A Selective Look at False Prophets and the Faith of their Followers: Part One. From the Reformation to the 1760’s

Taken and adapted from, “Chambers’s Miscellany”  Vol. IV.
Written by William Chambers


ALL excesses are dangerous…

…and none perhaps more so than an excess in devotional feeling. Of religious excesses, originating either in imposture or the delusions of an overheated temperament, the world has had many lamentable examples. During the last thousand years, there have appeared as many as twenty false Messiahs, besides an incalculable number of persons who have presumed, with equal impiety, to declare themselves to be prophets specially sent by God. History abounds in accounts of these deluded beings, and of their temporary success in working on the credulity of followers. For the sake of general information, and, if possible, to guard simple-minded people from being deceived by the claims of all such pretenders, we present the following account of a few of the principal religious impostors, or at least self-deceived fanaticism of  modem times commencing with:


In the year 1525, amid the turmoil of the Reformation, there arose a remarkable sect in Germany, headed by a fanatic named Thomas Munzer, who declared himself to be an inspired prophet. The members of the sect pretended to be the peculiar favorites of Heaven, the chosen instruments of God to effect the millennium reign of Christ on earth. They believed that they had familiar personal intercourse with the Deity that they were on an equal footing with the prophets and apostles of old, and were armed against all opposition by the power of working miracles. Their pretended visions, miracles, and prophecies soon kindled the flame of fanaticism in the minds of the peasants. Their prophet and leader at length took the field, attended by his deluded followers, with the intention of overturning all governments and laws, giving as a reason that the world was now to be governed by the founder of Christianity in person. The Elector of Saxony and other princes raised an army to withstand the dangerous pretensions of the sect.

About five thousand were slain in battle, the leader of the mob was executed, and the fanaticism apparently quelled.

A few years later a similar delusion was propagated in Westphalia, a district in Lower Germany, by John Bockholt, a tailor by profession, and a native of Leyden, in Holland “hence his popular name of John of Leyden. This man, with the aid of a few equally infatuated zealots, began to spread his doctrines in Munster, the capital of Westphalia, in the year 1533, and, as in all similar cases, soon gained listeners, some of whom became believers in his pretensions.

John of Leyden, like a number of his predecessors, assumed the character of a temporal prince. He persuaded his credulous followers that a new spiritual kingdom was to be established, and that Munster was to be its capital, whence laws should be sent forth to govern all the kings of the earth. This presumptuous idea was flattering to the mob, and the Leyden tailor gained continual gathering of adherents. As he went on, even the learned, including some monks, joined his sect, until at length he found himself powerful enough to venture on his great project. His followers rose suddenly in arms, attacked and deposed the magistrates, and became masters of the city. Immediately afterwards John of Leyden was proclaimed king of the New Jerusalem.

We have said nothing of the doctrines or personal doings of the man who thus got the sway of a great city containing many thousands of people. His extravagances are almost incredible. He married eleven wives, to shew his approbation of the polygamy which prevailed in the times of other kings of Jerusalem; and to further compare himself to a particular king of the Hebrews, he ran or madly danced, without apparel, through the streets of Munster.

Other most offensive and pernicious acts were daily committed by this mock-monarch, whom it is charity to set down as insane. He of course saw visions and dreamt dreams in abundance. In one dream it was communicated to him, he said, that the cities of Amsterdam, Deventer, and Wesel were given to him as his own.

He accordingly sent disciples or bishops thither to spread his new kingdom. In the state of the public mind at the period, these religious embassies were not, as they appear now, ridiculous. The Amsterdam envoy gathered so many proselytes, that he attempted to seize on the city. He marched his followers to the town-house on a given day, with drums beating and colors flying. Having seized on the house, he fixed his head-quarters there; but the burghers rose, and with some regular troops surrounded the fanatics; the whole of them were put to death in a severe manner, in order to intimidate others of the class.

It may well be imagined that the city of Munster was in a dreadful condition under John of Leyden, it being a doctrine of the sect that all things should be in common among the faithful; and they also taught that civil magistrates were utterly useless. Hence enormous crimes, as well as ridiculous follies, were practiced continually –real enthusiasm of belief adding to the evil rather than diminishing it. The following incident is the only one descriptive of the insane and scandalous practices of the sect which we shall venture to record –a specimen is enough. Twelve of them met, five being women, in a Private house. One of the men, a tailor by trade, having prayed for four hours in a sort of trance, then took off his garments, and throwing them into the flames, commanded the rest to do the same. All did so; and the whole subsequently went out to the streets, which they paraded, crying, ‘Woe! Woe! Woe to Babylon!’ and the like. Being seized and taken before a magistrate, they refused to dress themselves, saying, ‘We are the naked truth!’ Were it not for the sequel, we might simply feel disgust at this, as the doing, possibly, of shameless profligates. But when these very persons, instead of being placed in lunatic asylums, were taken to the scaffold, they sang and danced for joy, and died with all the marks of sincere religious enthusiasm.

John of Leyden did not long enjoy the throne of Munster. Its rightful sovereign and bishop, Count Waldeck, aided by other petty princes of Germany, assembled an army and marched against the city. The fanatics shut its gates and resisted; nor was it until after an obstinate siege that the occupants were overcome. The mock-monarch was taken, and suffered a cruel death, with great numbers of his wrong-headed associates.

The popular hallucination, however, did not end here. The severe laws which were enacted after the deaths of Munzer and Bockholt, in order to check the spread of their principles, were of no preventive value; perhaps the reverse. We are told by Mosheim, that immediately after the taking of Munster, ‘the innocent and the guilty were often involved in the same terrible fate, and prodigious numbers were devoted to death in the most dreadful forms.’ There is proof, too, as in the single case detailed, that even where great profligacy characterized their peculiar course of conduct, there was often mixed up with it such an amount of sincerity as ought to make us think of them with pity as beings laboring under a strange delusion, rather than blame them as persons erring under the common impulses leading to vice. ‘In almost all the countries of Europe, an unspeakable number of these wretches preferred death in its worst forms to a retraction of their errors. Neither the view of the flames kindled to consume them, nor the ignominy of the gibbet, nor the terrors of the sword, could shake their invincible but ill-placed constancy, or induce them to abandon tenets that appeared dearer to them than life and all its enjoyments.’ The more enlightened policy of modern times would either leave alone such unhappy beings, or consign them to the humane treatment of a lunatic asylum.


Richard Brothers was born in Newfoundland in 1760, and for several years served as a midshipman and lieutenant in the British royal navy. In the year 1784 a reduction of the navy took place, and he was paid off, to live for the future upon an allowance of three shillings a day. No particular eccentricities of conduct were described or noticed.

Brothers up to the year 1790, when his understanding, according to his own shewing, began first to be really ‘enlightened; although,’ says he, ‘I had always a presentiment of being some time or other very great.’ The enlightenment took the shape of an objection to the oath which he was obliged by form to take in receiving his half-yearly pay, and which bears to be a ‘voluntary’ attestation that he had not received the benefit of public employment during the term for which he draws his salary. Mr. Brothers found here a difficulty which seems really somewhat puzzling. ‘I do not wish,’ he reasoned, ‘to take any oath if I can possibly avoid it, and yet part of my attestation is, that I swear voluntarily. This makes me utter and sign a falsehood, as the oath is compulsory, my pay not being procurable without it.’ The head of the Admiralty (the Earl of Chatham) would not depart from the ordinary form in such cases, and Mr. Brothers was left half starving, for the space of a year or so, on the horns of this dilemma. Anxiety of mind appears to have given the decisive bent, at this period, to his awakening fanatical tendencies.

The next tidings which we have of Mr. Brothers result from the application, in 1791, of Mrs. Green, a lodging-housekeeper in Westminster, to one of the workhouses in that district, expecting a lodger of hers who owed her thirty-three pounds, and whom she was unable to keep any longer, as his conscience would not allow him to draw the pay due to him from the Admiralty. The workhouse board pitied the poor woman, who spoke highly of the honesty, good temper, and moral conduct of her lodger. They sent for Mr. Brothers. ‘His appearance,’ says a writer who was present, ‘prepossessed me greatly in his favor. He seemed about thirty years of age, tall, and well-formed, and shewed in his address and manner much mildness and gentility.’ He answered questions calmly, though his replies were all tinctured with fanaticism. The issue was, that the board took him off Mrs. Green’s hands for a time, and stated the case fully to the Admiralty; which body, on the score of the eccentricities deposed to by the widow, granted the pension to Mr. Brothers for the future without the oath.

Richard Brothers, comparatively easy in worldly circumstances, now came before the world as a prophet. He did not publish his ‘great’ works till 1794; but long before that time his prophetic announcements had been spread abroad, and he had made a mighty stir in the world. His house was constantly filled by persons of quality and fortune, of both sexes, and the street crowded with their carriages. There was at least one Member of Parliament, Nathaniel Brassey Halhed, a gentleman known as a profound oriental scholar, and author of some highly valued compositions, who openly espoused the views and cause of Brothers, sounding his praises in the British senate, and supporting him by learned dissertations from the press.

Oxford divines did not disdain to enter the field as opponents of the new prophet; scores of pious enthusiasts ‘testified’ in his favor; thousands trembled at his denunciations of woe; and, in short, Richard Brothers became, what he ‘had always a presentiment of being some time or other –a very great man.’

To glance at the mass of absurdities –blasphemous in the extreme, if viewed as the outpourings of mental sanity –which men thus allowed to arrest their attention, excites a sense alike of the painful and ludicrous. That the man was neither more nor less than a confirmed lunatic, appears on the face of every chapter. If there was any admixture of imposture in the case, certainly self-delusion was the prevailing feature. The following selections, which, so far from being the most gross specimens of his ravings, are only such as may without impropriety be set down here, will satisfy every reader of the diseased organization of the prophet’s head. He calls his work, which appeared in two books, A Revealed Knowledge of the Prophecies and Times, with a further heading which could scarcely be repeated. He had found out in his visions that his ancestors had been Jews, though ‘separated from that race for fifteen hundred years, such a length of time as to make them forget they ever belonged to the name.’ The discovery of his Hebrew descent was an essential point, as the prophet was to be the ‘prince and restorer of the Jews by the year 1798.’ Absurd enough as this assumed genealogy was, what term should be applied to the further assumption, was defended by Mr. Halhed in parliament, –that such a descent would render him ‘nephew’ to the Divine Being!

One of Brothers’s more important prophecies was, that London would be destroyed in 1791; and will it be credited that such a piece of nonsense should at the time have created great uneasiness in the minds of many persons in the metropolis? To finish the farce, London was not destroyed at the time predicted; but that only gave the prophet grounds for self-laudation: it was saved by his interposition! He describes minutely what the state of things would otherwise have been, in order, no doubt, to make the sense of the escape stronger. ‘London would have formed a great bay or inlet of the channel; all the land between Windsor and the Downs would have been sunk, including a distance of eighteen miles on each side, to the depth of seventy fathoms, that no traces of the city might be ever found.’

Mr Brothers had many visions of solid temporal power and honors. In a vision he was shewn ‘the queen of England coming towards me, slow, trembling, and afraid. This was communicated to William Pitt in the month called June 1792. ‘In another vision he saw the English monarch rise from the throne, and humbly send him ‘a most magnificent star.’ What this meant the prophet could not at first tell, but it was ‘revealed’ to signify that entire power was given to him over the majesty of England. A letter describing the vision,’ with others to the king, queen, and Chancellor of the Exchequer were put into the penny post-office to, be sent by that conveyance, according to the directions I received on that head by revelation.’ But Brothers was still more direct in his announcements to the king of his coming fall. In his book he plainly says: ‘I tell you, George the Third, king of England, that immediately on my being revealed in London to the Hebrews as their prince, and to all nations as their governor, your crown must be delivered up to me, that all your power and authority may instantly cease.’ The ‘revelation’ spoken of was to be effected openly and visibly. ‘I am to take a rod and throw it on the ground, when it will be changed into a serpent; to take it in my hand again, when it will be re-changed into a rod.’

Can it be possible that ravings such as these, which are among the least objectionable in the book, brought carriages full of admiring people of quality to the door of Richard Brothers, and were defended by a learned senator of Britain? That they did so is undeniable; and here lies the apology for yet holding the case up to ridicule. But space and time enough have now been occupied with the task, and we must speedily draw to an end with Richard Brothers. He shewed most fully the extent of his self-delusion, perhaps, on the occasion of his visit to the House of Commons.

After formally announcing that he was about to do so, he went to that place for the purpose of prophesying to the members of wars and rumors of wars, and of directing them, as their true ‘king and minister of state,’ how to avoid the coming perils. Strange to say, the reckless speaker sent back the letter of the prophet with a messenger, who set him off with what he felt to be, ‘in such a public place particularly unfeeling contempt and incivility.’ But the House of Commons had not yet seen the last of Richard Brothers. On the 4th of March 1795 the poor prophet was taken into custody, ostensibly to answer a charge of high treason, founded on the printed passages relating to the king, but in reality to try the sanity of the man in a regular way. He was tried, and was declared by a jury to be insane. The imputation both of insanity and high treason was combated, in two long speeches in the House of Commons, by Mr Halhed, and these speeches shew both learning and ingenuity in no slight degree. But the case was too strong for Mr Halhed, and his motions fell to the ground unseconded.

Richard Brothers now fell under the care of the lord-chancellor as a lunatic, and passed the whole of his remaining days, we believe, in private confinement. Doubtless he would there be much more happy than in the midst of a world for which his unfortunate situation unfitted him. The victims of such illusions create a world of their own around them, and in imaginary intercourse with the beings that people it, find more pleasure than in any commerce with the material creation. Richard Brothers, as far as he lived at all for the ordinary world, lived only to give another proof of the strength of the superstitious feeling and love of the marvelous in man, as well as of the difficulty which even education has in repressing their undue exercise.