‘Dr. More the Controvertist’ and ‘Dr. More the Philosopher’: The composition and reception of Henry More’s “Exposition of the Seven Epistles to the Seven Churches” (1669)

By Mark Burden

If we believe the author’s own account, the composition of An Exposition of the Seven Epistles to the Seven Churches (1669) came as something of a personal surprise to Henry More. Even during the printing process, he remained anxious about the text’s likely reception:  a new ‘prophetic’ exegesis of Revelation chapters 1-3 was likely to be seen by many as unnecessary at best and hubristic at worst. The most obvious destination for readers seeking an explication of the final book of the Bible was Joseph Mede’s Works (not least in the edition of 1664, prepared for publication by More’s friend John Worthington), while those wishing to know More’s views needed to look no further than his recently-published Divine Dialogues (2 volumes, 1668). In his preface to the Exposition, More sought to mask his anxiety about the text under the shady cloak of ambivalence, asserting that his sudden decision to write it had been as ‘unexpected’ to him as its publication would be to some of his readers: after all, he had ‘never yet affected to bestow my pains on these kind of Subjects’, and had thought that the publication of his analysis of the Book of Revelation in the second volume of the Divine Dialogues (dialogues 4 and 5) had rendered him ‘secure . . . from ever being engaged’ in writing on the same topic again. Furthermore, he claimed that until quite recently he had felt that the correct literal and moral interpretation of the early chapters of Revelation was too obvious to require the ‘needlesse labour’ of a further exposition.

More’s apparent self-surprise at the composition of the Exposition should not be taken entirely at face-value: he and his Cambridge colleague Ralph Cudworth had been discussing the prophetic books of the Bible for many years, and Cudworth was to leave behind him a huge pile of unpublished manuscript papers on Daniel following his death in 1688. Neither can More have seriously considered that there was unanimous agreement among Protestants about the correct moral interpretation of Revelation chapters 1-3. And yet More’s Exposition is a crucial text in his oeuvre, marking a decisive turn away from his earlier philosophical output towards the publication of a string of works on Daniel and Revelation. Equally importantly, it included as a lengthy second part More’s most condensed and closely-argued attack on ‘Popish’ ceremony, his ‘Antidote against Idolatry’, a work which – as we shall see – swiftly became embroiled in political as well as theological commentary.

The occasion for writing the Exposition came when More sent his Divine Dialogues to a ‘Gentleman in the Countrey’, to whom they were rendered ‘not unacceptable’ on account of the gentleman’s curiosity about the prophetic books of the Bible. This gentleman, who may be identified from More’s manuscript correspondence as John Mansell of Thorpe Malsor, Northamptonshire, had recorded his ‘civil acknowledgements’ for receiving the book, but had some ‘pertinent Reflexions’ on its main topics, and some advice regarding the interpretation of the early chapters in Revelation: ‘I find not, saith he, any late Writer apply the Seven Churches mystically . . .; Mr. BRIGHTMAN having failed in his Application’. Here, Mansell was referring to Thomas Brightman (1562-1607), who was an early Puritan apologist and theologian whose political and prophetical exegesis of the Revelation had been published posthumously in Latin as Apocalypsis Apocalypseos (Amsterdam, 1609), before appearing in various English editions and redactions over several decades. Intriguingly, More was also to use the title Apocalypsis Apocalypseos for one of his own future publications on Revelation (it appeared in 1680). Mansell’s view was that Brightman’s use of Revelation to prophesy cataclysmic political events across Europe, while seductive for those of a Congregational or Fifth-monarchist world-view, was misguided. Nevertheless, Mansell reminded More of the common view that the seven churches mentioned in Revelation chapters 1-3 represented ‘the State of the whole visible Church from Christ’s time to the Day of Judgement’, and he provided More with some precise correspondences between each of the churches mentioned by St John and historical or prophesied events. More disagreed with the significance of some of the particular events alluded to by Mansell, but he acknowledged that Mansell’s sketch had given him ‘aim toward a more speedy hitting the intended Mark’, and provided ‘the Occasion of my undertaking, and the advantage I had for the easily performing this Task’.

Like the Divine Dialogues, More’s Exposition was licensed for publication by Samuel Parker; it was printed at London by James Flesher in the early months of 1669, for sale by William Morden at Cambridge. Parker, a former Presbyterian who was to become an influential Episcopalian cleric as well as an experienced book licenser, had recently voiced some trenchant criticisms of More and his associates in his Account of the Nature and Extent of the Divine Dominion and Goodnesse (1666), and particularly in A Free and Impartial Censure of the Platonick Philosophie (1667). Despite deliberately holding up the publication progress of the first volume of the Divine Dialogues, which had dealt largely with philosophical topics, Parker is not known to have raised any impediments over the publication of the apocalyptic sections of the Divine Dialogues, and there is no record of him objecting to the prophetic elements of More’s Exposition. Conversely, More had been collaborating with both Flesher and Morden for many years, but this did not mean that his new text could assume priority over their other projects: as usual, Flesher’s press was overworked, and the printing of More’s Exposition took place alongside the preparation of a new bilingual (Latin and Greek) edition of Epictetus’ Enchiridion, also for distribution by Morden. The potential delay to the publication of the Exposition caused John Worthington – who had been one of More’s unofficial literary agents since before the Restoration – to remark on 19 February 1668/9 that ‘Morden might let Epictetus the Philosopher stand aside, and step out of the way a while, till John the Divine, with his 7 Asiatick Churches be passt.’ In the event, Worthington got his wish: the Flesher/Morden edition of Epictetus was not completed until 1670, whereas More was able to report on 10 June 1669 that his Exposition was ‘out’, although he would be unable to ‘gett copies’ to send to his friends the Conways and the Foxcrofts in Ragley for another week. More also articulated an aspiration that the Exposition, together with his earlier Synopsis prophetica, would be read by Christian Knorr von Rosenroth; More’s collaboration with von Rosenroth in the subsequent decade was to result in the production of the Kabbala denudata (1677-8), including an edition of the Zohar with commentary. More also sent a presentation copy of the Exposition to Seth Ward, bishop of Salisbury, who had probably already read several of his works, and had offered his service to More after dining with Worthington shortly after the publication of the Mystery of Iniquity (1664).

Unusually, the Exposition was not dedicated to a member of the Conway/Finch family but to John Robartes, baron of Truro, who had recently been made Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. Robartes was a politically complicated individual, a moderate parliamentarian during the civil war, who had withdrawn from public affairs following the execution of Charles I, and who owed his return to political office to the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. More’s dedicatory epistle points to some undefined ‘private Obligation’ to Robartes, as well as naming him more generally as a patron and praising his ‘Parts and Vertues’ in conventional terms. More also refers to the ‘Providentiall Coincidence’ which has ensured that he has a book in press at the very time that Robartes should be promoted to Lord Lieutenant. Equally revealingly, More praises Robartes for having maintained a ‘steadinesse of minde and clearnesse of Judgement’ in defence of the Protestant religion in this ‘instable and uncertain Age’. More’s dedication, then, presents both himself and his patron as ardent and sincere defenders of the episcopal Church of England in opposition to Roman Catholicism. Unfortunately for More, his confidence in Robartes as a specifically Protestant governor was not entirely well-placed: during the Exclusion Crisis of 1679-81, Robartes sided with the Tories against the Whigs and defended the right of the Catholic Prince James to inherit the throne after Charles II’s death. In the years immediately following the publication of More’s critique of Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-politicus in his 1679 Opera philosophica, More must have had occasion to contemplate the irony that his political commentaries, whether in his EnthusiasmusGrand Mystery, Exposition, or Spinoza critique, always seemed fated to be misinterpreted as ill-judged interventions in current events.

An important reason why More considered Robartes to be a suitable dedicatee lay in the subject of the second part of the volume, which (as in several of More’s publications) was a separate text, with its own title page, titled ‘An Antidote against Idolatry’. The title characterises the text as another Morean sequel: just as the Mystery of Iniquity (1664) had paralleled the earlier Mystery of Godliness (1660), the ‘Antidote against Idolatry’ (1669) recalled the Antidote against Atheism (1653, republished with additions in 1655 and 1662). Together with his Enthusiasmus triumphatus (1656, republished with alterations in 1662), these texts tackled the rival moral, religious, and social ills of atheism, Protestant enthusiasm, and Roman Catholic idol-worship. More’s essay against idolatry, picking up on his discussion of the theme in his Mystery of Iniquity, aimed to discover ‘what [it] is or ought to be held’, and applied this to ‘the Doctrine of the Council of TRENT’ to help stymy the ‘Romish Infection’. More’s decision to produce an ‘entire Treatise’ on the subject may have been influenced by comments from friends and readers that shorter essays could be as effective as longer works, where important ideas could be lost, and the relationship between key arguments could be missed. Realising that he was vulnerable to the charge of being uncharitable towards the ‘Romanists’ (a not-unreasonable objection, given the appalling treatment of Irish Catholics by English-led forces for much of the century), More sought to remind his readers ‘what a sad condition those of the Church of Rome are [in]’, since even if they had the opportunity of being better instructed, they ran the risk of being ‘led away captive’ by ‘cunning’ apologists for Roman Catholicism.

In the months immediately following the publication of the Exposition in 1669 it was the ‘Antidote against Idolatry’ rather than More’s exegesis of Revelation which caused the most controversy, lending further weight to Worthington’s observation that More’s shorter texts were often among his most important. This critical focus upon the ‘Antidote’ rather than the ‘Exposition’ marks a shift in the general intellectual climate by the end of the decade: since the collapse of Fifth Monarchism as a political force in the early 1660s, the interpretation of Revelation no longer had the urgency it had assumed during the Civil War and Commonwealth, whereas the issue of idolatry went to the very heart of the reasoning behind the Act of Uniformity (1662) and the Conventicle Acts of 1664 and 1670. It should come as little surprise that the most prominent set of objections to the ‘Antidote’ came from a Roman Catholic, John Walton, whose animadversions were later published as A Brief Answer to the many Calumnies of Dr. Henry More, in his pretended Antidote against Idolatry (1672). Walton, about whom little is known, claimed that his Brief Answer was first written in manuscript in 1670, at ‘the request, & for the satisfaction of some worthy friends’, and ‘without any thought or intention as then, for the Press’. He was moved to publish the text after reading A Discourse concerning the Idolatry practised in the Church of Rome (1671) by Edward Stillingfleet, the future dean of St Paul’s (1678-89) and bishop of Worcester (1689-99). Stillingfleet, like More, has been characterised as a Latitudinarian Episcopalian, although neither individual was typical of the group; Stillingfleet’s Discourse, unlike More’s, was a response to the Second Conventicle Act of 1670 which renewed and strengthened some of the provisions against Catholic recusancy and Protestant dissent from the First Conventicle Act of 1664. In the wake of the 1670 Act, Walton had practical and political as well as philosophical reasons to oppose More’s ‘Antidote’ using arguments which, he suggested, could equally apply to Stillingfleet’s Discourse.

Walton’s characterisation of More in the Brief Answer provides a useful snapshot of More’s reputation in the years when his publication portfolio was shifting (in a very general sense) from philosophical inquiry to theological exposition. Walton concedes that More has a reputation as a ‘great Philosopher’, and that some have termed him ‘The great Restorer of the Platonick Cabbala’; the fundamental premise of Walton’s criticism is that More’s ‘unlucky engaging in Controversial Disputes’ will ‘prove a blot to his former undertakings’, since ‘Dr. More the Controvertist, is much degenerated from Dr. More the Philosopher’. Specifically, Walton felt that More’s Exposition had been written in an excessively ‘Romantick strain’, in which his fancy had ‘broken loose from the command of Reason’ and had overstepped the boundaries of faith and church authority. Meanwhile, More’s ‘Antidote against Idolatry’ relied on a ‘harsh and unmanly Rhetorick’, in which he had thrown dirt ‘too bountifully upon Persons, which never deserved it at his hands’, producing a set of objections that were ‘bold, uncivil, irreligious’, and smelled too heavily of Genevan iconoclasm. In Walton’s opinion, it was only More’s great name that leant authority to the argument of the ‘Antidote’, and it was this coupling of an influential figure with bogus argumentation – coupled with the insult-laden assertions of More’s Protestant friends that his text was incontrovertible – which made answering the text such a necessity.

More had been offered sight of Walton’s manuscript when it had first been composed, c.1670, but, as he later explained, ‘I was then wholly taken up in writing my Enchiridion Metaphysicum’, and he would only promise to respond if Walton’s animadversions were published in print. As a consequence, More’s response to the Brief Answer was not written until the middle months of 1672, at which point he still did not seem to know ‘any more concerning my Adversary than that he was a Doctor of the Roman Church.’ On 11 July 1672 More wrote to Anne Conway that, since his most recent return from London, he had been ‘wholely taken up with framing a Reply to the Answer to my Antidote against Idolatry’, which he had just finished. Unfortunately, More remarked laconically, his own ‘scribled hand’ meant that he would ‘scarce be able to read’ the text again, and he would have to ‘transcribe it more legibly’, so that an amanuensis could then write a third copy to send to the press, to make sure that ‘printers . . . may not mistake me’. Transcribing his own scribblings, More observed, would be a ‘very tedious’ activity, but ‘I must doe it, to satisfy the light within me, as the Quaker sayes’. Adopting an apologetic tone with which Conway must have been quite familiar, More explained that his engagement to write the reply had ‘much retarded my intended Journeys into Lincolnshire and to Ragley’, and that he had, metaphorically at least, ‘worne myself of my legges . . . in hastening this Reply’. Nevertheless, it took him another month to complete his transcription: ‘I had even almost made an end’, he wrote to Conway on 16 August, and ‘I send the copy this day to London.’

The structure of the printed text of More’s Brief Reply shows his growing reputation with printers and booksellers as a marketable author. More’s earliest sets of prose animadversions – his Observations (1650) and Second Lash (1651) against the alchemist Henry Vaughan – were printed cheaply but rendered difficult to read and interpret unless the reader also had the source texts to hand. The Brief Reply, in contrast, ran to over 330 printed pages which included More’s original ‘Antidote’; this was divided into sections, each of which was followed by Walton’s critique and More’s reply. Nevertheless, despite this more sophisticated and consequently more expensive manner of presentation, More’s tone in the Brief Reply marks a return to the jibing jousts of his earlier controversial prose, a style designed to rally friends and diminish opponents rather than to present reasoned argumentation. Although the Brief Reply is of greater intellectual weight than several of More’s other animadverting tracts (including those against Vaughan, Spinoza and Baxter), a tendency towards personal attack and hyperbole occludes some of the more salient philosophical points, and the text does not quite live up to More’s promise that he will write ‘without the least ill word’. More himself may have been aware of the text’s failings: a year later he published An Appendix to the late Antidote against Idolatry (1673), for which he engaged a new bookseller, Walter Kettibly of St Paul’s Churchyard, London, who was to be the main publisher of More’s writings for the remainder of his life. As is also observable in the largely reasoned and reflective tone of the Appendix to the . . . Antidote against Atheism (1655), More considered the ‘Appendix’ to be a literary genre of considerably greater weight and seriousness, which took the structure of a subsequently-composed supplement to a philosophical text. Unlike the ‘Animadversions’ genre, this form suited More’s style and mode of reasoning; when he published his own Latin translation of the ‘Antidote against Idolatry’ for his Opera theologica (1675), he placed the Appendix straight after it, and omitted his Brief Reply entirely from the volume.

By omitting the Brief Reply from the Latin edition of the ‘Antidote’, More gave his authority to a process which had begun with his Collection of Several Philosophical Works in 1662 and which continued after his death in 1687. Back in the early 1660s More had debated with himself and with others whether to include his Observations and Second Lash against Vaughan in the Collection. In the end, despite Worthington’s observation that some of More’s shorter works were equally as important as his recent Grand Mystery, neither his poems nor his early animadversions made it into the 1662 volume (although his Enthusiasmus triumphatus, a somewhat more detached critique of the Familists, Behmenists, and early Quakers, wasincluded in a slightly modified form). It was More’s self-presentation as an author of rational, analytic, philosophical prose in publications such as the Collection which enabled Walton to assert that More the philosopher was giving too much ground to his alter ego, More the controversialist. He was not alone in believing More’s controversial writings to be inferior to the canon of philosophical works: More’s early eighteenth-century editors made no attempt to reprint his Brief Reply, or his Latin critiques of Boehme and Spinoza. There may have been other reasons for these omissions: the Latin of More’s Opera philosophica (1679), the only source-text for the Spinoza and Boehme essays, may have been too much of an obstacle to what was intended as a reasonably uncomplicated repackaging of More’s English works in 1708 and 1712. However, these editions contributed to a process which More himself had helped to initiate: his Anglophone reputation over the next 300 years would be primarily fought over in terms of his status as an epoch-transcending philosopher. The depth of his engagement with specifically seventeenth-century religious problems, and the sometimes very personal motives which prompted the composition, publication, and reception of his texts, have long been – and continue to be – underrepresented in the critical literature.

 


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