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"There is neither hell nor damnation" - The Life of TheaurauJohn Tany

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John Rees's recently published book, The Leveller Revolution, sheds light on a neglected radical current in the English Revolution, but what of the other radicals thrown up in those tumultuous decades? In the second in a series of blog posts, Ariel Hessayon, Senior Lecturer in History at Goldsmiths, looks at the radical prophet Thomas Totney, better known as TheaurauJohn Tany.

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Now know I am a mad man.  And ye declare me so to be, it will be a weaknesse in you to question me

[TheaurauJohn Tany, The Nations Right in Magna Charta (1650), p. 8] 

I say, and many know, that by madness I came to knowing, and in time God will make me speak plain knowledge, that by all shall be acknowledged

[TheaurauJohn Tany, Theous Ori Apokolipikal (1651), pp. 62–63]

On Friday, 23 November 1649 Thomas Totney, a puritan and veteran of the Civil War, was working in his goldsmith’s shop at ‘The Three Golden Lions’ in the Strand.  He was to claim that after fourteen weeks of self-abasement, fasting and prayer the Lord came upon him in power, overwhelming his wisdom and understanding, smiting him dumb, blind and dead in the presence of hundreds of people. Next his body began to tremble and he was tied down in his bed. During his indescribable sufferings he saw the Passion of Jesus. Then he was transported into God’s presence in the ‘High and holy Mount’ where he beheld a great light shine within him and upon him, saying ‘Theaurau John my servant, I have chosen thee my Shepherd, thou art adorned with the jewel of Exceliency’.  He was convinced that the Lord had spoken unto him, changing his name from Thomas to TheaurauJohn.

Totney was baptized on 21 January 1608 in the parish of South Hykeham, Lincolnshire, the third but eldest surviving son of John Totney and Anne, née Snell.  His father, although a poor farmer and never of the parish elite, was a respectable member of the local community.  Nothing is known of Thomas’s education, yet it seems likely that by the age of seven he would have learned to read and by the age of nine, if his family could still cope without him, he would have learned to write. In April 1626 he was bound as an apprentice in London to a fishmonger but was not taught their trade.  Instead he received instruction in his master’s adopted profession, that of goldsmith.  On receiving his freedom he married a daughter of Richard Kett, a prosperous Norfolk landowner whose great-uncle had been executed as leader of the 1549 East Anglian rebellion; Kett’s uncle was burned for heresy in 1589 and his father imprisoned for the same offence.  Rather than serving as a journeyman, Totney quickly established himself as a householder – a costly progression suggesting he received a charitable loan or financial assistance from family and friends.  He set up in St. Katherine Creechurch, a location favoured by small retailers for its inexpensive rents, his shop marked by an unknown sign near Aldgate.  To ensure that Totney’s business activities fell within their orbit he was translated to the Goldsmiths’ Company in January 1634.  However, along with the majority of ‘remote’ goldsmiths he resisted a Company initiative which had gained royal approval, to vacate his dwelling and relocate in Cheapside, the hub of the goldsmiths’ trade.

Totney remained in St. Katherine Creechurch for another six years.  There he heard the fiery sermons of Stephen Denison on the immutability of God’s decrees of predestination.  It was a doctrine that troubled Totney until his epiphany. When his first son was born in December 1634 Totney refused to have him baptized, for which he was presented before an ecclesiastical court.  Following his wife’s death he remarried by licence during Lent, probably on Friday, 25 March 1636. This was the first day of the New Year in the old calendar and his actions hint at a type of confrontational godliness and perhaps also zealous Sabbatarianism. Upon his father’s death in 1638 he went to Little Shelford, Cambridgeshire to manage the family farm.  In the summer of 1640, probably while serving as one of the parish’s petty constables, he played an important part in resisting the collection of ship money.  By his own account he was imprisoned in London and his horse distrained on the county sheriff’s authority.  A series of payments in 1642 show his support for those opposed to Charles I.  Moreover, he claims to have witnessed one of Captain Oliver Cromwell’s orations delivered at Huntingdon to newly mustered volunteers.  Totney later possessed a great saddle, musket, pair of pistols and sword, suggesting he served as a harquebusier. By December 1644 he had returned to Little Shelford where he resumed his duties as a local tax official, as well as taking up sequestered land and providing quarter for Parliamentarian soldiers and their horses.  Following the outbreak of a second Civil War, Totney uprooted.  He rented out his lands to a local villager and moved with his family to St. Clement Danes, Westminster. In June 1648 his second wife died and was buried in the parish.

After his supposed revelation Thomas Totney assumed the prophetic name TheaurauJohn Tany. TheaurauJohn he understood to mean ‘God his declarer of the morning, the peaceful tidings of good things’.  While his former surname may have been vocalized as Tawtney, his new last name was usually pronounced Tawney. Because he had a speech impediment he may have dropped the consonant. In addition, he appropriated the coat of arms azure, three bars argent surmounted by the crest a hind’s head erased, gules, ducally gorged, or. This device, borne by Sir John de Tany of Essex during the reign of Edward I, appears on several of his works.  Furthermore, he declared himself ‘a Jew of the Tribe of Reuben’ and took the titles High Priest and Recorder to the thirteen Tribes of the Jews. Tany justified his claims by inventing a fantastic genealogy that traced his descent from Aaron, brother of Moses, through the tribe of Judah and by way of the ten tribes of Israel, the Tartars and the Welsh. He also circumcised himself.  Thereafter, believing he had been given the gift of tongues with which to preach the everlasting gospel of God’s light and love to all nations, he went forth armed with sword and word.  Crying vengeance in the streets of London, he declared woe and destruction upon that bloody city, prophesying that the ‘Earth shall burn as an Oven’ and all the proud, the wicked and the ‘ungodly shall be as stubble to this flame’.  Drawing on the potent image of Christ as goldsmith, purging dross and corruption in a furnace, Tany forged his prophetic identity – the messenger foretold by Malachi.  He claimed his authority rested with the one who sent him, God:

but who may abide the day of his appearing? for he is like fullers sope, a refiners fire. 

Insisting that the restitution of the Jews was at hand and that he had been sent forth to gather them and proclaim ‘Israels return’, Tany set about enacting a millenarian mission to restore the Jews to their own land.  In the manner of the children of Israel before him, he began living in a tent, perhaps modelled upon the tabernacle, which he decorated with a symbol representing the tribe of Judah. He preached in the parks and fields around London and gathered a handful of followers. His message was strong, denouncing the clergy as ‘diabolical dumb dogs, Tythe-mongers’, who fleece rather than succour the people. Gospel injunctions also made him demand justice:

feed the hungry, clothe the naked, oppress none, set free them bounden, if this be not, all your Religion is a lye, a vanity, a cheat, deceived and deceiving. 

Tany’s first publication was a broadside entitled I Proclaime From the Lord of Hosts The returne of the Jewes From their Captivity (25 April 1650). It is likely that Captain Robert Norwood, a wealthy London merchant, paid for its printing. In early September 1650 Tany was at Bradfield, Berkshire at the same time as William Everard, one-time leader of the Diggers. There was bedlam. It was reported that the rector, John Pordage, fell into a trance while preaching and that bellowing like a bull he ran to his house.  There Pordage found his wife upstairs clothed all in white from head to toe, holding a white rod in her hand. Moreover, an adolescent was said to have fallen into a very strange fit, foaming at the mouth for two hours.  He dictated verses concerning the destruction of London and demanded to go there to meet a goldsmith.

Tany next published two tracts:Whereas TheaurauJohn Taiiiiijour My servant (15 November 1650) and THE NATIONS RIGHT in Magna Charta (28 December 1650).  Both demonstrated his earnest desire for social reformation, the latter exhorting the common soldiers to dissolve Parliament and call fresh elections.  His next offering Aurora in Tranlagorum in Salem Gloria seems to have been written on three consecutive days in late December 1650.  It was printed by a Baptist who had previously printed a ‘very dangerous’ book.  The publisher was Thomas Totney’s brother-in-law.  It was sold by Giles Calvert from his shop at ‘The Black-spread-Eagle’ at the west end of St. Paul’s cathedral.  In January 1651 Tany wrote the first of the epistles that eventually comprised THEOUS ORI APOKOLIPIKAL (1651) and Second Part OF HIS Theous-Ori APOKOLIPIKAL (1653).  On 6 March he was apparently brought before the Westminster Assembly of Divines, responding to their questions with thirty-seven of his own queries.  Nonetheless, they accounted him mad.  Perhaps shortly thereafter he forsook his trade. 

On 25 March 1651 Tany preached at Eltham, Kent and then again on 13 April at Norwood’s house in St. Mary Aldermary.  In May Norwood was excommunicated from his gathered church.  The following month an indictment was prepared jointly against Norwood and Tany.  The indicters seem to have understood Tany as some type of Ranter, as one of ungodly conduct who allegorized the Bible and internalized hell; as an antiscripturian universalist who repudiated gospel ordinances and averred that men might live as they wished; as one who glorified sin and maintained that the soul is God.  Yet as Norwood recognized, only two of the charges fell within the scope of the Blasphemy Act of August 1650 – the allegations that Tany and Norwood affirmed:

the Soul is of the essence of God

There is neither hell nor damnation.

As their own accounts of the trial’s proceedings make clear, the defendants adamantly maintained that their words had been misrepresented, altered and taken out of context.  Even so, on 13 August 1651 they were convicted jointly of blasphemy by a jury of twelve men at the London sessions of the peace held in the Old Bailey. They were each sentenced to six months imprisonment in Newgate gaol without bail or mainprize. Conditions for those that could not afford the services of the gaoler were apparently intolerable.

On 27 October 1651 legal proceedings were initiated in the Court of Upper Bench appealing the verdict. After several sessions the case was deferred until the next law term. More hearings followed. On 4 February 1652 Tany appeared before the Court. That same morning God spoke to a London tailor named John Reeve, revealing to him that he had been chosen as the Lord’s ‘last messenger’, or so Reeve was to claim. Reeve and his cousin Lodowick Muggleton, a freeman of the Merchant Taylors’ Company, announced themselves to be ‘the two Witnesses of the Spirit’ foretold in the Revelation of Saint John. In addition, they denounced Tany as a ‘counterfeit high Priest’ and pretended prophet, marking him as a Ranter, the spawn of Cain. A few days later the judges of the Upper Bench made their judgement: Lord Chief Justice Rolle washed his hands of the business. On 16 February 1652 Tany and Norwood having served their sentence were each released on £100 bail pending good behaviour for one year.  Thomas Totney’s former master and another man later described as a goldsmith, provided sureties.  In Easter term Norwood initiated a new legal appeal.  After several hearings the judges deferred proceedings until the following law term.  On 28 June 1652 they reversed the guilty judgement against Norwood and Tany, resolving that their opinions had been made to rigidly conform to the strictures of the Blasphemy Act. For whereas the Act made it unlawful to maintain that ‘there is neither Heaven nor Hell, neither Salvation nor Damnation’, the defendants who affirmed that:

there is ‘no Hell nor Damnation’, are not within the Statute, for tho by Implication if there be no Hell there is no Heaven, yet the court is not to Expand these words by Implication but according to the Letters of the Stat[ute].

Within a month of his release Tany published a pamphlet he had written in Newgate entitled High Priest to the IEVVES, HIS Disputive challenge to the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge and the whole Hirach. of Roms Clargical Priests (March 1652).  Echoing Paul’s epistle to the Romans, Tany proclaimed the return of ‘Israels Seed’ from captivity.  About 1 January 1653 it appears from his own account that Tany underwent another purificatory ritual.  He refrained from speaking for thirty-four days, isolating himself for twenty-one of them.  On the fourteenth day he transcribed an edict to ‘all the Jewes the whole earth over’, which was to be engraved in brass and sent to the synagogue in Amsterdam.  He signed this proclamation with his new name and titles, ‘Theauroam Tannijahhh, King of the seven Nations, and Captain General under my Master Jehovah, and High-Priest and Leader of the Peoples unto HIERUSALEM’.  Together with some other material it was issued by an unknown publisher under the title HIGH NEWS FOR HIERUSALEM (no date).  It exasperated one reader, who complained ‘truly I skill not the man, nor his spirit; in his writing he offends against all rules of Grammar, Geography, Genealogy, History, Chronology, Theology & c, so far as I understand them’.

In March 1654 a list of some thirty ‘Grand Blasphemers and Blasphemies’ was submitted to the Committee for Religion, which included:

XIX. A Goldsmith that did live in the Strand, and after in the City, and then at Eltham; who called his name Theaurau John Tany, the High Priest, & c.  Published in Print, That all Religion is a lie, a deceit, and a cheat.

Writing from ‘the Tent of Judah’ on the ‘Tenth DAY NISAN’ (probably 16 April 1654), Tany addressed a millenarian epistle ‘Unto his Brethren the QUAKERS scornfully so called, who ARE the Children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; who ARE circumcised in Heart’.  He saluted them as descendants of the Jewish race, an elect remnant who spoke a pure language and trembled at the word of God.  On 8 May 1654 he issued an edict to all ‘earthen men and women’ announcing that he would shortly proclaim the Law and Gospel from his tent standing in the bounds of the Middle Park at Eltham, Kent.  On 8 June 1654 he read out a speech in which he laid claim to the crowns of France, Reme, Rome, Naples, Sissiliah and Jerusalem, as well as reaffirming an earlier claim to the crown of England.  He did this by repeating Pilate’s reply to the chief priests of the Jews after Pilate had written ‘JESUS OF NAZARETH THE KING OF THE JEWS’ as the title to be put on Christ’s cross:

What I have written, I have written

On the morning of Saturday, 30 December 1654, in the week that Cromwell was offered the crown, Tany solemnly made a large fire at Lambeth into which he cast his great saddle, sword, musket, pistols, books and bible. He crossed the Thames in a rowing boat and made his way to Parliament, ascending the stairs into the lobby outside the door.  Unable to deliver a petition he departed, returning after about an hour oddly attired with a long, rusty sword by his side. Pacing up and down the lobby he suddenly threw of his cloak and began slashing wildly, but was disarmed before anyone was hurt. He was brought to the bar of the House and questioned by the Speaker. He refused to remove his hat, was evidently mistaken for a Quaker and committed to the Gatehouse prison.  Having been examined by the Committee for regulating printing, he wrote to the Speaker requesting liberty to have an audience with Cromwell.  He then attached a great lock and long chain to his leg as a symbol of ‘the people of Englands Captivity’.  Legal proceedings were transferred to the Court of Upper Bench but on 10 February 1655 he was bailed upon habeas corpus.

Two days later a fire broke out in Fleet Street.  In the following months London was engulfed by several more unexplained fires which were interpreted as a sign of the impending destruction of the world.  Eventually an arsonist was apprehended who may have been in the pay of William Finch, one of Tany’s disciples.  In September 1655, after weeks of heavy rain and widespread floods, Tany ‘in one of his old whimsies’ pitched his tent in the large tract of open ground between Lambeth Marsh and Southwark known as St. George’s Fields.  A satirical newsbook writer thought him ‘a madman’ fitter ‘for Bedlam then a Tent’.  On 10 June 1656 Tany’s tent was pitched on Frindsbury Street near ‘The Black Lion’ in Frindsbury, Kent.  That day, according to the title-page of his last known work, Tany read the law ‘unto the people ISRAEL, belonging to the returning from Captivity’. Then, sometime after 16 June 1656, Tany set sail, perhaps from Kent, bound for the:

Wars, wars, wars, wars, wars, wars, wars.

He crossed the English Channel successfully and at an unknown date arrived in the United Provinces, perhaps to gather the Jews of Amsterdam.  Some three years later, now calling himself Ram Johoram, he was reported lost, drowned after taking passage in a ship from Brielle bound for London.  He was survived by his eldest daughter and probably also a second daughter and second son.

During his prophetic phase Tany wrote a number of remarkable but elusive works that are unlike anything else in the English language.  His sources were varied, although they seem to have included almanacs, popular prophecies and legal treatises, as well as scriptural and extra-canonical texts, and the writings of the German Lutheran mystic Jacob Boehme.  Indeed, Tany’s writings embrace currents of magic and mysticism, alchemy and astrology, numerology and angelology, Neoplatonism and Gnosticism, Hermeticism and Christian Kabbalah – a ferment of ideas that fused in a millenarian yearning for the hoped for return of Christ on earth.  The English Revolution freed men and women both self-taught and formally educated to speak their minds and challenge their times.  But only by contextualizing and then unravelling the mind of this exceptional person can we truly appreciate what it meant to be living in a world turned upside down.

Dr Ariel Hessayon is a Senior Lecturer and currently Deputy Head of the Department of History at Goldsmiths, University of London.  He is the author of ‘Gold tried in the fire’.  The prophet TheaurauJohn Tany and the English Revolution (Ashgate, 2007) and co-editor / editor of several collections of essays on Scripture and Scholarship in Early Modern England (Ashgate, 2006); Varieties of Seventeenth- and early Eighteenth-century English Radicalism in Context (Ashgate, 2011); An Introduction to Jacob Boehme: Four Centuries of Thought and Reception (Routledge, 2013); Gerrard Winstanley: Theology, Rhetoric, Politics (special issue of Prose Studies, 2014); and Jane Lead and her transnational legacy (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).  He has also written extensively on a variety of early modern topics: antiscripturism, book burning, communism, environmentalism, esotericism, extra-canonical texts, heresy, crypto-Jews, Judaizing, millenarianism, mysticism, prophecy, and religious radicalism.  His recently completed edition of the Complete Works of TheaurauJohn Tany is forthcoming shortly with Breviary Stuff Publications.

The Leveller Revolution by John Rees is currently 50% off as part of our end-of-year sale, with free shipping and bundled ebook.