Lo! He Comes in Clouds Descending.
John Fletcher

From Magonia 1, Autumn 1979

hostMillenarianism, the active looking forward and expectation of the imminent end of the world is an extremely common human outlook. We tend to associate it solely with Christian belief, where it is enshrined most spectacularly in the Book of Revelation. The outlook, though unacknowledged, is equally held by agnostics and aethists – it is a constant in human nature. In politics those on the right say that things have never been worse; with positive relish they declare that we are on the edge of an abyss and unless a strong man takes over post-haste and lays down the law in no uncertain terms, then God help us. Those on the left see what they assume to be the ever increasing chaos – any quick glance at newspapers over the last hundred years will show that things are no more nor less chaotic than they have ever been – as living proof that the end of our present society is at hand, the revolution is nigh, and then paradise shall descend and we shall all live as brothers and sisters in Eden. Those in the centre are as millenarian as anyone – just vote for me, just forgo that pay demand, just stifle this natural instinct in the cause of the common good, and somewhere just over the horizon is the Promised Land.

Nearly all of us, somewhere inside us believe that if only one or two things could happen, then there would be a miraculous transformation of society, and everything is going to be an eternity of coming up roses.

Since the earliest times, man has wished to be aware of the approach of catastrophic changes in his life. Much of megalithic technology provided an accurate forecast of cosmic events. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was originally started by monks to ensure that an accurate calendar could be computated and observed in religious ceremonies. The coming of comets was as important as the passing of kings – the first often precipitating the latter. Fred Hoyle is now garlanding us with a theory that each passing comet drowns us in a new and deadly strain of bacteria. Comets were traditionally harbingers of disease and plague. Eclipses of the sun interfere with the balance of gravitational pulls, and caused earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, which in turn, through the amount of dust in the atmosphere, can seriously affect the weather and crops in ensuing years.

Scientists have for some time now equated vigorous sunspot activity with poor weather conditions on Earth. In a New Scientist article (Our Inconstant Sun, 18th January 1979), Dr David Clark [not the contemporary ufologist, Ed.] has traced beck records of sunspots by Chinese astronomers for 2000 years. What is unusual is not only that these two phenomena (sunspots and bad weather) do correlate, but that the onset of bad sunspot cycles also, time and time again, correspond with the overthrow of one dynasty and the start of another. In all traditional societies, the king or queen was seen as a representative of the heavenly powers on earth, and should a messenger such as a comet or earthquake be seen or experienced on earth it was taken as a sign that the overthrow of the mighty was imminent. Plague and famine were signs of bad rulers, who were sacrificed to assuage the angry gods or forces. The death rate amongst Anglo-Saxon kings at times of hardship is phenomenal. As Shakespeare puts it in Richard III:

The bay trees in our country are all withered,
And meteors fright the fixed stars of heaven;
The pale faced moon looks bloody on the earth
And lean-looked prophets whisper fearful change.
These signs fortell the death or fall of kings.

In tribal societies, where the kings or queens were sacral rather than possessing political or military Power and ruled by consent, then changeovers and replacements were usually accepted without undue fuss. However in feudal society, when kings ruled by force, change was effected by force, then the roles of prophecy and portent changed. For the rulers, they would have to reflect the permanence and legitimacy of that rule. For the ambitious and powerful who wished to usurp power they would need to foretell a new star rising. For the underprivileged and exploited at the bottom of the pile, the prophets would be looked for to promise sudden change, violent revenge and better times to come.

This position was further aggravated by the arrival of Christianity, a monomaniacal, monotheistic religion, which, to be crudely cynical for a moment, relied for much of its selling power to possible converts on its promised contract between God and believer. A promise that God would soon come, in person to rule in glory, create paradise on earth, overthrow the mighty, punish the wicked (especially the powerful), and reward the faithful. What is more, the actual coming is described in graphic detail, with armies marching through the skies, lightning flashed, thunderclouds, flying scrolls, etc.

Such writings not only gave consolation to the poor and downtrodden, they actively gave them hope; and the worse their situation grew, the greater was that hope. Even until well into the nineteenth century any halfway decent thunderstorm could be sure to bring the poorer elements of a district out into the streets, on their knees, imploring the Lord for mercy.

For several centuries in the late Middle Ages and up to the Civil War, it was a capital offence to possess any books or manuscripts of prophecy which foretold the overthrow of the King – secular prophets like Mother Shipton [left], Richard Nixon (sic!), and Nostradamus, using astrological predictions being considered especially subversive. With the Bible however, the authorities were faced with a particular problem. A significant part of their power rested on a belief in divine sanction, provided by the Bible. And yet within itself, the Bible contained the seeds for their overthrow. Theology and dogma aside, the main reason for opposing the translation of the Bible for so long was the scaring thought that the faithful might actually read it!

banks_shipton_1With the Civil War, both secular power – through the King – and religious power – through the Archbishop of Canterbury – came toppling down. The sale of prophesies boomed as never before. A foreign observer of the time described the English as being ‘half-dead with prophecy’. In 1611, with a total eclipse of the sun, the rich left London in droves, and the end of the world was expected. It was believed that with the overthrow of Church and King, Christ’s descent to earth was imminent. Several people came forward proclaiming themselves as Christ or as the prophets of His second coming foretold in Revelations. With Satan’s stranglehold broken, there were reports from all over England of flaming portents and marching armies filling the skies, heralding the Apocalypse. As always in revolutions, before the party men take over, there was that amazing hiatus during which people actually demand the impossible and are transformed with energy and imagination.

I will deal with the millenarianism in one area – Somerset – in some detail. Somerset where there was a flourishing wool trade, was probably the most politically and religiously radical area in the country. As the revolution gradually foundered, and as it became increasingly obvious by the late 1650′s that the monarchy and the Church of England would be restored, the psychological pressure grew amongst believers for Christ to march with His army to succour the faithful on earth. The pressure began to manifest itself in various psychic and paranormal phenomena. There was an outburst of witch-hunts, prosecutions and executions, especially in areas where nonconformist craftsmen were prevalent. In the most famous case at Shepton Mallet, two women were executed on the evidence of a young boy who claimed they had bewitched him and caused him to fly through the air – a spectacle observed by several witnesses.

Then came a series of sightings of second suns in the sky, second moons, and armies marching thorough the skies and giving battle, which preceded the Act of Uniformity in 1662. By this time not only had the counter-revolution succeeded by the restoration of Charles II, but Anti-Christ, in the shape of the Church of England, was coming back to preside over every parish, while their own Nonconformist pastors were being banished or imprisoned. If Christ was to come, then it must be before the Act of Uniformity became law. Despite the return of ‘Anti-Christ’ however the West Country, and Somerset in particular, remained a hot-bed of sedition. Astrologers, prophets and non-conformists were unceasingly brought to trial, imprisoned, or whipped round the town on market day. For twenty years the whole West Country was coming to the boil of the Monmouth Rebellion, when once more Civil War radicals and millenarians would rise.

In May 1683, only two years before Monmouth landed, there were large scale outbreaks of possession and witchcraft in villages like Spreyton and towns like Barnstaple, amongst the Nonconformist weavers. At Spreyton a man was hounded by spirits and thrown from his horse in front of witnesses by invisible beings and propelled through the air. There were hags and apparitions which came and haunted the entire village, and poltergeist activity.

Some idea of the millenarian atmosphere in the West Country just before the Monmouth Rebellion can be gauged by the letters Andrew Paschal, the Rector of Chedzoy in Somerset – a parish contiguous to Sedgemoor – wrote to the antiquary John Aubrey:

“Before our troubles (the Rebellion) came on we had such signs as used to be deemed forerunners of such things. In May 1680 there was that monstrous birth at Isle Brewers, a parish in Somerset, which at that time was much taken note of – two female children joined in their bodies from the breast down. They were born May 19th, and christened Aquila and Priscilla. May 29th I saw them well and likely to live. About at the same time, reports went of divers others in the inferior sorts of animals, both the oviparous and viviparous kinds. But perhaps many of these, and the other odd things then talked of, owed, if not their being, yet their dress, to superstition and fancy. In the January following, Monday the 3rd, at seven in the morning, we had an earthquake, which I myself felt here It came with a whizzing gust of wind from the west end of my house which shook it. This motion was observed in Bridgewater, Taunton, Wells and other places, and near some caverns in the Mendip Hills and was said to be accompanied by thundering noises.

“In the end of the year 1684, 12 Dec., were seen from this place, at sun rising, parahelii, and this when in a clear, sharp, frosty morning there were no clouds to make the reflection. It was probably from the thickness of the atmosphere. The place of the fight (Sedgemoor) which was in the following summer, was near a line drawn from the eyes of the spectators to these mock suns.”

This system of aligning aerial phenomenon with important political events was one used be Aubrey himself. He notes that on 1st May 1647, at Broadchalk, in Wiltshire, two rainbows appeared circling the sun. On the 3rd June 1647, Cornet took his prisoner Charles I (a vastly important symbolic political act) from Holdenby to the Isle of Wight. From Broadchalk the Island lay exactly in the direction where the rainbows intersected. Again at the end of 1688, when the landing of William of Orange (a sort of moderate Monmouth) was expected daily, Aubrey noted two balls of light appear in the sky above Bishop’s Lavington in Wiltshire.

As the negro spiritual has it (many black slave beliefs had West Country origins, white slaves – often condemned Monmouth rebels – historically preceding them on southern plantations): And the Lord hung a rainbow, as a sign, Won’t be water, but fire next time.

What I have been trying to do so far is describe how in a religious society, well versed in the Bible, political and social strains often express themselves in visionary, ecstatic and transcendental states of mind. Since not only the natural world – through comets, eclipses, etc. – but also the Lord God Almighty, through fiery chariots, Armies of the Apocalypse, etc., has decided to show his immanence and power in the sky, then there can be no surprise when the faithful, convinced of the immanence of the End, see evidence of it writ large across the heavens. Because religion, or at least a literal interpretation of the Bible, no longer has such a hold over large parts of the population in the Western world, this does not mean that the desire for a complete break with the past and a deus-ex-machina to descend and change everything, has gone away.

It is in this context that I wish to examine the Ohio Airship flap of 1897, particularly in reference to an excellent article In the Winter 1978 edition of Pursuit magazine, by Andrew E Rothovius, entitled ‘Analogies of the Propogation Waves of the Great Fear in France, 1789, and of the Airship Flap in Ohio, 1897′.

I should stress that I have been unable to get hold of contemporary newspapers from Ohio, and my deductions of Ohio society at this time were garnered from Bristol Central Library. Perhaps any American reader might be interested in following it up.

Rothovius’s article describes in some detail the spread through provincial France, on the eve of the outbreak of the Revolution, of reports of massacres of French civilians by foreign invading troops. The reports were all similar. A exhausted man, his clothes in disarray, would run into his neighbouring village, saying that he had personally witnessed the complete destruction of his own village and the massacre of its inhabitants by troops.

This would create panic and the news would be passed on to the next village in a similar manner. Gradually, villagers of the second village picked up courage to visit the first, supposedly ransacked, village. But here they would discover that everything was normal. When taxed with this, the messengers from each village would refuse to believe it, swearing that they had personal seen the attacks take place. These wild panics spread across the country in a series of waves, often taking several weeks before they petered out. However, one thing should be noted: these panics only took place in those parts of the country where the peasants had not actually risen in physical rebellion against the crown and their lords. Where this had taken place the rumours did not spread. In the areas which did not rise the rumours seem to have acted as a sort of pseudo-rebellion.

Rothovius draws parallels between this phenomenon and the spread of the reported sightings of airships through Ohio, following the lines of the railroads, and spread by farmers as they went by railroad to their local market town. There are however two points on which I wish to take him up. The first is on the question of the visions being prophetic, in that they were of relatively sophisticated airships at a time when no such craft existed. While it is impossible to prove anything either way, I would argue that precognition is in no way demonstrated by these sightings. Secondly, Rothovius portrays Ohio and its residents as ‘tranquil’ at the time of these sightings. I will show that this was very far from being the case.

The nineteenth century was an age of scientific and technological revolution, a process that still continues. It also saw the advent of the mass-circulation newspaper. In the changing world of today, the art form we look towards to explain our changing society is science-fiction – whether we are talking about the esoteric buffs, or the watchers of ‘Blakes Seven’. There is a feeling that science-fiction is something new, or at least only goes back as far as H G Wells; the trouble being that science fiction has a form of built-in obsolescence, losing its appeal as time proves its prophecies hopelessly wrong. In fact science fiction was both more wide-spread and more avidly consumed in the 19th Century than it is today (see Patterns of Expectation, 1644 -2001 by I F Clarks, Cape 1979)

Its vehicle was the popular press. This public hunger for science fiction was proved as early as 1835 with the notorious Great Lunar Hoax of the New York Sun. The editor, keen to boost his circulation, printed a series of stories purporting to come from South Africa, from the mouth of the famous English astronomer Sir John Herschel, who had witnessed through his telescope abundant evidence of teeming life forms on the moon. Each story gave graphic, highly imaginative descriptions of the life supposedly observed there. Within a few days the Sun became the largest circulation newspaper in the world, and stayed that way even after the hoax was discovered. (It would be interesting for some American Fortean to pursue the question of whether there was a simultaneous outbreak of reports of strange and exotic life forms here on Earth. Again, whether Edgar Allen Poe’s wildly successful hoax of 1844 – also in the Sun – of a fictitious three day crossing of the Atlantic by balloon, led to an outbreak of airship reports.)

In a world in which society was changing daily by the forces of new technology there was not only an immense demand for information on the latest technology, how it worked, what it looked like (a demand satisfied in England by such magazines as the Illustrated London News), but also for huge wads of imaginative fiction which would allow the public’s consciousness to come to terms with this whole Autre Monde – the title of a contemporary French magazine which did precisely this.

The wildly successful literature of those like Verne, whose work was printed and reprinted over and over again in the popular press, fulfilled this need. Science fiction however, not only provided fantastic, thrilling descriptions of the power and influence of contemporary technology, but also it drew on and reinforced and reinvigorated certain basic human myths.

audusym2Consider the myth of another civilisation living below us under the Earth’s surface. Common in classical times and Celtic mythology, it was first disinterred in modern times by Baron Holberg’s Journey to the World Underground, in 1741, and rapidly became a staple of European and American fiction. In 1818 Captain John Symmes [right] sent his famous memorandum to the governments and principal institutions of the world proposing an expedition to the centre of the Earth. He stated: “I ask one hundred brave companions, well equipped, to start from Siberia in the fall season with reindeers and Sleighs.” Entrance to the underground world was to be found at the North Pole. Poe’s story ‘Ms. Found in a Bottle’, Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth, and countless imitators kept the myth alive in the public sub-consciousness into the twentieth century. In California in the late nineteen thirties a playboy named Joe Bell started his Mankind United movement by preaching that a race of little men with metal heads who lived in the centre of the world would tell cultists what to do, through his revelations. Mainly they seemed to tell his quarter of a million followers that they should present Joe Bell with large sums of money. Finally, in our own day we have the group of cultists who believe that UFOs come from a hole in the Earth at the North Pole.

Thus popular science fiction not only visualised and explained the effects of the latest technology to its mass readership, it also nourished basic myths within the human soul. One of the great fantasies of mankind – at least amongst men – is to dream of fighting and making war, where with the press of a button one send whole nations into oblivion. Science fiction of course pandered shamelessly to this fantasy (just as it does today) and the full panoply of Verne’s futuristic technology were wielded with gay abandon against opposing nations or revolting natives. The 1860′s and 70′s, the heyday of Verne and his imitators, was also the great age of imperial expansion, when national psyches were being whipped up for the first time by the mass popular press, into a frenzy of insecurity and its invariable concomitant, aggression. It was an age of social Darwinism, of the intellectual legitimization of one race – be it Anglo-Saxon, Teutonic, French – massacring, conquering and subjecting other races because they were inherently inferior, had black skins, long noses or ate garlic.

Science fiction was not only fun. Those ambitious for power and influence began to use it to scare and manipulate the public into accepting their demands – usually for increased militarization. The first and most famous of these attempts was probably Sir George Tompkins Chesney’s The Battle of Dorking, published in 1871. The first writer seriously to take stock of the advances in modern weaponry and to Imagine its use in modern warfare, Chesney wrote a graphic and powerful description of a well-armed France invading and devastating Southern England, as an attempt to scare the British into adopting a programme of national conscription. His book was successful. It was published and serialised in England, New York, Philadelphia, Toronto and Melbourne, and translated into Dutch, French, German, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese, and provoked seventeen counter-attacks and imitations in English alone. It produced a host of imitations – scare stories like Erskine Childer’s Riddle of the Sands about the threat of a German invasion – which led not only to a far greater sense of national identity, but to the creation of a war psychosis.

In the USA the most famous perpetrator of the militaristic scare was an Admiral Mahan, who in successive books showed how the key to imperial power in the past had always been sea power, and that if America was to stand the aggression of acquisitive foreign powers and take its rightful place in the race for colonial power, the America should scrap its rundown fleet of coast-guard vessels and start building battleships – quick! Since his views coincided rather neatly with American big-business, which needed access to cheap raw materials, then the battleships were built rather quickly. Soon the US had a new battle fleet, which needed someone to fight. Eyes fell upon the local sick-man, Spain. Spain’s Caribbean and Pacific colonies looked in need of some strong, virile rule. This sudden encouragement of a war psychosis amongst the American people colncided with a newspaper circulation war between the Pulitzer newspaper chain, and
the Hearst papers.

Hearst himself was rather friendly with the tycoons of the Sugar Trust, who were casting covetous eyes on Cuba. Hearst decided his interests lay in whipping up war fever by portraying the alleged barbarities of Spanish rule, and damning the faint hearts at home (mainly the Pulitzer papers) who were unwilling to take a stand against these ‘outrages’. By 1879 Hearst’s campaign had provoked the nation to war, and Hearst was on his way to winning his own circulation war.

The papers were filled, not only with photos and descriptions of the war, but with ripping, stirring, futuristic yarns of technological derring-do, in which Anglo-Saxon supermen patrolled the world in flying machines and airships, crushing ‘lower races’ into submission. 

Many of these tales of young men conquering the world were written in the name of socialism. The young men were nationalist socialists who would conquer the world for their particular race in the name of socialism. Thus after technology had been used briefly in a destructive fashion to get power into the hands of those idealistic enough and competent enough to use it, science would then be applied to bring the secular millennium about, here on Earth. Science was the religion of the nineteenth century, technology promised the millennium, and mass popular science fiction served as the holy scriptures. Airships had been foretold, therefore in popular consciousness there was no reason why they should not be foreseen.

In 1897 Ohio was in social, political and economic turmoil. It was everything but ‘tranquil’. From the time of the Civil War Ohio had become the centre of the American industrial revolution, and was politically dominated by the interests of steel, oil and coal, which in turn were intimately associated with Washington. The majority of American presidents were to come from Ohio until the 1920s. There were several unsuccessful attempts at a state level to break the business stranglehold on the levers of power and break the economic monopoly. In the first of a series of deep slumps there was a bitter railroad strike in 1877, the violent Hocking Valley coal strike in 1884, the 1892 Homestead Massacre of steelworkers in contiguous Pennsylvania, the extremely violent Pullman strike of 1894, and Jacob S Coxley’s famous march to Washington in 1894 to protest against unemployment. He dubbed the marchers the ‘Commonweal of Christ’ and took as his slogan ‘Peace on Earth, Goodwill to Men, but Death to Interest on Bonds’. The march was unsuccessful.

By 1897 industrial Ohio was well into the worst slump in its history. The Protestant church was was beginning to show an interest and concern in social and economic matters in Ohio. In 1882, Washington Gladden started his ‘Social Gospel’ ministry in Columbus, which was to last thirty years, and have a profound effect on congregations and ministers throughout America. It gave attention to economic and social reform and criticized the creed of economic individualism and greed.

The airship was spotted in rural Ohio where farming was likewise going through a profound depression. The price index for farm produce had fallen continuously since the Civil War. In 1866 it had been 140, in 1896 it had fallen to 56, due to the opening of new farming lands in the Far West and abroad. Farming in the Mid West was in chaos. The Kansas saying: “In God we trust, in Kansas we bust” held true for the whole of the Mid-West, where, it has been calculated that during the 1890′s, 90% of all farms changed hands.

The people were still desperate and hoping for an immediate change in their situation. In a secularised, industrialised materialistic society, their God was now symbolised by scientific and technological wonders rather than the cumbersome imagery of the Book of Revelation

This general impoverishment of the Mid-Western farmers – most of them ram-rod straight Protestants – resulted in the rise of the political movement known as Populism. This movement blamed the slump on the extortion of railroad barons who exploited their monopoly on transporting the farmers’ produce to market, and on an international conspiracy of financiers who kept the price of gold artificially high, and thus kept ordinary people in continual debt and penury. The Populist Party, which was to sweep America, was formed at Cincinnati in Ohio in 1891. It was given a great impetus, firstly by the financial panic and collapse on Wall Street in 1893, and then by the Gold Reserve Crisis of 1895. In 1896 with the American industrial and agricultural slump reaching its depths, the Democrats nominated a populist, an ex-preacher and Protestant minister, Williams Jennings Bryan, to run as their presidential candidate. Denounced as an anarchist and revolutionary, in November 1896, only five months before the airship sightings, Bryan made a famous speech concluding: “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold”.

Bryan lost the election narrowly – It was a contest between the moneyed East, the creditors, and the impoverished West and South, the debtors.

 If, at the height of the depression, politics failed, what else was there to turn to? Due to the inadequacies of the Bristol Central Library, I lack definite proof, only the strongest circumstantial evidence, that Ohio and the American Mid-West, in the spring of 1897, was in the grip of an intense non-conformist religious revival. The Lord was at hand.

hostPerhaps he did not come in the old Protestant way to save his chosen people, his army marching triumphant across the skies. Maybe over the years the imagery of Christian and secular millenarianism had become confused or changed in the public mind The people were still desperate and hoping for an immediate change in their situation. In a secularised, industrialised materialistic society, their God was now symbolised by scientific and technological wonders rather than the cumbersome imagery of the Book of Revelation, but their desire for the millennium, for salvation remained precisely the same, and that desire took precisely the same form of transcendent images seen in the skies.

There has always been this element of suppressed desire, often idealistic, in the sightings of unexplained aerial phenomena. The Portuguese vision of Fatima took place at a time of intense agricultural depression and poverty.

The little green men, when they climb from their craft or beam their messages down through mediums more often than not express the most admirable and sensible of messages; that nuclear weapons are an abomination and should be banned, that man is killing himself by polluting the world he lives in, that people should love one another.

Until governments and the powerful cease being wicked, corrupt and destructive, until men and women can live with dignity and good-neighbourliness and equality and each is the master of their own destiny, then I venture to say that psychic engines of retribution will continue to trundle over the horizon and through the clouds.

At whatsoever time this eventually does come about, of course, the millennium will finally have come – I expect.

 

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