Academic journal article The Seventeenth Century

John Mason and His Religion: An Enthusiastic Millenarian in Late Seventeenth-Century England

Academic journal article The Seventeenth Century

John Mason and His Religion: An Enthusiastic Millenarian in Late Seventeenth-Century England

Article excerpt

It was one a.m. on 16 April 1694 when John Mason saw Christ.1 He appeared to him in his bedroom in the rectory of St Giles in the village of Water Stratford in Buckinghamshire where Mason had served as parish priest since 28 January 1674. Mason was steeped in the book of Revelation upon which he had written a paraphrase and commentary some years previously.2 Like the rider on the white horse in Revelation 19.13, Christ appeared to him dressed in a robe, variously described as purple, scarlet, or crimson, and dipped in blood. As a Mr Pickfat reported to his brother Thomas, 'on the Monday night before, he [John Mason] being in Bed and awake, lying on his Left-side he turned himself to his Right, he saw Christ sitting in a Chair, and a Candle lighted in a Candlestick standing on a Stool, and that Christ was cloathed in a purple Robe dip'd in the Blood of his Enemies.'3 Elsewhere we read that his face was beautiful, sweet, majestic, and so glorious that the world's glories are but dirt in comparison.4 This was a classic numinous experience of the kind described by Rudolf Otto as that of a mysterium, tremendum et fascinans.5 According to one anonymous 'Reverend Divine', the appearance of Christ was 'most comely and Majestick, Majesty enough to strike Terror into Ten thousand Blasphemers, and yet Pleasant to behold'.6

Christ did not speak to John Mason during this encounter. He had no need to. For Mason knew exactly what this vision of Christ meant. It was an eschatological event; in fact, it was the second coming of Christ, the beginning of the Kingdom of God and the reign of Christ on earth. More crucially, as a result of this vision, Mason was certain that Christ would re-appear within a short time - either at Whitsun or on the Day of Ascension, at which time the Last Judgement would begin.

Apart from Christopher Hill's account of him in Puritanism and Revolution, first published in 1958, little is known of John Mason and his millenarianism. In that account, Hill claimed that the reactions of Mason's contemporaries, and particularly the criticism of his most vehement opponent, fellow University of Cambridge man and erstwhile close friend Henry Maurice, signaled a new attitude to millenarianism. 'The age of reason has arrived . . . Henceforth millenarianism became a harmless hobby for cranky country parsons. The Little Horn, the Scarlet Woman, and the precise significance of "a time, times, and half a time" were relegated to that dim twilight in which the Lost Tribes of Israel wander around the great Pyramid.'7

In this essay I examine the religion of John Mason, late seventeenth-century Anglican minister, millenarian and visionary. I argue that John Mason's millenarian religion demonstrates the mingling of high scholarly traditions of apocalypticism - those of Joseph Mede and Johann Heinrich Alsted especially - with plebeian modes of millenarian enthusiasm. John Mason exemplifies at the end of the seventeenth century what Nicholas McDowell has discerned in its middle years, namely, that religious radicalism may be generated from the 'top down' as well as from below.8

The religion of John Mason also provides further evidence of the ongoing importance of millenarian themes at the dissenting edges of the English church after the Revolution of 1688-1689 to which Warren Johnston has recently drawn our attention. The apocalypticism of John Mason is further evidence that, as Johnston puts it, 'apocalyptic thought had survived the change in radical fortunes after the decades of the mid-century and was readily adapted to explain the Restoration civil and ecclesiastical context'.9

I want to suggest too that Maurice's 'psychological' reading of Mason's millenarianism was not so much evidence of the Age of Reason, as Christopher Hill suggests, but rather bears witness to an eclectic repertoire of arguments which the elite brought to bear on socially disruptive religious 'enthusiasm'. And I want to demonstrate how, in the reactions to the religion of John Mason and his followers, medical, demonological, and theological explanations of their strange behaviours happily co-existed in an on-going battle by the mainstream church against what were perceived as the excesses of enthusiasm. …

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