Fanatics and Free-Thinkers

[Note: This is taken From P.H. Ditchfield's Books Fatal to Their Authors.]

Christianity not Mysterious - Toland

Quirinus Kuhlmann—John Tennhart—Jeremiah Felbinger—Simon Morin—Liszinski—John Toland—
Thomas Woolston—John Biddle—Johann Lyser—Bernardino Ochino—Samuel Friedrich Willenberg. 

The nympholepts of old were curious and unhappy beings who, while carelessly strolling amidst sylvan shades, caught a hasty glimpse of some spirit of the woods, and were doomed ever afterwards to spend their lives in fruitlessly searching after it. The race of Fanatics are somewhat akin to these restless seekers. There is a wildness and excessive extravagance in their notions and actions which separates them from the calm followers of Truth, and leads them into strange courses and curious beliefs. How far the sacred fire of enthusiasm may be separated from the fierce heat of fanaticism we need not now inquire, nor whether a spark of the latter has not shone brilliantly in many a noble soul and produced brave deeds and acts of piety and self-sacrifice. Those whose fate is here recorded were far removed from such noble characters; their fanaticism was akin to madness, and many of them were fitter for an asylum rather than a gaol, which was usually their destination.

Foremost among them was Quirinus Kulmanus (Kuhlmann), who has been called the Prince of Fanatics, and wandered through many lands making many disciples. He was born at Breslau in Silesia in 1651, and at an early age saw strange visions, at one time the devils in hell, at another the Beatific Glory of God. His native country did not appreciate him, and he left it to wander on from university to university, publishing his ravings. At Leyden he met with the works of Boehme, another fanatic, who wrote a strange book, entitled Aurora, which was suppressed by the magistrates. The reading of this author was like casting oil into the fire. Poor Kuhlmann became wilder still in his strange fanaticism, and joined himself to a pretended prophet, John Rothe, whom the authorities at Amsterdam incarcerated, in order that he might be able to foretell with greater certainty than he had done other things when and after what manner he should be released. Kuhlmann then wrote a book, entitled Prodromus Quinquennii Mirabilis, and published at Leyden in 1674, in which he set forth his peculiar views. He stated that in that same year the Fifth Monarchy or the Christian Kingdom was about to commence, that he himself would bring forth a son from his own wife, that this son by many miracles would found the kingdom, and that he himself was the Son of God. On account of these mad ravings he was exiled by the Chief of the United Provinces of the Netherlands, and expelled with infamy from the University of Leyden. But his strange mission did not cease. He wandered for some time in France and England, where he printed at his own expense several small books in 1681 and 1682, amongst others one piece addressed to Mahomet IV., De Conversione Turcarum. The following passage occurs in this fantastic production: “You saw, some months ago, O great Eastern Leader, a comet of unusual magnitude, a true prognostic of the Kingdom of the Jesuelites, that is, of the restoration of all people to the one-three God. O well is thee, that thou hast turned thy mind before God, and by proclaiming a general fast throughout thy empire, hast begun to fulfil the words of the Lord to the prophet Drabicius.” He declares that if the Christians refuse to perform his will in destroying the kingdom of Antichrist, the Turks and Tartars shall do it, to the disgrace of the Christians, which will be a horror to angels and to men.

He then proceeded to Turkey on his mission, and presented himself to the Sultan. Although ignorant of the language of the country, he persuaded himself that he could speak in any tongue; but when they led him into the presence of the Sultan he waited in vain for the burning words of eloquence to flow. The Turks dealt with him according to his folly, and bestowed on him a sound thrashing. Thence he proceeded to Russia, and when he was about to marry a second wife, his former spouse being left in England, the Patriarch of the Russian Church condemned him to be burnt at Moscow in 1689. A follower of Kuhlmann’s, named Nordermann, who also wrote a book on the Second Advent of Christ, shared his fate. Kuhlmann also wrote a volume of verses, entitled The Berlin and Amsterdam “Kuhl-festival” at the Gathering of Lutherans and Calvinists, which sufficiently attests his insanity. The following is a specimen of the lucidity of his works: “The more I continued my doctrines, the more opposition I received, so that also the higher world of light with which I am illuminated, in their light I was enlightened, or shadowed, when I proceeded, and in their light lit I up brighter lights.”

A fitting companion to Kuhlmann was John Tennhart, a barber of Nuremberg, born in 1662, who used to speak continually of the visions, dreams, and colloquies which he had with God, and boasted that the office of a scribe was entrusted to him by the Divine Will. He endeavoured to persuade all men that the words he wrote were verily and indeed the words of God. The world was not disposed to interfere with the poor barber who imagined himself inspired, but in an evil hour he published a book against the priests, entitled Worte Gottes, oder Tractaetlein an den so genannten geistlichen Stand, which caused its author great calamities. He was cast into prison by order of the senate of the Nuremberg State. On his release he again published his former work, with others which he also believed to be inspired, and again in 1714 was imprisoned at Nuremberg. His incarceration did not, however, last long, and Tennhart died while he was journeying from the city which so little appreciated his ravings to find in Cassel a more secure resting-place.

Amongst the fanatics of the seventeenth century may be classed Jeremiah Felbinger, a native of Brega, a town in the Prussian State of Silesia, who was an early advocate of the heresy of the Unitarians. For some years he was a soldier, and then became a schoolmaster. He wrote Prodromus demonstrationis, published in 1654, in which he attempted to prove his Unitarian ideas. Shortly before this, in 1653, he wrote Demonstrationes Christianae, and finally his Epistola ad Christianos, published at Amsterdam in 1672. His strange views and perverted opinions first caused his dismissal from the army, and his works upon the Unitarian doctrines necessitated his removal from the office of teacher. He then journeyed to Helmstadt, but there the wanderer found no rest; for when he tried to circulate his obnoxious books, he was ordered to leave the city before sunset. Finally he settled in Amsterdam, the home of free-thinkers, where men were allowed a large amount of religious liberty; there printers produced without let or hindrance books which were condemned elsewhere and could only be printed in secret presses and obscure corners of cities governed by more orthodox rulers. Here Felbinger passed the rest of his miserable life in great poverty, earning a scanty pittance by instructing youths and correcting typographical errors. He died in 1689, aged seventy-three years.

The seventeenth century was fruitful in fanatics, and not the least mad was Simon Morin, who was burnt at Paris in 1663. His fatal book was his Pensees de Simon Morin (Paris, 1647, in-8), which contains a curious mixture of visions and nonsense, including the principal errors of the Quietists and adding many of his own. Amongst other mad ravings, he declared that there would be very shortly a general reformation of the Church, and that all nations should be converted to the true faith, and that this reformation was to be accomplished by the Second Advent of our Lord in His state of glory, incorporated in Morin himself; and that for the execution of the things to which he was destined, he was to be attended by a great number of perfect souls, and such as participated in the glorious state of Jesus Christ, whom he therefore called the champions of God. He was condemned by the Parliament of Paris, and after having done penance, dressed in his shirt, with a rope round his neck and a torch in his hand, before the entrance of Notre Dame, he was burnt with his book and writings, his ashes being subsequently cast into the air. Morin had several followers who shared his fantastic views, and these poor “champions of God” were condemned to witness the execution of their leader, to be publicly whipped and branded with the mark of fleur-de-lys, and to spend the rest of their lives as galley-slaves.

Poland witnessed the burning of Cazimir Liszinski in 1689, whose ashes were placed in a cannon and shot into the air. This Polish gentleman was accused of atheism by the Bishop of Potsdam. His condemnation was based upon certain atheistical manuscripts found in his possession, containing several novel doctrines, such as “God is not the creator of man; but man is the creator of a God gathered together from nothing.” His writings contain many other extravagant notions of the same kind.

A few years later the religious world of both England and Ireland was excited and disturbed by the famous book of John Toland, a sceptical Irishman, entitled Christianity not Mysterious (London, 1696). Its author was born in Londonderry in 1670, and was endowed with much natural ability, but this did not avail to avert the calamities which pursue indiscreet and reckless writers. He wrote his book at the early age of twenty-five years, for the purpose of defending Holy Scripture from the attacks of infidels and atheists; he essayed to prove that there was nothing in religion contrary to sound reason, and to show that the mysteries of religion were not opposed to reason. But his work aroused much opposition both in England and Ireland, as there were many statements in the book which were capable of a rationalistic interpretation. A second edition was published in London with an apology by Toland in 1702. In Dublin he raised against himself a storm of opposition, not only on account of his book, but also by his vain and foolish manner of propagating his views. He began openly to deride Christianity, to scoff at the clergy, to despise the worship of God, and so passed his life that whoever associated with him was judged to be an impious and infamous person. He proposed to form a society which he called Socratia; the hymns to be sung by the members were the Odes of Horace, and the prayers were blasphemous productions, composed by Toland, in derision of those used in the Roman Church. The Council of Religion of the Irish House of Parliament condemned his book to be burnt, and some of the members wished to imprison its author, who after enduring many privations wisely sought safety in flight. A host of writers arrayed themselves in opposition to Toland and refuted his book, amongst whom were John Norris, Stillingfleet, Payne, Beverley, Clarke, Leibnitz, and others. Toland wrote also The Life of Milton (London, 1698), which was directed against the authenticity of the New Testament; The Nazarene, or Christianity, Judaic, Pagan, and Mahometan (1718); and Pantheisticon (1720). The outcry raised by the orthodox party against the “poor gentleman” who had “to beg for half-crowns,” and “ran into debt for his wigs, clothes, and lodging,” together with his own vanity and conceit, changed him from being a somewhat free-thinking Christian into an infidel and atheist or Pantheist. He died in extreme poverty at Putney in 1722.

A fitting companion to Toland was Thomas Woolston, who lived about the same time; he was born at Northampton in 1669, and died at London in 1733.  He was a free-thinker, and a man of many attainments, whose works became widely known and furnished weapons for the use of Voltaire and other atheistical writers. In 1705 he wrote a book entitled The Old Apology, in which he endeavoured to show that in the interpretation of the Holy Scriptures the literal meaning ought to be abandoned, and that the events recorded therein were merely allegories. In his book Free Gifts to the Clergy he denounced all who favoured the literal interpretation as apostates and ministers of Antichrist. Finally, in his Discourses on the Miracles (1726) he denied entirely the authenticity of miracles, and stated that they were merely stories and allegories. He thought that the literal account of the miracles is improbable and untrustworthy, that they were parables and prophetical recitations. These and many other such-like doctrines are found in his works. Woolston held at that time the post of tutor at Sidney Sussex College at Cambridge; but on account of his works he was expelled from the College and cast into prison. According to one account of his life, he died in prison in 1731. Another record states that he was released on paying a fine of L100 after enduring one year’s incarceration, and that he bore his troubles bravely, passing an honest life and enduring reproaches with an equal mind. Not a few able theologians set themselves the task of refuting the errors of Woolston, amongst whom were John Ray, Stebbins, Bishop of St. Davids, and Sherlock, whose book was translated into French. A Life of Woolston has been written anonymously by some one who somewhat favoured his views and supported his tenets. He may certainly be classed among the leaders of Free Thought in the eighteenth century.

John Biddle was a vehement advocate of Socinian and Unitarian opinions, attacking the belief in the Trinity and in the Divinity of our Lord. The Holy Spirit was accounted by him as the first of the angels. His fatal book was entitled The Faith of one God, who is only the Father, and of one Mediator between God and man, who is only the man Christ Jesus; and of one Holy Spirit, the gift, and sent of God, asserted and defended in several tracts contained in this volume (London, 1691, in-4). This work was publicly burnt and its author imprisoned. Biddle was born at Wotton-under-Edge in 1615; he went to Oxford, and became a teacher at a grammar-school at Gloucester. He underwent several terms of imprisonment on account of the opinions expressed in his writings, and died in gaol in 1662.

Amongst the fanatics whose works were fatal to them must be enrolled the famous advocates of polygamy, Johann Lyser, Bernardino Ochino, and Samuel Friedrich Willenberg. Lyser was born at Leipsic in 1631, and although he ever remained a bachelor and abhorred womankind, nevertheless tried to demonstrate that not only was polygamy lawful, but that it was a blessed estate commanded by God. He first brought out a dialogue written in the vernacular entitled Sinceri Wahrenbergs kurzes Gespraech von der Polygamie; and this little work was followed by a second book, Das Koenigliche Marck aller Laender (Freyburg, 1676, in-4). Then he produced another work, entitled Theophili Aletaei discursus politicus de Polygamia. A second edition of this work followed, which bore the title Polygamia triumphatrix, id est, discursus politicus de Polygamia, auctore Theoph. Aletoeo, cum notis Athanasii Vincentii, omnibus Anti-polygamis, ubique locorum, terrarum, insularum, pagorum, urbium modeste et pie opposita (Londini Scanorum, 1682, in-4). On account of the strange views expressed in this work he was deprived of his office of Inspector, and was obliged to seek protection from a powerful Count, by whose advice it is said that Lyser first undertook the advocacy of polygamy. On the death of his friend Lyser was compelled frequently to change his abode, and wandered through most of the provinces of Germany. He was imprisoned by the Count of Hanover, and then expelled. In Denmark his book was burned by the public executioner. At another place he was imprisoned and beaten and his books burned. At length, travelling from Italy to Holland, he endured every kind of calamity, and after all his misfortunes he died miserably in a garret at Amsterdam, in 1684. It is curious that Lyser, who never married nor desired wedlock, should have advocated polygamy; but it is said that he was led on by a desire for providing for the public safety by increasing the population of the country, though probably the love of notoriety, which has added many authors’ names to the category of fools, contributed much to his madness.

Infected with the same notions was Bernardino Ochino, a Franciscan, and afterwards a Capuchin, whose dialogue De Polygamia was fatal to him.  Although he was an old man, the authorities at Basle ordered him to leave the city in the depth of a severe winter. He wandered into Poland, but through the opposition of the Papal Nuncio, Commendone, he was again obliged to fly. He had to mourn over the death of two sons and a daughter, who died of the plague in Poland, and finally Ochino ended his woes in Moravia. Such was the miserable fate of Ochino, who was at one time the most famous preacher in the whole of Italy. He had a wonderful eloquence, which seized upon the minds of his hearers and carried them whither he would. No church was large enough to contain the multitudes which flocked to hear him. Ochino was a skilled linguist, and, after leaving the Roman Church, he wrote a book against the Papacy in English, which was printed in London, and also a sermon on predestination. He visited England in company with Peter Martyr, but on the death of Edward VI., on account of the changes introduced in Mary’s reign these two doctors again crossed the seas, and retired to a safer retreat. His brilliant career was entirely ruined by his fatal frenzy and foolish fanaticism for polygamy.

The third of this strange triumvirate was Samuel Friedrich Willenberg, a doctor of law of the famous University of Cracow, who wrote a book De finibus polygamiae licitae and aroused the hatred of the Poles. In 1715, by command of the High Court of the King of Poland, his book was condemned to be burnt, and its author nearly shared the same fate. He escaped, however, this terrible penalty, and was fined one hundred thousand gold pieces.

With these unhappy advocates of a system which violates the sacredness of marriage, we must close our list of fanatics whose works have proved fatal to them.  Many of them deserve our pity rather than our scorn; for they suffered from that species of insanity which, according to Holmes, is often the logic of an accurate mind overtasked. At any rate, they furnish an example of that

“Faith, fanatic faith, which, wedded fast
To some dear falsehood, hugs it to the last.”




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