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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’

Beginning with John Wesley (1703 – 1791) and Charles Wesley (1707 – 1788), the original founders and leaders of the Methodist movement and enthusiastic millenarians, it was often the Catholic popes – sometimes individually; sometimes collectively – who were mythicised as ‘the Antichrist’ in English-Methodist discourses during the eighteenth century. 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 them, and to add a few notes where [Bengel] is not full’. 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 periods of his duration, and ‘an individual’ at others, i.e., ‘the papacy of many ages’. In particular, he seems to have had in mind all popes since 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 would 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 beginning of the Antichrist, suggesting that it arose some 600 to 700 years previously (from the perspective of his writing in the 1750s), at some point between the papacies of Gregory VII and Alexander III (i.e., between 1073 and 1181), though he seemed to fixate on Gregory VII, and 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’, 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 by 1777, John Wesley was already confident that the power of ‘the beast’ was in decline. According to Butler, Wesley wrote a letter to Joseph Benson 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 the 1000-year reign on earth, but the millennium ‘not wholly free from wickedness’, and with it followed by one final cataclysmic battle with Satan at its conclusion). In Sutcliffe’s narrative, the Roman ‘Antichrist’ (‘the pagan and papal beast’) is defeated, the Jews embrace Christianity and play a special eschatological role in helping to convert ‘the heathen’, and then 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 paradise on earth, a kingdom ruled from heaven, rather than located in heaven), Satan will return yet again for one final cosmic struggle before the final judgement, the destruction of the wicked, and the resurrection of the righteous in the everlasting 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 a 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, who 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, 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, he 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, ‘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 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’), but 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 lack of speculation 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). These hostile myths and stereotypes about Jews and Catholics in Adam Clarke’s discourse 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; 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.

[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.

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

The Myth of the Child-Kidnapping “Gypsy”, Anti-Roma prejudice, and the Baro Porrajmos

This time last year (on 22/10/2013), it was reported that Irish police had seized a blonde-haired girl from a Roma family in Dublin. According to the report in the Times newspaper, “the blonde girl with blue eyes, believed to be aged seven, was taken from her Dublin home after a tip-off to police that she did not look like her parents or siblings, who have dark hair and complexions.” The report in the Times noted similarities with other recent cases. For example, it noted that police arrested a Roma woman in Greece in 2008 and accused her of kidnapping a blonde girl. DNA tests later proved that the Roma woman in Greece was the parent. According to Siobhan Curran, the co-ordinator of a Roma support project, “old stereotypes” are being resurrected that could lead to a “witch-hunt” [1]. According to a BBC news report on the following day (23/10/2013), DNA tests proved that the blond girl was the daughter of the Roma parents. A statement by An Garda Síochána (the Irish Police service) observed that “protecting vulnerable children is of paramount importance”. [2] On the surface the statement seems reasonable enough. However, if tip-offs based on little more than children being blonde-haired are sufficient to lead to them being removed from their Roma parents by police, then Siobhan Curran’s concerns about old stereotypes and a witch-hunt are not without foundation.

As Peter McGuire (lecturer in Irish Folklore at University College Dublin) has observed, the child-kidnapping “Gypsy”, like the ritual murdering Jew, is a character from myth and folktale. For centuries, Jews and Roma have been branded as thieves, parasites, sorcerers, plague-bearers, child-kidnappers and child-murderers. Whilst traditionally Jews have also had the singular dishonour of being branded the murderers of Christ (“the deicides”), the “Gypsies” have been the subject of a similar legend. According to some Christian legends and folktales, a “Gypsy blacksmith” was the only person willing to forge the nails used to crucify Christ. As a parallel to the Wandering Jew myth, there is a legend that whenever the descendants of the “Gypsy blacksmith” find comfort in one place, one of the nails reappears in their tents, causing them to flee in terror [3]. In some cases, deprecating narratives about “the Jews” have been explicitly linked to narratives about “the Gypsies” [4]. McGuire concludes, quite rightly, that it is sad but true that “societies are notoriously resistant to accept or even consider evidence which challenges the ancient prejudices expressed in folklore” [5]. The fact that Roma and Sinti continue to be vilified, and child-kidnapping folktales continue to circulate today in Western Europe, testifies to the resilience and durability of such cultural myths and stereotypes.

The child-kidnapping folktale, a persistent cultural myth, is not the only reason for the persecution of Roma and Sinti. Again like the Jews, the Roma and Sinti have been portrayed as racially inferior, and on this basis persecuted and murdered. During the Second World War, like the Jews, they were subject to a program of extermination. However, according to Simon Wiesenthal, despite the tragedy experienced by Roma and Sinti during the Holocaust, “the tragedy of the gypsies has never really sunk into public awareness” [6]. He was right (as the continued presence of the myth of the child-kidnapping “Gypsy” would seem to demonstrate). Whilst the actual number of Roma and Sinti murdered during the Holocaust (the Shoah – i.e. “the Catastrophe” – for the Jews; the Baro Porrajmos – i.e. “the Great Devouring” – for the Roma) was smaller than that of Jews, a huge proportion of the Roma and Sinti in territories controlled by the Nazis was annihilated. According to Ian Hancock, director of the Program of Romani Studies and the Romani Archives and Documentation Center at the University of Texas at Austin, “of the estimated ca. 20,000 Romanies in Germany in 1939, fully three quarters had been murdered by 1945. Of the 11,200 in Austria, a half were murdered. Of the 50,000 in Poland, 35,000; In Croatia, Estonia, the Netherlands, Lithuania and Luxembourg, almost the entire Romani populations were eradicated.” [7]

Significantly, like the Jews, Roma and Sinti were regarded as biologically tainted according to Nazi racial laws, and sexual intercourse and mixed marriages with “Gypsies” were forbidden on the grounds that they led to racial defilement. According to Holocaust historian Robert Wistrich, “two thirds of the Polish gypsies died under Nazi occupation” and “between 250,000 and half a million gypsies were sent to their deaths between 1939 and 1945.” Wistrich explains that “the Nazis were particularly hostile to the gypsies as an ‘anti-social’ element and as ‘people of different blood’ who fell under the Nuremberg race laws of 1935.” Whilst some scholars have tried to mitigate the genocide of “Gypsies” on the grounds that they were targeted only as a supposedly anti-social element (a stereotype that has been applied to Jews and Roma), as Wistrich observes, “the Nazis regarded ‘the fight against the Gypsy menace’ after 1939 as ‘a matter of race’ and insisted on the need to ‘separate once and for all the gypsy race (Zigeunertum) from the German nation (Volkstum)’, to prevent the danger of miscegenation.” Wistrich goes on to note that for the Nazis, there was a link between the so-called “Jewish Question” and the so-called “Gypsy Question”: “there was an ideological link between the murder of Jews and gypsies, both of them forming part of a composite Nazi vision of radical ethnic cleansing or ‘purification’ of the Volksgemeinschaft.” [8] Ian Hancock has examined the attempts (often successful) to mitigate and dismiss the genocide of the Roma in some detail, observing that “earlier writings on the Holocaust, … failed to [recognize and] understand that the ‘criminality’ associated with our people was attributed by the Nazis to a genetically transmitted and incurable disease, and was therefore ideologically racial; instead, writers focused only on the ‘antisocial’ label resulting from it and failed to acknowledge the genetic connection made by the Nazi race scientists themselves.” Like “the handicapped [and] Jews,” the “Gypsies” could not “escape their fate by changing their behaviour or belief. They were selected because they existed.” [9]

Notes

1. “Police seize blonde girl from Roma in Dublin,” The Times, 23 October 2013, p.5. This article was originally posted online late in the evening on 22/10/2013 (link here). Many similar reports were published in the other daily newspapers.

2. “DNA tests prove Dublin Roma girl is part of family,” BBC News Europe, 23 October 2013 (link here).

3. Bernard Glassman, Protean Prejudice: Anti-Semitism in England’s Age of Reason (Atlanta, Georgia: Scholars Press, 1998), 112-113 (see also pp. 111-119).

4. For example, G. K. Chesterton linked the antisemitic stereotype of the greedy Jewish usurer with the myth of the child-kidnapping “Gypsy” (link here).

5. Peter McGuire, “Do Roma ‘Gypsies’ Really Abduct Children?”, The Huffington Post, 24 October 2013 (link here).

6. Simon Wiesenthal, “Jews and Gypsies,” in Justice not Vengeance (London: Mandarin Paperbacks, 1990), 256-261. Simon Wiesenthal rightly concluded that “Auschwitz is branded into their history as it is into ours.”

7. Ian Hancock, “Downplaying the Porrajmos: The Trend to Minimize the Romani Holocaust,” review of The Nazi Persecution of the Gypsies, by Guenther Lewy (link here). Professor Tony Kushner and professor Donald Bloxham referred to the Porajmos in their examination of scholarship on the Holocaust. They note that the persecution and murder of the Roma during the Holocaust has received minimal attention and recognition. Referring to the uncertain figures for how many Roma were murdered, somewhere between 200,000 and 500,000, they justifiably reason that “the uncertainty about the numbers casts light on how easily Europe gave up these people” and “how little the loss has been addressed.” This is not the only such lacuna in the historiographical scholarship, as other non-Jewish victims of the Holocaust, such as the physically and mentally handicapped, homosexuals, Freemasons, and Jehovah’s Witnesseshave also received comparatively minimal attention. See Donald Bloxham and Tony Kushner, The Holocaust: Critical Historical Approaches (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005), 30-31, 84-85, 143.

8. Robert S. Wisrtich, Hitler and the Holocaust: How and Why the Holocaust Happened (London: Phoenix Press, 2002), 10-12.

9. Ian Hancock, “Romanies and the Holocaust: A Re-evaluation and Overview,” in Dan Stone, ed., The Historiography of the Holocaust (New York: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2004), 383, 394 (see also pp. 384-396). An online version of this chapter is available (link here).

G. K. Chesterton and the Myth of the Child-Kidnapping “Gypsy”

It was reported in various newspapers yesterday (23/10/2013) that Irish police had seized a blonde-haired girl from a Roma family in Dublin. According to the report in the Times, “the blonde girl with blue eyes, believed to be aged seven, was taken from her Dublin home after a tip-off to police that she did not look like her parents or siblings, who have dark hair and complexions.” The report in the Times noted similarities with other recent cases. For example, it noted that police arrested a Roma woman in Greece in 2008 and accused her of kidnapping a blonde girl. DNA tests later proved that the Roma woman in Greece was the parent. According to Siobhan Curran, the co-ordinator of a Roma support project, “old stereotypes” are being resurrected that could lead to a “witch-hunt” [1].

According to a BBC news report today (24/10/2013), DNA tests have now proven that the blond girl in Dublin is the daughter of the Roma parents. A statement by An Garda Síochána (the Irish Police service) observed that “protecting vulnerable children is of paramount importance”. On the surface the statement seems reasonable enough. However, if tip-offs based on little more than  children being blonde-haired are sufficient to lead to them being removed from their Roma parents by police, then Siobhan Curran’s concerns about old stereotypes and a witch-hunt are not without foundation [2].

Significantly, G. K. Chesterton, currently being investigated as a possible candidate for sainthood, also repeated this myth of the child-kidnapping “gypsy” (or “gipsey” in Chesterton’s parlance). He combined this anti-Roma myth with that of the anti-Jewish stereotype of the “Hebrew usurer”. According to Chesterton in The New Jerusalem: “It is absurd to say that people are only prejudiced against the money methods of the Jews because the medieval church has left behind a hatred of their religion. We might as well say that people only protect the chickens from the Gipseys because the medieval church undoubtedly condemned fortune-telling. It is unreasonable for a Jew to complain that Shakespeare makes Shylock and not Antonio the ruthless money-lender; or that Dickens makes Fagin and not Sikes the receiver of stolen goods. It is as if a Gipsey were to complain when a novelist describes a child as stolen by the Gipseys, and not by the curate or the mothers’ meeting. It is to complain of facts and probabilities. There may be good Gipseys; there may be good qualities which specially belong to them as Gipseys; many students of the strange race have, for instance, praised a certain dignity and self-respect among the women of the Romany. But no student ever praised them for an exaggerated respect for private property, and the whole argument about Gipsey theft can be roughly repeated about Hebrew usury.” [3]

The myth of the child-kidnapping “gypsy” who steals chickens and children (linked to a caricature of “the Jews”) can also be found in Chesterton’s newspaper. According to G.K.’s Weekly:The idea of Zionism may be impossible, but it was certainly ideal. It consisted of the perfectly true conception that in the quarrel of Jews and Gentiles there had been faults on both sides. It is rather as if the authorities had gone to the race that we call Gypsies and said something like this, without the least malice or prejudice and with a desire for a settlement: ‘We think it is absurd of you to say that none of you ever steal chickens; and we suspect that there is some truth in the story that some of you stole children. On the other hand, we think it abominable that you should be knocked about from pillar to post, and hunted by landlords and magistrates, and we make a proposal. We will give you a great piece of common land where you often camp and build you houses there and hope we shall all be friends.’ That was the implication of Zionism; the world as a whole had some persecution to apologize for; the Jews as a whole had some usury and similar things to apologise for.” [4]

As Peter McGuire (lecturer in Irish Folklore at University College Dublin) reports, the child-kidnapping “gypsy”, like the ritual murdering Jew (another antisemitic myth that Chesterton seemed to embrace [5]), is a character from folktale. For centuries, Jews and Roma have both been branded as thieves, parasites, sorcerers, child-kidnapers and murderers. McGuire concludes, quite rightly, that it is sad but true that “societies are notoriously resistant to accept or even consider evidence which challenges the ancient prejudices expressed in folklore” [6]. The fact that Roma and Sinti continue to be vilified, and child-kidnapping folktales continue to circulate, testifies to the resilience and durability of such cultural myths and stereotypes.

.

Notes for G. K. Chesterton and the Myth of the Child-Kidnapping “Gypsy”

1. “Police seize blonde girl from Roma in Dublin,” The Times, 23 October 2013, p.5. Similar reports can be found in other English daily newspapers for 23 October 2013.

2. “DNA tests prove Dublin Roma girl is part of family,” BBC News Europe (link here).

3. G. K. Chesterton, The New Jerusalem (London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1920), p.232. Page numbers in other editions may vary but the page can be found in chapter XIII.  The strange spelling of “gipsey” is found in the Thomas Nelson and Sons 1920 edition of The New JerusalemSome later editions of The New Jerusalem have changed “gipseys” to “gipsies.”

4. [G. K. Chesterton], G.K.’s Weekly, 2 May 1925, p.126.

5. G. K. Chesterton and his brother Cecil Chesterton both believed that whilst the accusation could not be levelled at all Jews, some diabolic secret societies of Jews engaged in ritual murder. In 1914, in the New Witness, in response to the Beilis blood libel, Cecil Chesterton characterised Russian pogroms as something horrible, but also something to be understood as part of an ongoing “bitter historic quarrel” between the Jews and the Russians. The evidence, Cecil Chesterton argued, points to a “savage religious and racial quarrel.” He suggested that it was sometimes the “naturally kindly” Russians who were “led to perpetrate the atrocities,” and sometimes it was the “equally embittered” Jews, who, “when they got a chance of retaliating, would be equally savage.” Referring to the Beilis affair, he stated that: “An impartial observer, unconnected with either nation, may reasonably inquire why, if we are asked to believe Russians do abominable things to Jewish children, we should at the same time be asked to regard it as incredible … that Jews do abominable things to Russian children – at Kieff, for instance”. In response, Israel Zangwill, a prominent Anglo-Jewish author and playwright, wrote a letter to Cecil, rightly arguing that following Cecil’s flawed logic we should have to accept that if hooligans throttle Quakers then Quakers must also be throttling hooligans. In reply, Cecil Chesterton stated that no sane man would suggest that ritual murder was a religious rite of Judaism, but “there may be ferocious secret societies among the Russian Jews,” and “such societies may sanctify very horrible revenges with a religious ritual.” Cecil Chesterton also revived the anti-Jewish host desecration myth. He argued that in the case of Kieff, “the Jews may or may not have insulted the Host, as was alleged. I do not know. But I do know that they wanted to; because I know what a religion means, and therefore what a religious quarrel means” (Cecil Chesterton, “Israel and ‘The Melting Pot,’” New Witness, 5 March 1914, 566-567; Cecil Chesterton, “A Letter from Mr. Zangwill,” New Witness, 12 March 1914, 593-594). In 1925, G. K. Chesterton stated that “the Hebrew prophets were perpetually protesting against the Hebrew race relapsing into idolatry that involved such a war upon children; and it is probable enough that this abominable apostasy from the God of Israel has occasionally appeared in Israel since, in the form of what is called ritual murder; not of course of any representative of the religion of Judaism, but by individual and irresponsible diabolists who did happen to be Jews” (G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, London: Hodder and Stoughton, [1925], 136). For more on this, see Simon Mayers, “From the Christ-Killer to the Luciferian: The Mythologized Jew and Freemason in Late Nineteenth- and Early Twentieth-Century English Catholic Discourse,” Melilah 8 (2011), pp.48-49. Melilah is the open access peer-reviewed journal of the Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Manchester (link here).

6. Peter McGuire, “Do Roma ‘Gypsies’ Really Abduct Children?”, The Huffington Post, 24 October 2013 (link here).