A Canadian prophet? By guest writer Baiyu Andrew Song.
Most people think of the 18th century as an Age of Reason, but today’s historians argue we could instead call it an age of faiths. People in the British Isles saw the rise of different denominations and sects from different movements, including messianic prophets like Richard Brothers (1757–1824), the Newfoundland-born son of a migrant family, who became known as the Paddington Prophet.
Little is known about the Brothers family, except Richard’s father served as a gunner in the British navy and later decided to settle in Newfoundland for its profitable fishing trade. Richard was born on Christmas day, 1757, at Placentia near St. John’s.
As a teenager Richard left his family to attend the Royal Military Academy near London. After 12 years of service, he became lieutenant with seniority and was discharged in 1783.
After settling in London, Brothers married Elizabeth Hassall in 1786. However, the marriage was not happily ever after. Shortly after their wedding Brothers was called away for naval service. When he returned he found Elizabeth had borne a child with another man while he was away.
Such a painful experience led Brothers to become more "spiritual." In his attempt to interpret the Bible without confessional boundaries, he began to read himself and recent events into biblical history. He eventually denied the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. Like the Quakers, Brothers preferred the inner light or direct revelation over Scriptures and creeds.
Brothers also understood himself as a political leader. In his A Revealed Knowledge of the Prophecies and Times (1794), he used the biblical genealogies to trace his origin. "It is fifteen hundred years since my family was separated from the Jews, and lost all knowledge of its origin," he wrote. Brothers declared he was the child coming from Jesse’s stem in Isaiah 9 instead of Jesus Christ.
Brothers then identified events such as the great thunderstorm in January 1791 as "the voice of the angel mentioned in the eighteenth chapter of the Revelation, proclaiming the judgment of God and the fall of Babylon the Great." As God’s punishment was about to pour out upon the British Isles, God appointed Brothers as the prince of the Hebrews to lead the new exodus, allowing all Jews to gather in Palestine under his kingship.
Strangely, Brothers’ Jewish identity was not determined by ethnicity. He believed many Whig leaders and Evangelicals, such as William Pitt and William Wilberforce, were hidden and true Jews. As the "Prince of Peace," Brothers commanded King George III to permit the new exodus, abdicate and submit to the new "King of the Jews."
When Brothers published his prophecies, Britain was undergoing a political and identity crisis. King George was mentally ill after losing his American colonies. The radical spirit of the French Revolution was about to cross the channel and destroy the empire. Therefore Brothers’ exodus was potential treason. He was arrested on March 4, 1795. After the privy council concluded he was a criminal lunatic, the Lord Chancellor ordered Brothers placed in a private asylum under Dr. Samuel Simmons.
However, the controversy did not stop as both critics and supporters joined in pamphlet wars and Brothers became a household name. Brothers’ error began with his biblical interpretation. Like Hong Xiuquan of the Taiping Rebellion in the 1840s, Brothers was eager to solve national crises with his new revelation. However, coercing agendas into the Bible can neither legitimate nor further political enthusiasm. Theology always matters.