Monthly Archives: September 2013

Who were the first Chinese Christians?

Did you know that we have written records of thriving Christian communities in China from a time before there were even Christians in Norway? A nine foot high stele in Shanxi Province attests that there were Christians in China as early as 635.

The Nestorian Stele

The Stele was written by a priest called Jingjing, who also went by the name of Adam, and it records the first 150 years of Christianity in China. The stele is called the “Memorial of the Propagation in China of the Luminous Religion from Daqin”. Daqin means the Roman empire, or rather the small part of it that China had contact with. Normally, though, it’s just called The Nestorian Stele It’s written in two languages, Chinese and Syriac, the language of Nestorian Christianity.

The document shows that Christianity was not just a religion of missionaries, it seems to have adopted ideas and words from the Chinese. For instance it refers to Biblical passages as sutras and follows the Daoist example of seeing their religion as nameless and mysterious. Throughout the stele it is referred to as “the Dao”. It’s even decorated with a mix of lotus flowers and dragons, along with the usual cross.

The Stele (which you can read for yourself, by the way) recounts how Christianity entered China in 635 with a Christian missionary called Alopen. It seems to have spread out widely, and received high favour from some of the emperors. But then, it disappeared. Unfortunately, as is often the case, we know less about why a religion stopped than we do about how it started.

It was probably buried by Christains after 845, when the Emperor Wozong started persecuting Buddhism. Christian monks were forced out of this country at this time, but we can’t be sure that persecution finished them off. It probably didn’t help that the Chinese Church had been split off by the growth of Islam and that the Christians of China ended up adopting more and more Buddhist ideas as time went on.

The theory that Christianity merged into Buddhism is perhaps backed up by the fact that the Nestorian Stele turned up in a Buddhist temple in the 1620s. In fact, it’s still there, and according to some sources there are Christian elements to the beliefs at that temple even now. In around that area there’s a ruin called the “Daqin Pagoda” which was apparently in use until 1556. Some have claimed this was a site of Christian worship.

The evidence of continuing Christian worship after the 9th century seems pretty faint, though. The Daqin pagoda is meant to have Syriatic graffiti and a scene that looks like it’s biblical, but this is perhaps the result of the church language persisting in a community that had mostly moved on.

We still know very little about the fate of Christianity in China because for a long time Chinese scholars were at best uninterested, and at worst saw it as a hoax. The Chinese were right to be sceptical. The Christian missionaries at the time weren’t above bending the truth a little. For instance, when the Jesuits found out about the stele they claimed it was a Catholic monument. It seems the one thing worse than there being no pre-modern Christians in China was for the wrong denomination to have got there first.


Greenland’s Lost Islands

Greenland is pretty unique. For a start, it’s the site of the only major permanent Viking colony in North America. It’s also one of the few places on Earth where a European population was expelled by colonists from a different, technologically more advanced culture. The story of Greenland also involves mysterious lost islands. And who doesn’t love mysterious lost islands?

The first European to see Greenland was Gunnbjørn Ulfsson, who encountered a set of flat islands (skerries) between Iceland and Greenland. Settlements sprang up on these islands and they became the first European settlements in North America. Providing we accept that Greenland is in North America, Gunnbjørn’s skerries are part of Greenland, and that Gunnbjørn’s skerries ever existed. All of these points are contested.

Gunnbjørn’s skerries are sometimes explained as a hallucination, or as a semantic misunderstanding. But according to one source the islands hosted a small population, and were reported to have been destroyed by a volcano in 1456. One thing that backs up this story is that an island did briefly reappear in 1783, in around the same place, as the result of an earthquake.

After the first colonies were set up, History happened. The area was far more green than it is today, so the colonists could live reasonably well. But as early as 975, the Greenlanders were suffering famine winters where “the old and helpless were killed and thrown over cliffs”.

This was just a taste of things to come, though. The winter of 975 was a chill at the start of the Medieval Warm Period, the colony in Greenland seems to have died out around four centuries later in the Little Age Age. The population didn’t freeze to death, it seems they just became unprofitable: they started to need more imports to survive but had less to trade.

The church at Hvalsey

People left to find work elsewhere, and the colony grew smaller rapidly. The last written record we have is a record sent to Iceland to prove that Thorstein Olafsson of Iceland and Sigrid Björnsdottir of Greenland had married in Hvalsey Fjord Church in Greenland on Sept. 14, 1408.

There are later sources referring to Greenland, though. They tell us that in the 1410s, a new people arrived near the Greenland settlements, burnt the churches and took most of the people as prisoners. These people were the Inuit. Like the Vikings, the Inuits took advantage of the warm period to expand. As the Vikings spread west, the Inuits spread east from Alaska. Inuit technology was specialised for arctic environments and this gave them the edge over other groups as things cooled down. By the time the Europeans returned, the Inuit had been living in Greenland peacefully for centuries.

The Norse seem to have hung on till at least 1448, but at some point after that, the colony vanished. The lack of precious materials left behind indicates that the Norse left peacefully, and no site of battle has been found yet. But the Inuits apparently believe that they beat the Vikings in open battle and chased them to Cape Farewell for a final showdown.

If Gunnbjørn’s skerries existed, and if they were destroyed by a volcano in 1456 they could well have been the first and last Norse colony in Greenland. Which would be a final stroke of bad luck for this colony. An ice age and getting out-competed by another tribe are bad enough. Their last island getting destroyed by a volcano would be taking the piss.

The Mysteries of the Muggletonians

Ludowicke Muggleton

The Muggletonians were one of those long-running sects that came out of British Puritanism. Their story starts off with the two prophets with supernatural powers picking fights in London bars, continues in centuries of internal squabbling and fights with their dreaded enemy, the Quakers, and ends in lost treasures and mystery.

Remember I mentioned the Ranters in the last post? They are largely remembered as drunks, naked dancers and general fun people to be around. But it’s important to remember that they weren’t just a drinking society. They were also a very spiritual people. Few people could exemplify this better than the prophets John Tannye and John Robins, they reportedly condemned their enemies to Hell, raised the dead, and tried to establish a new society in Israel.

John Robins ended up in jail for his beliefs in 1652. There he was visited by two people he knew from the sectarian community in London, Muggleton and Reeve. He may have expected that this would be a nice thing. He knew them, and they’d entertained Ranters in their homes in the past. So it may have been a surprise when they announced they were prophets and cursed him to Hell.

As Prophets do, he cursed them back. What happens next is difficult to judge, we only have Muggleton’s word, and he obviously says that he won. This may be true though, because Robins later recanted and apologised, while the two new prophets went on to form their own sect.

The next few years seem to have been wild for these two prophets. As they were establishing their sect, so were the Quakers. The two soon became best of enemies, exchanging curses, and vitriolic pamphlets. At this time, according to The World of the Quakers groups with names like Familists, Seekers, Behmenists, Baptists, Levellers, Socinians, and Quakers would meet in taverns, argue, curse each other, and exchange their pamphlets. I haven’t found a reference to singing, but the Muggletonisn went on to develop a rich musical tradition. We can assume that these were fun evenings.

It sounds like the prophets fitted into all this quite comfortably. Muggleton’s own biography contains the wonderful passage “For God’s sake, Lodowick, let us be gone, else we shall be killed: so he paid for the drink and we departed out of the house and went to another a little distance off.”

After the monarchy was re-introduced, sects like the Quakers and Muggletonians started to get respectable. The Muggletonians argued that the Quakers only changed in response to Muggletonian criticisms, the Quakers refused to comment. They stopped responding to Muggletonian criticism and concentrated on things like inventing sweets, instead. Slowly, the non-comformists moved out of the pubs.

The Muggletonians kept on cursing people until as late as 1826, and seem to have had successes. Walter Scott, their target, died a reasonably horrible death. They even kept on meeting in pubs. Their songs were designed to sound like popular songs so that they could hold their meetings surreptitiously in public spaces. But a lot of time was taken up with incredibly sophisticated doctrinal disputes. or a sect that rejected reason as Satan embodied in humanity, they had highly cerebral answers to a lot of theological questions. They were hard-line materialists: they believed that God had literally come to earth in the body of Jesus, that souls were part of the body, and some of them believed that the sun revolved around the earth.

The movement did modernise, and started to open up more to outsiders. But it’s numbers began to dwindle. It was commonly believed to have died out in the 19th century. Except that it didn’t. A small group in London kept a meeting house running until 1941, when it was bombed by the Germans. Then, their treasured archive was removed to a farm in Kent by “the last Muggletonian” Phillip Noakes, where it languished until 1974 when a Marxist historian called EP Thompson tracked down Noakes, and discovered the archive. It currently sits in the British Library, and is an absolutely unique historical resource.

But, it may not be unique, in the 30s Noakes was in contact with a second group of Muggletonians in America. They also had a treasured archive. It would be surprising if they let it simply vanish. Even if there is no American archive, what about the other people who used the meeting house? There’s some anecdotal evidence of Muggletonians in existence as late as 2000. Could they still be out there? It’s hard to say. The Muggletonians were never exactly secret, but they never promoted themselves and they did enjoy pulling the wool over people’s eyes. I have my figers crossed that they’re still out there somewhere.

Puritans and their weird names

round headI am a Puritan fan. How could you not be? We’re talking about a bunch of people who, in the days when the future of Protestantism was insecure in Britain, got into trouble for saying that Britain was not protestant enough. When parliament raised its standard against the king, it was the Puritans who formed the New Model Army and won the day.

And they did it with style. I mean, they did it with Bible study groups, discussions about politics, and an sense of discipline based on a shared faith that allowed room for people to work things out for themselves.

Civil War is a horrible thing, but you’d be hard-pressed to find any group that made it look quite so good.

Obviously, their victory was short-lived, and in 1660 some people decided England should be a monarchy again. Just two years later, in 1662, Puritan priests were expelled from the Church of England if they refused to accept the revised Book of Common Prayer. Most became non-conformists. Puritans were banned from holding positions in the military, positions in government, and even from getting degrees from Oxford or Cambridge. These restrictions were in place till the nineteenth century, and weirdly, in this time Puritans got into business. The Quakers alone developed fixed prices for goods in shops, drinking chocolate, and set up lots of businesses that looked after their workers as well as they could.

Ain't no party like a Ranter Party
Ain’t no party like a Ranter Party

They weren’t all humourless and restrictive either. There were groups like the Ranters who didn’t believe in sin, but did believe in dancing naked and drinking heavily. They were a diverse bunch. Perhaps the greatest legacy of the Puritan sense of humour is some of the names they gave to their children. Ostensibly, the goal was to give children godly names that wouldn’t be tainted by unbelievers using them. They also helped Puritans to recognise their own. But some Puritan names just got odd.

Here are some of my favourites. Most of these are courtesy of the brilliant Curiosities of Puritan Nomenclature. Weirdly for me, many of them originate from East Sussex, which means that most of the weirdest Puritan names in the country originate just a few miles away from where I’m sat now. Continue reading Puritans and their weird names

The Decline and Fall of the British Empire Part 3: Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha

Saint Helena from space

Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha

This state has a population of just 7,728. It developed a new constitution in 2009, and it’s in the middle of the Atlantic. Compared to the places we’ve already spoken about, it’s quite dull. Witness Ascension Island’s newspaper, The Islander. I especially like this enigmatic message.

The islands are strategically valuable, especially Ascension Island, which has an air-base. The UK has £19 million (around £2500 per head) invested in the islands, with plans to build an airport and a boat to deliver the post. That accounts for 64% of the islands total budget.

With such a reliance on the British, I can’t see much prospect of independence. I mean, Saint Helena is dependent on British money and Ascesion relies on the British and American militaries. But there are conflicts within the country itself. According to Wikipedia (and sorry for using such a lousy source), Ascension Islands first island council in 2002 was dissolved by the government in Saint Helena. The Ascension Islanders mostly boycotted the next election and by 2009 they had had to introduce a new constitution recognizing the three islands as equal partners. It all seems very civil, but a change in the islands could affect Britain’s relationship with them