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English Methodists and the Myth of the Catholic Antichrist (c. 1755 – 1817)
Paul’s second epistle to the community at Thessalonica warned that the second coming of Christ will be preceded by the appearance of ‘the man of sin’ (or ‘the man of lawlessness’), who will work false miracles and exalt himself over God, setting himself up in God’s Temple, all in accordance with the plans of Satan (2 Thess 2:1-17). The ‘man of sin’ was subsequently linked to the Antichrist mentioned in John’s first and second epistle (1 John 2:18-22, 4:3, 2 John 1:7). Various diabolic figures from the Book of Daniel and the Book of Revelation have also been interpreted as relating to the Antichrist. These allusions to a diabolic character were fleshed out over time. According to Norman Cohn (1975), ‘over the centuries new and terrible anxieties began to make themselves felt in Christian minds, until it came to seem that the world was in the grip of demons and that their human allies were everywhere, even in the heart of Christendom itself.’ The Antichrist was regarded as an authentic manifestation of evil, who would lead Satan’s forces in a cosmic war against the followers of Christ. The Antichrist was intertwined with millenarian expectations of the establishment of the Kingdom of God on Earth. The arrival of the Antichrist, as Cohn (1957) observed, was considered no mere ‘phantasy about some remote and indefinite future but a prophecy which was infallible and which at almost any given moment was felt to be on the point of fulfilment’. 
The Seven-Headed Beast (Silos Apocalypse, Illuminated Manuscript) [Wikimedia Commons]
‘A wild beast coming up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns’
In English-Methodist discourses during the eighteenth century, it was often the Catholic popes – sometimes individually, sometimes collectively – who were mythicised as ‘the Antichrist’. The tone for these discourses about ‘Antichrist’ was set by the original founders and leaders of the Methodist movement, John Wesley (1703 – 1791) and Charles Wesley (1707 – 1788), both of whom were enthusiastic millenarians.
John Wesley’s general ambivalence and prejudice towards Roman Catholicism has been well documented by David Butler (1995), but it is specifically to John Wesley’s construction of the so-called ‘Romish Antichrist’ that we now turn. According to Butler, it was in his commentary on Revelation in his Explanatory Notes on the New Testament (1755) that John Wesley recorded his ‘oddest thoughts on the Papacy’. John Wesley’s preface to this section of his Explanatory Notes records how he despaired of understanding much of Revelation until he encountered ‘the works of the great Bengelius’, (i.e., Johann Bengel’s Gnomon, published in 1742), the reading of which ‘revived’ his hopes of understanding ‘even the prophecies’ recorded in the Book of Revelation. According to John Wesley, much of his commentary on Revelation was partly translated and abridged from observations found in Bengel’s Gnomon, albeit he allowed himself ‘the liberty’ to alter some of Bengel’s observations, and to add a few notes where he felt that Bengel’s account was incomplete. Where Johann Bengel ends and John Wesley begins is not always clear, but that they were seemingly much in agreement – at least in the passages that John Wesley derived or lifted from Bengel – seems reasonably certain.
John Wesley believed that the role of Antichrist, ‘the beast with seven heads’, was not assigned to just a single individual, but to ‘a body of men’ at some moments in history, and ‘an individual’ at others, which he summarised as ‘the papacy of many ages’. In particular, he seems to have had in mind all popes since the beginning of the papacy of Gregory VII in 1073. He regarded this fantastical ‘beast’ to be no mere legend but a real and imminent danger. Commenting on Revelation 13:1 (‘and I stood on the sand of the sea, and saw a wild beast coming up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns, and upon his horns ten diadems, and upon his heads a name of blasphemy’), John Wesley stated that ‘O reader! This is a subject wherein we also are deeply concerned; and which must be treated, not as a point of curiosity, but as a solemn warning from God. The danger is near.’ According to John Wesley, the sea that the Antichrist was prophesied to emerge from was not ‘the abyss’ but rather ‘Europe’, and ‘the beast’ was ‘the Romish papacy, as it came to a point six hundred years since, stands now, and will for some time longer.’ John Wesley was not, it seems, entirely sure about the exact arrival of the Antichrist, suggesting that the Antichrist arrived some 600 to 700 years previously (from the perspective of his writing in the 1750s), at some point between the beginning of the papacy of Gregory VII and the conclusion of the papacy of Alexander III (i.e., between 1073 and 1181), though he fixated primarily on Gregory VII. Butler convincingly suggests that Wesley’s strongest suspicion was that Gregory VII was the original manifestation of ‘the beast’. This seems to be confirmed by a closer examination of Wesley’s commentary on Revelation. In his comment on Revelation 13:1, Wesley stated that ‘whatever power the papacy has had from Gregory VII, this the Apocalyptic beast represents’. And in his commentary on Revelation 17:11, Wesley states that: ‘the beast consists as it were of eight parts. The seven heads are seven of them; and the eighth is his whole body, or the beast himself … The whole succession of popes from Gregory VII are undoubtedly antichrist. Yet this hinders not, but that the last pope in this succession will be more eminently the antichrist, the man of sin; adding to that of his predecessors a peculiar degree of wickedness from the bottomless pit. This individual person, as a pope, is the seventh head of the beast; as the man of sin, he is the eighth, or the beast himself.’ Despite his warnings about the danger posed by ‘the beast’ in his Explanatory Notes in 1755, John Wesley seems to have believed that the beast would eventually be defeated in 1836 (following the chronology of Johann Bengel). In his commentary on Revelation 17:10, he speculates simply that in 1836, ‘the beast [will be] finally overthrown’. In fact, it seems that just 22 years later, John Wesley was already confident that the power of ‘the beast’ was already in decline. According to Butler, Wesley wrote a letter to Joseph Benson (another Methodist minister) in 1777, stating that ‘the Romish Anti-Christ is already so fallen that he will not again lift up his head in any considerable degree. … I therefore concur with you in believing that his tyranny is past never to return’. 
Two pages from John Wesley’s Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament, 12th edition
Around the same time that John Wesley was finishing his Explanatory Notes on the New Testament, his brother, Charles Wesley, also made reference to the ‘Romish Antichrist’. In April 1754, he wrote a letter to an unknown correspondent. In this apocalyptic letter, Charles Wesley referred to the ‘labyrinth’ of ‘scriptural Prophecies’ that God had guided him through, and the arrival of the ‘Kingdom of our Lord in its fulness upon earth’ after certain key events: ‘the conversion of God’s antient people the Jews, their restoration to their own land; [and] the destruction of the Romish Antichrist & of all the other adversaries of Christ’s kingdom’. 
Kenneth Newport (1996), in his comprehensive survey of Methodist millenarianism (mostly premillennialism), identifies a number of other Methodist preachers who referred or alluded to the ‘Roman’, ‘Rome’ or Catholic ‘Antichrist’. For example, according to Newport, Joseph Sutcliffe (1762 – 1856), a preacher appointed by John Wesley to the Redruth Circuit in 1786, and the author of several works including a commentary on scripture and a 25-page pamphlet on the ‘glorious millennium, and the second coming of Christ’ (1798), constructed an elaborate millennial narrative combining elements of pre- and post-millennialism (with Christ’s second coming prior to his thousand-year reign on Earth, but with Christ returning to and ruling the earthly Church from heaven, and the millennium not entirely free from the vices and wickedness of earlier times, and with the millennium followed by one final cataclysmic battle between Jesus and Satan at its conclusion). In Sutcliffe’s narrative, the Roman ‘Antichrist’ (‘the pagan and the papal beast’) is defeated, the Jews embrace Christianity, and play a special eschatological role in helping to convert ‘the Turks, Tartars, Persians, and the numerous nations of the African shores’; ‘dwelling among all commercial nations, and being perfectly acquainted with their manners, customs, languages and religions, they [the Jews] are already arranged as an army of missionaries’. Later, Satan attacks the Jews, who by then are in Jerusalem, but Satan is defeated when Christ appears in visible form to slay his enemies. This is all expected to occur in the nineteenth century (beginning with the final defeat of the Antichrist circa 1820 and the battle against Satan in Jerusalem circa 1865). Then, after a thousand years of Christ’s rule of the earthly Church from the Celestial Court (i.e., a temporary paradise on Earth, a kingdom ruled from heaven, rather than located in heaven), Satan will escape his thousand-year imprisonment in the ‘bottomless pit’ to return for one last cosmic battle, but will be defeated by ‘the Lord Jesus’ who returns from heaven in ‘flaming fire’. After this, there will be the final judgement, the destruction of the wicked, and the resurrection of the righteous in the everlasting heavenly kingdom of God (presumably circa 2865). And according to Newport, Thomas Coke (1747 – 1814), the co-founder of Methodism in America and the first Methodist bishop, also developed a vibrant millenarian narrative in his Commentary on the Holy Bible (1803), in which the Antichrist already rules the Earth (presumably unbeknownst to most people), and has done so since the year 606 CE, but the Antichrist will be destroyed after his 1,260 year reign, in circa 1866, after which the Jews and Gentiles will all embrace Christianity, and the millennium will begin. 
Thomas Taylor (1738 – 1816), an influential Methodist preacher and friend of John Wesley, also argued that the ‘great Anti-christ’ was the ‘church of Rome’, in his Ten Sermons on the Millennium; or, the Glory of the Latter Days (1789). According to Taylor, ‘a glorious time’ was coming, when ‘Jesus will reign, and every knee shall bow, and every tongue shall confess him to be Lord’. This blessed time will, Taylor suggested, involve the ‘destruction of Antichrist’, ‘the chaining of the dragon’, ‘wars and fighting ceasing’ and ‘the gathering in of the Jews’, among other events. Turning to the subject of Antichrist, Taylor observed that ‘every person, persons or thing, which oppose Christ, may be termed Anti-christ’. According to Taylor, the Antichrist thus consists of many groups, including ‘the Jews’, ‘the Turks’ and ‘Socinians’. But for Taylor, the ‘great Antichrist’ was the Catholic Church. For example, whilst he summed up the reasons for ‘the Jews’ being on the list in just one sentence (‘the opposers of Christ, in that they reject his government, will not have this man to reign over them, and thereby judge themselves unworthy of everlasting life’), and similarly ‘the Turks’ and ‘Socinians’ in one sentence apiece, the Catholic Church received several pages of criticism. According to Taylor, ‘but what is most generally understood by that term’ [i.e., Antichrist], ‘and what the scriptures in very clear terms mark out, as well as history, for Antichrists are, the doctrine, hierarchy and discipline of the church of Rome. The Pope and Cardinals, together with the whole herd of secular and regular priests and begging friars, joined with their whole train of legends for doctrines, may be said to be the great Antichrist’. Taylor outlined over several pages of the sermon what he considered to be the sins of the ‘church of Rome’, including as highlights, ‘infallibility’, ‘transubstantiation’, ‘praying to the dead’, ‘purgatory’, ‘priestly absolution’, ‘persecutions’, ‘torture’ and ‘the Inquisition’. He suggested that in its ‘superstitious discipline’ and ‘horrid cruelties’, the ‘church of Rome’ was the ‘whore of Babylon’. 
Significantly, Adam Clarke, a prominent Methodist preacher and bible scholar from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, whose anti-Judaism and anti-Catholicism I examined as part of a collaborative project between the Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Manchester and the John Rylands Research Institute, also embraced many hostile myths and stereotypes about Catholics (and Jews), but rejected the millenarian ideas of the previously discussed Methodists. Adam Clarke was born c. 1760 – 1762 (the exact year being unknown) in Londonderry. He died of cholera in London on 28 August 1832. Clarke met John and Charles Wesley at the Kingswood school in Bristol when he was approximately eighteen years of age, and was appointed by them to preach at Bradford on Avon in Wiltshire. His circuit soon extended to other towns and villages, and he was later assigned to the London Circuit. He was elected three times to the Presidency of the Methodist Conference and was widely respected as a preacher and scholar.
Unlike the previously discussed Methodists, Clarke did not believe in a gathering in or restoration of the Jews, or their mass conversion to Christianity, or their role in the final struggle against Antichrist. Instead, he suggested in his commentary on the New Testament, published in 1817, and his commentary on the Old Testament, published in 1825, that the role of Jews was simply to serve as a wretched and dispersed people, as perpetual monuments to the truth of Christianity. In his commentary on Matthew 24, he argued that the Jews, preserved as ‘a people scattered through all nations, … without temple, sacrifices, or political government’, reluctantly stand forth, despite their attempts to ‘suppress the truth’, as ‘unimpeachable collateral evidence’ of the predictions found in the New Testament. Reading the Gospel of Matthew as a prophetic text written before the sacking of Jerusalem, Clarke argued that ‘the destruction of Jerusalem’ had been foretold, and was a remarkable demonstration of ‘divine vengeance’ and a ‘signal manifestation of Christ’s power and glory’. Clarke concluded that, ‘thus has the prophecy of Christ been most literally and terribly fulfilled, on a people who are still preserved as continued monuments of the truth of our Lord’s prediction, and of the truth of the Christian religion’. Similarly, in his commentary on Jeremiah 15:4, he argued that the statement, ‘I will cause them to be removed into all kingdoms of the earth’, was in respect to ‘the succeeding state of the Jews in their different generations’. According to Clarke, ‘never was there a prophecy more literally fulfilled; and it is still a standing monument of Divine truth. Let infidelity cast its eyes on the scattered Jews whom it may meet with in every civilized nation of the world; and then let it deny the truth of this prophecy, if it can’. In his preface to the Epistle to the Romans, Clarke argued that the calamities endured by the Jews, and their continued survival as a distinct and separate people despite a ‘dispersion of about 1700 years, over all the face of the earth, everywhere in a state of ignominy and contempt’, was evidence of a ‘standing miracle’, and the extraordinary will and interposal of Heaven. According to Clarke, the continued presence of the Jews as a distinct but dispersed people, ‘for many ages, harassed, persecuted, butchered and distressed’ (by ‘Pagans and pretended Christians’), as ‘the most detestable of all people upon the face of the earth’, but nevertheless preserved, was in line with a prediction in the book of Jeremiah (‘for I will make a full end of all the nations whither I have driven thee: but I will not make a full end of thee, but correct thee in measure’ [Jeremiah 46:28]), that God will bring an end to other nations, but not the Jews. Clarke concluded, in a somewhat ontological vein, that ‘thus the very being of the Jews, in their present circumstances, is a standing public proof of the truth of Revelation’ 
Again, unlike the Methodist millenarians, Clarke did not prophesise the destruction of the Catholic Church or speculate with confidence as to the identity of Antichrist. Reflecting on the Antichrist in his commentary on Revelation 11:7 (‘and when they [the two witnesses] shall have finished their testimony, the beast that ascendeth out of the bottomless pit shall make war against them and shall overcome them, and kill them’), Clarke observed that the beast from the bottomless pit ‘may be what is called Antichrist’, but he concluded that other than some power opposed to ‘genuine Christianity’ and under ‘the influence and appointment of the devil’, it was impossible to say who or what Antichrist is. He noted that the conjectures about the identity of the beast (and the two witnesses) are manifold. As examples, he mentions as possibilities, ‘some Jewish power or person’, ‘one of the persecuting Heathen emperors’, and ‘the papal power’. Ultimately, the Antichrist (‘the beast’) remains an uncertain and shadowy figure in Clarke’s discourse. 
Portrait of Dr Adam Clarke, c. 1806, Methodist Archives /PLP 26/11/24
With his rejection of millenarian ideas, his limited interest in speculating about the identity of Antichrist, and his belief that Jews would be preserved in their dispersed, separate and wretched condition as perennial monuments to the truth of Christianity (rather than a gathering in of the Jews, and their embracing of Christianity), Clarke seems to have been an outlier compared to many of his Methodist colleagues from the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. However, whilst he seems to have been indifferent to the idea of a Catholic Antichrist, he did embrace other hostile myths and stereotypes about Catholics (as well as many hostile myths and stereotypes about Jews). Adam Clarke’s anti-Judaism and anti-Catholicism are examined in more detail in my article published in the Bulletin of the John Rylands Library: ‘“Monuments” to the truth of Christianity: Anti-Judaism in the Works of Adam Clarke’, Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, volume 93, issue 1, Spring 2017, 45-66 [link to journal volume] [link to author accepted manuscript]
 Norman Cohn, Europe’s Inner Demons: The Demonisation of Christians in Medieval Christendom (1975; repr., London: Pimlico, 2005), 23; and Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium (1957; repr., London: Pimlico, 1993), 35.
 David Butler, Methodists and Papists: John Wesley and the Catholic Church in the Eighteenth Century (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1995), 129-134; and John Wesley’s Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament, notes on the Revelation 13:1 and 17:10-11, originally published in 1755, but the 12th edition has been used in this blog (New York: Carlton & Porter, no date), available online at archive.org, pages 650, 697-702, 714-715.
 The Unfinished letter from Charles Wesley to an unnamed correspondent, 25 April 1754, can be found in the John Rylands Special Collections, DDCW 1/51. For a transcript and discussion of this letter, see Kenneth G. C. Newport, ‘Charles Wesley’s Interpretation of Some Biblical Prophecies According to a Previously Unpublished Letter’, Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 77, no. 2 (1995), available online at Manchester eScholar, pages 31-52.
 Kenneth G. C. Newport, ‘Methodists and the Millennium: Eschatological Expectation and the Interpretation of Biblical Prophecy in Early British Methodism’, Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 78, no. 1 (1996), available online at Manchester eScholar, pages 103-122. For Joseph Sutcliffe, see pages 109-112. For Thomas Coke, see pages 121-122; and Joseph Sutcliffe, A Treatise on the Universal Spread of the Gospel, the Glorious Millenium, and the Second Coming of Christ (Doncaster: Gazette-Office, 1798).
 Thomas Taylor, Ten Sermons on the Millennium; or, The Glory of the Latter Days (Hull: G. Prince, 1789), sermon 1, ‘The Destruction of Antichrist’, pages 20-28.
 Adam Clarke, The New Testament, of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ; containing the text, taken from the most correct copies of the present authorised translation, including the marginal readings and parallel texts, with a commentary and critical notes. Designed as a help to a better understanding of the sacred writings, 3 volumes (London: J. Butterworth, 1817), commentary on Matthew 24:30-31 (and concluding notes for Matthew 24), and preface to commentary on Romans, page viii; and Adam Clarke, The Holy Bible, Containing the Old and New Testaments. The text carefully printed from the most correct copies of the present authorized translation, including the marginal readings and parallel texts. With a commentary and critical notes, designed as a help to a better understanding of the sacred writings, 5 volumes (London: J. Butterworth, 1825), commentary on Jeremiah 15:4, 46:28.
 Clarke, The New Testament, of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, commentary on Revelation 11:7.
New Publication: ‘Anti-Judaism in the Works of Adam Clarke’, Bulletin of the John Rylands Library.
New research article in the Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, 93:1 (Manchester University Press, Spring 2017): ‘”Monuments” to the Truth of Christianity: Anti-Judaism in the Works of Adam Clarke’.
Abstract: The prevailing historiographies of Jewish life in England suggest that religious representations of ‘the Jews’ in the early modern period were confined to the margins and fringes of society by the ‘desacralization’ of English life. Such representations are mostly neglected in the scholarly literature for the latter half of the long eighteenth century, and English Methodist texts in particular have received little attention. This research article addresses these lacunae by examining the discourse of Adam Clarke (1760/2–1832), an erudite Bible scholar, theologian, preacher and author and a prominent, respected, Methodist scholar. Significantly, the more overt demonological representations were either absent from Clarke’s discourse, or only appeared on a few occasions, and were vague as to who or what was signified. However, Clarke portrayed biblical Jews as ‘perfidious’, ‘cruel’, ‘murderous’, ‘an accursed seed, of an accursed breed’ and ‘radically and totally evil’. He also commented on contemporary Jews (and Catholics), maintaining that they were foolish, proud, uncharitable, intolerant and blasphemous. He argued that in their eternal, wretched, dispersed condition, the Jews demonstrated the veracity of biblical prophecy, and served an essential purpose as living monuments to the truth of Christianity.
Publication date: March 1, 2017
For more information, please see:
Link to author accepted manuscript
Link to article (Ingenta Connect)
Link to research guides which focus on the materials held in the John Rylands Library relevant to Methodist attitudes towards Jews and Judaism (Centre for Jewish Studies)
Representations of Jews and Judaism in the Works of the Methodist theologian Adam Clarke (1762-1832)
In another fruitful collaboration between the University’s Centre for Jewish Studies and the John Rylands Research Institute, Dr Simon Mayers has been working for two months on the Methodist Collections at the John Rylands Library. The subject of the project has been Adam Clarke’s discourse about Jews and Judaism. The study was conducted with the help of the rare books librarian and curator, Dr Peter Nockles, and was funded by a John Rylands Research Institute Seed Corn Fellowship. “This is the first of what is hoped will be a series of Jewish Studies related research proposals using the unique Methodist Collections,” said Daniel Langton, Professor of the History of Jewish-Christian Relations and co-director of the CJS.
Adam Clarke (1762-1832) was a prominent Methodist theologian, preacher, and biblical scholar in England during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. He was elected three times to the Presidency of the Methodist Church’s…
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Adam Clarke, the Jews and Judaism (BAJS conference)
My paper for the forthcoming British Association for Jewish Studies (BAJS) conference (July 2015) will present some of the results of a project examining how Jews and Judaism were represented in the published works and unpublished manuscripts of Adam Clarke (1762-1832). Clarke was a prominent Methodist theologian, preacher and biblical scholar, best known for his eight volume commentary on the Old and New Testaments.
Whilst the research is still ongoing, the material examined so far would seem to reveal that traditional theological stereotypes were a pervasive feature in Adam Clarke’s discourse about both biblical and modern Jews. In his commentaries and sermons, he would often take a passage from the New Testament about “the Pharisees,” “the Sadducees,” “the Herodians,” or the Jewish multitude, and not only expand upon it, but also magnify any polemical antipathy that he found severalfold. For example, according to Clarke, the Jews of antiquity regarded the command to love thy neighbour as applying only to “those of the Jewish race, and all others were considered by them as natural enemies.” The Pharisees in particular were portrayed as not merely hypocritical, wicked, envious, unspiritual, blind and hard-hearted, but also “radically and totally evil”. Clarke also caricatured Jews of subsequent generations, such as the medieval Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides, and made numerous references to the Jews of “the present day” (i.e. the early nineteenth century), suggesting that they had changed little from the Jews of antiquity. He argued that it was by divine providence that the Jews had been preserved as a distinct people, downtrodden, ruined and dispersed among the nations, providing unimpeachable “evidence” and living “monuments” to the truth of Christianity.
Clarke also repeated a number of anti-Catholic stereotypes which contained elements reminiscent of his representations of Jews, and which combined and coalesced with them on a number of occasions. He argued that the Jews and Catholics were both superstitious and notable for engaging in profane, blasphemous and ridiculous legends and traditions. For example, he stated in a sermon that “the church of Rome out-did, by innumerable degrees, all that had been done in the Jewish church by the worst of its rabbinical fables, puzzling genealogies, forged traditions, and false glosses on the words of God. And thus the worship of the true God was absorbed and lost in that of the Virgin Mary, and of real or reputed saints.”
This project is supported by a Seed Corn Fellowship from the John Rylands Research Institute, and is envisioned as the first of a series of projects by the Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Manchester which will explore the unique Methodist Collections at the John Rylands library (widely recognised as one of the largest and finest collections of its type in the world).