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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’. [1]

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’. [2]

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’. [3]

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. [4]

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’. [5]

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’ [6]

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. [7]

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]

References

[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

[4] 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).

[5] 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.

[6] 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.

[7] Clarke, The New Testament, of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, commentary on Revelation 11:7.

Pope Francis, Robert Hugh Benson, and the “Spirit of the World”

According to a recent report in The Times newspaper (30 January 2015), “the Pope has urged anyone who wants to understand him to read a science fiction novel published in 1907 by Robert Hugh Benson”. Monsignor Benson was an Anglican priest and novelist who embraced Catholicism in 1903. He was the son of Edward White Benson, the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury from 1883 to 1896. He passed away in 1914 at the age of 42, possibly from pneumonia judging by an account of the last days of his life by Canon Sharrock in the Tablet, 24 October 1914, 569. The report in The Times observes that his novel, Lord of the World, set in a dystopian twenty-first century, “sees Marxists, humanists and Freemasons taking over a society where euthanasia is obligatory for the ill and Esperanto is the common language. The antichrist returns, becoming the president of the world before going to war with the Catholic Church, precipitating the end of the world.” Tom Kington, “Etonian novelist shaped Pope’s world view,” The Times, 30 January 2015, 40.

Lord of the World Image

The report in the Times had in mind the papal press conference that occurred during a recent flight (on 19 January 2015) from the Philippines to Rome. According to News.Va, the pope stated: “Think of the Balilla [an Italian Fascist youth organization during the 1920s and 1930s], think of the Hitler Youth…. They colonized the people, they wanted to do it. So much suffering … Each people has its own culture, its own history. … But when conditions are imposed by colonizing empires, they seek to make these peoples lose their own identity and create uniformity. This is spherical globalization — all points are equidistant from the centre. And true globalization — I like to say this — is not a sphere. It is important to globalize, but not like the sphere but rather, like the polyhedron. Namely that each people, every part, preserves its identity without being ideologically colonized. This is ‘ideological colonization’. There is a book — excuse me I’m advertising — there is a book, perhaps the style is a bit heavy at the beginning, because it was written in 1907 in London…. At that time, the writer had seen this drama of ideological colonization and described it in that book. It is called Lord of the World. The author is Benson, written in 1907. I suggest you read it. Reading it, you’ll understand well what I mean by ideological colonization” (link to report in News.Va).

Pope Francis made another remark endorsing Benson’s book a year earlier in his homily at Mass on 18 November 2013, suggesting that the novel demonstrates how the “spirit of the world” can lead to “progressivism”, “uniformity of thought” and “apostasy” (link). It seems that Benson’s dystopian drama, Lord of the World, is important for Pope Francis, providing (as far as the pope is concerned) a partly metaphoric, partly prophetic narration of past, present and future history, “ideological colonization,” and the “spirit of the world” (the latter phrase used by Pope Francis and Monsignor Benson on a number of occasions). Others have expressed similar admiration for the novel’s so-called prophetic nature. For example, Joseph Pearce, an English Catholic author, has described Benson’s “novel-nightmare” as a work of prophecy which is “coming true before our very eyes.” Joseph Pearce, Catholic Literary Giants (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2014), 141. Dale Ahlquist, a fervent supporter of the movement to have G. K. Chesterton declared a saint, despite the anti-Jewish stereotypes and caricatures in Chesterton’s novels and journalistic essays (Chesterton’s stereotypes are discussed in my book, Chesterton’s Jews), has also expressed admiration for Benson’s Lord of the World. According to Ahlquist, “whether or not Monsignor Benson’s picture of our future is accurate, the fact is his picture of our present is chillingly accurate.” Dale Ahlquist, “A surprising book about the end of the world, but we know that the world ends,” The Catholic Servant 17, no. 4 (May 2011), 12 (link).

Benson’s novel combines elements of then – and now – pervasive anti-Masonic conspiracy theories, theological myths about the arrival of the Anti-Christ, and millenarian narratives about the end of the world. Benson was by no means entirely original in combining these themes, or in suggesting that the Anti-Christ would be either Masonic or Jewish. English Catholics had already been exposed to such ideas prior to Lord of the World. For example, Henry Manning, the second Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, had argued that the Anti-Christ would be of the “Jewish race”, and he suggested that the erosion of the Church’s temporal power in the 1860s by the Risorgimento (Italian unification), demonstrated that this Antichrist may already be in the world (link). During the Diana Vaughan hoax in the mid-1890s, letters and articles in various Catholic newspapers (such as the Tablet) supported the idea that a Masonic conspiracy was attempting to destroy the Church, and that an inner-circle of Freemasons called the “Palladians” were worshipping Lucifer (link). Colonel James Ratton, an English Catholic author, argued in 1904 that Jews and Freemasons were conspiring to control the world, and that the so-called “Sovereign Pontiff of Freemasonry” and the Jewish “Anti-Christ” were working together to rebuild Solomon’s Temple (link).

In the alternative history constructed in Benson’s anti-Masonic apocalyptic novel, the twenty-first century world has been divided into three great powers: the “Eastern Empire” (consisting of Russia east of the Ural Mountains, Asia, Australia and New Zealand), “Europe” (consisting of Russia west of the Ural Mountains, Europe and Africa), and the “American Republic” (consisting of the North and South American continents). At the beginning of the novel, these three competing “forces” hold sway across the globe. In the huge Eastern Empire, “a federalism of States,” there are the “Eastern religions,” a volatile melting-pot of Sufism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, Islam, and Pantheism. Elsewhere in the world there are only two surviving religions, Catholicism (concentrated primarily in Rome and Ireland) and a religious Masonic “Humanitarianism.” It is explained that “Protestantism is dead”, as “supernatural religion” could not thrive without an “absolute authority”. “Private judgement in matters of faith,” it transpires, led to the “disintegration” of Protestantism. Interestingly, Judaism is not mentioned in the novel, and Jews are only mentioned in passing. However, at one point, Father Percy Franklin (the hero of the novel) does observe that: “A great access of Jews to Freemasonry is to be expected; hitherto they have held aloof to some extent, but the ‘abolition of the Idea of God’ is tending to draw in those Jews, now greatly on the increase once more, who repudiate all notion of a personal Messiah.” Robert Hugh Benson, Lord of the World (1907).

Though described as “anti-supernatural” – i.e. without a belief in God – “Humanitarianism” is portrayed as a new pantheistic religion, providing a succour to satisfy Man’s craving for the supernatural, through the rituals of Freemasonry, and the creed that “God is Man”. Echoing Nietzsche’s famous declaration that “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. … Must we not ourselves become gods simply to seem worthy of it?” [Die fröhliche Wissenschaft 125], this new religion declares that Man, having learned his own divinity, is now God. In Benson’s alternative history, Freemasonry has spread throughout Europe, and has seized control of most of the churches and cathedrals. It has replaced Anglicanism as the official religion of England, and unlike Catholicism, it is permitted to display its symbols. As the novel develops, attendance at Masonic “Humanitarianism” services becomes mandatory (with increasing periods of incarceration mandated for those who refuse to attend). Robert Hugh Benson, Lord of the World (1907).

Mirroring anti-Masonic conspiracy theories, such as the Diana Vaughan narratives – that had the Tablet persuaded at the end of the nineteenth century that “there is an inner Masonry whose workings are unknown to the general run of Masons,” and that “Satanism is practised under circumstances at least pointing to Masonic association” (“Devil Worship in France,” The Tablet, 3 October 1896, 529-530) – the narrator in Benson’s novel explains that an inner circle or higher grade of Freemasonry is responsible for the anti-religious movement. According to the narrator of the novel, “what Catholics had always suspected then became a certainty in the revelations of 1918, when P. Gerome, the Dominican and ex-Mason, had made his disclosures … It had become evident then that Catholics had been right, and that Masonry, in its higher grades at least, had been responsible throughout the world for the strange movement against religion.” Robert Hugh Benson, Lord of the World (1907).

The principal antagonist in the novel is Senator Julian Felsenburgh, a Masonic “Grand Master,” who champions the cause of “Universal Brotherhood,” as the successful “consummation of history” and the manifestation of the “Spirit of the World” (an allusion, it would seem, to Hegel’s teleological philosophy of history and the Weltgeist). In the novel, it becomes increasingly apparent that Felsenburgh is the Anti-Christ, whose arrival will usher in the destruction of the world (which occurs at the end of the novel). He has the power to convince those he meets that he is the true Saviour of the world (for example, at one point Father Percy Franklin recalls people kneeling before a picture of Felsenburgh, or calling out his name on their deathbeds, and in a meeting with the pope, he explains that Felsenburgh was called by some newspapers “the Son of Man” and “the Saviour of the World”). Felsenburgh has a number of special abilities, such as an amazing facility with words and facts, the ability to converse in at least fifteen languages, an astonishing memory, and an intuitive grasp of the histories, expectations, hopes and fears of all sects and castes. This allowed him to negotiate a peace between the various factions in the Eastern Empire, and then between the three empires, resulting in world peace and the end of war. He is later appointed as President of Europe, and ultimately as President of the World. In his capacity as President of Europe, he arranges the bombardment and utter destruction of Rome, which in this alternative history (written of course long before the Lateran Treaty of 1929), had been fully restored to the Church as the sovereign capital of Catholicism – in return for all the other churches in Italy being relinquished to the Humanitarianists. The destruction of Rome occurs when the pope and all but three cardinals (one of whom is Cardinal Percy Franklin) are present. A new pope is elected by the remaining cardinals: Cardinal Franklin, who takes the names Silvester. Pope Silvester III forms a secret Church network. Later, as President of the World, Felsenburgh introduces a new law legalizing the “euthanasia” (i.e. systematic extermination) of all surviving Catholics. At the end of the novel, the Antichrist has discovered the location of the pope and his new College of Cardinals (at Tel Megiddo – Armageddon), and a large force of military Zeppelins (called Volors) is dispatched to wipe out this last vestige of Catholicism. Robert Hugh Benson, Lord of the World (1907).

Pope Francis made no reference to the Anti-Christ and anti-Masonic narratives within Lord of the World. It is thus likely that on the occasions he referred to the novel, he was more concerned with it as a metaphor for globalisation, secularisation, contraception, same-sex marriages, and other so-called evil aspects of the “Spirit of the World” which he has lamented on various occasions, rather than with (a mythicized construction of) Freemasonry. In the novel, Freemasonry & Humanitarianism were linked to the so-called “Spirit of the world”, a concept that Pope Francis has referred to on a number of occasions. At Assisi, the pope stated that a Christian cannot co-exist with the “Spirit of the World,” which, he suggested, leads only to vanity, arrogance and pride. According to Pope Francis, “the Spirit of the World” is the” leprosy” and the “cancer” of society. He explained that the Spirit of the World “is an idol, it is not of God” (report in the Catholic Herald) (report by Zenit). However, whilst Freemasonry and the Anti-Christ were not explicitly evident in his references to Lord of the World, it is unlikely that their presence in the novel would have deterred him. Pope Francis has made many references to Satan, on occasion linking the evil “prince of this world” with the “spirit of the world” (report by Zenit). And with regard to Freemasonry, there are reasons to think that he may consider it an anti-Christian agency. In 2013, returning from Brazil, he made some conciliatory remarks about gay men who seek God, though he went on to criticise gay-rights lobbying. He suggested that such lobbying was orchestrated by Freemasons. “The problem,” he explained, is “lobbying by this orientation, or lobbies of greedy people, political lobbies, Masonic lobbies, so many lobbies. This is the worse problem” (report by the BBC).

It is noteworthy that whatever the pope’s concerns with Freemasonry, his remarks about it have been interpreted as a coded warning about a secret Masonic group in the Vatican by at least one regular correspondent at the Catholic Herald. According to Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith, “it is to be noted that the Pope has constantly warned of the desacralisation of the Church, and its turning into an NGO. Is he warning us against the agenda of the masonic lobby?” Lucie-Smith suggests that such an entity, if embedded within the Vatican, would be a “real enemy within.” He concludes: “Let us hope and pray that there is no masonic lobby in the Vatican. But the very fact the Holy Father has mentioned it, makes one wonder.” Alexander Lucie-Smith, “Should we be worried that Pope Francis mentioned a masonic lobby in his famous press conference?”, Catholic Herald, 30 July 2013.

It would seem that there is still a long way to go before the anti-Masonic conspiracy narrative loses its allure.