Was John Robins the Reincarnation of Adam?

What 17th-century English sectarians can teach us about the perils of biblical literalism.
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"A glorious Liberty": woodcut portraying 17th-century Ranters. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

In April of 1652, a Wellsian cobbler and farmer named John Robins sat in his cell in New Prison, Clerkenwell, London. He had been there since May of the previous year. The putrid air of a 17th-century prison, rank with spoiled food and human waste, bore witness to the de casibus tragedy that had unfolded over the last several months. Robins' only hope for salvation was a long-shot, to say the least. He had written a letter of recantation to Oliver Cromwell himself, Lord Protector of England, hoping that by some miracle he might be granted a pardon.

Miracles, in fact, had been Robins' stock-in-trade until his incarceration. He proclaimed that he had been his own salvation and possessed magical powers. For Robins was the reincarnation of Adam our First Father, of the priest-king Melchizedek who commended Abraham to God. Robins had been worshipped as divine and planned to lead the righteous to Jerusalem, an apocalyptic pilgrimage he said would usher in the Second Coming of Christ. He recognized in himself the munex triplex of Christ as Prophet, King, and Priest. Today, we recognize him as a cult leader.

As our social, political, and economic contexts shift, so must the way we read the Good Book.

While claims such as Robins' were quite rare, his imprisonment for blasphemy was by no means a singular occurrence in mid-17th-century England. Increasing freedom of expression and policies of religious toleration (unless you were Catholic) set forth during the Interregnum inspired all manner of factions, sects, and dissident groups, many with very silly names: Grindletonians, Philadelphians, Diggers, Levellers, Ranters, Seekers, and the Harry-Potteresque Muggletonians. Often, the foundational principles of these various movements rested upon a questionable (or at least “unique”) interpretation of specific scriptural passages. For the communist Diggers, this verse was Acts 4:32; for the Muggletonians it was Revelation 11:3, while the Philadelphians borrowed the name of their movement from the third chapter of that book.

To the Diggers, Saint Paul's “endorsement” of total equality and communal property was a literal commandment from God: “No one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common.” But even if sharing is laudable, the problem remains that the Bible is chock-full of socio-political endorsements that frequently contradict each other. For example, how are we to reconcile the supposed endorsement of communist egalitarianism in Acts with sundry passages condoning slavery? (By the way, such passages exist in both the Old Testament—e.g., Leviticus 25:44-46 and Exodus 21:7-11—and the New—Ephesians 6:5, 1 Timothy 6:1-2, and Luke 12:47-48).

For the first 1,500 years of Christianity, theologians didn't care that Moses hit a rock with a stick; they were concerned with what this action means.

We will not (and should not) accept that Jesus literally approved of owning slaves. Since the very first English Bible in 1526, almost all the English translations help us side-step the issue by translating the Greek word doulos as in Ephesians “servant.” But any philologist will tell you that this word specifically refers to a slave, or at the very best a bond-slave. The takeaway is that, in this passage and in many others, we cannot read in a strictly literal fashion. We must always read according to context.

The importance of this concept comes to light when we consider cases such as John Robins'. It is convenient to dismiss the doctrine of any Christian cult as heretical and exceptional; the baseless fabrications of madmen and con artists. But the truth is it cannot be said that Robins' ideas were formed because he ignored or took interpretive liberties with the Bible. Instead, his “heresy” is a result of his slavish obedience to the literal sense of the scripture—a slavish obedience that we see permeating American Christian worship to this day.

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A BRIEF HISTORY OF BIBLICAL HERMENEUTICS

Contextual reading is not exclusive to the Bible. Anyone who read Lord of the Flies in high school or has been on either side of a lawsuit is aware that there is a real and sometimes essential distinction between what words say and what words can mean. The reading of all manner of written documents—a poem, a lease, a seemingly cryptic text from last night's date—requires some interpretive work. We are constantly required in our daily lives to make distinction between the plain and literal sense of words and their sundry possible implications.

Then why, after thousands of years of interpretive variety and 400 years after Robins, is the Bible today so often treated as strictly literal?

The modern motives of biblical literalism are, I think, quite clear. In a social and political environment as tumultuous (and interconnected, thanks to social media and digital news services) as ours, Scripture can offer us an unmovable model of stability. And in an age when information is both atomized and treated as relative, the Bible remains a trove of (apparently straightforward) moral precedents. So vast a source is bound to contain something resembling a verdict on virtually any question of morality, society, or ontology—especially for cherry-pickers.

Perhaps modern literalism draws life from Old Testament prohibitions: There is no shortage of biblical passages one can employ in contemporary social debate. Not coincidently, the majority of biblical prohibitions are contained in those books that detail Mosaic and Levitical law. Indeed, laws are weighed in relation to precedent, but the relevance of that precedent must be evaluated according to the circumstances (or context) of each individual case. The reason our judicial system exists rests upon the fact that laws aren't meant to be applied mechanically. They are meant to be interpreted.

Even if the current appeal of literalism is enmeshed with the nature of our global world, the fact is that biblical literalism is not new. But, as a historical practice, it is relatively rare.

When we think of the medieval Church, interpretative elbow-room is the last thing that comes to mind. Instead, we conjure images of dungeons, heretics burning at the stake, and diabolical devices of torture. While such things did exist, they were not created to enforce Biblical literalism. Even 1,000 years ago, the doctors of the Church recognized that exclusively literal interpretation was an infeasible approach. Along with the moral or tropological (how the scriptures can inform our present behavior), the typological or allegorical (dealing with the relationship between the Old and New Testaments), and the anagogical (anticipating the future and Last Judgment), the literal interpretive mode accounts for only one category of a wider biblical hermeneutics. For the sake a illustration, let us apply the Quadriga.

“And Moses lifted up his hand, and with his rod he smote the rock twice: and the water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank.” (Num. 20:11, KJV)

Possible modes of interpretation:

Literal: Moses actually struck a rock with a staff. Water actually issued from the rock.

Moral: We must not despair when the going gets rough, for a solution will present itself.

Typological: Christ will quench us with the waters of faith in times of spiritual thirst.

Anagogical: At the End Time, God will smite the lifeless rock of death so that the life-giving water of salvation may issue forth.

What we should take from this example is that the literal sense often provides the least useful or relevant reading. For the first 1,500 years of Christianity, theologians didn't care that Moses hit a rock with a stick; they were concerned with what this action means.

But with the Reformation came challenges to a unified Church and its unified approach to Bible reading. Early Protestants rejected what they saw as the arcane and manipulative exegetical practices of the Roman Catholic clergy, who had almost exclusive access to the text as the translation into the “vulgar” languages (those besides Latin) was prohibited. Thus the early Reformers sought to put the Scriptures in the hands and native language of the laity so that the plebes might read and interpret the Word for themselves.

Today we recognize intellectual freedom as a categorical good. But as the Reformation progressed, the impetus to shed all things “papistical” helped intensify the Protestant tenet that “scripture alone” is sufficient to attain salvation. This caused a number of Christians to reject all doctrinal and devotional details except the plain text of the Bible, including (crucial) figurative reading practices. Thus, for a time in the mid-17th century, biblical literalism became endemic.

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SCRIPTURAL COMFORT IN A TIME OF UPHEAVAL

The events leading up to John Robins' incarceration are colorful and many. But if we trace them backwards, we find literalism at the root. While we know little of Robins' life before his sensational spiritual endeavors, he was likely born into a household where this kind of Bible reading was common practice. His father is known to have donated money to another religious dissident, the Somerset minister John Traske. Traske is commonly associated with the legalist heresy, which insists that Christians continue to abide by Judaic law. Traske and his followers adopted a number of Jewish practices, including the Saturday Sabbath, following kosher guidelines in the preparation of meat, and other dietary restrictions.

Indeed, Robins followed Traske in the observation of dietary laws, and required his followers to subsist exclusively on bread, fruit, and water. The scriptural precedents of this diet are complex, resting in part on an adherence to stipulations put forth in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. But the literal reception of Genesis 3 also plays a part, in which Adam and Eve are sentenced to death for their failure to eat in a fashion according with divine instruction. The absence of meat from Robins' prescribed diet is likely motivated by the notion that, without death in Eden, a prelapsarian Adam (of whom Robins fancied himself an incarnation) was a vegetarian.

Perhaps Robins should have questioned his contextless Biblical reading practices when several of his disciples, as a result of this meager diet, died of malnutrition. But, like Abraham (another of Robins' past lives, he claimed), Robins required that his male disciples circumcise themselves (recall that topical anesthetics and antiseptics would not be commonly used for another 200 years). According to a strained literal reception of Levirate marriage laws, coupled with communal-property passages championed by the Diggers, the members of Robins' sect were allowed to swap spouses. It is unclear if Robins' own wife, Joan, was romantically involved with his right-hand man, Joshua Garment. But we do know that Robins later switched her out with the wife of one of his followers, even though Joan was currently pregnant with Robins' child.

This kind of liberality is especially shocking when we learn that Robins and his followers recognized the child in Joan's womb as the messiah. The sine macula seems to have been discarded in this case and trinitarian concepts are confused, but the claim that his child is the Son of God by implication elevated Robins from patriarchal reincarnation to deity.

In his capacity as the Christological King, Priest, and Prophet, Robins planned to lead the 144,000 righteous mentioned in Revelation to Mount Olivet in anticipation of the apocalypse. Already there was rumors that Robins had, or would, emulate Christ on the Sea of Galilee by walking across the surface of the Thames. But in his plan to lead the believers into the Promised Land—replete with promises that he would part the Red Sea and feed his followers with heavenly manna—Robins' literal interpretation became literal re-enactment. So lost is the concept of context that Robins expected to be able to re-create events that supposedly transpired over 3,000 years ago in his own time.

Unfortunately, Robins never had the opportunity to prove the veracity of his claims to the world. The time of the apocalypse was set to occur “even before next March, 1652,” but he, along with Joan and seven of his disciples, was arrested at Moorfields in May of 1651.

While his disciples maintained their belief in Robins' divinity under question by the authorities, Robins himself denied he had ever claimed that status. Eventually, after months in prison, he recanted his views in toto. Cromwell granted his request for pardon, suggesting that miracles continued to occur in Robins' day and age.

Upon his release, Robins moved back to Somerset where he re-purchased lands he had once farmed. There was rumor that he bought the lands with funds acquired from his cult, for he had demanded that his followers relinquish their estates for common use within the sect. But we must keep in mind that much of the information we have about Robins is via hostile parties.

What the 17th and 21st centuries have in common, then, is change. Like our early-modern predecessors, in the face of change we seek out unchangeable sources of precedent and authority. And what is less changeable than God and his Word?

Thus it is difficult to know what to make of Robins and his short-lived cult. Did he ever believe what he preached? We do know that several people visited him in prison to debate his teachings, including rival dissidents John Reeve and Lodowicke Muggleton (both staunch adversaries of scriptural literalism). Could they have convinced him of the error of his ways?

In any case, the easiest conclusion is that Robins was an insane or manipulative man, and thus an irrelevant singularity. It is also easy to think of the time in which Robins lived as an era of ignorance and hysteria that has no bearing on our own age of enlightenment and reason. But the truth is that Robins' time and ours have much in common. Both were times of great strides in science and philosophy. Both saw significant shifts in the social strata and in political theory. As Western Europeans made contact with the New World, Robins' time was one of increasing globalization, much like our own. Both Robins' age and ours experienced difficulties with and drastic changes in the national economy.

What the 17th and 21st centuries have in common, then, is change. Like our early-modern predecessors, in the face of change we seek out unchangeable sources of precedent and authority. And what is less changeable than God and his Word?

Why wouldn't Robins, who read the Bible in a strictly literal sense, recognize the socio-political, economic, and religious upheavals of his day as evidence of an impending apocalypse. Did not the English Civil Wars resemble the wars repeatedly described in Revelation? And in the face of the fervent religious debate that typified the mid-17th century—in which each of the countless dissenting factions held a different and uncompromising view of how salvation is attained—how was the average sinner to know who or what to believe? In an age where essentially no one doubted the reality of God, such uncertainty can only be described as terrifying. Thus Robins, armed only with the literal sense of the scripture, attempted to skirt uncertainty by literally acting out narratives from the Bible; if it worked for the Israelites in the 15th century B.C.E., maybe it would work for Robins in the 17th century C.E. To the interpretive mind devoid of context, why couldn't Christ's 1st century advent be re-created 1,600 years later?

Cults may be less common today than in 1652, but a narrow, literalist view of scriptural condemnation is widespread, and thriving. As our social, political, and economic contexts shift, so must the way we read the Good Book. It is a living, complex text that, alongside outmoded rules and regulations, embodies a message of mutability and re-birth. Paul himself endorses the value of spiritual and moral adaptation: “Old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.”

Cults and (Sub)cultures is Pacific Standard's series of reported essays on all things cult, from religion to pop culture.

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