suggestion of the bishop of London, it was ruled that the Prophets should be denied communion in Huguenot churches.  French followers were therefore forced to choose between the Prophets and their church.

The English following

Although a core of Huguenots remained - and some, like Cavalier's cousin Jean Allut became prophets themselves - English converts soon came to dominate the movement. By December 1707 they outnumbered the French followers.  They were not confined to any one religious affiliation or social background, though the majority were non-conformists - Quakers, Baptists or Philadelphians -  already predisposed towards a  Pentecostal faith.  The earliest English adherents, like John Lacy, tended to be older and wealthier, and included several scientists and men of education.  Sir Richard Bulkeley, a forty-six year-old baronet,  who entered into the group at about this time, was a moderate Anglican and Lacy’s lifelong friend. Other noteworthy recruits included Thomas Cotton, Sir John Philips and the Philadelphian Richard Roach. Among Anglicans and Presbyterians,  a number were associated organisations for Christian renewal:   the Societies for the Reformation of Manners ( Lacy,  Cotton, Bulkeley) or the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (Bulkeley and John Hooke) [see Schwartz, p. 85]

With the new recruits the message changed. Although the idea of a Protestant crusade had struck an initial cord with English Puritans, the call for a military initiative against Catholic France gave way to more general pronouncements of divine wrath and the need for repentance.  Lacy carefully  avoided committing himself to specific details and timing for the coming Kingdom. The crucial point  was the reality of  extraordinary Divine Inspiration in modern times. There was to be no new revelation:  "This Mission brings no new Doctrine with it,  nor advances any thing dissonant from the Scriptures". [Preface to Prophetic Warnings of John Lacy, 1707, p.xii]

According to Hillel Schwartz, by the end of 1707 there were twenty three new prophets, fourteen  of whom were women. A few educated sympathisers, like Lacy and the chemist Thomas Emes, became prophets themselves;  Keimer gives a memorable account of the prophet Thomas Dutton, who was an attorney in the Middle Temple.:

At one of their Meetings, which was kept at the Rummer near Honey Lane Market, where I was present, there was one Thomas Dutton, a Lawyer, seiz'd, being a Man well dress'd, in a long Tie-Wig, and I think, having a Sword by his Side.  This Man under Agitations, much like the rest whom I had seen, utter'd a very rational Discourse, or Warning, in which I well remember was somewhat to this Effect,  You call this a Delusion; but can it be a Delusion to bid you repent?  Will the Devil preach Repentance? ( A Brand Plucked from the Burning p.9)

Like the convulsionnaires of Saint-Médard, the Prophets also attracted younger and more socially marginal people into their ranks.  Among the newly inspired in July and August 1707 were John Potter, a meat packer(?), Abraham Whitrow, a woolcomber, and the young women Mary Beer. Mary Keimer and Elizabeth Gray

With the English prophets, came a new emphasis on validating miracles.  Lacy performed automatic writing and talked in tongues - Sir Richard Bulkeley attested his ability to pronounce and translate Latin when under the spirit -  whilst Dutton held forth in Hebrew. There were  miracle cures, again notably by John Lacy, who practised the laying-on of hands in the course of 1707. The Pentecostal gift of healing was presented by Lacy as an important additional proof of the authenticity of the Prophets' mission. The enactment of "signs" also became a feature of the movement. Thus Bulkeley on "shaking":

 The most general Sign that all and every one of them have, is that of Shaking;  some less and some more. And this the Spirit has explain'd to us, to be the Sign of what he is now going to do: what he has foretold in his Word, and what they are sent before to warn of, to wit, he is coming to shake terribly the Earth:  to shake not only the Earth, but the Heaven also; and to make the Heralds of the Sinners to shake and tremble [An Answer to Several Treatises .. on the Subject of the Prophets (1708)  p.43].

 In some cases the enactments went much further and closely resembled the Jansenist tableaux vivants of the 1730s.  Nor did they take place entirely behind closed doors: Prophets were seen with with a wooden yoke about their necks, or walking with bare buttocks to signify kings lying down naked to signify the humiliation of kings.  Pamphleteers noted with particular relish the Prophetess who ran naked to the altar of the Sardininian chapel in Duke Street and declaimed there for fifteen minutes.


1. The trial of Marion,  Daudé and  Fatio de Duillier 

In May 1707, at the instigation of the Soho consistory, Marion, and his "scribes", Daudé and Fatio de Duillier, appeared before Chief Justice Holt in Queen’s Bench Court accused of publishing prophecies filled with blasphemy and sedition. In the warrant, Marion was described as a pseudo-prophet, "an abominable, detestable and diabolical blasphemer, a disturber of the peace, heretic and impostor, publisher of false, scandalous and seditious libels" (See Schwartz, p. 84). The trial did not finally conclude until November, when the trio were found guilty and sentenced  to stand in the pillory on two successive days.  As gentlemen, Daudé and Fatio were ceremonially relieved of their swords.

On 1st December they stood for an hour at Charing Cross with notices on their hats detailing their crimes. The Duke of Ormond instructed law officers to keep the crowd within bounds as Fatio had once been tutor to his brother, the Earl of Arran. The next day, despite the cordon of guards, the crowd  managed to spit on Marion and Daudé, and cover both with ordure.  Marion was slightly wounded in the face.  Sustained by a growing sense of martyrdom to the cause, they accepted the sentence with "a joyful air, which corresponded to the liberty and contentment of our hearts"(Schwartz, p.109).

2. The resurrection of Doctor Emes

Bunhill Fields Burial Ground,  City Road, Islington
Shortly before Christmas 1707 the group suffered a second setback when the chemist and prophet Thomas Emes, fell ill and died.  This represented a spiritual crisis for believers who expected that they would all live to serve in Christ's Kingdom. Despite the fact that Lacy had not managed to cure Emes when he was alive, the faithful were soon swept up with the promise of a far greater miracle  - Emes's  resurrection from the dead.  There were several weeks of meetings and  theatrical pronouncements, in which the initiative tended to gravitate to the  younger, less cautious prophets. Four out of six of the prime movers were English, the principal actors being John Potter and the twelve-year-old Anna Maria King. Potter elaborated an extreme scenario, in which Emes would emerge from his grave sitting up, "more fat, and more fair than every he has been before" In a climactic meeting Potter specified the date: 25th May - one month above the number of days that Lazarus was in the grave.

The rash claim took place against a background of growing concern about unfulfilled prophecies. Despite Lacy's caution, a number of specific predictions had escaped his lips: in July 1707  Lacy himself had prophesied "a terrible overthrow of Buildings in this City" and that "the Tower Guns will roar for a few days before this day seven-night".  It was always possible to explain away failure by reinterpreting prophecies as metaphorical or by claiming, as did the chemist Timothy Byfield, that God might withhold a promised miracle because of the onlookers' lack of faith . Nonetheless by the end of October 1707 Lacy had been goaded into predicting a timescale of six months for the appearance of a decisive miracle.  The resurrection of Emes thus became a testing point of faith, even though Marion was not involved and Lacy himself, though designated by Potter to perform the resurrection, was hesitant in his published pronouncements.

Meanwhile, the atmosphere of expectation continued to mount. The faithful were sustained  by predictions from Mary Beer of worldwide spiritual conquest and for the first time a sustained missionary effort was begun outside London. There were successes in Colchester and Ipswich, though a  mass rally in Enfield provoked such hostility that the prophets found themselves arrested for inciting a riot.  In London portents abounded.  In March came news that the Old Pretender had sailed for Scotland. Thunder crashed over the city and it there were prophecies that "fire and brimstone should be poured from heaven" on Lady Day (25th March).  A famine was predicted;  and families of believers  went to great expense and trouble to stock their larders.  

Text of a hostile broadsheet announcing the resurrection of Dr Emes.
Works concerning the Resurrection of Dr Emes,  Harleian Miscellany Vol. 7 (1746), p.185-8

The 25th May, the day of the promised resurrection was a public holiday. Crowds converged on the burial ground in Bunhill Fields, where magistrates had posted two trained bands in anticipation. One estimate put the crowd as high as 20.000. They were, of course, disappointed.   Lacy absented himself later claiming that the atmosphere of violence had been unpropitious for the miracle.


Clarke Garrett, Spirit possession and popular religion: from the Camisards to the Shakers. John Hopkins Univ. 1998.[Extracts on Google Books]
Hillel Schwartz,  The French Prophets: The History of a Millenarian Group in Eighteenth-Century England. University of California Press, 1980.

A more recent historian of the Prophets is Lionel Laborie:
"The French Prophets, a cultural history of religious enthusiasm in post-toleration England (1689-1730)",   UEA PhD thesis, 2010
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