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The Avignon Pilgrims

The Avignon Pilgrims - Introduction by Robert Southey

Introduction by Robert Southey


            John Wright, the author of this narrative, was a working carpenter of Leeds, in Yorkshire; a man of strong devotional feelings, who seems, like the first Quakers, to have hungered and thirsted after religious truth in a land where there was none to impart it. Some travelling Swedenborgian preachers having heated his imagination, he was desirous of removing to London, to find out the New Jerusalem Church. It was no easy thing for a labouring man with a large family to remove to such a distance: however, by working over hours, he saved money enough to effect it. The New Jerusalem Church did not satisfy him; everything was too definite and formal, too bodily and gross for a mind of his complexion. But it so happened that at this place of worship he entered into talk with a converted Jew, who, when he learnt his state of mind, and that he expected the restoration of the Jews would shortly be accomplished, said to him, I will tell you of a man who is just like yourself;—his name is William Bryan, and he lives in such a place.

            Bryan was a journeyman copper-plate-printer. J.'s friend saw him once at the house of one of the Brotherists; he says that before he saw him he had heard of his resemblance to the pictures of our Lord, but that it was so striking as truly to astonish him. These features, his full clear and gentle eye, the beauty of his complexion, which would have been remarkable even in a girl, and the voice, in which words flowed from him with such unaffected and natural eloquence, as to remind the hearer of the old metaphorical descriptions of oratory, united to produce such an effect upon his believers as you may conceive, considering that they were credulous, and he himself undoubtedly sincere. Wright had now found a man after his own heart. They were both Quietists, whom, for want of a guide, their own good feelings led astray, and their experiences, he says, operated with each other, as face answers face in a glass.

            Bryan told him of a society of prophets at Avignon, assembled there from all parts of the world. This was in the autumn of 1788. In the January of the ensuing year, Wright mistook strong inclination for inspiration, and thought the Spirit directed him to join them. The same spirit very naturally sent him to communicate this to Bryan, whom he found possessed with the same impression. Neither of them had money to leave with their families, or to support themselves upon the journey, and neither of them understood a word of French. Both were determined to go—Bryan that night, Wright the following morning—such being their implicit obedience to the impulse within them, that the one would not wait, nor the other hasten. Before his departure Bryan called upon a friend, who said to him, "William, I have had it in my mind to ask if thou wert not sometimes in want of money?" He acknowledged that it was this want which now brought him there; and the friend gave him four guineas. If this same friend was the person who first told him of the society at Avignon, as may reasonably be suspected, the whole collusion will be clear. One guinea he left with his wife, who was at that time in child-bed, gave half-a-guinea to Wright to carry him to Dover, and set off.

            Bryan's wife, not being in a state of belief, was greatly offended with Wright, thinking that if it had not been for him her husband would not have left her. His own wife was in a happier temper of mind, and encouraged him to go. She had a son by a former husband who was some little support to her, and who acquiesced in the necessity of this journey. He seems indeed to have communicated something of his own fervour to all about him. A young man with whom he was intimate, bought him several things for his journey, and gave him a guinea; this same person befriended his family during his absence. At three in the morning he rose to depart: his son-in-law prepared breakfast, and they made the watchman who had called him partake of it, for it was severely cold. "I then," says Wright, "turned to my children, who were all fast asleep, and kissed them, and interceded with the great and merciful God, relating to him their situation, in which, for his sake, they were going to be left without any outward dependence;—and at that time some of them were lying on a bed of shavings that I used to bring from my shop; at the same time imploring him that he would be pleased to bless them, and if one friend failed, another might be raised up, as I did not know whether I ever should see them any more; for, although our first journey was to Avignon, we did not know it would end there."

            He then went to Bryan's wife, whom his own was nursing in child-bed. The poor woman's resentment had now given way, the quiet self-devotion of her husband and his friend had almost persuaded her to believe also; she burst into tears when she saw him, and saluted him, as he says, in the fear and love of God, in which she bade him remember her to her husband. Wright then went to the coach. Soon after they left London it began to rain and snow, and he was on the outside. He was of a sickly habit, always liable to take cold, and had at this time a bad cough. A doubt came upon him, that if the Lord had sent him he would certainly have caused it to be fine weather. Besides this, he began to fear that Bryan would already have crossed the channel, in which case, when he got to Dover, he should have no money to pay his passage. Was it not better therefore to turn back? But the testimony of God's power in his heart, he says, was greater than all these thoughts.

            The wind had been contrary, and detained Bryan. They crossed over to Calais, took some food at an inn there, and got their money changed, enquired the names of bread, wine, and sleeping, in the language of the country, and which way they were to go, and then set off on their journey. They travelled on foot to Paris. Wright's feet were sorely blistered; but there was no stopping, for his "mind was bound in the spirit to travel on." They carried their burthen by turns when both were able, but it generally fell upon Bryan as the stronger man. Change of climate, however, aided probably by the faith which was in him, removed Wright's cough. Their funds just lasted to Paris; here Bryan had an acquaintance, to whose house they went. This man had received a letter to say who were coming, and that they were bad men, Wright in particular, whom it advised him to send back. As you may suppose, he was soon fully satisfied with them—he entertained them three days, and then dismissed them, giving them five louis d'ors to bear them on. The whole journal of their way is interesting: it relates instances of that subsiding of overwrought feelings which bodily exhaustion produces, and which enthusiasts call desertion; of natural thoughts and fears recurring, remembrances of home, and depression which sometimes occasioned self-suspicion and half-repentance:—with these symptoms the church is well acquainted, as common to the deluded, and to those who are in truth under the influence of divine inspiration, and they prove the sincerity of this narrative.

At length they came in sight of Avignon. They washed some linen in the river, sat down under the bushes till it was dry, then put it on; and, having thus made their appearance as decent as they could, proceeded to the house of the prophets, to which, as it appears, they had brought with them a sufficient direction. The door was opened by one of the brethren, and by a person who could speak English, and who had arrived there a day or two before from another part of the world. After they had washed and shaved, they were taken across the street to another house, and shown into a large room, where there was a table spread, nearly the whole length; they were told that table was provided by the Lord, and when they wanted any thing to eat or to drink they were to go there, and they would find a servant ready to wait upon them. The brethren also provided them with clothes and whatever else they needed, and with money to give to the poor, saying they had orders from the Lord to do so. In a short time their Paris friend arrived, and was admitted a member of the society before them, that he might be their interpreter. I wish the form of initiation had been given. They met every evening to commemorate the death of our Lord by eating bread and drinking wine. Very often, says Wright, when we have been sitting together, the furniture in the room has been shaken as though it were all coming to pieces; and upon enquiring what was the cause, we were told that it announced the presence of angels; and when these were not heard, the brethren were always afraid that something was amiss, and so enquired at the Word of the Lord.

            You will easily suppose that they had orders to keep the society secret till the appointed time. I much wish that the book had stated how their answers from the Lord were received, but on this it is silent. The drift and charter of the society are, however, sufficiently manifested by the Extracts which Wright has published from their Journals, and of which I here subjoin enough to satisfy you:

"You will soon see the pride of the Mahometan in the field; several sovereigns will unite to lay it low. It is then that the great light will appear. These perfidious enemies of the name of God will keep themselves up for a time in their obstinacy, and in the mean time will grow up he who shall destroy them. Before the end of this year they will begin to show their fierceness, and you will hear of extraordinary things and memorable feats. You will hear that the world is filled with trouble and dissension; father, son, relations, friends, all will be in motion; and it is in this year (1789) that all will have its beginning.

"Remember that the face of the world will be changed, and you shall see it restored to its first state. The thrones shall be overturned, the earth shall be furrowed and change its aspect. They who shall be alive at that time will envy the fate of the dead.

"The world will very soon be filled with trouble. Every where people will experience misfortunes. I announce it to you before-hand. The shepherd will forsake his flock; the sheep will be dispersed. He will oppress another land, and the nations will rise up in arms.

"You will learn very soon that a part of the world is in confusion; that the chiefs of nations are armed one against another. The earth will be overflowed with blood. You will hear of the death of several sovereigns; they give themselves up to luxury, they live in pleasures, but at last one of them will fall and make an unhappy end.

"All the events of this century have been foreseen, and no century has been distinguished by so many prodigies, but the ensuing will be filled with much greater still.

"The fire is kindled, the moment is come, the Mahometan is going to fall. Asia and Africa are staggering; fear pursues them, and they have a glimpse of the fate that awaits them.

"The cross of Jesus Christ shall be set up and triumph in those vast countries where it has been so long despised. Then Palestine will become again the most fortunate country on the earth; it shall be the centre of that faith of which it was the cradle, and from thence faith will spread itself all over the earth. All the people will embrace it. The world will become again what it was in the beginning. The enlightened Jews will embrace the Catholic faith. All people will acknowledge God, the only true God. They will be guided by one only Pastor, and governed by one sole Master.

"The second Zion has contributed the most to misguide the spirits of men. She has introduced new Gentiles still more monstrous than those who have reigned upon the earth. She only wants the statues of the Gods to resemble the ancient times. Yea, they have been replaced by these carnal divinities to which they render a sacrilegious adoration, and lavish an incense to them which they refuse to God.

"The end of this century will be a series of calamities for the people. Very few men are struck with the rapid decline of the present age. All the nations will be enlightened to see their dangerous errors. They will acknowledge how much they have been deceived by the masters who have instructed them, and they will be desolated at the thoughts of having lost so precious a treasure, for having believed such rascals. But at the marked time how many errors will they not abjure, when our children everywhere, in the name of God, shall make their impious and monstrous errors disappear!—And thou, Crescent, who so much at this day applaudest thyself, the lustre with which thou shinest is soon to be eclipsed;—thy unjust conquests have long enough spun out the time of thy empire, and thy power from one pole to another is far enough extended. Thou dost not suspect that thy ruin is so near, and thou dost not know him who is growing up to operate it.

"Here is the time in which God will break the laws made by the children of the earth. Here is the time wherein he will reprove the science of men, and here is the time of his justice. This is the time that we must believe all those who announce the new reign of the Lord, for his spirit is with them.

"The ages have not now long to linger for the accomplishment of the promises of the Eternal.—The Eternal calls the times which walk in the shadows and days of darkness, without light and without strength, to come and change the face of the world, and commence his new reign. This is the time of the new Heavens and the new Earth.

"The Eternal has spoken, I shall simplify all things for the happiness of my elect. The moment is at hand when the confusion of languages shall no more be an obstacle to the knowledge of the truth.

"When the impious and his superb eagle in his fury will dare to declare war against the God of Heaven, every thing will give way immediately to his pride. He will dare to make victims for himself among the saints whom Heaven has chosen; he will dare to profane their asylums, to appropriate to himself the gifts of the Eternal by the blackest of crimes, and by his success strengthening his pride he will believe himself master of the world. Then—then—Heaven will stop him: a feeble child will subdue his valour, and his fall will testify that in the sight of the Eternal there is no other power but the power of his arm.

"Already the measure is filled; already the times are accomplished, and the reign of the Word is at hand. Terror will precede to enlighten the blind who go astray, to humble the obstinate high-minded men, and to punish the impious."

            These are no common prophecies. Honest fanaticism has had no share in manufacturing them. Vague as the language necessarily is, there is an end and aim in it not to be mistaken; and it is almost startling to observe how much of what was designed has taken place, and how much may still be applied to these immediate times.

            Among these communications "For the Benefit and Instruction of all Mankind," are others which are addressed to Wright and Bryan, and to those who, like them, were the unsuspecting tools of the society. I copy them with their cyphers and forms.

February 9, 1789.
H. W. We supplicate thee to give us thy orders about the two Englishmen B. and W. who arrived here on Thursday the 19th instant.
O thou who walkest before them to show them the way, Son of the Voice, tell them that very soon the instruction will grow in their souls; they will believe it and love it. Then, Son of the Voice, I shall let thee know what Heaven ordains about their fate.

March 18, 1789.
By 2. l. 9.
H. W. Let me know the moment in which B. and W. should be consecrated.
Son of the Voice, fidelity and happiness will in the first instance be the fruit of their union, the second will fill them with love and zeal. The moment hastens that is to call them near to us and to you.

Some things seem to have been inserted in their journal in condescension to the weaker brethren, who required to be amused. Such as the following instances:—

"In the month of June, 1789, we received a letter from the Union at Rome, which informed us that the weather was as cold there as it is in England in the month of January, and the Archangel Raphael asked the brethren and sisters if the cold made them uneasy, and said, Have a little patience, and the weather will be warm enough.

"The 17th of June, 1789, we received a letter from the Union at Rome, in which they informed us of a sister, the daughter of a Turk, whom Brother Brimmore baptized at Silesia, in the dominions of the king of Prussia, between ten and fifteen years ago; after having lived some time in the enjoyment of the Christian faith, she was suddenly taken by her father, and carried to Alexandria in Egypt,* which is in the dominions of the Turk, where she lived with her father in much sorrow and trouble. After her father was dead, she was ordered by the Archangel Raphael to dress herself in a soldier's dress, and fly into a Christian country; which she did, and got aboard a Spanish ship, and from this date has been between two and three months at sea."
*Alexandria would naturally be thus distinguished at Avignon—this, therefore, is good proof of the authenticity of the book.

            But though the society occasionally accommodated itself to the capacity of the weaker brethren, its oracles were more frequently delivered to correct troublesome credulity, or repress more troublesome doubts.

April 12, 1789.
H. W. The three knocks which l. 4. 7. heard in the night, was it any thing supernatural?
To 2. l. 9.
Ask no more questions, if thou hast none to make of more importance.

April 14, 1789.
H. W. If it please thee, l. 4. 7. would be glad to know if the offering which he made on the mountain was acceptable to the Lord his God?
If Wisdom hath called thee, if Wisdom hath been thy guide, my son, why dost thou stop? Leave to thy God the care of thy conduct; forget—forget thyself in approaching to him, and his light will enlighten thy soul, and thy spirit shall no more make the law. Believe—believe, my son, that docility is the way which leadeth to knowledge; that with love and simplicity thou shalt have nothing to fear from the snares of Hell, and that Heaven cannot lead thee astray, for it is Heaven which hath marked to thee thy route.

July 8, 1789.
H. W. l. 4. 7. prays to know if it is the will of Heaven that he should cause his wife to come with Duche to be consecrated?
Heaven sees thy motives, my son, and approves thy zeal; but in order that it may take place ************* do not think of it; thy hope is vain.

April 16, 1789.
l. 2. 3. prays the H. W. to let him know if the Eternal has accepted of his incense?
Raphael is the spirit which thy heart followed, my son, when thou camest into these countries to seek for science and rest: but the spirit which confuses thy idea is not the spirit of Raphael. Mistrust, son that art called, the father of lies. Submit thy spirit to my voice. Believe—believe, my son, and thy God forgives thee, and then thy incense is accepted, and thy return will cover thee with glory.

August 11, 1789.
for the B. 12 April, 1756. Of l. 2. 3.
C. 24 March.
April 1.

If the ardour which animates thee gives at last to thy heart over thy spirit the victory and the empire; if thy desire renounces to discover, before the time, the secret of the mysteries which simple reason is not able to conceive, nothing can, my son, convey an obstacle to that happiness which awaits thee.

Walk without fear, and chase from thy soul the deceiving spirit who wants to lead thee astray. Believe—believe, my son, every thing that I reveal to our elect in the name of the Eternal, and the Eternal will make thee the forerunning instrument of his glory in the places where his clemency wants to pardon those of thy nation whom the enemy seduces by his prestiges.

August 21, 1789.
l. 4. 7. prays the H. W. to inform him if it is the will of Heaven for him also to return with l. 2. 3.
Yes. Son called, thou canst yet hearken to what I have to say unto thee. Thy fate is in thy hands. It will be great if thou makest haste to offer to thy God, who chuseth thee, the vain efforts of a useless knowledge, when it is only necessary to obey. Forget—forget thy knowledge: it fatigues thy spirits, it hurts thy heart, and retards from thy soul the influence of Heaven. Renounce, in fine, to search into the sublime mysteries of thy God. Believe—believe, and the Eternal will bless thy return, and thy simplicity will confound the knowledge, the pride, and the prepossession of the senseless man, who believeth in his own wisdom much more than in the wisdom of his God.

The subject is so curious that I think you will be pleased to see the character of this mysterious society further exemplified by a few of the sentences, moral maxims, and spiritual instructions, which they delivered as from Heaven. The first is sufficiently remarkable:—

"Woe to him who dares to cover a lie with the sacred name of the Eternal!
"One ray of light is not the entire light.
"A wise man is silent when he ought to be so.
"It is to the simple of heart that the Eternal will grant the wisdom of the Spirit.
"The night was before the day, the day is before the night.
"When God commands, he who consulteth does not obey.
"He who walketh alone easily goes astray.
"To doubt, Is that believing? and to tremble, Is that to hope?
"He who thinks himself wise lies to himself deceives himself, goeth astray, and knoweth nothing.
"Shall man tremble when God supports him?
"The repentance of the wise is in his works, that of the fool in his tears.
"The child of man thinks of man, the child of God thinks of God; he must forget everything else.
"Fear leads our spirit astray; by laying a weight upon our days it overturns wisdom, it intimidates nature, and the painful seeds of uneasiness and anguish take part in our hearts.
"Heaven explains itself sufficiently when it inspires.
 "Wilt thou never hear my word with the ears of thy soul, and wilt thou never overturn the idol of mistrust that is in thy heart?
"The Lord has placed the key of his treasure under the cup of bitterness.
"The ark of God conveys death to those who make use of false keys.
"Who is that man, saith the Lord, that will not abandon his heart to me when I have promised to guide it?
"I am One, and all that is in me is One.
"Remember, and remember well, that the Word is but One for him who desires to comprehend; and there would be no more mysteries for man but for the vanity of his heart, and the folly of his understanding.
"Is it in the tumult of the world that the voice of the Most High can enter into the heart?
"Do not attach any importance to your opinions: Of what avail to your fate are your very weak ideas?
"Forget all, O our friends, except Heaven and yourselves, to obey only what Heaven prescribes to you."

            This narrative, and these extracts, require no comment. They prove incontestably the existence of a society of political Jesuits; they prove also, that however little may have been the religion of these men themselves, they were convinced how indispensably necessary it was for mankind; and that, instead of plotting to break up the system of social order by destroying faith and morals, faith was the engine which they employed to prepare society for some imaginary amelioration, forgetting that nothing which is founded upon delusion can be permanent.

            The two Englishmen remained at Avignon six months, and were then informed by the Spirit that they might return. The brethren supplied them with money, so that they went back with more comfort than they came, and had a handsome sum left when they landed in England, where they both returned to their former employments, expecting the accomplishment of the mighty changes which had been foretold. The Revolution brake out.—They who had raised the storm could not direct it: they became its victims—and knavery reaped what fanaticism had sown, as they who lag in the assault enter the breach over the bodies of the brave who have won the passage for them. What became of the Avignon society Heaven knows. The honest dupes whom they had sent abroad, fully prepared to welcome any novelty as the commencement of the Millennium, were left to their own direction. A king of the Hebrews appeared in England, and Wright and Bryan were, as you may suppose, among the first to acknowledge him. They imagined that the appointed time was come, and published these secrets of the society which they had been ordered to keep concealed.

-- From Letters From England by "Don Manuel Alvarez Espriella" (Pseudonym of Robert Southey)


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