the political bible in early modern england

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Hanging up Kings: The Political Bible in Early Modern England

Kevin Killeen

The disputatious George Walker, preaching on the aws of rulers and their councillors before the Commons in 1644, noted the occasional necessity of reprisals even against monarchs: Adonibezek felt this, and had full experience of it: for as he had cut off the Thumbs, and great Toes of seventy Kings; so his Thumbs and great Toes were cut off, and then he, though an heathen King, confessed and said, As I have done, so God hath requited me.1 Despite being an heathen king, Adoni-bezek admits the justice of his punishment, when Judah and Simeon cut off in turn, his thumbs and big toes. Charles I, in the opinion of many, had no such sense that the mild chastisements parliament was able to inict, prior to the regicide, had any fairness to them. Closer still to the moment when such biblical exemplarity burst into regicidal life, a 1649 text, Little Benjamin or Truth Discovering Error, relates it still more directly to the English regicide, and the decision to execute justice upon the grand Delinquent: for that the King, their conquered and captivated Prisoner, by the rule, Lex talionis, ought to be done unto as he did unto others;1 George Walker, A Sermon Preached before the Honourable House of Commons at their Late Solemne Monethly Fast Januarie 29th, 1644 (1645) 39, Judges 1.7.


by Journal of the History of Ideas, Volume 72, Number 4 (October 2011)



and this Adoni-bezek, a Heathen King, acknowledged, saying, As I have done, so God hath done unto me; and they brought him to Jerusalem (the place of publike Justice) and there he died.2 There is, it is evident, a heavy political and ideological freight in such exegetical mining of the historical books of the Bible. However Adoni-bezek tends not to gure in our maps of civil war exemplarity and nor, indeed, do the intricacies of the many biblical actorskings, judges, priests, and generalswho featured in the vast biblical discourse that constituted a major, though now largely invisible, language of political thought.3 Though historians have dealt exhaustively with the political and constitutional wrangles of the period, with theories of tyranny and resistance, there is a propensity to see the scriptural in early modern political writing, the resort to an Old Testament gure like Adoni-bezek, as a kind of biblical Tourettes Syndrome, without its having much substantive content. There are modern correlates to this phenomenon: the vocabularies of nineteenth- and twentieth-century thought are waning and have largely fallen into disrepair if not disrepute: few would deem the notions of the proletariat or the bourgeoisie, with all their ideological bogginess, as useful categories for thinking. Laissez-faire and commodity capitalism tend not to trip from the tongues of politicians any longer. Even left and right, as political denominations, no longer rmly designate. This is of course far from saying that there will be no need to reformulate ideas and language that may bear some strong family resemblance to terminology that has decayed. Moreover, for the historian of ideas, there is an important geology of political thought in such vocabulary. The fossils of the twentiethcentury ideological landscape are there in the terms it fought over and, though we may no longer use them, we would surely not want to forget the power and nuance that such language once held. This essay contends that one such language of seventeenth-century thoughtthe biblicalonce fully formed, vibrant and bitterly partisan, has been largely forgotten and, along with it, a swathe of political opinion has shifted, effectively, beyond our audible range.John Reading, Little Benjamin or Truth Discovering Error (1649), 13. On Adoni-bezek, see further instances in William Guild, The Throne of David (London, 1659), 10; John Bewick, Conding England under Conicts, Triumphing in the Middest of her Terrors (London, 1644), 9; Henry Adis, A Fannaticks Mite Cast into the Kings Treasury (London, 1660), 31; Francis Bland, The Souldiers March to Salvation (London, 1647) 33; Edmund Calamy, The Godly Mans Ark, or, City of Refuge, in the Day of his Distresse (London, 1658), 49.2 3


Killeen Political Bible in England

While religion as an ecclesiastical, institutional, and doctrinal phenomenon in seventeenth-century England has been subject to intensive scrutiny, the language of scriptural thinkingdeployed by royalist as much as parliamentarianremains a blind-spot to scholarship. The scriptures provided both a sledgehammer and a scalpel for political analysis, amenable to subtle as well as crude deployment. In making such an argument, this essay has in its sights rstly, the historiography of seventeenth-century politics. At stake more broadly, however, beyond the specics of the early modern constitutional crises, is the nature of political languages that decay or, as is the case with the Bible, a language whose discursive arena migrates. The Bible has continued to play a part in intellectual history across later centuries, but its operative territory is something other than (and smaller than) its remit in the seventeenth century. Such migrations are both rare and revealing in tracing the movement of ideas that constitute intellectual history, how ideas reformulate, not only in different historical circumstances, but when disciplinesin this case political theoryshift their terms of reference. Early modern historians of the civil war have, it is true, long tussled over how far religion was a cause of eventsof war, republic, and restorationbut they have not sufciently taken stock of the way in which biblical exegesis was seen as an analytical lens for political affairs. The preponderance of scripture in early modern writing is evident from even a cursory dip into the subject, but historians have nevertheless been reluctant to allow the Bible to be more than a decorative, and ultimately delusional, drape of piety around events, the part of thought destined to wither, to reveal the secular core of history. This is the case, in particular, when early modern voices speak about constitution: the origin of statehood, the allotment, distribution, and nature of political power. The rst part of this essay substantiates this claim of historiographical neglect, and engages too with a number of exceptions, while the latter half demonstrates biblical politics in its gory regicidal action. One interesting example of this inattention to the Bible as a working currency of political thought in the seventeenth century is the widespread notion of the English regicide as unprecedented and, by and large, unthinkable in the early modern mind before it actually occurred, surprising most right-thinking opponents of the king. J.G.A. Pocock and Gordon J. Schochet, tracing the fast moving evolution of political theory over two decades, write of the constitutional shockwave of the regicide, or rather the shock of who had killed the king: Kings had been killed before, but only as a result of baronial rebellions or dynastic feuds . . . internal to the institution of551


monarchy.4 England, in such an account, could make sense of late medieval wars, when the aristocracy killed its own, but there was no template in English history for imagining such an act as occurred in 1649, with its military and demotic act of king-killing. Such a claim presumes the essentially secular nature of historical memory and historical lineage. However, the claim that emerges in this paper is that the English political imagination in the seventeenth century registered the events of the reigns of Jehu, Rehoboam or Jehoshaphat with as immediate a presence and relevance as that of William or Edward the Confessor, and with a far greater immediacy than the affairs of classical Rome. Nor did these latter models elicit the visceral emotional response or the vast intellectual resources that the Bible regularly garners. This is not to say that historical, classical, and biblical ideas of statehood worked at odds with each other: most political theory of the era tends to allow some form of amalgam. It is to say that the status of the biblical in these amalgams is frequently neglected and, further, that a large corpus of political writing, whose idiom is scriptural, is ignored and excluded from the landscape of political thought. This is, of course, far from virgin territory.There is a good deal of writing that registers the presence of the scriptures in early modern politics, and, given the amount of such writing, and by such eminent gures, that is hardly surprising. Nevertheless, it is considered, on the whole, something of a second tier language of politics, lacking the gravitas of classical reference and often being treated as evidence of a blind religious zeal, rather than political thought. Exceptions, even with such a qualication, include some very impressive works by, for example, Eric Nelson on the Hebrew Republic and Achsah Guibbory on political Hebraism.5 Most importantly,4 J.G.A. Pocock and Gordon J. Schochet, Interregnum and Restoration in J.G.A. Pocock, Gordon J. Schochet, Lois G. Schwoerer (eds), The Varieties of British Political Thought, 15001800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 14679 (148). 5 Eric Nelson, The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Culture (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010); Achsah Guibbory, Christian Identity, Jews, and Israel in Seventeenth-Century England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010). Other works featuring the specicity of Old Testament guresand I do not aim to be comprehensive hereinclude John Morrill and Philip Baker, Oliver Cromwell, the Regicide and the Sons of Zeruiah, in Cromwell and the Interregnum: The E


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