Disorganised Religion – The story of the Muggletonians
Have you ever heard of a group called the Muggletonians? It’s not surprising if you haven’t, because they’re believed to be extinct, but they’re an intriguing (and frankly baffling) sect that lasted barely 300 years before their final trustee (and last known adherent) died, leaving the group’s entire archive of papers and correspondence to the British Library.
The eponym, Lodowick Muggleton, was a London tailor who flirted with the Ranters (another peculiar sect) before concluding that the power of reason was woefully inadequate, and apparently receiving revelations about scripture, along with his cousin, John Reeve. Interestingly, Reeve was initially seen as the leader of the movement from these revelations in 1651 until his death in 1658, at which point Muggleton took control and the movement began to be identified with him. Maybe that’s a good thing – Reeveonians sound so much less exotic.
Muggletonian doctrine was an unorthodox and counter-intuitive mixture of different ideas, ranging from high-level statements about the fundamental nature of God, His creation and our existence, all the way down to some highly specific trivia. These esoteric details, such as specifying God’s height to be between five and six feet, were most likely formed as positive practical ways of opposing beliefs they rejected, but it doesn’t make them look any less bizarre when taken in isolation.
At its heart, Muggletonianism was intriguingly materialist. They believed that God must have a physical body, as without it He would have no existence – hence the obsession with His height. They identified Jesus as God, but rejected the Trinity, leading them to the conclusion that Heaven (six miles above Earth, since you ask) was empty between Jesus’ birth and resurrection/ascension (apart from Moses and Elijah, who were apparently doing a spot of house-sitting). They also believed that God has little interest in our affairs and lets us get on with it without interference until the end of the world is due, hence a rejection of prayer and worship.
The Muggletonians were surely the antithesis of organised religion, holding no formal meetings, appointing no spokesmen or representatives, and – most remarkably – avoiding evangelism entirely, which accounts for their presumed extinction, as well as the fact that no one can be certain. When they met, it appears to have been nothing more than a mutual desire to meet and discuss with people of a similar mind.
With this unstructured, free-flowing approach and willingness to challenge mainstream doctrine, you might think that Muggletonians had a lot in common with Quakers, but ironically, the opposite was true. The two groups were bitterly opposed, with Muggleton himself particularly antagonistic towards George Fox and his followers. The peculiarity of their mutual dislike is highlighted by the almost identical arguments used by both sides against the other, but Muggleton’s habit of addressing Quakers as “O puddle of evil” surely gives him the edge in the subjective matter of style.
For all the eccentricity of their beliefs, I must confess that I have a soft spot for the Muggletonians. Their beliefs stripped away a huge amount of unevidenced nonsense from the orthodoxy of the time, and their “two seed” doctrine, arguing that everyone inherits both goodness and evil as part of our fundamental nature, is as good as any mythical description of our fallibility that I’ve heard. Even their suicidal rejection of any form of evangelism is endearing, all the more so to anyone who’s been disturbed in the middle of a meal by a couple of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Where they went wrong, I think, is in their loyalty to the broader worldview. Having rejected this or that belief – at that time, non-Trinitarian Deism was not only radical but personally dangerous – they still attempted to fit their alternatives around a Biblical idea of God, Jesus, Heaven, Angels and so on.
To me, it seems a massive oversight to have rejected so much dogma yet still hang onto the same basic Christian framework, but that’s a rather harsh quibble, when their beliefs were already far enough from the norm of the day to attract a lot of trouble. They deserve respect just for that.