Infidels, Demons, Witches, and Quakers

Infidels, Demons, Witches, and Quakers December 8, 2017

I have an article out in the new issue of Fides et Historia, under the ambitious title of “Infidels, Demons, Witches and Quakers: The Affair of Colonel Bowen” (vol. 49(2)(2017): 1-15). You can read the whole article of course, but I just want to summarize it here and suggest some of the reasons the topic so appealed to me. The core story tells us a lot about the directions that Anglo-American Puritanism traveled in its first decades. It also offers a nice example of how a detailed case-study can reveal a lot about the wider society – about religious history in general, Baptist and Quaker history in particular, the history of gender and family, and imperial history. Obviously, the published version of my article contains a great deal more material and illustration than I can possibly offer here.

The basic tale is easy enough to find, because it became a popular moral lesson in the seventeenth century and beyond. In the 1650s, under Cromwellian rule, there was a Welsh army officer named Henry Bowen, who was serving in the garrison in occupied Ireland. He had developed ideas that other Puritans considered to be outright atheism. Katherine Bowen, meanwhile, his pious Baptist wife, continued to live in the family house in Wales, which was increasingly troubled by horrible ghostly manifestations. These activities are superbly and intricately described, and I demand the rights to what should be an incredible horror film. The haunting culminated when Katherine was visited by a ghostly double of her husband, who wanted to join her in bed. She fled, and called in her pastor and other pious people to exorcise the house.

For early commentators on the story, notably the great Richard Baxter, the story was doubly valuable in combating skepticism and atheism or infidelity. From a pious perspective, Bowen’s beliefs had opened his family to demonic assault, and at the same time, the documented reality of the hauntings proved that such supernatural incursions could and did occur. Up to modern times, then, the story has often been retold as a Great Welsh Ghost Story.

But there is so much more to Colonel Bowen. Bowen demonstrates the trajectory we find remarkably frequently among early Puritans across the British Isles, especially those who favored Baptist ideas and polity. That Baptist context was critical for much of what followed. Familiar as we are with the idea of baptism as a voluntary procedure for adult believers, it is easy to forget how extraordinarily radical this concept was at the time, rejecting as it did the familiar identification of the church community with a larger society, whether or not that society defined itself as Christian. This introduced a whole new element of voluntarism and individualism, which speedily ran unchecked – the common metaphor at the time was “like fire in the thatch.” Like so much else in early Protestantism, the Baptist movement was ultimately about questions of spiritual authority.

The movement raised a further question that proved traumatic. Yes, the true believer should withdraw from a sinful society to adhere to a pure church of the Elect. But did that same imperative apply to seceding from a family one had come to see as ungodly? Could or should a true Christian be yoked together with an unbeliever? Families could and did split. The fault-lines of the Radical Reformation ran through families, and that dynamic shaped the Bowen affair.

Many of these Puritan pioneers, then, followed highly individualistic paths and scriptural interpretations, combined with a sweeping rejection of any worldly hierarchies or clerical power, and they came to doubt many aspects of traditional orthodoxy. Some became Seekers, and many evolved from that position into the Quakerism of the 1650s, with its emphasis on the Inner Light. God was within, the stance I have called Immanentist. (I have blogged about this trend on several occasions). However radical the ideas might appear, they followed a direct and even  logical trajectory from early Baptist thought.

Among other consequences, this package implied a rejection of familiar hierarchies and assumptions, including those concerning gender. The Spirit was poured out on men and women alike, on rich and poor, young and old. Among their many provocations, radicals refused to use the proper forms of speech to their social superiors, addressing them instead with the familiar thee and thou.

One of my discoveries about Colonel Bowen is that his sister was an outspoken Quaker militant, who publicly denounced the Puritan clergy of the day and their churches – their “steeple houses” that pretended to be houses of God. One minister actually struck the woman for theeing and thouing him. So right away, the relationship within the Bowen family becomes a highly theological struggle, between Seekers, Ranters, and Quakers on the one hand, and orthodox Puritans and Baptists on the other. Katherine Bowen belonged firmly to the orthodox side of the divide, her husband and sister-in-law were at the other extreme. Family dinner conversations must have been, well, eventful.

Adding to the brew, the family’s Baptist pastor, John Miles, was a staunch upholder of orthodoxy, and a bitter enemy of heresy as he defined it.

That religious schism acquired a psychological and sexual dimension. Imagine Katherine Bowen mulling over her sharply divided duties through a long Welsh winter. As a faithful Christian wife, she must obey her husband, including in his sexual desires. But as a faithful wife, she also knows that he has traveled into damnable heresy, and that (to repeat) she must never be yoked with such an unbeliever. To some extent, he had already abandoned and rejected his family, and treated her scornfully. So how could Katherine reconcile the two absolutes, the competing demands of scripture and divine law?

And one stormy night, perhaps in a dream or a semi-waking state, she imagines the form of her husband appearing to her, with his pathetic plea of “What! Not the husband of thy bosom?” Still, she must reject him sexually, and the dream vision is reimagined as a demonic seducer, a demon lover. The ensuing account of the panic in the household suggests a powerful sexual dimension, with most of the narrative occurring in and around the marital bed, and Katherine and her cowering serving women in various stages of undress.

Another theme that emerged was how very close this incident came to detonating a major witchcraft panic. So much of what happens here sounds like the opening stages of one of the notorious cases of that era, not least the spectral apparitions that would be so pivotal to the Salem cases. Early contemporaries actually did refer to it in these alarming terms, and it is easy to see how allegations and accusations might have spiraled out of control. This was one of the great British witch panics that never happened.

The final key point of the story for me was the very strong American and New England dimension. The pastor, John Miles, was a pioneer of the Baptist movement in North America, and several characters in the tale travel readily between continents. When Henry’s sister and the other (mainly female) Quakers were denouncing Puritan ministers in the 1650s, their deadliest enemies and persecutors were men recently returned from New England. They naturally viewed these insurgencies in south Wales in the terms they were familiar with in the Americas. In turn, some of them went back to New England, determined not to let the same kind of anarchy they had witnessed in Britain manifest itself in Boston. It was between 1659 and 1661 that Boston Puritans executed three Quaker martyrs.

British, Irish, and North American stories were thoroughly integrated, and no one strand can be disentangled from the others. It was one world.

For me, the Bowen story is multiply instructive. Among other things, it helps demonstrate why the country’s elites were so happy to see a return to royal authority in 1660, and to halt the wild theological experimentation and speculation that was running riot in the Cromwell years. In whatever form, the national church had to be restored. The tighter the net was drawn in Britain, the greater the pressure for Quakers, Baptists and others to seek freedom across the seas.

So yes, the Bowen affair is a wonderful ghost story, but it is so much more than that.

Excuse me, I have to go cast a horror film.



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