A radical Protestant sect with a quirky theology and a wonderfully unlikely name, the Muggletonian movement emerged in 1651 from the chaos of the British Interregnum, when two tailors – John Reeve and Lodowick Muggleton – announced themselves to be the “two witnesses” foretold in Revelation 11:3. Despite likely never numbering more than 300 adherents, the Muggletonians gained notoriety from their lively sectarian debates and penchant for declaring curses upon their enemies (including, at one point, Sir Walter Scott). Thoroughly unconventional, the Muggletonians eschewed churches, Sunday services, worship in general, evangelization, sermons, and clergy of any kind, in favor of free, open, and informal discussions with one another, typically in taverns. For centuries they kept in print a body of distinctly Muggletonian works. The Burns Library holds a small but representative collection of Muggletonian publications.
The thirty-five works in this collection largely consist of 18th and 19th century reprints of writings by the original Muggletonians of the late 17th century. These include topical tracts, Scriptural exegesis, a collection of letters by Reeve and Muggleton, a standard collection of songs, and an account of Lodowick Muggleton’s arrest, in 1676, for blasphemy. The texts themselves are, by and large, humble productions – the Muggletonian movement tended to attract working-class adherents, and the physical appearance of the collection’s constituent works reflects this. A few are bound in plain cardboard, and a good number have only blank, flimsy blue paper for covers. Interestingly, in several of the collection’s works, the pages were never cut, suggesting that they were never read.
The works in this collection attest to some of the more peculiar and theologically eccentric Muggletonian beliefs. Among these is a radical disavowal of any sort of soul-body separation. Certain necessary corollaries must follow, and the Muggletonians are rarely shy about embracing them. For example, an anonymous four-page pamphlet titled “A Treatise on the Mortality of the Soul” asserts the death of the soul along with that of the body: “So, as both body and soul are born together, so both must die together, for they cannot be separated one from the other” (1). Anti-Trinitarianism also follows – for, if there is no spirit distinct from the body, the believer cannot parse a “Father” or “Spirit” from the Son. And we find that the Muggletonians embraced this conclusion freely as well. As one song cheerfully expresses it:
“In the days of my ignorance I worshipp’d a God,
Without form, call’d persons three;
But since that I came to the knowledge of truth,
One God is enough for me.” (Divine Songs 352)
Indeed, Lodowick Muggleton himself goes so far as to insist, in a work colorfully titled A Looking-Glass for George Fox the Quaker, and other Quakers; wherein They may see themselves to be right Devils, that “God is a single Person in the Form of a Man, a spiritual Person, and no bigger in Compass than a Man, and he was so from Eternity” (50). This belief underlies the general hostility the Muggletonians consistently expressed toward Quakers; the latter’s doctrine of the “Inner Light,” of having “Christ within,” stands in irreconcilable opposition to the Muggletonian view of a particularly and materially embodied God: “I never knew none that would avouch that Christ’s Flesh and Bone was in them… if they should do so, how then would all the Quakers do to get Christ within them? There could but one Quaker get Christ in him at a time, and when Christ comes out of one, he must go into another” (Looking-Glass 27).
Another key Muggletonian tenet may go a long way toward explaining why their arguments can seem so head-scratchingly bizarre at times – the belief that human reason is of the Devil. “Allow[ing] it [reason] its prerogative… of having Government as to all terrestrial affairs,” one Muggletonian writer nevertheless dismisses it as “unclean serpentine reason” when applied to matters of faith (Muggletonian Principles Prevailing 5-6). Lodowick Muggleton goes so far as to blame reason for humanity’s inaugural murder: “the Spirit of Reason in Man is the Devil that killed the Righteous and the Just, for Cain was [sic] a high Pitch of Reason when he killed righteous Abel (Looking-Glass 66). And an anonymously-authored lyric in Divine Songs of the Muggletonians doesn’t hesitate to attribute a holy lack of reason to Jesus himself:
“When God became man he’d no reason in him,
This must be allow’d, then how could he sin?
There’s nothing could sin but reason I’m sure,
Christ’s life was God’s life infinitely pure.” (304)
The eleventh chapter of Revelation predicts martyrdom and resurrection for the two witnesses. Perhaps disappointingly, Reeve and Muggleton had to settle for the occasional stint in prison for blasphemy. A True Account of the Trial and Sufferings of Lodowick Muggleton describes Muggleton’s 1767 persecution (nineteen years after Reeve’s death). The author (“Our Friend Powell”) dwells on the mistreatment Muggleton suffered from the crowd while he stood in the pillory: “he was pelted with clay, rotten eggs, and dirt in abundance” (8); “they most shamefuly used him out of the balconies, from the top of the Change; he had glass bottles thrown at him, and pieces of timber, and stones in abundance; and below there was a shopkeeper walked up to the pillory, and standing before Mr. Muggleton, hit him on the breast with an orange; which I seeing, ran at him, and, with my cane, hit him over the head…” (9). But for all the abuse, in the end Muggleton paid a £500 fine (obtained with some difficulty), and lived to see 88.
Despite the sect’s tiny numbers, it lasted until 1979, when the death of Phillip Noakes, the last Muggletonian, brought to an end a three-hundred twenty-eight-year-long underground radical tradition. British historian E. P. Thompson met with Noakes, and reported perhaps one of the saddest observations in the history of religion – “Mr. Noakes frequently said: ‘We believe’ – and yet one could not point to another believer” (116). Yet Thompson never bothered to mask his enthusiasm for the sect. “I like these Muggletonians,” he writes, “but it is clear that they were not among history’s winners” (90). Indeed they were not, but the body of works they left behind, cheaply printed, full of doggerel verse and rife with sloppy editing, speak of a sincere and lively community of belief. If you want to learn what else there is to like about the Muggletonians, please contact the Burns Library at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (617) 552-4861.
- Eric Pencek, Burns Library Reading Room Student Assistant & PhD Candidate in the English Department
Divine Songs of the Muggletonians, in grateful praise to the only true God, the Lord Jesus Christ. London: 1829.
Muggleton, Lodowick. A Looking-Glass for George Fox the Quaker, and Other Quakers; wherein They may see themselves to be right Devils. London (?): s.n. re-printed in the year 1756.
Powell, Nathaniel. A True Account of the Trial and Sufferings of Lodowick Muggleton, one of the last two prophets and witnesses of the Spirit. Southwark: Printed for T. Fever by Morris and Reeves, 1808.
Thomkinson, Thomas. The Muggletonian Principles Prevailing: being an answer in full to a scandalous and malicious pamphlet, entitled A True Representation of the Absurd and malicious Principles of the sect called Muggletonians. London: T. Hayward, 1822.
Thompson, E. P. Witness Against the Beast. New York: The New Press, 1993.
“A Treatise on the Mortality of the Soul.” London: n.d.