Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Christopher Hill and the neglect of eschatology

The doyen of studies of the radicals of the English Revolution was the Oxford historian Christopher Hill (1912-2003) whose The World Turned Upside Down (1972) may be found in many a Meeting House library.  I attended a seminar by him sometime in the early 1970's. I remember a quietly spoken, little man with a fine head of tight, neat curls and an inscrutable expression, dressed in the sports jacket and cavalry twills which was standard dress for Oxford dons of the time.

His interest was political and Marxist, which made him an innovative and controversial figure.  By studying and writing extensively on the texts and lives of the English radicals of the 17th century, he inspired students and writers to view history from the perspective of the ruled rather than rulers. On his death he was scurrilously accused of having been a Soviet agent.  This was false but he had been member of the Communist Party for a time. That his interests were political and Marxist is worth stressing, because it meant his historiography was, if not one-sided, then incomplete.  For example, his publication of the works of Gerard Winstanley was confined to Winstanley's political works, which were in fact less voluminous than his religious work.  Hill is incomplete because he gives insufficient weight to how political discourse in the English Revolution - as one may call the period of the Civil War and Interregnum -was indistinguishable from religious discourse in ways with which the world is only now reacquainting itself.  This is a particular problem with the eschatological language - talk of the end of days - that Quakers used because it can be taken as either mapping an impending heaven on earth or as referring to some event in the purely spiritual world.  Like most eschatological groups, it is probable that the Quakers themselves in talking of the end of times were unclear whether they were referring to a change in the external world or an inner transformation.  Gwyn refers to 'microcosmic eschatology', by which he means a 'test plot for the kingdom of God on earth, a moderate communitarian model to inspire the wider society towards similar reforms.' (Gwyn 1995 p.293).  The term 'microcosmic eschatology' is also a way of describing Quakers as a disciplined community of faith, language and culture. Gwyn says more about this in The Oxford Handbook of Quaker Studies (chapter 13).

The ambivalent language surrounding eschatology makes early Quakerism interesting but also harder to interpret.  In fact, there is a richness, an ambiguity and a dualism in religious language which is ultimately not amenable to matter-of-fact understanding. That is perhaps a polite way of saying that Quaker eschatology tends to dissolve into exalted metaphor or even meaninglessness.

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