Wednesday, 2 March 2016


The vagaries of the religious instinct continue to be a puzzle to the psychologist, and the latest reminder that man is a strange creation comes from Melbourne. It seems that unlucky Victoria, ... is threatened with a new exodus. For many years there has been domiciled in Australia an obscure sect known popularly as Christian Israelites, but more correctly as the collected saints of the "New and Latter House of Israel." This sect was not an American invention, but it has spread thither, and the American branch now proclaims that all true believers must assemble at Michigan, U.S.A., and having "pooled" their goods, await the Second Advent. A missionary of this equivocal message recently landed in Melbourne. The local believers did not at first seem inclined to lay much stress on American geography as a factor in salvation, but eloquence had its way on the Yarra Bank, if not in the chapel of the sect. These people though not numerous were good and thrifty citizens, apart from their religious obsession, and the most of them possessed real estate and banking accounts. Some were fairly prominent business men. It is, therefore, to be regretted that the prophets, as to whose honour in their own country there can be little assurance, have induced eighty-six respectable people to sell up their homes and businesses and embark for the Garden of Eden, Michigan. What puzzles the psychologist is that these men are probably as level-headed and keen as the average Australian on every point but one. What will happen to them in Michigan we do not know; but there is little chance of the new Eden being more desirable than Dr. Dowie's Zion City. Unfortunately inspired by this success the prophets will proceed to gather up the elect from other parts of Australia, and we shall probably soon have the pleasure of listening to them in the Domain.

The whole history of this sect serves to illustrate the excess of folly into which an aberrant religious instinct will lend otherwise sane men. It began some 40 years ago by a revelation to one "John James." This person, in vision, heard one of the seven last trumpets sound and beheld in the heavens an angel with a "Flying Roll." It is not explained how this roll found its way into "John James'" possession, but it did so. It is a curious compilation of Scripture texts without any apparent continuity or meaning. It proved possible, however, to extract from it certain doctrines. The chief was that it was given to John James to collect 144,000 bones of the mystical body of the church, to whom it was promised that they should not see death. "Flesh and blood and bones may not inherit the kingdom of Heaven, but flesh and bones can," was one of the texts of the "Flying Roll." The sect, therefore, set itself to got rid of its blood, and it is seriously stated that some disciples succeeded in so doing. One of the incidental peculiarities is that the hair is worn uncut, bound in a symbolic "roll," though the American prophets have now adopted a flowing style. For a long time the sect made no noticeable headway, but ultimately they succeeded in attracting some wealthy adherents, and began to build a huge temple to cost something like £1,000,000 sterling, In the neighbourhood of Brighton, England. The skeleton of this was put up, and it was to contain rooms in which the 144,000 might dwell. So far as we remember, however, dissensions broke out, and the scheme was suspended. Apparently, there was something wrong about the first revelation, and a new locality has been decided on. It would seem impossible for a freak religion to go further than this in absurdity, if we did not know for a fact that freak religions do go further. London was invaded the other day by Obadiah Kent-White and party. These people are known as "Pentecostal Dancers." We fancy they have been called in America "Hallelujah Jumpers," but their official title is the "Church of the Burning Bush." They take literally the phrase about praising the Lord in the dance. They do so with astonishing energy. An account of their meetings tells how "the great beads of perspiration rolled down their faces, and conviction went like an arrow to the hearts of the unsaved." Not so long ago a professor of what is delightfully called "Christian Science" walked off Brooklyn Bridge into air clad in a towel and the "New York Herald," and the fact that he did not make the "Affirmation of Negation" strenuously enough to reverse the law of gravity does not seem to have had any appreciable effect on his followers.

The peculiar thing that underlies recurrent credulity of this type is that the course of the ages seems to have little effect upon it. The absurdities of to-day are certainly not one whit less absurd than, say, that of the Adamites of the sixteenth century, who believed that the primal innocence of Adam and Eve still continued, and that they should go without clothes. The extraordinary heresies of the early days of the Church—heresies that condoned the Pagan Revival under Julian—are perhaps too far away to bring into the argument. They help to show, however, that the recrudescent absurdities we meet with are not isolated phenomena, but have their root in some common quality of the religious instinct gone awry.

The Sydney Morning Herald 4 Feb. 1905

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