Clarke Garrett
Respectable Folly

The coming of the French Revolution had the effect of giving awesome reality to what had before been only speculation. The surge of interest in prophecy of all kinds was one indication of the need to fit what was new and unprecedented into categories that were old and familiar. As a result, the vague pronouncements of Suzette Labrousse could enjoy, for a brief period, considerable prominence. Her prophecies contained ideals that had been part of popular religion for many centuries. The church would be restored to its original purity and would embrace the entire world; France would assume her moral primacy over all nations; 'the great' would be brought down and 'the lowly' raised up. She thus provided a comforting message in the anxious first year of the Revolution. Her discourses and pamphlets, rambling, disjointed, and credulous as they are, attempt with some success to translate the developments of political revolution into the language of popular religion. One can dismiss her obsession with her 'mission' as fantasy and agree with Pontard that her pilgrimage to Rome was 'respectable folly.' What cannot be ignored is the way in which her prophetic declarations could articulate and give Christian form to the revolutionary consciousness of 1790.

For her small circle of believers, Catherine Theot provided the same kind of comfortable words in the Paris of the Terror. In its essentials, she preached the same combination of piety and patriotism as Labrousse. God would restore a religion 'entirely pure,' and France's armies would bring peace and equality to the whole world. Once again, the metaphors and imagery of traditional piety could make the experience of revolution comprehensible.

In England, the intermingling of religion and politics in the revolutionary crisis was tar more evident than in France. Millenarian ideas were more respectable, and the free circulation of popular literature meant that they could be readily disseminated. As in France, millenarianism was simply one of several cultural currents that expressed the sense that changes of cosmic significance were imminent. The popular fascination with earthquakes was one expression of this notion, and it was a simple transposition to see the Revolution as the greatest of 'earthquakes.' They were divine warnings, but at the same time they provided assurance that Providence was at work in human history.

One of the more surprising features of the popular culture of the revolutionary period was the remarkable surge of interest in old prophecies. In England, where they had been collected and printed for two centuries, prophecies became a topic of intense popular interest in the 1790s. Applying the prophecies to the French Revolution required selection and interpretation, and here complications developed. Instead of communicating a comforting sense of divine pre-cognition, the prophetic literature forced difficult choices. Events had placed Protestant England on the side of Catholic Europe, against Revolutionary France. Where, then, was the Beast? As war was followed by economic hardship and social and political discontent, the religious justifications for the government's foreign policy, which the government itself had generated through propaganda and national days of prayer, came more and more into question. It is in this context that Richard Brothers's significance is to be found. His ideas, his rhetoric, and his prophetic style were very different from those of the French prophetesses; but, like them, he was responding to the wholly unfamiliar events of the Revolution by employing the modalities of traditional religion. And like Labrousse and Theot, Brothers owed his prominence far less to his own abilities than to pronouncements that transmitted a new political consciousness in familiar religious imagery.

The more peculiar features of Brothers's revelation all had their base in English popular religion. His claim to be Prince of the Hebrews, come to lead the hidden Jews to their homeland, derived from an identification of England and Israel that predated the Commonwealth. The meticulous attention to biblical chronology was 'at least as old, and the fascination with natural disasters as omens from on high was immemorial. Despite his discovery of Jewry among the English, Brothers's attacks on royal policy and his predictions of national disaster denied to his prophetic stance the sanction of patriotism that both Labrousse and Theot could claim. When Southcott and her disciples restored England to divine favor in the very different political climate of the Napoleonic wars, they were only returning to the norm in popular millenarianism.

Brothers, Pontard, Count Grabianka, and Joseph Priestley had all described a perfected society that did not necessarily have to await divine action. Revolution and millennium both affirmed the possibility that heaven could be built on earth. For millenarians, the New Jerusalem was to be accomplished finally by God's intervention, but equally basic was the idea that an earthly millennium was indeed possible and that men could help to bring it about. And since the preparation for the millennium was to take place within history, among the nations of men, it was neither inconceivable nor inconsistent (at least in their eyes) that some millenarians should devote their energies to accomplishing the political revolution and thus in a sense participate in divine Providence. Dom Gerle's and Pierre Pontard's political and journalistic activities in the National and Legislative Assemblies are examples of the sort of activism that a religiously-inspired revolutionism could catalyze; quite possibly, Gerle's retreat into mysticism was the result of the frustration of his ecclesiastical and political career. What is important to emphasize is that he was neither more nor less a millenarian after 1792; the messages of Labrousse and Theot continued to provide a comprehensible explanation of what had happened to him and to France. The same might be said of men like William Sharp, Joseph Priestley, Nathaniel Halhed, and if we knew more of his revolutionary activities, Count Grabianka. In every case, millenarianism offered a coherent and compelling ideology with which they could justify their political efforts. One could say essentially the same of Karl Marx's career; having discovered that revolution was inevitable, Marx devoted his life to accomplishing the inevitable.

While we cannot say with any certainty how or why it should have happened, it is a striking feature of the socialisms of the 1830s and 1840s that they were characterized by the same mixture of religious imagery and secular activism that we have seen in the millenarianism of the French Revolutionary period.' The same combination of the political and the spiritual and the same mood of imminence and urgency are evident in the pronouncements of Robert Owen and Etienne Cabet as in those of Joseph Priestley and Pierre Pontard. Owen was no Christian, let alone a millenarian, yet John Harrison has argued that the continued prevalence of what Harrison calls 'a "culture" of prophecy and eschatology' in post-Napoleonic England led Owen to present his message of social reform in language and imagery redolent of millenarianism.

As for Cabet, whom Engels in 1847 described as the leading representative of the French working class, he, too, found it effective to communicate his conception of democratic communism in religious language, although he was no more a Christian than was Owen. He might call his New Jerusalem Icaria, but like Owen's 'New Moral World,' the vision and the ruling metaphor were essentially millenarian. They reflected a social and political consciousness that was new, but which could be communicated only in the familiar language of traditional religion and popular culture. 'Materialism and belief in the class struggle were largely foreign to this culture,' Christopher Johnson has written. 'Christianity was not, and neither, thanks to the French Revolution, were such Jacobin concepts as dedication, virtue, and dignity.' It was surely no coincidence that one of the centers of Cabetian communism was Lyons, where Convulsionaries and Masonic millenarians had found a haven in the eighteenth century.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.