Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Among apostles and druids

“St Paul in Britain; or, The origin of British as Opposed to Papal Christianity” is a peculiar text, first published in 1861. It's apparently used as a kind of quasi-sacred text by small groups of Neo-Celtic Christians. The author, Richard Williams Morgan (1815-1889) was a controversial Welsh clergyman. He is also known as Mor Meirion and Mar Pelagius. Morgan eventually left the Church of England and became First Patriarch of the Ancient British Church, a small group which still exists under a new designation, the Celtic Orthodox Church. It has no official connection to Eastern or Oriental Orthodoxy.

Morgan's text is an extended piece of “alternative history”. One of its central claims is that Britain and the Celts were evangelized by Joseph of Arimathea before the Church at Rome even existed. Britain thus got its Christianity directly from Jerusalem and the original apostles, without a Romish detour. Just a few years later, Paul baptized a Silurian royal family held captive in Rome. The first royalty won to Christianity were therefore British, making the British royal throne authentically Christian with precedence over the papacy. It also means that the monarch has a certain jurisdiction over the Church. In Morgan's version of events, Constantine the Great and his mother Helena were Celtic, which means that the Roman Empire was converted by another group of British royals. The nationalist and anti-Catholic character of these arguments is patently obvious. What's more strange is that Morgan, who seems to have been something of a Welsh nationalist firebrand, spins arguments which could also be used by *English* nationalists or UK imperialists! In 1861, after all, there was no Celtic royal house…

The second main argument in Morgan's book is that the ancient Druids practiced a religion very similar to Christianity. They supposedly believed in both the immortality of the soul and the need for vicarious atonement. The Druid priesthood was peaceful, very wise and incredibly ancient. Their faith was closer to Christianity than was Biblical Judaism. The Romans persecuted both Druids and Christians, which made the Celts sympathetic to the Gospel message. Morgan's sources for Druidism are, however, modern. He draws heavily on the forgeries of the colorful Iolo Morganwg. Iolo's Druidism is suspiciously similar to Neo-Platonism, theistic Hinduism and even Christianity, with a kind of “evolutionary” perspective thrown in for good measure.

Morgan's speculations are fascinating, to be sure, and he has carefully mined medieval and early modern texts for confirmations of his scenario. As far as I can tell, however, most of his sources are at least 400 years too late, some are even later and a few are modern apocrypha (I suppose we could charitably call Iolo Morganwg's “Barddas” by that designation). I admit I was *almost* taken in by this book, but not quite!

Still, I give it three stars. It's probably a good introduction to a certain form of alternative Christianity which isn't going away any time soon.

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