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been discussing the prophetic books of the Bible for many years, and Cudworth was to leave behind him a huge pile of unpublished manuscript papers on Daniel following his death in 1688.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.