The Apocalypse. . . Puritan-style

So presumably if you are reading this blog post, you were not one of the Chosen to be raptured away before the time of tribulations begins. (This is unless the ethereal plane has WiFi.) Yes, the prediction made by Harold Camping, 89-year-old civil engineer-turned-radio evangelist, has gone the way of so many other apocalyptic predictions.

According to an article in the New York Times, Camping confessed to being “flabbergasted” that May 21st came and went without some eschatological event: “I was truly wondering what is going on. In my mind, I went back through all of the promises God has made, all of the proofs, all of the signs and everything was fitting perfectly, so what in the world happened? I really was praying and praying and praying, oh Lord, what happened?”

Yet, like many other prophets of the End of Days, Camping has revised his predictions in light of the fact that we are all still here. As Camping now tells it, May 21st was an “invisible Judgement Day” (I guess you needed special 3-D Revelations glasses to see it) and that all the horrific events of the Apocalypse will now happen on Oct0ber 21st.  If you find this to be a confusing bit of illogical gymnastics, consider Camping’s method for arriving at the May 21st date. In his piece for, David S. Renyolds summarizes succinctly Camping’s numerological calculations (he’s an engineer after all).  From what I can glean, part of Camping’s “Bible-based math” involves multiplying a set of arbitrary numbers to arrive at 722,500, supposedly the number of days between the Crucifixion and the Rapture.

 (Here’s Letterman’s Top 10 Camping excuses for why the world didn’t end.)

All of this talk of eschatology, the branch of Christian theology devoted to understanding the end of the world, over the past few days has prompted me to write this post about the most prominent apocalyptic sect of Christians in England during the 17th-century, the Fifth Monarchists. Dating from the early 1640s, the Fifth Monarchists (FMs), a.k.a. the Fifth Monarchy Men, based their belief that they were living through the end of times on Daniel 2:44: “And in the days of these kings shall the God of heaven set up a kingdom, which shall never be destroyed: and the kingdom shall not be left to other people, [but] it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand for ever.” Here’s how their interpretation went: the Kingdom of Christ would come after the fall of four other earthly kingdoms, each representing one of the four horns of the Beast described in Revelations. The FMs identified the other four kingdoms as the Persian, Greek, Egyptian, and Roman – now Roman meant for them the Roman Catholic Church, of which they saw the Anglican Church as part. Their eschatological belief informed how they understood the monumental upheaval of the English Civil War (ECW). For them, the Parliamentary forces in seeking to overthrow Charles I were actually participating in apocalyptic events. That is, the defeat of the King would bring about a new age, or millennium, which, for some, included Christ’s Second Coming. (This is what historians mean when they refer to Puritan millenarian beliefs.)

Before continuing on to explain how the FMs had to revise their apocalyptic predictions, I should contextualize this sect within the religious turbulence of 1640s/1650s England. Part of the motivation for the ECW was religious. As I mentioned in earlier posts, the Puritans wished to abolish the episcopacy, partly because they saw it as a leftover from the Catholic Church and also due to their desire for religious freedom. Once the Puritans essentially did get rid of the college of bishops, the floodgates were open for many different sects, or cults depending on your view, of Christianity to practice freely. Such groups as the Ranters, so called for their tendency to break out into spontaneous preaching; the Quakers, a derogatory term referring to the group’s habit of “quaking” during their services; and the Seekers, those who believed God’s will trumped human law and sought it through prayer, emerged into prominence. (Thomas Edwards actually published a tract, Gangreana [1646], cataloguing all of the different sects that sprung up during this period. Edwards’ thesis is that these sects were the result of the confusion of the war.)

So back to the FMs. So how did they deal with the fact that Christ’s kingdom didn’t follow the beheading of Charles I? Well, they went back and reinterpreted the Bible to see where they went wrong. And surprise, surprise, they found “new” evidence that they had overlooked before.  In Daniel 7: 2-8 there is described a little horn growing out of the fourth. This “little horn” turned out to be none other than Oliver Cromwell. (While prominent FMs, like John Simpsons and John Rogers, would denounce the Lord Protector, it was Anna Trapnell, a prophetess who gained notoriety during the 1640s/50s, who first identified Cromwell as the “little horn.”) Andrew Marvell derides the FMs denunciation of Cromwell in his poem “The First Anniversary.” Marvell describes how the FMs are waiting for Cromwell’s reign to crumble so that their “new king the fifth scepter might shake.”(ln. 263) (Interestingly, Marvell equates the tendency of members of these radical Christian sects to “fall” during their services to the Prophet Mahomet’s epilepsy, saying that Simpson would read volumes into his “sacred foam.”)

Incredibly, Cromwell showed a remarkable, for him at least, amount of tolerance towards the FMs. He did include 12 FMs in his “Bare Bones” Parliament. Also, Cromwell partly shared their millenarian beliefs. For example, Cromwell initiated actions during the Interregnum to allow Jews to be legally permitted back into England. (They had been expelled formally in 1290 under Edward I.) Cromwell, however, did so due to the belief that the conversion of the Jews would be one of the events that would lead to the end of days. In this way, Cromwell anticipated the support for the country of Israel by some modern day Christian sects who likewise see the conversion of the Jews as part of the Apocalypse.

So to wrap things up for this week, we can see Harold Camping as participating in the long line of eschatological prophets who have overlooked one of the most important passages in the Bible: “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in Heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (Matthew 24:36)

Works Referred to

Bennet, Martyn. The Civil Wars in Britain and Ireland: 1638-1651 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997)

The Cambridge Companion to Writing the English Revolution. ed. N.H.Keeble (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001)

Purkiss, Diane. The English Civil War: Papists, Gentlewomen, Soldiers, and Witchfinders in the Birth of Modern Britain (New York: Basic Books, 2006)

Fraser, Antonia. Cromwell. (New York: Grover Press, 1973)

About Anthony Funari

Hi, thanks for taking time to stop by my blog, Renaissnace Matters. So here's a little bit about me . . . I am student, scholar, reader, writer, teacher, and general enthusiast about the European Renaissance, a.k.a the Early Modern period. In May 2010, I graduated with my doctorate in English Literature from Lehigh University, focusing my dissertation on the literary reaction to the Scientific Revolution. I currently have an article in the recent issue of Early English Studies (EES). Also, keep an eye out for my forthcoming book through Palgrave MacMillan, Francis Bacon and the 17th-Century Intellectual Discourse.
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