Political Prophecy

All prophecy is political

Until the twentieth century, most people in Europe believed God had given certain people the power to reveal the future. Prophecies were usually political — they encouraged people to believe, or in many cases, to do, something, because God had predicted it. All Christians accepted the claims of ancient Israelite prophets held some sort of contemporary relevance, and some accepted the claims of their contemporaries to be modern prophets.

Belief in prophecy is normal

Even today, prophecy belief is not weird, it is normal. Jews, Muslims and Christians still ground their beliefs on the claims of prophets, most obviously the founders of their religions: Moses, Jesus and Mohammed. The interpretation of their prophecies is, of course, highly controversial. Many — perhaps most Jews and Christians in Europe — deny that the Bible can be used to support contemporary causes. But it’s important to remember that Biblical prophecy continues to be used in this way by many in the US, and among the ever-expanding communities of Christians in Asia.

Speaking in tongues (Glossolalia) at Yoido church in Seoul, South Korea

More controversial are some people’s claims that God acts inside them. This view has its origins in Greek religion, and was taken up by both the ancient Israelites and the earliest Christian communities. Their claims to be engodded were revived by seventeenth-century British writers and had a big part to play in the development of Methodism in England and evangelicalism in America. The most cogent defender of this position was the scholar-prophet, John Lacy. Lacy was a member of the group, usually called (I think inaccurately) the French Prophets, who toured early eighteenth-century Europe delivering ‘warnings of the eternal spirit’ to amazed audiences. The prophets claimed that they merely provided the physical vessels that God used to speak his words to humanity.

All this is prophecy, and because it encourages people to act in ways they would not have otherwise acted, all prophecy is political.

But that’s not what we mean by political prophecy

When scholars talk about ‘political prophecy’, they usually mean a third type of prophecy: sayings attributed to figures from European history which are used to make claims about Europe’s future.

George Jamesone's portrait of the Sibyl Cumnea, held at the University of Aberdeen
George Jamesone, Sibyl Cumea, University of Aberdeen

British people have been doing this since at least the twelfth century, when Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote his account of the prophet Merlin in the History of the Kings of Britain (c.1136). Merlin provided the model for later, ‘secular’, prophets, who we call ‘political prophets’ because they made claims about politics, and therefore were popular among Europe’s elites throughout the medieval and early modern periods. Although few historians of political ideas have been brave enough to go near it, political prophecy was the mainstay of early modern political argument.

Prophets included the late thirteenth-century Borders laird, Thomas of Erceldoune, and the sixteenth-century prophetess, Ursula, ‘Mother’, Shipton. Shipton was thought to have predicted the fate of Henry VIII’s disgraced minister, Thomas Wolsey, among many other bad omens, including the Union of the Crowns in 1603 and destruction of London. Thomas prophesied on a much grander scale: the end of Anglo-Scottish warfare and a united Britain that would usher in the union of Christendom and the final defeat of the Muslim Infidel. Until the nineteenth century, Thomas’ prophecies were repeatedly republished to justify all manner of political causes.

Why did it work?

Like the prophets of the Old and New Testament, sent by God, or the enthusiasts who claimed he reside inside of them, secular political prophets claimed to have been granted the power to predict the future by God. Christianity inherited from Rome the veneration of the ancient Sibyls, which were consulted both by the Republican Senate and by Emperors. The so-called Sibylline oracles were preserved by Jewish and Christian scholars, who boasted about their apparent predictions of Christ. Sibylline prophecies were popular among European monarchs, thanks to their prediction of a Last World Emperor, the true successor to Constantine, the first Roman Emperor to convert to Christianity. Various versions of the Last World Emperor prophecy circulated in medieval and early modern Europe, including a version by the Scottish prophet, Thomas of Erceldoune.

prophecies in British Library, Cotton Vespasian E.8

Political prophecy worked by combining prophets’ predictions of past events and their predictions of future events. If it could be shown that Shipton or Thomas had correctly foreseen an event in the past, their predictions of events which had yet to occur might carry credibility. Because Mother Shipton had correctly predicted Wolsey’s death, and the union of the English and Scottish crowns in 1603, her predictions of the destruction of London seemed plausible, especially after 1666, when a great fire swept through the English capital. The most effective prophecies were those which could encourage people to hasten important political moments. Because Thomas of Erceldoune had accurately predicted a period of warfare between England and Scotland, his prediction of the a united Britain under a Scottish monarch proved useful for James VI, the Scottish king who became monarch of England in 1603.

The prophecy to end all prophecy: The Whole Prophesie of Scotland

All prophets claim to be the prophet to end all prophets. But, judged by its circulation, the most successful work of political prophecy in early modern Britain, was connected to James’s attempts to secure greater political alignment of the two kingdoms, Scotland and England, which were united in his person in 1603. The Whole Prophesie of Scotland had circulated in manuscript at the Scottish court , where it was used to convince reluctant courtiers of the benefits of war with England. In 1603 it was printed to drum up support, in both London and Edinburgh, for James VI/I’s proposals to unite the governments of his two realms. The work went through at least 33 editions down to 1833. It proved hugely flexible and was used by supporters and opponents of James’ family, the House of Stewart (known in England as the Stuarts).

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