“There started up in London about the beginning of the late war, a new pseudo-prophet whose name was Richard Brothers, who called himself King of the Hebrews, and Nephew of God…
… he had seen the Devil walking leisurely up Tottenham-Court-road”
In 1795, prophet Richard Brothers prophesied that London would be destroyed and the English government be removed, annihilated, utterly destroyed… He announced that 4th June was to be the day of judgement.
Brothers was born in Newfoundland, Canada, on 25 December 1757, to an English soldier garrisoned there (surely being born on Xmas Day helped kickstart Messianic thinking?) He was sent to England as a child for his education; he later became a midshipman in the Royal Navy, aged thirteen. However, his experience of life in the British Navy was not pleasant, leaving him with a lasting repugnance for wars and blasphemy, especially for Christian prayers for military success and mandatory sacred oaths for military allegiance. Brothers semi-retired from the Navy as a Lieutenant on half-pay (potentially available for recall to service) in 1784. His activities and whereabouts for the next five years remain a mystery, though he is thought to have served on merchant ships, traveling to ports in France, Italy and Spain.
At some point in his career, possibly around 1789, Brothers became convinced that God was speaking to him personally, through divine revelation, and that he had been called to be a latter-day prophet and eventual messiah. Well, haven’t we all…?
Around 1789-90 Brothers found himself back in England, in the region of London. His growing belief that swearing oaths to serve the king was wrong left him not only skint (as he had to swear to receive his half-pay) but increasingly questioning religious orthodoxy. During unusually severe thunderstorms in 1791, he fled London, believing that God was about to destroy the city for its wickedness. When London was not, in fact, destroyed, Brothers attributed its temporary salvation to his own prayers to God for its deliverance.
Brothers became convinced that he was a chosen Israelite of the House of David, empowered to call the Jews and other Israelites out from their dispersion among the nations and lead them back to Jerusalem in Turkish Palestine. He claimed descent from the biblical King David and through Jesus’ Brother James the Righteous, making him a “Prince of The Hebrews” and rightful latter day King of Judah, as well as the Messiah. Nice gig if you can get it.
In February 1792 Brothers declared himself a healer and claimed he could restore sight to the blind. He drew large crowds, but not due to his healing ability as much as his small gifts of money to those he prayed for.
Brothers’ prophesy that he would lead all the world’s scattered Israelites back to Palestine and there rebuild Jerusalem tapped into and helped firm up the growing strand that was the British ‘Israelite’ tradition – the belief that Britons and other western Europeans are descended from the biblical ten lost tribes of Israel… a fascinating bywater that has produced some strange and on occasion very dodgy ideas…
The new prophet was sometimes called the “Nephew of the Almighty,” apparently by his growing band of followers, as well as by those who branded him a religious fanatic and a madman.
Brothers’ revelations (accompanied by his own commentary on selected biblical texts) began to appear in print at the beginning of the 1790s and some were compiled into a booklet for public sale in London as early as 1794.
As prophets tend to do, Brothers emerged at a time of great social dislocation, political turmoil. Britain was at war with the revolutionary French regime – a war that was growing increasingly unpopular. Brothers’ prophesies and pronouncements chimed somewhat with the growing radical movement demanding political reform and denouncing war on a revolutionary France which inspired them; his millenarian prophecies excited radicals and the disillusioned and desperate; his followers to some extent cross-pollinated with the tavern-going radical scene. The partial merging of radical, religious and mystical ideas which surrounded Brothers and other such figures produced definite hybrid radical-millenarians like James Hadfield, would-be assassin of king George III.
The time, and the milieu, in some ways echoes the years of the English Revolution, though going back as far as the 16th century there had also been such religio-political rebels who crossed the streams, like the Anabaptists… and a tradition combining millenarian religion and social discontent goes back to the Brethren of the free Spirit, the Taborites, and well beyond…
Brothers’ ‘Revealed Knowledge of the Prophecies and Times’ was published early in 1794. Like most self-appointed prophets, his writings claimed a working knowledge of the immediate plans of God, shot through with the (re-rigeur) spicy passages from the Book of Revelation, eg “All nations have drunk of the wine of the wrath of Babylon’s fornication, and the kings of the earth have committed fornication, with her, and the merchants of the earth are waxed rich through the abundance of her delicacies…” Wrath of the almighty, imminent smiting, repent, repent, Etc etc.
Some of his political predictions (such as the violent death of the French king Louis XVI) seemed to be proof that he was inspired.
“Some of his vague predictions could not fail to appear to be fulfilled, and they were recalled to mind when the French armies were victorious.” Members of the radical London Corresponding Society used to visit him: they perhaps even prompted some of his ideas.
William Sharp, a famous, engraver and political reformer, became a disciple (Sharp also later followed another prophet Joanna Southcott).
Brothers “wrote letters to the King and to all the members of parliament, calling Upon them to give ear to the word of God, and prepare for the speedy establishment of his kingdom upon earth. He announced to his believers his intention of speedily setting out for Jerusalem to take possession of his metropolis, and invited them to accompany him. Some of these poor people actually shut up their shops, forsook their business and their families, and travelled from distant parts of the country to London to join him, and depart with him whenever he gave the word. Before he went, he said, he would prove the truth of his mission by public miracle, he would throw down his stick in the Strand at noon day, and it should become a serpent; and he affirmed he had already made the experiment and successfully performed it in private. A manifest falsehood, but not a wilful one; in like manner he said that he had seen the Devil walking leisurely up Tottenham-Court~road … He threatened London with an earthquake because of its unbelief, and at length named the day when the city should be destroyed.” (Robert Southey, Letters from England, 1807.)
An 8‑page leaflet was published of Brother’s Prophecy of all the Remarkable and Wonderful Events which will come to pass … foretelling the Downfall of the Pope; a Revolution in Spain, Portugal, and Germany; the Death of Certain Great Persons in this and other Countries. Also a dreadful Famine, Pestilence, and Earthquake… . In England there was to be ‘sorrow and great woe, mingled with joy unspeakable’; ‘the proud and lofty shall be humbled, even to the dust; but the righteous and poor shall flourish on the ruins of the wicked; the Palaces shall be ‑‑ and Cottages shall be ‑.’As for the Famine, Pestilence, and Earthquake, these were to be seen as metaphorical:
The Famine shall destroy none but the Caterpillars of Spain and _. The Pestilence shall sweep away the Locusts that eat up the harvest of Industry; and the Earthquake shall swallow up the monstrous Leviathan, with all his train. In all these things the poor, the honest, the virtuous, and the patriotic, shall rejoice.
‘France must bleed afresh, but none but contaminated blood shall flow.’ ‘Italy shall hurl the Antechrist from his throne…’ Turkey and Russia will be plunged in war, ending in the destruction of the Ottoman Porte, the Mahometan Faith, the Russian Empire and the Greek Church. At the end of these signs of mercy, there will be an era of universal brotherhood. ‘All shall be as one people, and of one mind. . .. The Christian, the Turk, and the Pagan shall no longer be distinguished the one from the other’:
The time is come, and now is the whore of Babylon falling, and will fall to rise no more. Go forth, then, ye Sons of Eternal Light, and instruct the Sons of Ignorance and Darkness…
Then shall there be no more war, no more want, no more wickedness; but all shall be peace, plenty, and virtue.”
The date Brothers fixed when the imminent maelstrom would hit the capital was June 4th 1795. Did people take him seriously? Some did. Reformer and radical printer, John Binns wrote in his autobiography that many believed in the prophesy in the capital: “It would be difficult… to convey and adequate idea of eh nature and extent of the fears and apprehensions to which this prediction gave birth.” As it happened, June 4th coincided with a thunderstorm of ‘exceptional severity’, accompanied by heavy rain and hail, which sent some into a panic; Binns, on his way to a meeting of the London Corresponding Society, took shelter from the downpour in an ale-house, where he found 50 or 60 people (to his amusement and surprise) awaiting Brothers’ foretold apocalypse. See the header of this post also, for Gillray’s engraving, Presages of the Millennium, as Revealed to R. Brothers, published on the very day of the foretold apocalypse.
“Many persons left town to avoid this threatened calamity; the day passed by, he claimed the merit of having prevailed in prayer and obtained a respite, and fixed another …”
Shortly afterwards Brothers announced that London had been spared only as the result of his personal last-minute intervention; and since he obviously wielded such influence with the Almighty his following was doubled at a stroke.
By this time, Brothers himself was behind bars. His pronouncements that the king and royal family would either have to abdicate in his favour or be destroyed by God, and foretelling the imminent destruction of parliament, and the capital to be followed by the apocalypse, were expressed in language that alarmed the authorities. Unlike his more quietist contemporary Joanna Southcott, Brothers had begun to seem a threat to order. He was arrested on the orders of the Privy Council shortly before the foretold Apocalypse, in May 1795, charged with teaching seditious nonsense and claiming that God command England refrain from military action against Republican France… He was then sectioned.
“Government at last thought fit to interfere, and committed Brothers to the national hospital for madmen … Thus easily and effectually was this wild heresy crushed. Brothers continued to threaten earthquakes, fixed days for them, and prorogue them after the day was passed, but his influence was at an end … He was lucky enough to find out better consolation for himself. There was a female lunatic in the same hospital, whom he discovered to be the destined Queen of the Hebrews; and as such announced her to the world. At present he and this chosen partner of the throne of David are in daily expectation of a miraculous deliverance, after which they are to proceed to Jerusalem to be crowned, and commence their reign.”
(Robert Southey, Letters from England, 1807.)
Escaping a sentence of treason, by reason of insanity, and with the advocacy of an MP who supported his case, he was committed as a lunatic to a private asylum in Islington (probably Fisher House, which stood off Essex Road). The “Nephew of God” was locked in the madhouse for eleven years.
While he was in the private asylum Brothers wrote a variety of prophetic pamphlets which gained him many believers. But when Brothers predicted that, on 19 November 1795 he would be revealed as Prince of the Hebrews and Ruler of the world, and the date passed without this manifesting, followers tended to drift away either disillusioned or embarrassed.
He was finally released in 1806, when the authorities decided he was no longer a menace to society.
Besides being widely reprinted under his own name, several of Brothers’ prophesies were included in a popular rendition of apocalyptic predictions published later in 1795, entitled The World’s Doom.
A few of his followers, like George Turner of Leeds, continued to agitate for his release until the turn of the century (threatening destruction upon the English Babylon if the prophet remained confined).
Due to his long incarceration, Brothers gradually faded from public prominence; to some extent, his mantle as the Chosen One was taken over by Joanna Southcott, who picked up many of his followers over the years. In some of the Southcottian traditions that survived into the 20th century Southcott is identified as identified as Brothers’ successor, a bit like John the Baptist to her Jesus.
Socialist historian EP Thompson theorised that the support for the millenarian and apocalyptic predictions of Brothers and Southcott was stimulated largely by the terrible dislocations of the industrial revolution which were upheaving many long-held ways of life and pushing millions into new and more exploitative forms of work and poverty. This ‘chiliasm of despair’, as he called it, seemed to him a response offering some certainty and an immediate better future in dark times. However, Clarke Garrett, in his study of millenarianism in relation to the French Revolution, ‘Respectable Folly’, points out that to some extent Brothers and especially Southcott’s greatest support came when the dream or belief in an English revolution seemed to have been disillusioned; if people had felt there was a chance of more egalitarian social change or political reform in the favour of the lower orders, this was dissipating in reaction and war. Garrett suggests Southcottianism in particular represented a retreat from political ideals into mystical promise. I do wonder if some of the enthusiasm for Brothers’ prophesies of doom was a kind of nihilistic desire among the despairing to see a society they hated crash and burn…
This kind of draining of social ideals into otherworldly or individual mysticism does seem to follow a pattern; the 1650s saw similar trajectories after the Civil War ended with defeat for the most progressive elements; and check out what happened to all those radicals from the 1960s in the 70s, and the immense growth in meditation, eastern religion, cults and other nonsense.
Richard Brothers died in London, largely forgotten, in January 1824.
The Panacea Society, still holding on to the dream of the Millennium after all these years, have some copies of Richard Brothers’ prophesies in their archive