- Parallel streams: Familism’s inherentism or mere analogy?
John Etherington’s psychological torturing by Stephen Dennison serves to illustrate a point: that matters become more complex when influences from elsewhere become involved.
John Etherington was probably responsible for the republication of the English ‘Familist’ leader, T.L.’s apocalyptic vision, ‘Babylon is fallen’.
For John Etherington (J.E.) [a.k.a. Edward Jessop (E.J.) as Anabaptists had known him] was found to be in possession of ‘The Joyfull Message’, Christopher Vittells’ translation of Hendrik Niclaes’ ‘Evangelium Regni’ (first printed in Cologne in 1574 and with an English version printed in Amsterdam available on-line via Google Books). Although Nicleas had once spent time with what seems to have been an unidentified early Protestant grouping in Amsterdam, he was shocked by Luther’s break with Rome, never formally left the Catholic fold and never had a decent word to say about Luther. Furthermore, any Doctrine of Election is complicated by the possible perfectist interpretations of several of his works (including Evangelium Regni and the Terra Pacis) and his incredibly ambiguous writing style. It is ironic that he should have held any sway on any Protestant fringe in England.
H.N.’s call was designed to cut across all confessions including the Jews and Muslims. So, it smacked of Universalism in some manner. But, critically, it was the last call and those who did not heed it would be apostate, just as the successive waves who jumped ship on him: Hubert Duifhuis, Van Barrefelt and the like.
Baptism followed after the ‘Service of Love’ and, after baptism, the process of ‘Begodding’ (Vergottung) could begin. But Hamilton identifies key changes in the last years of H.N.’s writings emphasising the formalising structure of the Family, Confession before Elders prior to entering the community of the blessed and, of course, the Ordo Sacerdotis and its weaker reflection in the more widely distributed, Mirabilia Opera Dei, nominally penned by Elder Tobias.
All this is further complicated by the new possibility that the underground in London was absorbing Hiëlist influences syncretically too (and, by implication, all sorts of Humanist strands). Van Barrefelt came from a different background to Niclaes and his attitude to the Reformation was dissimilar. He did have a concept of sin but damning sins were only those against the Holy Spirit. There was only a relatively short burst of Hiëlist ‘Uniform Life’, effectively not outliving the 1580s. By 1595, Niclaes, Christopher Plantin and Van Barrefelt were all dead, the last of these having fallen out with the neo-Stoic Justus Lipsius several years beforehand. But things took a while to catch on in England which was generally too absorbed with the emergence of Greenham’s line of Pietism at the time.
Of course, the Theologia Germanica and the wider field of Catholic mysticism was central too. The association of the text with perfectism begins with the opening line which quotes Paul from 1 Corinthians 13: 10: ‘But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is part shall be done away.’ Note that Hamilton takes a rather different approach to the imputationist / inherentist analysis and sees two separate influences of perfectism on the Theologia: the first in the tradition of a ‘precreated oneness’ after Tauler; the second more Cistercian-Franciscan in its composition representing an Adamic conformity to the Will of God or ‘perfect createdness’. Niclaes and his followers had taken this one stage further to imply that God’s deification of Man through Christ was an ongoing process of Vergottung. However, this interpretation was only stated specifically in a limited number of Niclaesian texts, most notably the Evangelium Regni. It is probable that most of his more educated followers took the inherentist line with a pinch of salt but it seems clear that many in rural parts of England such as Cambridgeshire took it absolutely literally.
There is one further essential consideration with regard to English Familism. It was not without pre-existing sub-strata and those were different than on the Continent. Some have cited residual Lollardy as one possible influence. Better evidenced is the confusing issue of the Surrey Sectarians, centred on the villages surrounding Godalming, claimed by some to be evidence of the existence for isolated Familist communities in rural South East England during the 1550s and 1560s and by others to be an indication of English Anabaptist diversity. The accusations have strong commonalities with the Grindleton accusations of 1616: disapproving of prayer except for beginners, avoiding any expression of sinfulness, holding that nobody could receive the sacraments before they received their ordinances (the exact word cited in the Grindletonian case). With regards to an Elect and an Apostate, they were claimed to regard those not of their community as ‘little better than the beasts’. One of the core members of the community was married to a woman from the Isle of Ely, even by then a den of Familism and they shifted their position on church attendance at much the same time as Niclaes’ directive in ‘Epistle or letter sent unto two Maydens of Warffwike’.