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When Muggletonians Attacked Science and Quakers

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

In 1651, a tailor in London said he had received a message from God. John Reeve said the divine memo identified himself and his cousin, Lodowicke Muggleton, as the last prophets spoken of in the Book of Revelation.

What Did Muggletonians Believe?

Based on God's direction, a sect formed and took on Muggleton’s name after John Reeve died in 1658. They were a strange bunch whose beliefs would not be out of place in the science denialism pockets of the evangelical movement of today.

The cornerstone of Muggletonian belief is that God created man in his image and then got preoccupied with other matters. So, as God wasn’t listening, prayer was pointless; therefore, traditional religious services had no place in Muggletonian thought or practice.

Muggletonians preferred to gather in alehouses where they drank, ate, discussed their theories, and sang their songs (sounds a bit like a rugby club after the game).

Frank Key in The Dabbler writes that the sect believed God “was five feet six inches tall (or possibly six feet―a topic for rancorous discussion) and He lived in Heaven, which was exactly six miles above the earth’s surface, separated by the sky, which was a solid band.” When people took up hot-air ballooning late in the 18th century, the Muggletonians demanded it be banned because the contraptions might bump into the sky.

From this, we can deduce the sect did not have a firm grasp on science. In fact, they abhorred the discipline. For them, the devil was not humankind’s biggest enemy. No, no. Reason was the most terrible object, and it could only be approached by angels. The logic, if that’s not a word out of place, was that people used reason to acquire things they should not have.

The Scriptures informed their view of the universe. For them, Copernicus and Galileo were clearly deranged because it was obvious that Earth was the centre of the solar system. The stars in the night sky were the actual size they appeared from Earth.

They also labelled Isaac Newton as bonkers and railed against him endlessly. And, the novelist Sir Walter Scott was the recipient of a Muggletonian curse. However, those who declared themselves to be faithful followers of Muggleton were rewarded with a blessing.

Quaker leader George Fox was a target of Muggleton’s vitriol.

Quaker leader George Fox was a target of Muggleton’s vitriol.

Muggletonians Versus Quakers

Lodowicke Muggleton didn’t like Quakers; he didn’t like them one bit. It was his habit to refer to Quakers as a “puddle of evil.” He wrote a pamphlet with the splendid title The Neck of the Quakers Broken or Cut in Sunder by the Two-Edged Sword of the Spirit Which Is Put Into My Mouth.

Muggletonians believed that God had a physical form, whereas Quakers had faith in God’s spiritual nature. There were lots of other disputes over theological minutiae. Muggleton accused the Quakers of practicing witchcraft. He said they were guilty of setting themselves up as self-proclaimed prophets. Also, he claimed that Quakers were an impediment to people finding their way to paradise.

This sounded like rubbish, and yet the Quakers were provoked into responding with their own allegations that closely mirrored those of Muggleton. An unseemly battle of insults and taunts followed.

Muggleton’s accusations levelled against Quakers were a bit rich because the Encyclopedia Britannica notes that “According to Muggleton and Reeve, the unforgivable sin was disbelief in them as true prophets.” As for the charge of witchcraft, Muggleton put a curse on Dr. Edward Bourne, a Quaker, in the hope and belief it would kill him.

Muggleton and Heresy

The sect did not believe in the trinity. They contended that Jesus Christ was God—not God's son. Such views did not sit well with the established church, so Muggleton was imprisoned for blasphemy. He was also made to stand at the pillory for two hours on three consecutive days so that the citizenry could express their opinions. This they did with such gusto that they almost killed the man.

Muggleton found it difficult to get out of prison. His jailers balked at the idea of releasing a prisoner from whom profit could be extracted in the form of contributions from his followers. However, a £100 payment (bribe being such a nasty word) to the Sheriff of London unlocked the prison gates, and Muggleton was free to go about his business. He journeyed on, leading his devoted flock until his death in 1697 at the age of 88.

Muggletonianism's Survival

Usually, sects such as this don’t last long after the leader’s death; This was not so with the Muggletonians. One of the tenets of their faith was that they did not seek to recruit new members. Yet, despite not proselytizing, the sect kept going for 300 years with fluctuations in popularity. There may even be obscure pockets of believers around today.

In 1940, their meeting place in London was destroyed by a German bomb, and that was pretty much the end of them. Their last known surviving member, Philip Noakes, died in 1979. He had been custodian of the sect’s archive, which he gave to the British Library.

Bonus Factoids

  • J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books, did not draw on Muggleton for her name for non-magical people. She said she started with the British word “mug,” which describes a gullible person who is easily fooled. She said she added the “gle” to make muggle sound more “cuddly.”
  • The 17th century was a time of burgeoning interest in fringe religious groups in Britain. The village of Grindleton in Lancashire gave its name to the Grindletonian beliefs that started in about 1610. Their leader, Roger Brearly, taught that a Christian could not sin and that to ask for forgiveness of sin was itself a sin. The sect did not survive beyond the 17th century.

Sources

  • “Muggletonians.” Frank Key, The Dabbler, July 20, 2012.
  • “The Muggletonians, an Obscure Religious Sect, Made Beautiful Maps that Put the Earth as the Center of the Solar System.” Josh Jones, Open Culture, May 10, 2018.
  • “Muggletonianism.” Mike Pettit, muggletonian.org.uk, undated.
  • “Killing with Curses: Obscure 17th Century Muggletonian Sect.” Charles Christian, ancient-origins.net, April 2, 2018.
  • “Strange Sects: The Muggletonians.” Inkyn, October 16, 2017.
  • “Disorganised Religion – The Story of the Muggletonians.” Recovering Agnostic, Wordpress, June 16, 2013.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Rupert Taylor

Comments

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on October 04, 2020:

Thanks Ann. Ideas for articles often pop up in the course of researching earlier ones. The Muggletonians came from a brief mention in a wonderful little book called Schott's Quintessential Miscellany.

Ann Carr from SW England on October 03, 2020:

Well, I've never heard of this lot before! I must confess I expected some sort of link to Harry Potter. Strange and interesting; you never disappoint with your subjects and your humour, Rupert. Where do you find all these unusual themes for articles?! I enjoyed the read.

Ann