Miracles in Enlightenment England

Jane Shaw. Miracles in Enlightenment England. Yale University Press, 2006.

The years between 1650 and 1750 saw both the birth of the enlightenment and the rise of the new science, and a profound intellectual interest in modern miracles. These challenged the contemporary growing Protestant belief that the age of miracles had ceased at the end of New Testament times. The miracles discussed here are largely those of miraculous healings whether achieved by prayer alone, or through the activities of charismatic healers such as Valentine Greatrakes, James Naylor or Bessie Bostock. These stories are, of course, still with us in terms of various healing ministries, “spiritual healers” and alternate therapies, the line from Greatrakes’ stroking to modern ideas of “therapeutic touch” is an obvious. Stories of returns from the dead and accounts of what today would be called Near Death Experiences were also around.

The other major ‘miracle’ was that of apparently surviving for long periods of time on little or no food, the traditions of fasting girls, represented in this period by Martha Taylor and Anne Jefferies. The latter’s story is perhaps known to Magonia readers, as she claimed to be fed by fairies, and has become seen as a sort of bridge to modern alien abduction folklore. This caused problems for her clerical backers, as it was not clear where fairies fitted into God’s providences.

With increasing class separation, and the rise of ‘polite society’ miracles, especially when as in the case of the French prophets, associated with noise, fuss and unseemly behaviour, became pass√©. In any case concepts of God, always influenced by earthly political mores, were changing. No longer was He seen as a cruel and capricious despot, a sort of cosmic Henry VIII, but as a wise and beneficent constitutional monarch, as law-bound as Dutch William. Indeed God was perhaps increasing viewed as a cross between King William and Isaac Newton, in a universe in which miracles were not just out of fashion but positively blasphemous.

Beneath this veneer of polite society the old world of witches, ghosts, boggarts and demons was to live on, brought out of the depths from time to time by people like John Wesley. For the polite, this was the world of dangerous enthusiasm, the underworld of disorder which threatened their nice country homes from time to time. The debates from these times are still with us, even if phrased in somewhat less theological language; in the arguments between those who see the sacred in terms of transcendental forces manifest in ‘anomalies’ and those who see it lying in the ‘laws of physics’ especially those expressed in the ‘beautiful’ language of mathematics. -- Peter Rogerson

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