David Brion Davis
The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture

Even the more radical sects differed in their views on the necessity of violence and the time and nature of the millennium. Some of the sectarian movements were the products of social or economic dislocations, and embodied the concrete grievances of oppressed groups. Some leaders, like Thomas Muntzer, seized upon chiliasm after a period of religious scepticism and uncertainty. The image of an imminent Kingdom of God could revive an expiring faith and give new meaning to doctrines that had become overly abstract and irrelevant to the lives of ordinary men. But here we must disregard questions of origin and emphasis, and confine our attention to general traits and tendencies associated with the sectarian's assault on sin. Inspired by the apocalyptic fantasies of Hellenistic Judaism, especially the Sibylline and Johannine prophecies, the millennial sects discovered that history might replace the rituals and sacraments of the Church as man's hope for salvation. This dramatic shift in the meaning of history foreshadowed the transition in eighteenth-century secular thought from the idea of nature as a fixed and complete chain of being to the idea of history as a creative process leading to perfection. To Joachim of Fiore, a twelfth-century Calabrian abbot, was attributed an eschatology that exerted continuing influence on European thought. From an epoch of slave-like submission to an authoritarian God, man had progressed to a Second Age of filial obedience to Christ, a relationship resembling the Christian ideal of servitude. In the Third Age, which was near at hand, there would be neither servitude nor institutional authority. Emancipated from sin and presided over by the Holy Spirit, men might live as brothers in absolute freedom and love, without need of restraint. Such an ideal of the world as a New Eden fulfilled the projected wishes of most millenarians.

But if the central turning point of history lay in the immediate future rather than in the distant past, it followed that the laws and principles of the existing social order did not have prescriptive sanction, and could not be associated with the immutable structure of nature. The ideals of absolute liberty, equality and brotherhood, which the ancients had confined to a lost Golden Age, and which Christians had relegated to the realm of spirit, acquired destructive power when fused with a changed perception of time. Some millenarians had sufficient faith in the rightness of the social order to imagine that perfection would arrive through gradual transformation, and that a direct confrontation of the worldly and divine would come only at the distant terminus of history. But others expected an explosive contest between the powers of light and darkness, a violent purging of sin and error, and a final triumph of freedom and goodness.

Possibly the millenarian indulged in fantasies of persecution and suffering in order to justify his ultimate victory over original sin and social restraint. It has been said that masochists achieve a forbidden pleasure by anticipating and controlling the punishment that expiates their guilt. When sectarians went out of their way to provoke the wrath of secular and ecclesiastical authorities, they may have wished to bring on the inevitable retribution and to release a powerful tension generated by a new vision of time and salvation. But actual conflict between religious groups undoubtedly nourished desires for revenge and intensified the violence of apocalyptic imagery. Millennialism had a strong appeal to early Protestants who, facing the awesome might of the Church, sought reassurance in the design of history. Such men saw the pope as Antichrist and the Reformation as the fulfilment of prophecy; but defeat might also show that the Last Days had arrived, and that goodness could triumph only by annihilating the world. History could lead to both exultation and despair.

Traditionally, sin had been identified with the individual's desires and impulses which society repressed in the supposed interests of peace and harmony. Thus even John Wyclif had agreed with Augustine that bondage to sin was the only servitude that mattered, and that physical slavery, being a consequence of sin, was of no concern to the elect. But a changed view of history made it possible to identify virtue with man's deepest desires, and sin with the inhibiting and repressive forces blocking the path to the millennium. Instead of thinking of sin as a principle of corruption diffused through nature and transmitted by generation, the millenarian hypostasized it in the person of an Antichrist who represented, significantly, an absolute power and sovereignty. In the eyes of the more radical millenarians, the universe was suddenly transformed from a fixed hierarchy of moral gradations into an irreconcilable division of evil and righteousness, of darkness and light, of freedom and slavery. In so far as all Protestants rebelled against the Church as a symbol of temporal authority which kept men's souls in bondage, they shared in the transvaluation of values which dethroned the collective superego. But unlike the radical sectarians, the great Reformers knew that a dethroned authority must be replaced; and they never doubted that the roots of sin lay in man's nature, which could never be purified by history.

For Thomas Miintzer, on the other hand, the great moment had arrived when, inspired by the Holy Spirit, man could liberate himself from sin, annihilate evil and establish the Kingdom of God. The time had come when all human institutions could be judged by the absolute law of God. Men like Luther, who made compromises with human authority on the ground that sinners required restraint, were in fact surrendering to sin. According to Muntzer, all masters and princes had lost their rights of dominion; all servants were released from their obligations. Confident that symbolic acts of violence would break the binding cords of an evil society and release the pent-up forces of righteousness, this John Brown of the Peasants' War led raiding parties to destroy monasteries and convents. Other radical chiliasts attempted at times to fulfil apocalyptic fantasies by slaughtering the children of darkness. Such outward aggression was balanced, however, by a kind of social masochism that took the forms of mutual flagellation or of demonstrative acts that invited persecution. Freedom from the bondage to sin could not be won without suffering.

When hard pressed, the millenarian summoned the wrathful God of the Old Testament to judge and punish his enemies. But millennialism was often combined with a kind of perfectionism which substituted a compassionate and forgiving spirit for the image of the deity as an avenging master. The Holy Spirit has been associated historically with a universal power of love which dissolves human forms and distinctions. For the mystic, union with the Divine Spirit is so subjective and intensely personal that the restraints of the external world lose all significance. The perfectionist sects drew upon the mystic tradition, with its emphasis on direct experience, on an 'opening' of the soul to a ravishing power, and on the cultivation of potential divinity within man. They were primarily concerned, however, with the social consequences of moral freedom. The adepts of the Free Spirit, for example, claimed that when man had been liberated from the dominion of sin, he was morally sovereign and could do no wrong. Since the principle of divine authority had been introjected within the saint's personality, every act he committed was a sacrament. The Holy Spirit wiped out all human distinctions of law, status and morality; between the divine and the worldly there were no gradations, no compromises and no agents of mediation. The bondage of sin was abolished immediately and totally, or not at all.

In attempting to affirm his moral freedom, his independence from worldly standards and conventions, the perfectionist resembled the ancient Cynics who considered all other men slaves. The English Ranter, Lawrence Claxton (or Clarkson), maintained that no man was truly emancipated from sin until he could commit adultery without a twinge of conscience. Various sects tried to demonstrate their moral kinship with Adam by symbolically stripping off their clothes in a secluded 'Eden', or by encouraging sexual promiscuity within the brotherhood. Occasional repudiations of monogamous marriage were only the extreme expression of a more widespread tendency to place men and women on an equal footing. For if sin, as the Ranters claimed, was not a reality but only a name that could be made meaningless by an act of will, there could be no justification for inequalities of sex and property which violated the law of spontaneous love. The Miinster Anabaptists made the immediate surrender of personal property a test of faith. No man, they said, had a right to live off the toil of others.

When changing social and economic conditions brought a convergence of millennialism, perfectionism and primitivism, the entire social order was seen to be based on a principle of slavery. There is a wide difference, of course, between identifying sin with a single institution and with the entire social order. But in their faith in man's will and the power of love, in their hostility to all compromise and rationalization, and in their determination to wage unremitting war against the forces of darkness, the radical sectarians were, in a sense, the first abolitionists. By affirming man's freedom to overcome all restraints and dominion, and by shifting the locus of fundamental value from external authority to internal impulse, they pointed the way to both reform and revolution. Later abolitionists would frequently fall into the role and pattern of thought of the radical sectarians; and occasionally they would find it impossible to contain their social protest within a narrow channel. An attack on slavery could easily develop into a challenge to law, government and institutional restraints of every kind.

  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.