< Back

English contemporary opinions on the Sabbatean movement

Zvi Loker

<plain_text><page sequence="1">English contemporary opinions on the Sabbatean movement ZVILOKER While working on seventeenth-century colonial history I came across an unpublished letter from Henry Muddiman originating from Whitehall.1 It strangely resembles a somewhat later missive written by Henry Oldenburg, Secretary of the Royal Society, to Joseph Williamson.2 Both deal with news regarding Sabbetai Zvi (Sebi), the false Messiah. The first one is dated 15 March 1666 and contains a long array of military and political information in the form of a daily report. The phrase of particular interest reads as follows: 'The Jewes hurry out of Amsterdam to their fraternity with great expectations from their new Messias whome the...3 thenne4 speake to be but an ordinary silly fellow and the son of a Baker.' This entry is preceded by Court news concerning the return of the king to London, and is followed by a notice on the demise of Sir John Jacob, a customs official. This information on the Sabbatean movement was clearly not considered important either by the reporter himself5 or by his superiors, among whom was Joseph Williamson, an original Fellow and later President of the Royal Society.6 It seemed to be merely an odd occurrence in a world of conflicts and wars. The journalist-author of the quoted passage only repeated incoming European information. It seems certain that Muddiman's letter reflected Williamson's attitude, and more generally, the prevailing point of view in official circles. This perspective was by no means shared by all intellectuals. Dissenters included mostly millennarians, among whom we may count Henry Oldenburg, scientist, philosopher and able administrator of the Royal Society.7 Oldenburg was a prolific letter-writer and also a keen observer of European events, on which he used to report to Williamson. It was in this context that he wrote on 10 November 1666. His news sources were mainly in Constantin? ople and in Amsterdam, where he had several correspondents, among whom was no less a figure than Spinoza.8 It may be in order now to examine briefly Oldenburg's attitude to the Jewish messianic trend, which started in Smyrna and spread rapidly all over continental Europe. His reaction to the phenomenon developed over time, and passed through three main phases. Firstly, he attached great hopes to the phenomenon. One example of his optimism appears in a letter to Robert Boyle, dated 6 March 1665. He writes: 'The last letters from Holland mention that Christians as well as Jews write from Constantinople, the confirmation of the report concerning the motion of the Israelites and the great hopes, the Jewes entertain of recovering their land very shortly'.9 At a later stage his 35</page><page sequence="2">Zvi Loker enthusiasm diminished, as he found himself losing faith in messianic realiza? tion. Yet he went on gathering news even after Sabbetai's conversion. In another missive to Boyle,10 on 28 August 1665, he avers: 'Newes is continued still by letters to Amsterdam, the Jewes of Palestina11 ... alledging, that all their synagogues under the Turks, fearing a massacry by reason of this matter, have strictly forbidden the publishing of it yet. But my faith grews fainter and fainter in this matter, finding the news is not confirmed with the vigour it began with'. The point of view at which he finally arrived was one of apocalyptic apprehension. This is manifest in his Latin letter to Spinoza in December 1665. He says there that few people in England believe in the new Messianic age, but that still many 'opt for it'. He observes that were it to come about it would mean a 'World Catastrophy'.12 We have in these correspondences two distinct reactions to Sabbateanism: one by the information media of the time, as conveyed to, and accepted by, leading statesmen; and another by an alert thinker of the late seventeenth century, who was one of the first secretaries of the Royal Society. NOTES 1 Public Record Office, State Papers, Dom? estic 29/151, folios 23-5 (CP 3671). It is from Henry Muddiman, an intelligence gatherer em? ployed by Joseph Williamson, at that time Secretary to Sir Henry Bennet (later Earl Arlington), Secretary of State. Williamson was also 'Keeper of State Papers', as well as Latin Secretary to the king. 2 Oldenburg's letter to Williamson is dated 10 November 1666. Cf. PRO, State Papers 29/136. The letter is mentioned by the late Professor G. Scholem in his Sabbetai Sebi The Mystical Messiah (1626-1676) (Princeton 1973) 544? note !95? in connection with his letter to Spinoza (see n. 8 below). The letter is only signed with initials, but the handwriting can easily be authenticated by comparing it, for instance, with A. Rupert Hall and Marie Boa Hall's edition of the Correspondence of Spinoza, vol. I (Wisconsin 1966) plate III, following p. 200. It is apparent from this letter, as Scholem has pointed out, that he 'seems to have taken a positive view of the messianic movement among the Jews, about which he continued to keep himself informed'. 3 Illegible. Probably an abbreviation for 'letters' in this context. 4 Uncertain reading. 5 As reflected in his disparaging tone in the report quoted already. In another reference to Sabbetai Sebi, according to the Calendar of State Papers, SP 29/156f. 38, Whitehall, 15 May 1666, he relates that: 'New Messias of the Jews was hanged in chains at Stamboul, hav? ing first confessed, after some blows on the feet, that he was persuaded by some Jews'. I am indebted to Mr Derek Davis for kindly allowing me to use the above-mentioned quotation, which shows-by the way-the less than accu? rate reporting by Muddiman. 6 He was elected to the Royal Society before the First Charter, was an original Fellow, and became President in 1677. His correspond? ence with Oldenburg extended over a period of years, but was intense during 1666-7. See Spinoza's correspondence (see n. 2) 126, 127, 138, 182 and passim. On his political career, See Dictionary of National Biography XXI (Oxford 1921-2) 473-8. 7 Dictionary of National Biography XIV (see n. 6) 988-90. 8 This rather one-sided correspondence has been dealt with by Scholem (see n.2) 543-4. Oldenburg's Latin letter to Spinoza is printed in Correspondence II (see n.2) 635, letter no. 477 dated 8 December 1665. The letter has previously been published in the philosopher's Opera posthuma. 9 Cf. Correspondence III (see n. 2) 49, letter no. 493. Published in Birch's biography of Boyle, V 218-9. He further informs Boyle that believers in the Messiah are to meet in Jeru? salem on 1 April, including Jews from Amster? dam. We do know that at least Abraham Pereyra and Juan de YUan, businessmen of Amsterdam, intended and prepared themselves 36</page><page sequence="3">Contemporary English opinions on the Sabbatean movement for the voyage. For details on Pereyra see Scholem (see n.2) 529-30. On de Yllan, Ibid. 531-2, and this author's article 'Juan de Yllan, Merchant Adventurer and Colonial Promotor (New Evidence)' in Studia Rosenthaliana XVII, 1 (January 1983) 22-31. 10 Cf. Correspondence II (see n.2) 480-1, letter no. 397. Published by Birch, VI (see n.9) 191-2. 11 In addition to the unsteady spelling of the seventeenth century, this reading-Talestina' -may stem from the writer's German back? ground. 12 See n.8 above. 37</page></plain_text>