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Twisting the Bible – Robert Harris’s brilliant portrait of religious fanatics


THE King James Bible features prominently in Robert Harris’s latest novel, Act of Oblivion (Hutchinson Heinemann, 2022), which has just been shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction.

The novel is, as Harris describes it in his author’s note, ‘an imaginative re-creation of a true story: the tracking down of the “regicides”, the killers of King Charles I, the greatest manhunt of the seventeenth century’. 

The adventure centres on the pursuit of two Puritan colonels in Oliver Cromwell’s army, Edward Whalley and William Goffe, across New England after the Restoration in 1660.

Harris has Goffe being inspired by two New Testament texts to care for Whalley after the older man suffers a stroke: ‘Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ’ (Galatians 6v2) and ‘Who sees his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him? Let us not love in word, neither in tongue, but in deed and truth’ (1 John 3v17).

Harris also stages some vigorous debates about biblical interpretation among the Puritan characters in the various New England towns where the two fugitives take refuge after their Atlantic crossing.

The first Harris novel to engage with Christianity was Conclave (2016), a tale of Vatican intrigue resulting in the election of a female pope who had posed as a male cardinal, which is being made into a film, Christianity also features rather grimly in his 2019 futuristic novel, The Second Sleep, depicting England under the tyranny of a restored medieval Church after a worldwide computer failure back in the 21st century causes civilisational meltdown.

Neither of these novels with their wooden characters is anywhere near as good as Act of Oblivion, which ranks with his two best, Fatherland (1992) and The Ghost (2007), and ought also to be made into a film. Harris’s characterisation of Whalley and Goffe is compelling as is that of his fictional Royalist manhunter, Richard Nayler.

Harris brilliantly portrays the scenario in which Nayler’s hatred of the two regicides is forged. On Christmas Day 1657 Nayler and his pregnant wife gather illegally under the Cromwellian Commonwealth with the household of the Marquess of Hertford in the private chapel of Essex House. Colonels Whalley and Goffe burst in:

‘This is but a common Tuesday,’ said the younger of the pair (Goffe), ‘an ordinary weekday like any other. To celebrate the superstition of the Nativity is forbidden by Act of Parliament. You are all liable to arrest.’

Nayler speaks up: ‘It is not illegal to worship God.’ Goffe replies: ‘It is illegal to use the Book of Common Prayer, which is but the Catholic mass in English.’

The colonels order Nayler’s arrest and he is thrown into Newgate prison. As a result of the trauma, his wife goes into premature labour, their son is born dead and she dies in childbirth.

Harris seems to relish describing how a fanatical religious mind can twist the Bible and press it into service. He has the Puritan minister of New Haven, the Rev John Davenport (1597-1670), a real historical character whom Harris decides to afflict with gonorrhoea, boasting:

‘It was with Mr Eaton that I founded this colony. He was a man of piety and great wealth, all of which he placed in the service of God. Ours were the first houses built here, side by side, to the east of the tabernacle, just where the Bible tells us Moses and Aaron pitched their tents.’

Whalley could not resist asking: ‘And which of you was Moses?’

‘Naturally, I am Moses,’ Davenport replies.

The exchange is fictitious but unfortunately ego-driven biblical interpretation is a reality in the Church and has been down the ages.

Harris does not evade the historical truth that Charles II’s reign, marked by the gross immorality of his court, was an egregious political and military failure compared with the ruthless efficiency of Cromwell’s regime. Nor does he deny that the Puritans with their Bibles in their hands played a central role in the success of the New England colonies.

For all his evident distaste for Puritan biblicism, Harris does not suppress the reality that America would not have become the nation it did without the English Bible. He has Nayler in pursuit of the colonels beholding Harvard College ‘where they produced the stern young sectaries who spread their dour religion across New England. A strange country this, he thought, where two such conflicting races and philosophies, heathens and fanatics, existed side by side. What good could ever come of it?’

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Julian Mann
Julian Mann
Julian Mann is a former Church of England vicar, now an evangelical journalist based in Heysham, Lancashire.

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