January 07, 2010

Vavasour Powell's antisemitism

In 1651, Robert Ibbitson published a pamphlet entitled 'Saving Faith set forth in Three Dialogues or Conferences between Christ and a Publican, Pharisee and Doubting Beleever whereunto is added two sermons one of them preached before Parliament and the other before the Lord Mayor of the City of London', reader note, brevity was not an admired virtue in seventeenth century pamphlet titles. There are many reasons that we should be interested in this pamphlet- Powell was an important figure both in the religious politics of the day and in its politics. He said whatever he said before the city of London and the Rump Parliament- two gatherings of important people and probably they asked him to speak because they knew what he was going to say. The pamphlet itself expresses a strongly fideist Christianity- even looking at which parts of the Bible Powell uses is interesting- there is a lot of Paul and of the Gospels.

However for today I want to concentrate on another passage from the pamphlet, it is within the dialogue between Christ and the doubtful believer. Christ is trying to convince the believer that Christ will save him:

Thou, poor, dear, and doubting soule, what if thou hadst had a hand in crucifying me (as the Jewes had?) yet cannot I forgive thee, as I did many of them. But thou hast not accounted my blood an unholy thing, for thou still desirest to have thy sins washed away by it. (pp.38-9

The interesting thing about this is that it is merely an aside, but notice the use to which Powell puts the blood libel. Christ is so magnificent that he can even save the Jews, the worst of men who had executed him. The anti-semitism is striking. What is also striking is that it is so unconscious- Powell isn't making an anti-semitic argument at all in this passage but its assumptions are antisemitic. Furthermore Powell in the rest of his pamphlet does cite good Jewish figures but never acknowledges their Judaism- here the whole group are stained by the bloodguilt of executing Christ and their forefathers lose their Jewish nature.

Powell's anti-semitism is interesting because it is so unconscious- as I said this is the only reference to the Jews in the entire pamphlet. Probably Powell was in favour of the readmission of the Jews to England in 1656 but we should not make out of that the argument that he was philo-semitic. As Alexandra Walsham points out toleration is a complex thing, and in Powell's case I suspect his feelings towards Judaism were, but fundementally what the aside reveals is that there was at the basis of it a deep anti-semitism and link between the Jews and the slaughters of Christ. The blood libel was not dead in seventeenth century England.