J. C. F. Harrison. The Second Coming, Popular Millenarianism 1780-1850. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1979. xvii + 230 pp. (with 8 pp. of illus.). $19.50.
As Professor Harrison points out in his “Bibliographical Note,” the subject of popular millenarianism has not been given serious attention by scholars until comparatively recent times. This is to distinguish popular millenarianism as a field of study from millenarianism in the Old and New Testaments and in the early Christian church. The latter has always been a respectable subject for research, but the former has all too often been relegated to what Harrison calls “the semi-popular synopsis which provides a rag-bag of freaks, curiosities, imposters and ‘unbelievable’ characters” (p. 264). Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millennium,[e] first published in 1957, was perhaps the first book to study popular millenarianism with the seriousness that had previously been given to theological millenarianism. Cohn’s work, however, is mainly devoted to the medieval period; and its argument that the movements it studies were precursors of modern totalitarianism may be more pertinent to the Middle Ages than to the seventeenth century and after. Christopher Hill’s work on seventeenth-century radicalism includes much of the greatest interest on millenarianism during the Puritan revolution.1↤ 1 See Antichrist in Seventeenth-Century England (Oxford University Press, 1971) and The World Turned Upside Down (1972; Penguin ed., 1975). For the period in which Blake lived, the indispensable book on this as well as other aspects of social history is of course The Making of the English Working Class by E. P. Thompson, first published in 1963. More begin page 105 | recently, Clarke Garrett has surveyed millenarianism during the period of the French Revolution.2↤ 2 Respectable Folly: Millenarianism and the French Revolution in France and England (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1975). To these important books we can now add The Second Coming, which studies the millenarianism of a century with considerable erudition, sympathy and insight.
The first of the three main divisions of The Second Coming provides a useful overview of the millennial tradition. It does suffer from a problem which besets any overview: there is simply not enough space to treat important subjects as they deserve. To John Pordage and Jane Lead, for example, Harrison can devote only a single paragraph, with a second on their follower Richard Roach; yet this circle has been the subject of an entire book.3↤ 3 Nils Thune: The Behmenists and the Philadelphians, a Contribution to the Study of English Mysticism in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (Uppsala: Almquist and Wiksell, 1948). Likewise Swedenborgianism—or rather the millenarian element of Swedenborgianism—demands far more than the three pages it is given in the second part of The Second Coming. Nevertheless, the author is right to concentrate on certain aspects of his subject at the expense of others, for this is not a history of the expectation of the millennium from 1750 to 1850 so much as a study in depth of two millenarian movements set in a wider perspective. The movements are those of Richard Brothers and Joanna Southcott. The Second Coming probably gives more details about the career and adherents of the Prince of the Hebrews than have been presented before, but it is in his study of Southcott, her followers, and her would-be heirs that Harrison breaks new ground, giving us the beginnings of a social history of the subject. For example the breakdown of Southcottonians by occupation, while necessarily incomplete, is fascinating, leading to the conclusion that “With a following made up of artisans, small tradesman and servants, and a top leadership drawn from the more educated and affluent classes, the believers were socially parallel to the radical reformers or the Methodists” (pp. 110-11). This type of information, along with a sense of the historical importance of what people believed to be true (as, for example, in the case of almanacs), makes The Second Coming an important contribution to our knowledge of the period in which Blake lived. The third part of the book, devoted mostly to Shakers, Mormons, and Millerites, is useful chiefly in making comparisons with the subject matter of the second in order to determine what elements were common to millenarian sects.
What of the relation of millenarian movements to Blake himself? A case has been made for connecting Blake, on the basis of similarities of ideas expressed in printed texts, with the antinomians of the seventeenth century4↤ 4 See A. L. Morton, The Everlasting Gospel (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1957). ; but Blake needs to be “placed” in relation to the millenarianism of his own time as well. I think it fair to say that in this respect The Second Coming does not go beyond my own article of 1973,5↤ 5 “William Blake, the Prince of the Hebrews, and the Woman Clothed with the Sun,” William Blake: Essays in Honour of Sir Geoffrey Keynes, ed. Morton D. Paley and Michael Phillips (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973), pp. 260-93. although it does make mention of Blake a number of times and reproduces two pictures it attributes to him. Furthermore, two errors should be corrected. A quotation from Jerusalem 27 has been garbled so as to read “ . . . Jerusalem was and is the Emanation of the Giant Shore” and then continue “Your ancestors derived . . . ” (pp. 80-81). More than four lines of Blake’s original text have been dropped by the printer here. Also, one picture reproduced as Blake’s is actually a copy after Blake of The Wise and Foolish Virgins, possibly by John Linnell6↤ 6 See Martin Butlin, William Blake: a Complete Catalogue of the Works in the Tate Gallery, rev. ed. (London: Tate Gallery, 1971), p. 54, no. 44. ; and the bracketed title in the caption for this reproduction, “The Midnight Cry” (alluding to Matt. 25.6) has no authority. In general, however, the suggestions about Blake and millenarianism in The Second Coming are well taken. A much more extensive treatment of this subject is now in order, but whoever undertakes it will necessarily make use of J. C. F. Harrison’s thoughtful and informative book.