Sunday, November 12, 2006

Justification of a Madman

I thought it time to post something on my research, though I am still in the infant stages. At present I am looking at iconoclasm in the Reformed tradition particularly in the lives of John Calvin, William Perkins, and William Dowsing. "Hold on, who was that last one?" That is what I hear when I tell people who I am researching. By many scholars he is remembered as an iconoclastic madman. While admitting certain flaws in Dowsing, my project is starting to become somewhat of a "justification" of this madman's iconoclastic campaign. In this post I share just a flavor of what I have found so far...

Tucked into lesser read verses of Judges 6 (vv25-27) is a rarely quoted section of the Gideon narrative. Before Gideon would be raised up to lead Israel in defeating the Midianites, he was told first to “tear down” his father’s altar to Baal and to “cut down” the wooden image that was beside it. These idols had seduced the affections of God’s people. Gideon believed, and the book of Judges supports, the notion that superstitions in Israel had to be condemned and physically removed if God were to bless their efforts in battle.
William Dowsing (1596-1668) is not remembered with the mystique of Gideon. But he thought of himself in those terms. Remembered by some as the Arch Vandal, he blazed into history as a radical figure in the English Civil War, commissioned by the Earle of Manchester under an Ordinance of 1643 to tear down “pictures and superstitious images” in the name of God and Parliament between 1643 and 1644. Rather than a Gideon, Dowsing is often thought more of as an Elmer Gantry, mindlessly opposing vice with no thought deeper than his own aggrandizement. However, while contextual differences abound, there remains a compelling similarity between the Mighty Man of Mannaseh and the meticulous Iconoclast General: both held that their actions were squarely in line with the will of God and that they were necessary for God to bless their respective countries…
Their [Calvin, Perkins, Dowsing] similarities and differences are many. Calvin and Perkins were theologians and preachers, Dowsing was a yeoman-farmer. Calvin and Perkins were writers, Dowsing a reader. What is compelling about grouping them together is that while Calvin and Perkins disseminated incredible influence, Dowsing represents the influenced. The theologians were men of letters, the farmer was a man of action. It was in the preaching and writing of William Perkins that Calvin’s theology of worship was solidified in England and made accessible to the common man. As Jonathan Long wrote, "The genius of Perkins is to be found in his ability to apply with striking effect the theology of the Reformation to the exigencies of Elizabethan England in the language of the average man." William Dowsing was the average man of the next generation who followed that theology to what he considered to be its necessary end: the Gideonesque “tearing down” of images and superstitions that had captured the affections of English Christians.

I am sure it will take a much different shape after a few more months of research, but this is where I am now. Let it be said among you, I have posted my first post.



Highland Host said...

Dowsing has passed into legend in Suffolk. Wherever there is a defaced piece of carving, a battered font or even a ruined church, the locals will tell you that William Dowsing did it.
Of course, he didn't. No man could have. The ruined churches are the result of population shifts, and a lot of iconoclasm took place in Suffolk during the Reformation (Suffolk is still very much a nonconformist county. Yesterday I was preaching to a large congregation in a large Suffolk chapel). But the Dowsing legend has acquired a life of its own.

Be warned! The man is larger than life!

Bridges said...

Thank you, Highland Host! A most welcome warning. I have discovered that recent scholarship has "debunked" a lot of Dowsing legend. Perhaps that has not made it to the masses in suffolk yet. In his journal, it seems that Dowsing himself exaggerates a bit. I am interested in the part he played in the reversal of Laudian innovations and the further removal of pre-Reformation idolatry as well. Thanks for the comment.

Highland Host said...

Bridges, NO scholarship could destroy the dowsing legend in Suffolk, it has a life of its own.
Among the high church types, not the throngs of Strict Baptists, obviously.
Efforts have been made to explain the truth, but the legend is... well, a genuine legend.

doug said...

Great post! Thanks for the sneak peek. :-)


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