Apocalyptic end days, doomsday scenarios and final judgements were prominent features of many people’s religious beliefs in the 19th century, but a few went further, maintaining that the Second Coming had already taken place. Among them was our MP of the month, Charles Augustus Tulk (1786-1849).
Tulk was the first ‘Swedenborgian’ MP to sit in the Commons, where he represented Sudbury from 1820-26 and Poole from 1835-7 with the help of his vast purse. (His family had inherited estates that included London’s Leicester Square). He was a founder member of London’s Swedenborgian Society, established in 1810 to promote the teachings of the self-proclaimed ‘servant of the Lord Jesus Christ’, Emmanuel Swedenborg (1688-1782).
Swedenborg’s followers believed that the world had already experienced a series of ‘last judgements’, including Noah’s flood and Egypt’s ten plagues. Each cataclysm had ended a a distinct religious age on Earth and been accompanied by a ‘final judgement’ of its dead in the spiritual world. Each judgement had also ushered in a new phase of religion and a new church, including the one which had developed following the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The ‘Second Coming’ of Christ, the group believed, had already taken place, with Christ speaking directly through Swedenborg. Hence the need to translate and spread Swedenborg’s writings about reforming the Christian faith.
Although this theological movement suffered many internal divisions, its emphasis on humanity’s spiritual development, the supernatural world and mystical interpretations of the New Testament made it popular with several leading early 19th century radicals and romantic poets, not least Tulk’s close friends William Blake and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. It also became linked with early vegetarian practices, which Tulk himself seems to have followed.
But to what extent did it influence Tulk’s politics? There is little doubt that Tulk, inspired by Swedenborg’s example, entered Parliament in order to try to bring about social change. His religious beliefs emphasised that people’s actions towards others, and not faith alone, were what counted when the soul was judged. He was certainly a very independently-minded MP, even by the loose party standards of the time. Sitting alongside the extreme Radicals in the 1820s, as part of the ‘mountain’ of opposition to the Tory government, he steadily backed most of their causes, including their campaigns to abolish hanging and flogging, improve what he called the ‘atrocious’ working conditions in factories, and get rid of colonial slavery. He also had no qualms about supporting parliamentary reform, despite sitting for one of the most notorious ‘rotten boroughs’ in the country. But when it came to Catholic emancipation, almost a watchword of liberal orthodoxy by this time, he was staunchly opposed to any form of concession and instead sided with the die-hard ‘church and state’ Tories. He also refused to engage in any tactical voting against the Tory government on economic issues and any other sordid party ‘devices’.
Tulk’s cross-party stance contributed to him losing his seat at the 1826 election. By then, however, almost all of his time was being taken up with fighting theological disputes arising from his writings, including rebutting charges of ‘heresy’. By the time he resurfaced, Parliament had been reformed by the 1832 Reform Act.
In his last stint as an MP for Poole from 1835-7 Tulk settled down as an ‘extreme liberal’. As well as backing the secret ballot, he supported the removal of bishops from the Lords, the revision of the corn laws, tax reductions, and allowing ladies to be admitted to the public gallery of the Commons.
What really marked out his final years in the Commons, however, was his growing concern for the working poor. His desire to restrict work on Sundays, rather than being motivated by religion, seems to have entirely been driven by the need to provide the ‘humbler classes’ with one free day a week for ‘innocent recreations’. These would include visiting newly established libraries, museums, public walks and parks, all of which Tulk tried (unsuccessfully) to bring in legislation to promote (along with stricter regulations on the sale of alcohol). The plight of the Irish tenant farmers under British rule also increasingly drew his sympathy. However, it was the unfair conviction of the Tolpuddle martyrs, a group of agricultural labourers charged with swearing an ‘unlawful’ oath, that he spoke most about. He became one of the leading supporters of the ultimately successful campaign for their pardon and release from a penal colony.
In retirement Tulk continued his theological writing. His publication in 1846 of Spiritual Christianity, however, prompted an irrevocable rift with the Swedenborgian Society, and he became ‘so noxious’ to them ‘that his death [in 1849] was not even mentioned in their magazine’, the New Church Advocate. He has long since been rehabilitated by the society, which continues to operate today.