Transcript and the treatise about Napoleon
If you thought the poem about how all babies are evil from our last episode on Rhoda Bingham Daniels was a weird piece of correspondence then pleased hold onto your hat because that’s not even the weirdest thing we found in that collection. The weirdest thing is a political/religious manifesto about how Napoleon is the antichrist. Buckle your seatbelts for a look at how end of the world beliefs have changed throughout US history, why so many in The US were getting hot and bothered over a French guy and we’ll sort through all the animals in the Biblical books of Daniel and Revelations and infer what 1800s European country they are (like a Buzzfeed quiz).
This is Birmingham Uncovered, a podcast by the Birmingham Museum, where we are exploring the diverse and compelling lives that built Birmingham Michigan into the community that it is today. First, some background on Birmingham: we are a city of approx. 20,000 people over 4.73 square miles, approximately halfway between Detroit and Pontiac in Oakland County. This area was occupied by members of the Three Fires Confederacy of Indigenous People before white settlement in the area started in the late 1810s. Birmingham became a city in 1933 and today is known as a prosperous and multi-faceted community with a thriving cultural scene.
Today, we are doing something a little different. Among the papers and the poems from Rhoda Bingham Daniels, dating to the early half of the 1800s, is a handmade booklet of two pieces of paper folded together, for 8 pages total, held together with a metal sewing pin. The writing is fairly uniform and there’s very little in the way of margins-the writer had too much to say to include margins. And though the message seems like it might have come from a minister-the writing doesn’t match Rhoda’s Grandfather, Jeremiah of the “babies are evil” fame. The timeline of the treatise, which is very concerned with Napoleon’s Battle of the Pyramids which took place in 1798, would line up with the life of Hiram Daniel’s father, John Danels Sr, while Hiram and Rhoda’s generation wasn’t born until the 1800s. John Daniels Sr is somebody that we don’t have any definitive writing samples from and, incidentally, fought in the Revolutionary War -which could explain the bad feelings towards Great Britain in the treatise. John has another claim to fame-he’s the only Revolutionary War veteran buried in Birmingham’s Greenwood Cemetery. He moved to the area in the 1830s with his son, Hiram. But, it very well could have been written by another family member or friend of Rhoda’s as well.
As a side note: please keep all the weird correspondence you get from your family. A future museum worker will thank you for the unexpected entertainment.
It’s worth exploring as a unique artifact- we simply do not have very many political/religious treatises at our museum, and it also allows us the explore more of the range of prevailing religious thoughts and ideas of early 1800s Americans as well as looking at how certain segments of the American population received the news coming out of Europe. What makes a treatise a treatise? It is a systematic exposition or argument in written form that includes a methodical discussion of the facts and the conclusions the author has reached.
On a personal note, I grew up in a church that believed that Jesus was coming back very, very soon and that all political, personal and cultural events were signs that could be explained by Biblical Prophecies. I devoured all books about the end times and discovered something that shook my 12 year old self to the core: every generation has believed that they were living in the end times. From cuneiform writings about how the youths of today were impertinent to their elders and thus it is surely the end of days to former President Barack Obama being the Great Dragon from the book of Revelations, the end has always been here. Now, I can pick up anything about the book of Revelations and the end times at a used book store and tell you what year it was published in just by looking at who Gog and Magog (two pivotal figures from the book of Revelations who are often believed to represent different nations) are. Turning one’s religious trauma into party tricks might not be the healthiest way to heal, but it is the most hilarious.
Another important thing: The context of this look at the end times is limited to Western Protestant Christianity and there’s a lot of variations within various Christian traditions when it comes to interpreting end times prophecies. There’s even more variations in different religions and cultures which we unfortunately will not have the time to explore in this episode.
To sum it up: Many Christians, both in the past and today, will believe that Jesus will one day return and establish a new heaven and earth and the old earth will be destroyed. Before this, an antichrist will emerge and try to lead folks astray. After the destruction of earth and the antichrist there will be a thousand years of peace. Exactly when all that will happen has been a matter of debate for about 2,000 years.
In our last episode, we explored the Second Great Awakening, a religious movement in the United States that took place between 1790 and 1835 during which an explosion of new faiths and religious movements (mostly based upon Protestant Christianity) shook the religious landscape. Scholars have made the connection between a growing country with a rapidly expanding frontier and the move away from the passive religion of the Puritans in New England. The Puritans believed that before one was born they were marked as either the elect and saved or not but these new religious movements made each individual human into a dynamic moral actor, who can either choose to accept salvation or not. Another aspect of many of the faiths that were growing at this time was millenarianism or the belief that a thousand-year age of blessedness, beginning with or culminating in the Second Coming of Christ was imminent. Established denominations embraced this belief as well as new movements. One group, the Millerites, believed that Jesus was returning on October 22, 1844.
The Millerites followed the teachings of William Miller, who was a lay Baptist preacher who attempted to predict Jesus’ return using some hard to follow math following the prophecy in Daniel about the sanctuary in Jerusalem being cleansed 2,300 days after it had been desecrated. The cleansing, Miller taught, was the earth being destroyed by fire at Jesus’ second coming. Now, you might have realized that the world did not end in October of 1844 and the Millerites did too. This led to the “Great Disappointment” as many Millerites, having sold their worldly goods in anticipation of the world’s end, found themselves still on the same earth with much fewer assets. Some abandoned the faith and joined other groups but some stuck with the faith even as other dates given for the end of the world came and went.
If you can remember Y2k, think about the disappointment of those who had spent all or a good chunk of their life savings on water filtration systems, military grade MREs, gold bars and ammunition felt when the world didn’t descend into darkness and chaos on January 1, 2000.
The experience of the Millerites was an important lesson for the millenarianism movement and other preachers who taught that the end of days was coming soon. While the end is coming one really shouldn’t set dates. There were still some some date setters but the majority kept it fairly vague. New calculations emerged, about just how long the antichrist would be given to reign, whether and when exactly there would be a “rapture” (when believers would be taken up to heaven, leaving non-believers behind), and what exactly the symbolism in the Bible exactly means. These debates still rage today as different sects of believers argue that the tribulation (or the time period that the antichrist will reign and many bad things will befall the earth) will be 7 or 5 years, that the rapture will happen before or after the tribulation, etc.
Nowadays, popular media like the Left Behind novels and movies make it seem like all the events of the end times are clearly laid out and set in stone. But its important to remember that those are only the views of one particular Christian sect and it took a long time for those beliefs to coalesce. And that’s part of why this treatise is so interesting, we are glimpsing the evolution of how various parts of the Bible were being interpreted to reflect the historical context in which the author of the treatise lived.
So let’s get into it. Though Jesus in the four canonical gospels of the Bible talks about returning soon, the basis for a lot of the scenarios and beliefs of the end of the world for western Christians comes from the Old Testament book of Daniel and the New Testament book of Revelations. Though several hundred years separate the two books (the book of Daniel was written towards the middle of the second century BCE, or before the common era and Revelations around 95 CE, or common era) both do have quite a bit in common. Both are apocalypses, a type of writing that depicts the final destruction of evil in the world by God and the uplifting of the faithful to some sort of heavenly or messianic kingdom. And, this usually involves a large, world altering or ending destructive event, leading our modern use of the word “apocalypse”.
Biblical scholars believe both works were written to oppressed minorities in order to provide comfort during times of governmental oppression. For the authors of Daniel, this oppression took the form of a Seleucid king who plundered and desecrated the Jewish temple. The book uses the Babylonian exile of the sixth century to illustrate God’s hand in restoring and helping the Jewish people.
The book of Revelations, on the other hand, was written during the reign of one of the Roman Empire’s most notorious emperors, Nero, when the burgeoning Christian community was being especially oppressed. The book shows Jesus returning soon and destroying the evil in the world once and for all.
And because both Biblical books were critiques of contemporary rulers and power structures, scholars suggest that the authors had to be creative. After all, there was no freedom of speech in the Seleucid or Roman empires. The authors of both books used allegories, figures of speech and a lot of animal imagery. There’s so much animal imagery. More animals than Noah’s Ark.
But, if you have ever read Daniel or Revelations you might have noticed something very, very rude. The United States isn’t mentioned in either book. From the earliest days of white settlement on the shores of what would be the United States, the colonists were calling themselves “a shining city on a hill” or talking about how God was going to bless this divine experiment. So, obviously, we should be the stars of the show, right?
Thus begins a very long tradition of inserting the United States into more recent Biblical end times prophecies. Main character syndrome, we’ve always had it.
The treatise in our collection starts with Daniel Chapter 8, which lays out a prophecy about future rulers and compares them to goats (although most scholars believe that this chapter was written after it was purported to, making it less of a prophecy and more of a recounting of past rulers). Our treatise author then declares that this matter is settled and will now move onto the issues of the great beast, the red dragon and the woman in the book of Revelations.
The beast is described in Chapter 13 of the book of Revelations. It has seven heads and ten horns, a body like a leopard, the feet of a bear and the mouth of a lion. Pretty metal. The author of our treatise, seeing the world through his 1790 American Protestant lens, sees the leopard as obviously the Catholic papacy because just as everybody knows that leopards have spots, the pope has… archbishops? The heads and crowns of the beast then represent the heads of European countries that are subservient to the Pope. The feet of the beast represent Prussia, because a bear is their standard and the mouth is Great Britain because a lion is their standard. I think Henry VIII would like a word about Great Britain being a tool of the papacy though.
Our treatise writer believes that Great Britain giving supremacy to Catholicism drove the colonists to America where the divine hand of providence protected them until that dastardly Britain formed the colony of Georgia, which was bad for some reason, and started a War with France which lead them to further tax and punish the colonists. This war the author is referring to here is probably what us Americans call the French and Indian War which took place between 1754–1763 and was over who would control what is now the Midwestern US and is sometimes though of a theater of the 7 Years War which took place in Europe and was about…listen, honestly Britain and France have kinda always been at war throughout history up until the 20th century.
Our treatise author believes that Revelations chapter 12 is about the American Revolution. A pregnant woman gives birth and a waiting dragon tries to eat the child, who will rule the nations with an iron scepter. The child is snatched up to heaven to be with God and the woman flees into the wilderness. Then, a war breaks out in heaven where the dragon is cast down onto the earth and then it tries to kill the woman.
The woman has 12 stars which, to our author, are 12 colonies because screw Georgia at the start of the Revolution, you know? Georgia doesn’t count for reasons (the reason being that we need 12 and not 13 stars). The woman is clothed with the sun, which is a symbol of France… (actually just the personal emblem of Louis the XIV, who was known as the Sun King who was the ancestor of Louis XVI who was king of France during the American Revolutionary War. But again, we are letting actual facts get in the way of a good story). The woman’s baby is, of course, glorious American freedom. And then the mother is given Eagle wings to fly away which is again America because no other nation has ever been associated with an eagle. Russia, Poland, Germany, Liechtenstein, Austria, Czech Republic, Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, Romania, Moldova, Armenia, Mexico, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Namibia, Nigeria, Zambia and Ghana don’t count.
Now that we’ve established that, we can move onto France’s Napoleon Bonaparte. During the late 1700s and early 1800s the world felt like it was shrinking for many people. The newly independent United States was being pulled into European politics and the faster flow of cross-Atlantic information meant that an individual living in Boston could easily keep on top of European politics and boy was there conflict brewing between France and England. As already stated, there had always been either war or almost war between the two but at this time it kicked into overdrive during the French Revolution which took place from 1789 until 1799 in which the monarchy was overthrown and climaxed during Napoleon Bonaparte’s rise to power (in 1804 he crowned himself emperor of the French)
In our treatise, Napoleon is the beast with two horns like a lamb who speaks like a dragon from the book of Revelations. The two horns represent him being the King of Naples and Emperor of France. And did you know Napoleon can work miracles? Our author explains that he had soldiers go up into balloons to rain down fire in order to convince the Egyptians that he was sent by their great God Muhammed. Napoleon did take balloons with him to Egypt, but only for observation and one caught fire. Napoleon also appears to have known much more about Islam than our author knew, because he knew that Muhammed was a prophet, not Islam’s God. But our author also thought that Great Britain was a Catholic nation, so comparative religions wasn’t really his strong suit.
And as for speaking like a dragon, our writer implores you to look no further than the decrees from Napoleon’s government which he asserts are very dragon like. Source: trust me bro, that’s what a dragon sounds like.
And I know what you’re waiting for, how does the infamous number of the Beast- 666- relate to Napoleon Bonaparte? I’m so glad you asked, for the treatise is quite innovative as far as these things go. 666 is how many provinces Napoleon rules and you’ll just have to take the writer’s word for it. No really, our writer doesn’t even try to count them and just presents as a thing that is probably true.
Gog and Magog from the book of Revelations? Those are the Turkish or Muslim princes and according to our writer, they are presently being stirred up by our dastardly Antichrist who is, if you haven’t figured it out yet, Napoleon. Throughout the 1700 and 1800s, France, Britain and several other colonial global powers were jockeying for control of the rest of the world. What we now call the Arab World, the Middle East and North Africa, were prized for both their natural resources and trade routes and European colonial powers were spending a lot of time conquering, re-conquering, putting down revolts, and trying to bribe local leaders to do their bidding. Egypt was an especially rich prize due to it’s history as an old civilization (which some scholars place at about 3100 BCE). Egyptian antiquities were carted off to museums and mummies were sold to wealthy Europeans for “unwrapping parties” or for grinding into medicine. Both those were real, very popular things.
But, back to our treatise. Though only a short 8 pages, the author packs in a lot. Some of what they write will be familiar to those who currently are or have been in a modern evangelical church that likes to talk about the end times.
There’s something else that marks this document as fascinating. The millenarianism that emerged during the Second Great Awakening, which this treatise appears to be tapping into, reframes humans as active and not the passive actors that they are under the Calvinistic view of the world. As discussed in the previous episode on Rhoda Bingham Daniels, the Calvinist worldview held by the Bingham family places each individual in a passive position- before you were born God decided whether you were the elect or not and there’s nothing you can do in your life that will affect that. But under millenarianism? One can get right with God before the end and one can choose which side to be on. Though the overarching narrative treatment, in the form of the biblical prophecies, might already be written, there’s plenty still for the actors to adlib.
But the one typical feature of our treatise is calling Napoleon the antichrist. At the time, it was a fairly common trope. Here was a man who was a commoner who ascended quickly to great power to conquer and rule a world empire-short lived as it was- that stretched from Western Europe to the Russian Steppes. Many treatises, pamphlets and sermons of the time cast him in the AntiChrist role (with many doing some type of math to make his name fit the number 666) and even Leo Tolstoy’s masterpiece War and Peace opens with Napoleon being called the antichrist.
But, as we are all aware, the world has not been destroyed by fire and Napoleon died in 1821. Hundreds of thousands of Antichrists have been said to emerged since then and grifters are always around to sell books and pamphlets all about them to the faithful, as well as buckets of freeze dried disgusting meals perfect for the end times. But was our treatise writer one such grifter, a harmless crank with a passion for blaming everything on Great Britain or a true believer? The cynic in me says that one can be all three at the same time but we simply don’t know enough about the writer or the original treatise itself to know for sure. It’s handwritten and we haven’t found evidence that is was copied from any other work, nor do we have any clues if it was written intended for wider distribution or for only personal or familial edification.
So, if anyone wants to find me, I’ll be writing a blockbuster book series and movies based on this. Anyone know if Nic Cage is available? I can pay him in buckets of freeze dried mac n cheese.
Anyways, join us next week as we get back to our regularly scheduled programming by talking about John Allen Bigelow, a man who snuck into the army twice, stole a train, stole his best friend’s sister and never took a single thing seriously in his entire life.
I’m Caitlin Donnelly and thank you for joining us for this episode of “Birmingham Uncovered”. Special thanks to the Birmingham Area Cable Board for PEG grant funding that made this podcast possible. Also special thanks to Donna Casaceli, who transcribed the entire treatise and only questioned her life choices and sanity twice. To read the treatise for yourself or to access this episode’s transcript, check out our website, the link is in the shownotes. For any questions or concerns, please reach out to us at bhamgov.org.