Religious Imposters and Charlatans

  • Jerome Friedman


If Englishmen were shocked by the proliferation of religious sects and self-ordained mechanic preachers, they were outraged by the appearance of religious charlatans.1 The charlatan had no calling other than his own needs, no method other than the exploitation of human ignorance and gullibility, and no defenders. Even sectarian leaders hoping for greater religious freedom of conscience understood that the charlatan was no less a thief of spirit than a pickpocket was a thief of one’s wallet. Yet despite universal condemnation, charlatans abounded in the religiously permissive atmosphere of the interregnum.


Corporal Punishment Court Record Faith Healing Sectarian Leader Parliamentary Committee 
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  1. 1.
    Historians are often squeamish about discussing religious charlatans for fear that some were indeed sincere or represented some larger political or economic orientation of importance. Also, some phenomena frowned upon today, such as faith healing, were accepted in the seventeenth century. Even George Fox, the famous Quaker leader, claimed to have healed over 150 people of terrible maladies. But it is a mistake to include charlatanism within the parameters of legitimate spiritual religion much as it would be a mistake to include magic within the proper study of physics or to confuse the illusory appearance of anything with its reality. Hence, this chapter will assume that those claiming to be Jesus Christ and possessing the ability to perform miracles but who then make their way into someone’s bed or wallet were less part of a prophetic tradition than participants in a long tradition of confidence operators. Those claiming to be some biblical personality, even if at times they were quite humorous, should be recognized for the frauds they were. Scholars have a responsibility to study the voices of the past but are under no obligation to be fooled or conned by them. Confusing charlatanism with religious enthusiasm is a disservice to both and is probably predicated upon an appreciation or an understanding of neither. Some of the material presented here is available in earlier form in Jerome Friedman, “Their Name was God: Religious Charlatans in the Seventeenth-Century Popular Press,” Journal of Popular Culture 25 (Summer, 1991): 55–66, and Friedman, Blasphemy, Immorality and Anarchy: The Ranters and the English Revolution (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1988).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. 2.
    The literature on these individuals is terribly sparse. For additional information about Elizabethan messianic pretenders, see Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1971), pp. 133–6ff; and R. Matthews, English Messiahs (London: Methuen, 1936). The Dictionary of National Biography writes of Wightman (21:195–6), and another source of information is Richard L. Greaves and R. L, Zalern, A Biographical Dictionary of British Radicals in the Seventeenth Century, 3 vols. (Brighton: Harvester Press, 1982–84).Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    See Raymond Klibansky et al., Saturn and Melancholy (London: Nelson, 1964), p. 94. Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution (London: Maurice Smith, 1972) makes the point that insanity was often an assumed cover for the expression of radical ideas. There is considerable merit to this “king’s-fool” view of those who actually proposed radical solutions to social ills but then claimed to be insane to avoid prosecution. On the other hand, most charlatans claiming to be Jesus, Mary or the reincarnation of Aaron the High Priest rarely had anything more radical to propose than their own aggrandizement. It is always unfortunate when scholars can not distinguish between the insane and the radical. See note 1.Google Scholar
  4. 7.
    Concerning Naylor, see the Dictionary of National Biography 14:130–133, and Hill, The World Turned Upside Down, pp. 241–258 et passim. Also, Greaves and Zallern, Dictionary of British Radicals, and Barry Raey, The Quakers and the English Revolution (London: Temple Smith, 1985) and W. C. Braithwaite, The Beginnings of Quakerism, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1955).Google Scholar
  5. 9.
    Robins’s followers held peculiar views. Tydford’s notion that Cain was a member of the trinity is reminiscent of the views of the Bogomils and other earlier dualists who also subscribed to the idea that Jesus and Satan, like Cain and Abel, were dualist representations of worldly powers and were both sons of God within the trinity. Unfortunately, it is impossible to know how they came upon such esoteric opinions. See Steven Runciman, The Medieval Manichee: A Study of the Christian Dualist Heresy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1947); F. C. Burkitt, The Religion of the Manichees (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1925).Google Scholar
  6. 10.
    See Robert M. Grant, Gnosticism and Early Christianity, rev. ed. (New York: Harper & Row, 1966), pp. 70–97, and Hans Jonas, The Gnostic Religion, 2nd ed. (Boston: Beacon, 1963).Google Scholar
  7. 11.
    For more information about Puritan morality laws, see Keith Thomas, “The Puritans and Adultery: The Act of 1650 Reconsidered,” in Donald Pennington and Keith Thomas, eds., Puritans and Revolutionaries (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978), pp. 257–82; Cynthia B. Herrup, “Law and Morality in Seventeenth-Century England,” Past and Present, no. 106, (1985): 102–23.Google Scholar
  8. 13.
    The full development of Clarkson’s ideas on this theme are more complex than the treatment here would suggest. The reader might wish to consult Friedman, Blasphemy, Immorality and Anarchy, pp. 96–120, where this subject is discussed in full from the vantage point of all of Clarkson’s writings. As a concept, redemption through evil is one of the most fascinating notions of salvation because it argues that the very evil deeds constituting sin and perversion also provide holiness, sanctification and salvation. Human degeneracy is both the source of the believer’s fall from grace as well as the pathway back to God. For the broader application of these ideas in Christianity, see Jerome Friedman, “Christ’s Descent Into Hell and Redemption Through Evil: A Radical Reformation Perspective,” Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte 76 (1985): 217–230. For a similar type of argument on this same theme in Judaism, see the chapter “Redemption Through Sin,” in Gershom Scholem, The Messianic Idea in Judaism (New York: Schocken Books, 1971).Google Scholar
  9. 14.
    Concerning Muggleton and the sect named after him, see Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down, and Christopher Hill, Barry Reay, and William Lamont, The World of the Muggletonians (London: Temple Smith, 1983). Since publication, these authors have disagreed concerning the primacy of Reeve and/or Muggleton. See Lamont’s “The Muggletonians, 1652–1979: A Vertical Approach,” Past and Present 99 (May 1983): 22–40. Hill’s rejoinder and Lamont’s subsequent rebuttal are: Hill, “The Muggletonians,” Past and Present 104 (August 1984): 153–58; W. Lamont, “A Rejoinder,” Past and Present 104 (August 1984): 159–163. See note 1.Google Scholar

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© Jerome Friedman 1993

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  • Jerome Friedman

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