It is the 30th of April 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I’m Dan van Voorhis.
The year was 1602.
Today on the Almanac I would like to tell you the story of a man who became very, very famous and quite rich, “what did he do?” you ask? Well, this man, William Lilly, developed a Christian History Almanac. Unlike mine, however, he used it also to tell the future,
So, William Lilly. Who was he? Let me give you the essential details of his life. Lilly was born in Leicester in 1602, about 100 miles north of London. His parents were unsuccessful farmers, as was he. He received the equivalent of a High School education in Latin, but his parents could not send him to University. So instead, he worked as a secretary and servant to a rich man in London. When that man died, William secretly married his widow. Now, suddenly rich, he would spend his time studying astrology. And yes, that needs some unpacking.
AstroNOMY is the study of extraterrestrial objects and phenomena. It is a relatively new field that today is, to the chagrin of a Jr. college version of myself, just a whole bunch of math. It is not personally predictive.
AstroLOGY is trickier. It is the study of extraterrestrial objects and phenomena but with the bonus of interpretation and forecasting.
Astrologers in the Early Modern Period could back off the interpretive elements. Some places applied laws against witchcraft to those who might use their charts to predict the future. Nevertheless, the predictive feature was trendy.
I’ve got two crucial points here:
First, think about how dark the world was in the 16th and 17th centuries. Then, think about how much the weather affected everything you do. Finally, think about how commonplace it would be to see stars, planets, and various phenomena. When stuff in the sky happened, you knew about it.
Secondly, this would lead to perhaps the bestselling book in the 17th century: the almanac. The almanac contained a calendar for eclipses, general weather patterns, etc. It also included a calendar for Church festivals, holidays, and remembrances. And then, it contained the prognostication and astrological tables.
William Lilly first published his almanac, Merlinus Anglicus, in 1646 and updated it with a new edition each year. Historian Keith Thomas suggested that these were so wildly popular they regularly outsold the Bible.
So, this raises a few questions. Let’s break them down.
Why were they so popular? They were cheap, and they purported to answer the fundamental question, “why am I like this, and why are they like that?” What the modern world has found in psychoanalysis and therapy, the early modern world found in a compelling system that they believed could be tested. Lilly’s fame was such that he is recorded having over 2,000 private astrological meetings with paying customers in one year. Based on the date of their birth, or when they arrived at his home, of the time of, etc., you could ask him a question, and he would have an answer for you. Much of this was along the lines of wives asking if their husbands had been lost at sea, servants asking for help in finding lost items, and young women inquiring about possible suitors. But he was also called, as a supporter of parliament during the Civil Wars, to interpret and prognosticate on behalf of those trying to boot the Stuarts off the throne.
And this leads us to his magnum opus and the answer to a still lingering question. William Lilly’s most popular book was his 1647 work “Christian Astrology.” This is a dang clever title for the book because it is simply an astrology textbook. Theological concepts are explored, such as the microcosm and macrocosm (that the big world tells us about us little guys), but that’s about it. Are Christians permitted to consult the stars for future events? Well, it seems we have a book with the answer in the title itself!
With the emergence of astronomical studies and the demise of the medieval picture of the universe, astrology’s popularity plummeted. William Lilly’s book is still used as a “classic” text in some esoteric circles, but he’s most likely to show up if anyone googles “can a Christian be into astrology?” You see, looking at the title alone, it seems so. And like the old astrologists, we might use whatever evidence we have as a wax nose to fit our predilections, but that’s a topic for another time.
Today we remember the man who wrote a kind of Christian history almanac, the “Merlinus Anglicus and Christian Astrology.” Ironically, we can’t determine when he was actually born, but some placed William Lilly’s birthdate on the 30th of April in 1602.
The last word for this second season is from the final stanza to Richard Wilbur’s “A Stable Lamp is Lighted.”
But now, as at the ending,
the low is lifted high;
the stars shall bend their voices,
and every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry
in praises of the child
by whose descent among us
the worlds are reconciled.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 30th of April 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. The show is produced, for the 731st consecutive day, by Christopher Gillespie. The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis, “born on the cusp in the month November / I do the Patty Duke in case you don’t remember.” You can catch us here every day. And remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true. Everything is going to be ok.