Lawrence Rabone, PhD student studying seventeenth-century Jewish-Christian relations, shares some of his early findings from his research as John Rylands Library Research Affiliate.
Four rare works by the little known Welsh preacher Vavasor Powell (1617-1670) in the John Rylands Library offer a fresh perspective on the tumultuous years of seventeenth-century England. Although relatively unknown, Powell helps us to break away from Anglo-centric views and reconsider pioneering evangelical preaching.
“Hot Protestants” and the people of Israel
My research considers how Puritans, who can perhaps best be defined as “hot Protestants”, (Winship, 2018) related to Jews: Powell’s writings shed much light on this topic. There is no evidence that Powell ever met a Jew, but he had a highly developed understanding of the importance of the Jewish people in the purposes of God, revealed in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. This is important, especially when we consider that Jews were not admitted to England until 1656 (and even then their readmission was not official).
My interest, as part of the Department of Religions and Theology, focusses on the Hebrew language and the people of Israel. Indeed, Powell was a Christian who rejected the notion that Christians had replaced Jews as God’s chosen people, a belief known as supersessionism, or Replacement Theology. Supersessionism has been one of the key causes of Christian anti-Judaism and supported many of the terrible atrocities committed against Jews in the name of Christianity through the centuries, be it the libellous blood libels, the Crusades or the ghettoization of Jews from the Middle Ages.
Powell’s Judeo-centric approach to Scripture, however, is an important early example of a Protestant helping to overturn some of this anti-Judaism that had been ingrained in Christian teaching from the time of the Church Fathers and continued through the Reformation and beyond. Some of Powell’s writing may still be uncomfortable for the modern reader, in an ecumenical and inter-faith age, but his work demonstrates an important point in the complex understanding of Scripture which was so important to many in seventeenth-century England.
Born in Knucklas (Cnwclas), Wales, in 1617 and educated at Jesus College Oxford, Powell became a curate in Shropshire, a normal start to life for a man of his social standing. However, after being rebuked for playing sports on the Sabbath, and then reading Richard Sibbes’s The Bruised Reed (1630), Powell became a Puritan. Being “borne againe” (Powell, God the Father Glorified, 1649), he encountered such strong opposition to his radical faith that he went to London in 1642. In 1644 he ministered in Dartford, Kent, before returning to Wales in 1646. Powell went on to oppose Cromwell and was part of a group of “hundreds of Christians in Wales” who wrote a “Testimony… against wickedness in high places.” Known as A Word of God… from… Wales (1655), it had 322 signatures and strongly criticised the Lord Protector.
Besides his political escapades, Powell was an “evangelist”, the “metropolitan of the itinerants” (Griffith, 1654) to his enemies. He toured Wales preaching to a people who still followed many pre-Reformation Catholic traditions. Powell has been identified as one of the three leaders of Puritanism in Wales, alongside Walter Cradock and Morgan Llwyd (Nuttall, 1957). After the Restoration, Powell spent 11 years in prison and died in 1670, not as a broken man but rather as an optimistic millenarian who was as hopeful as ever.
Christ and Moses excellency (1650)
The John Rylands Library has two copies of this lengthy treatise, which includes a rich 247-page concordance of Scripture promises. The book is divided into three parts: “the Covenant of grace, of the Covenant of works, and of the promises belonging to both”. Far from being a typical theological work of the time, Powell’s treatise unusually includes a future role for Israel.
Indeed, following 33 promises that God gave “formerly” to the Jews “when they were a Church”, Powell outlines 28 promises that “doe most peculiarly belong to the Jewes at their next call and conversion”. These promises include:
- their conversion to Christianity (points 1-4);
- “that Christ will seeke them, gather them, and restore them out of, (and from among) all the Nations from whence they are scattered… and bring them to their owne Land” (point 5);
- that they shall have a relationship with the Lord (points 7-12);
- the reunification of the Lost Tribes (point 13);
- that Israel will enjoy blessing (points 14-16, 18-19);
- that they shall “dwell quietly in the land” (point 17);
- “the Gentiles shal come into them” (point 20);
- “they shall obtaine preheminence above other Nations” (point 23);
- “That the great ones of the earth, as Kings, and Nobles shall serve them” (point 25);
- “That the Jewes shall be generally righteous, and so righteous that their state will be so glorious, as that it will be called, new Heavens, and a new Earth” (point 28).
Each point is accompanied by copious Scriptural quotations.
Powell’s vision of the future is highly developed and represents a form of proto-Christian Zionism.
The Bird in the Cage Chirping (1661)
Powell wrote this defence of the revolutionary events of the previous twenty years whilst in the Fleet prison. This work is in the John Rylands Library and denounced the Restoration of the monarchy as a turning away from divine mercies: “We have been stomach-ful, sick and surfeited with the sweet and fat things of God’s house… we trampled and trod under foot the good pastures.” Powell was also writing to encourage like-minded believers who were “afflicted and persecuted”. What I consider most significant about this work is that its title is in Hebrew, suggesting Powell’s interest in the Jewish language. There is actually a misprint in the title (the Hebrew word for “bird” tsipor, is misspelt) but the title, “Bird in the cage,” or “Bird in a snare” vividly describes how Powell must have felt locked up in prison after Charles II came to power.
Powell writes to “the scattered saints throughout all Wales” that they are to be “Withall expecting the destruction of Antichrist, the Restauration of the Jewes, the Coming, Kingdom, and Raign of Christ”. Deliberately grouping these events demonstrates how Powell considered them inseparable in his theology of death, judgement and the destiny of the soul. Powell then refers to the contemporary Jewish suffering:
We have cause, yet to say as the Apostle; our affliction is but light, and short. Considering the long and sore afflitions [sic] of the Jewes, the ancient People of God, who were afflicted for 400 years, then 70, and since that, without any intermission above 1600 years. Also the primitive Christians, that had scarce in 300 years, so much liberty, peace, and freedom from Persecution, as we had within these few years.
Powell shows some measure of empathy and awareness of the sufferings of the Jews by writing that his suffering is nothing compared to theirs.
A new and useful concordance to the Holy Bible (1671)
This 400-page concordance is striking, in part for its title, which goes on to refer to “the call of the Jews, and the glory that shall be in the latter days”. It also demonstrates one of the most amazing understandings of Jewish Restorationism in the Early Modern period. E. Bagshaw and J. Hardcastle edited the concordance, which Powell worked on in his last months, presumably whilst he was in prison. In their Preface they write:
… Since the greatest part of Scripture-Prophecies is about the calling of the Jews, and the glory of Christ, and of his Church in the latter days; there is therefore annexed a brief collection of all the principal Texts which relate unto that time, which remain yet to be fulfilled…
While Powell compiled only two pages of prophecies about Israel’s restoration, there are references to 240 Bible verses which constitute a comprehensive premillennial prophecy guide.
- Point one relates to the regathering of the Jews from all nations of the earth;
- point two refers to a coming together of Jews and Gentiles into one “Lords people”;
- point three refers to miraculous signs accompanying their restoration including the drying up of the Euphrates and the physical blossoming of the desert;
- point four refers to the return of Jesus; point four refers to the Jews’ conversion and subsequently that they will constitute a “State”;
- point five refers to all nations submitting to the Jews;
- point six refers to the Jews living peacefully, prospering and blessing the whole earth;
- point seven refers to the Land of Judah becoming “like a Paradise, or the Garden of God”;
- point eight refers, significantly, to earthly Jerusalem being rebuilt and “the full Restauration of the Jews”;
- point nine refers to a time of calamity before this happens.
Tellingly, apart from the one reference to Revelation 16:12 in point three, every Scripture cited is from the Hebrew Bible.
This small document is highly significant and influenced thinkers for several centuries. The concordance went through four editions, the last in 1816. The 1673 edition contains a preface by the famous Independent minister and chaplain to Oliver Cromwell, John Owen (Milton, 2000). The impact of the concordance increased when it was included anonymously in the John Brown Self-Interpreting Bible of 1778, which was reprinted as late as 1967. A copy of a 1673 third edition concordance owned and autographed by John Bunyan is in the collection of the Museum of the Baptist College, Bristol: the writer of A Pilgrim’s Progress was aware of these prophecies.
Powell’s A collection of the prophecies which concern the calling of the Jews, and the glory that shall be in the latter days was also printed at the end of Volume II of the Thomas Scott family Bible, immediately after the Song of Songs. Hence, you can see a copy of Powell’s concordance in the John Rylands Library in the Scott Bible. Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) owned a copy of the Scott’s Bible which sold particularly well in the United States by subscription (Beliles, 2014). Hence Powell’s millenarian beliefs have reverberated with generations, far beyond his native Wales.
Powell is an important figure in my study of Puritan views of Jews. I hope this blog will allow you to form your own opinion on what Powell’s view of prophecy says about his relationship with Jews. Although Powell apparently never met any Jews, he understood so much about their role in Scripture through his intensive studies and his belief in the role of the Jewish people as part of his Christian millenarian expectations.
While Powell’s beliefs may seem distant from twenty-first century views, similar ideas about the end of the world and Israel’s future glories have been the hope of Jews for millennia. These peaked particularly in the 1640s and 1650s, notably in the writings of the Dutch Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel (1604-1657). Powell demonstrates that millenarianism can support a sympathetic engagement with Jews even without human contact.
As I continue my research delving in to such rare books in the John Rylands Library, I am discovering more and more evidence of how important ideas like Powell’s were in supporting the readmission of the Jews to England in 1656.
Beliles, M.A., J. Newcombe, G.W. Sheldon, and P.A. Lillback. Doubting Thomas?: The Religious Life and Legacy of Thomas Jefferson. Morgan James Publishing, 2014.
Griffith, Alexander. Strena Vavasoriensis, a Nevv-Years-Gift for the Welch Itinerants…. Thomason Tracts / 112:E.727. [S.l.] : Printed by F.L., 1654., 1654.
Milton, Michael A. “The Pastoral Predicament of Vavasor Powell (1617–1670): Eschatological Fervor and Its Relationship to the Pastoral Ministry.” The Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 43/3 (2000): 517–27.
Nuttall, Geoffrey Fillingham. The Welsh Saints, 1640-1660 : Walter Cradock, Vavasor Powell, Morgan Llwyd. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1957.
Winship, Michael P. Hot Protestants: A History of Puritanism in England and America. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2018.