The French Prophets

Pat Rogers, University of South Florida
February 2024

The opening decade of the eighteenth century saw one of the most remarkable episodes in the history of religious enthusiasm that London ever experienced. It involved the descent of the so-called French prophets on the capital from 1706. This story began with a Protestant rising in the Cevennes following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. At first the Huguenots envisioned their delivery in 1689, and after that hope failed they looked to a new judgment day in 1700. When this equally declined to materialize, the movement pressed on regardless and the inspirés toured the country to bring the breath of the divine spirit to their persecuted co-religionists. A full-blown revolt was mounted during the summer of 1702 by the Camisards, a community of French Protestants whose base lay in the mountainous region of the Cevennes. The royal troops proved unable to crush this rising for two years, which witnessed a violent series of ambushes and atrocities. In December 1702, more than two hundred churches were burnt down. It was predictable that the authorities would respond with equal savagery.

In 1706, three of the prophets arrived in London to proclaim the Second Coming, and received a warm welcome from the descendants of those millennial groups (notably the Philadelphians, under the direction of Jane Lead, who met at Hungerford Market near Charing Cross) that had flourished in England in the 1690s. They engaged in wild “agitations,” described by historian Hillel Schwartz as “kinetic messages” to the watching crowd. Before long, their appeal widened, even among Anglicans: they proved able to attract a large number of women followers under the leadership of an Englishman of genteel origins named John Lacy (d. 1730). Among the more bizarre converts was Dr. Timothy Byfield (d. 1723), “a Great Seeker of Medicines.” His chief claim to fame was that of rediscovering a universal nostrum based on quasi-alchemic principles, which he patented in 1711 and called “the True Sal volatile oleosum of  the Ancient Philosophers.”

For the next two years, the prophets were the talk of the town. Swift mentioned them in the Bickerstaff papers, as well as slipping in an allusion in his poem The Virtues of the Magician Sid Hamet’s Rod, an attack on the displaced lord treasurer, Lord Godolphin. Here the title and leading ideas go back to a recent periodical article that mocked a French pseudo-prophet named James Aymar from Dauphiné. He was not connected with the Camisards, but to the poet he resembled them in his fraudulent claims. In particular, his use of “a certain magic rod” to flush out the presence of criminals is paralleled with the corrupt Godolphin’s eye for divining “where golden mines were hid.”  More broadly, the prophets carried out the role that Swift had presciently created for them in A Tale of a Tub (1704), as indicated by Lord Shaftesbury’s comments in his Letter concerning Enthusiasm (1708): “[The Camisards] are at this very time the Subject of a choice Droll or Puppet-Show at Bart’lemy-Fair. There, doubtless, their strange Voices and involuntary Agitations are admirably well acted, by the Motion of Wires, and Inspiration of Pipes.” In response Mary Astell wrote a condemnatory pamphlet, Bart’lemy Fair: or an Enquiry after Wit (1709). Alexander Pope was well aware of their activities, prompting a somewhat paranoid reference to “Fanatical Prophecy” from his elderly friend William Wycherley in late 1707. At the height of the affair, in October 1707, Pope’s mentor Sir William Trumbull received news of the doings of John Lacy—a sign of how anxious the conservative heartland of the nation was growing by this time.

This moral panic could be paralleled in the numerous alarmist pamphlets that greeted the arrival of the French devotees. In fact, their ideas can be assimilated into a tradition of inspired prophecy, reaching back to the inception of the Quaker movement just half a century before.

The government believed, or affected to believe, that they were undercover agents for a political conspiracy. One of the prophets who ended up on trial was Nicolas Fatio de Duillier (1664–1753), a Swiss astronomer and physicist, and friend of both Isaac Newton and David Gregory. Three of the Camisard devotees, including Fatio, were convicted of sedition in the Queen’s Bench court, and sentenced to the pillory in December 1707 for their “wicked and counterfeit prophecies.” They stood on the scaffold at Charing Cross and the populace duly pelted them with mud and stones. Not surprisingly, this made martyrs of them, a necessary prelude as they saw it to the coming of the New Jerusalem. A more serious reversal occurred when one much-heralded miracle involving the raising of the lately deceased Thomas Emes, a follower of the prophets, failed to materialize. On schedule, the event would have taken place in May 1708 at Bunhill Fields—an area associated with Milton, Bunyan, and Defoe. Swift was one of those to note the failure of this resurrection with satisfaction: a reference also appears in Defoe’s Review. For a few more years the cult continued to win some adherents, but it gradually faded into obscurity, and by 1715 it was effectively finished as a popular movement.

What the group prophesied, with a pervading ethos of cataclysm, took a familiar form: “The Trumpet is ready to sound. Fire, Lightning and Thunderbolts are prepared for thine Enemies.” A day of vengeance was foretold: pestilential fogs and mists would sweep away the inhabitants of London ‘‘like a Plague.” It is remarkable that the inspirés prophesied while asleep, much like  Pope’s targets in The Dunciad: “Hence, from the straw where Bedlam’s Prophet nods, / He hears loud Oracles, and talks with Gods.” John Lacy rented a building in the Barbican to serve as an officially licensed meeting-place for the French prophets, and it remained the centre of their operations throughout their stay: hostile observers termed it their “Shop of Inspiration.” This the very same quarter of the city where the dunces would meet, and before that, in the chief literary model of Pope’s poem, Dryden had described Shadwell’s imperial residence at the start of Mac Flecknoe: “An ancient fabrick ... / There stood of yore, and Barbican it hight.” The prophets, it emerges, hung out just down the road from the historic Grub Street.

The members of the group caused a huge stir for a while. But schisms began to appear; and enthusiasm is often a transient thing. Most of London had forgotten about them within a generation.

The fullest study is an engrossing work by Hillel Schwartz, The French Prophets: The History of a Millenarian Group in Eighteenth-Century England (University of California Press, 1980). See also the same author’s Knaves, Fools, Madmen, and that Subtile Enthusiasm: A Study of the Opposition to the French Prophets in England, 1706–1710 (University of Florida Press, 1978). A useful introduction to the subject is found in James Sutherland, “John Lacy and the Modern Prophets,” Background to Queen Anne (1939), 36–74.