Hanserd Knollys and Mystical Babylon Unveiled: Contemporary Perspectives and New Observations on Early English Baptist Apocalypticism: Seventeenth-Century Particular Baptist Pastor, Hanserd Knollys, Was Born around 1599 in Lincolnshire, England

By McGowin, Emily Hunter | Baptist History and Heritage, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

Hanserd Knollys and Mystical Babylon Unveiled: Contemporary Perspectives and New Observations on Early English Baptist Apocalypticism: Seventeenth-Century Particular Baptist Pastor, Hanserd Knollys, Was Born around 1599 in Lincolnshire, England


McGowin, Emily Hunter, Baptist History and Heritage


The son of an Anglican rector, (1) Knollys pursued a career in the Church of England until his Puritan-influenced disagreements with Anglicanism led him to abandon the Church entirely. (2) Following a short and harrowing stay in Puritan New England, he adopted Baptist views; a perspective that, along with other dissenters in seventeenth-century England, relegated him to a life of relative marginalization and periodic persecution. (3)

Knollys became a leader among the Particular Baptists in London during an interval of rapid growth between 1645 and 1689. (4) His signature was on the London Confession of Faith of 1646 and the Second London Confession of Faith of 1677. (5) He also attended the general assembly of English Particular Baptist churches in September 1689, at which more than one hundred churches were represented and over one hundred and fifty messengers were in attendance. (6)

For historians, Knollys is particularly intriguing because he was a prolific writer whose publications span almost a fifty-year period, which was one of the most tumultuous periods in English history. His corpus contains a total of thirty-eight works, including numerous sermons; several guides to the study of Greek, Hebrew, and Latin; written contributions to various debates among Baptists; confessions and declarations of the Particular Baptists; and five eschatological expositions. (7) Study of his writings reveals a pastor of great intelligence, theological sophistication, and wide-ranging knowledge of history and Christian tradition. (8) Undoubtedly, his magnum opus was his only book-length work, An Exposition of the Whole Book of Revelation, published in 1688. (9)

A welcomed increase in research and publication on Hanserd Knollys has occurred in the past few decades, (10) but little attention has been paid to his extant eschatological writings. Prior to his 1688 commentary on the Apocalypse, Knollys published five independent treatises on the subject in a twenty-year period between 1667 and 1681. (11) These works were occasional writings, brought on by an event or crisis in his personal life or the political and religious landscape of England (or both). As such, the language and argumentation of these writings possessed a spontaneity and intensity that was arguably more indicative of the mood of London Particular Baptists than the more measured, scholarly works of the same period.

By far the most provocative of these treatises was Mystical Babylon Unveiled, (12) published by Knollys in 1679, following the infamous "Popish Plot" of 1678. In this plot, Titus Oates alleged a conspiracy that falsely implicated Catholic priests in a plan to murder the king, subvert Parliament, and reestablish Roman Catholicism and papal power in England. (13) A general fear of Roman Catholicism was pervasive among Protestants of all kinds in seventeenth-century England. Thus, by the time the plot was proven fallacious and Oates was unmasked as a seditious charlatan, the general populace had become deeply engrossed in anti-Catholic fervor.

Knollys was no exception. In the introductory "Epistle to the Reader," Knollys implicated the plot as the chief impetus for his writing; and in the concluding "Call to the Kings of the Earth," Knollys called on the King of England to act decisively against Rome in response to the plot. Although the ideas contained within the treatise are not altogether unique for Knollys's context, they do show a revived form of anti-Catholic biblical interpretation that had been dormant in England for some time. (14)

To this point, only two scholars have offered examination and evaluation of Mystical Babylon Unveiled. Because of its religious and historical import, however, particularly in the study of early English Baptists, the treatise deserves a more thorough consideration. This article first provides an overview of Mystical Babylon Unveiled, with special attention given to Knollys's interpretive peculiarities. …

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