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.