Milton's Angels: Though Protestants Sought to Distance Themselves from Roman Catholics on the Subject, Angels Played a Key Role in Protestant Culture as a Means by Which to Understand Humans and Their Place in the Universe

By Raymond, Joad | History Today, December 2010 | Go to article overview

Milton's Angels: Though Protestants Sought to Distance Themselves from Roman Catholics on the Subject, Angels Played a Key Role in Protestant Culture as a Means by Which to Understand Humans and Their Place in the Universe


Raymond, Joad, History Today


How many angels can dance on a pinhead? Even today the question is immediately recognisable--it is emblematic of the unworldliness of medieval discussions of angels and of the foolishness of scholastic theology. It was, however, a Protestant slur on Roman Catholicism coined by 17th-century Englishmen. Its earliest use is by the Protestant clergyman William Chillingworth in 1638. The question then assumed its modern form in 1659 when Henry More mocked those who 'dispute how many of them booted and spur'd may dance on a needle's point at once'.

From the 13th century onwards theologians trying to explain how to understand something beyond man's finite capacities nearly always turned to angels in their interpretations. The pinhead question was absurd to More because medieval philosophers had already decided that spirits were immaterial and therefore had no extension (i.e. physical dimension) in this world. The proposition was therefore a non-question: if angels do not materially exist, then any number could dance on a pinhead without occupying the same space. More thought the problem was a complicated one because he believed that angels were not purely immaterial but had ethereal or fiery bodies. His scepticism was in some ways representative of Protestant theologians and natural philosophers.

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If we look at Britain in the 16th and 17th centuries we can see antipathy towards angels coupled with an imaginative appetite for them. Protestants distanced themselves from Roman Catholics on the subject and even mocked their views but this was not because they didn't believe in or were uninterested in angels.

Destroying angels

Catholics--and many less zealous Protestants--considered that representations of invisible, sacred beings could raise worshippers' minds to higher things and remind them of their duties. Provided they were not used in or for devotional purposes they were thus acceptable in places of worship. To this end as early as 787 the Council of Nicaea distinguished between latria (worship due to God alone) and dulia (reverence paid to lesser creatures). However, for more fiery Protestants the attempt to make the invisible world visible risked impropriety and presumption and they worried that images, even if not used directly in worship, risked distracting the worshipper from God or, worse, suggesting that God could be worshipped indirectly through his representatives. Thus images of the celestial in churches could result in idolatry.

Protestant reasoning came down to interpretation of the Ten Commandments. The first says that: 'I am the Lord thy God, thou shalt have no other Gods before me.' According to most Catholics the following verses which stipulate 'Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image' and caution against the worship of false idols are part of this same commandment. But ancient rabbinic theology and most Protestants interpret the warning against making false images and worshipping false idols as a separate commandment and thus place greater emphasis on it.

Hence, Protestants argued, images are illicit in places of worship. They added that Catholics had effectively abolished the second commandment. (Catholics made the number of commandments up to ten by distinguishing between coveting a neighbour's house and his wife.)

One of the clearest examples of the destructive drive expressed by Protestants towards angels was the handiwork of the Suffolk Puritan William Dowsing (1598-1668). He had started destroying angels in the churches of East Anglia in 1643 before being formally appointed commissioner for removing the monuments of idolatry and superstition from all the churches of the Eastern Association. During the iconoclasm of the 1530s reformers had smashed images of the sacred that were directly used in worship. Dowsing participated in a further purge in which he and others destroyed incidental and merely decorative imagery on tombs, windows and roofs. …

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