Home > Book of Revelation, Preterism > Recanting preterism: Abauzit, Townley, Desprez

Recanting preterism: Abauzit, Townley, Desprez

March 14, 2011

Preterism has a long history of adherents who recanted. Here the works of three prominent men who embraced preterist or hyperpreterist views, but later recanted, are examined.

Firmin Abauzit (1679-1767) was the author of Essai sur l’Apocalypse, 1730, “in which he tries to show that the book was written under Nero, and is in its prophecy only a development of the sayings of Christ about the fall of Jerusalem; that all refers to the destruction of this Jewish capital and the Roman-Jewish war (ch. xxi. and xxii.); to the more extensive spread of the Christian Church after that catastrophe. Dr. Leonard Twells replied to it; on reading Dr. Twells’ reply, Abauzit was satisfied, and honourably wrote (though in vain) to stop the reprinting of his work in Holland.”

Abauzit’s work was translated to English. [1]

Robert Townley (1816-1894) was minister of St. Matthew’s, Liverpool, and later became a Universalist minister. He published a book advocating preterism in 1845. [2] A reviewer wrote of his book: [3]

This work enters at great length into an attempted Scripture proof that the following events are already past, viz. “the Restoration of the Jews, the First Resurrection, or Millennium, the End of the World, the Resurrection of the Dead, the Day of Judgement, and the Last Day ; for now there is no more time.” It is a book of much thought, and gives proof of laborious and critical study of the Sacred Writings. The spirit manifested towards the Priesthood and the Established Church is fiery enough, and the general temper of the argument is far from being commendable. But there is very much in the work worthy of attention.

Townley later recanted his preterism. In a Sermon in the Universalist Church of Charlestown, Mass,. Sunday Morning, September 26  (1852) he said:

We, on the contrary, fulfill every thing by that magic phrase, ‘the destruction of Jerusalem.’ But can we really and seriously refer these passages which I have quoted from Paul, to the destruction of Jerusalem? Can we truly say that the rejection of the Jews and the calling of the Gentiles, let that mean what it may, exhausted all their meaning —the meaning which was the thought in Paul’s mind when he wrote them? I must confess I cannot.

Philip S. Desprez (1812-1879) wrote a commentary on the Apocalypse advocating preterism, [4] which received the following review in the Quarterly Journal of Prophecy (1856):

WE noticed the first edition of this work; we now notice the second. The author maintains that the key to the Apocalypse is, that the destruction of Jerusalem was the second coming of Christ, and that there is no other advent of Christ to be expected (Lecture xvi.) He is an ultra-preterist. Those who believe in a literal coming of the Lord to judgment, yet to take place, he condemns in language sufficiently strong. Any system (millenarian or not) that takes for granted a future advent of Christ, is founded on “strained interpretations”– “patchings of the Word of God”–“positions plainly untenable.” Whereas, his own doctrine (that there is no advent) is written as with a sunbeam, and the whole body of the Scriptures coincides with it (p. 431). The dogmatism with which he asserts his own system, and the anger which he manifests in assailing others, are not at all in keeping with the liberty which he claims so needlessly of judging for himself. We do not dispute this privilege–let him exercise it to the full; but let it be understood that he is not the only one that is to be allowed to use it. To believe in a coming Judge, and in a coming judgment, is surely not so outrageous a violation of Scripture as to need the hard words with which the volume is strewn. Mr Desprez is a minister of the Church of England, and has, we suppose, signed its articles and its liturgy. Is he not then committed to a belief in that very advent which he here so angrily denounces as a fable? The formularies of that Church most certainly point to a future advent and kingdom. Does Mr D. believe his own formularies? Or does he claim for himself the liberty of interpreting them as vaguely as he has done the simple words of Scripture? The author’s theory is that the terminus of the Apocalyptic visions is the destruction of Jerusalem. To this, everything–criticism, theology, symbol, history, chronology–is sacrificed with a remorselessness at which a scholar may wonder, and a Christian stand aghast. As this theory is incompatible with the Domitianic date of the Apocalypse, the Neronic is at once declared to be the true one. Sarcasm and declamation are the author’s chief weapons against all opposers, and assertion his substitute for argument in setting up the various parts of his system. We do not enter into detail. The above remarks will give our readers an insight into the volume. The following passage is a fair specimen of the author’s style:– “Had there been no Beast in the book of Revelation, no Scarlet Lady, all decked with gold and precious stones, no popes and cardinals flaming in scarlet-coloured vestments, he and they would have been starving long ago. Their very means of existence have depended upon the supposed recognition of the subject of ‘Papal persecution’ in the Apocalypse, and the shibboleth of their party ought to be, ‘Waldenses and Albigenses.’ It makes one fairly sick to think of their ingratitude. It is this ‘Papal persecution,’ this odium theologicum, this intense abomination of Rome and the Roman Catholic religion, founded upon the unscriptural and absurd belief that Rome Papal occupies a place in the Book of God, which has raised them into (on this account) an undeserved reputation, and which continues to exalt them in the scale of popular favour. I desire to denounce this rank injustice against an erring, yet still a cognate Church, with all the energies of my being, and I shall not consider my life wasted if I can loosen the bands of this insensate clamour; not that I have the slightest sympathy with what I consider the manifold errors of the Church of Rome; the only sympathy I have is one which is dear to all English hearts,–sympathy with the oppressed against the oppressor, with Papal dignified patience against Protestant undignified persecution. Papal persecution!!! Why, they know, or they ought to know, that there is not one single word from Genesis to Revelation, which by any reasonable man can be tortured into the remotest recognition of a system which then had not even its existence. I repeat it, they know, or they ought to know, that Papal Rome and Roman Catholics are not even hinted at in the Scriptures, and that every tirade fulminated against them from arguments drawn from the Apocalypse, is as harmless as ‘sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal.’ And what if this statement should be true.’ What if the sacred writers never contemplated the remotest allusion to popes and synods’! What if Great Babylon should turn out to be Jerusalem after all (as I believe it will), and a closer and more critical examination of the sacred text should roll back the mass of deep-seated prejudice, and blind aggression? What if ‘Papal persecution’ should be found a theme wholly foreign to the time, age, habits of thought, and circumstances of those for whose warning the Apocalypse was written? Then what becomes of that theological bugbear which has been evoked to gratify popular antipathies, and to fan the flame of popular indignation? What becomes of the undignified clamour of Exeter Hall, and the anathemas of its distinguished ornaments? And what also becomes of the immortal interests of those whose ears have been ‘turned away from the truth unto fables,’ who have been taught to believe that their everlasting salvation is bound up with an irreconcilable hatred of the Church of Rome? Papal persecution!!! But I have done with it–as have not the parties alluded to, as if only to shew that enlightened Protestantism of the 19th century shall not be much behind the intolerance of a past age.”–Pp. 80-82.

It is not often that we meet with such frantic imbecility as the above. It was but fair to himself, as a preliminary to such ebullitions of childish frenzy, and there are many such in the book, to declare in his preface–“I am neither a Tractarian nor a Jesuit in disguise” (p. xi.) We believe him. It is Rationalism, not Tractarianism, that is the body, soul, and spirit of the volume.”

In a Memorium on P. C. S. Desprez, Richard Acland Armstrong wrote, referring to the book reviewed above: [5]

This work forms a turning-point in Mr. Desprez’s life.  Its novelty, which he was not afraid to avow, was less in the general theory than its detailed application. Here the neology became distinct and embarrassing, for the result of his (full preterist) Apocalyptic studies was to change, at least in their speculative and authoritative aspects, all his conceptions of Christian doctrine. Inasmuch as the teaching of Christ and his apostles was entirely directed, according to his opinion, to the “end of the age”–i.e.,”The Fall of Jerusalem,”–this event must be accepted as the consummation and conclusion of the original Christianity of the Gospels. The doctrines of the Christian faith had their destined range limited by the same events, and could only possess for after ages a partial and unauthorised significance. This was the standpoint from which Mr. Desprez’s confidence in the distinctive dogmas of Evangelicalism first became undermined. His estimate of them related not so much to their inherent truth, or their practical value, as to their validity from the point of view of Christ and his apostles.

As Mr. Desprez afterwards found reason to abandon the views enunciated in his “Apocalyse Fulfilled,” no criticism of them need be here attempted. The defects of his hypothesis as a full and reasoned conception of Christianity are striking and palpable. It makes no distinction between the standpoint of Christ and that of his apostles on the subject of the Messianic kingdom. It offers no reason why the predictive powers of Christ, recognised so fully up to A.D. 40, should be limited by that date. It makes the subsequent history of the Christian Church a riddle baffling solution. It takes no account of the more permanent bases, ethical and spiritual, on which the religion of Christ was really founded, and which alone are adequate to account for its growth. It overlooks the fact that Second Advent expectations have in reality exercised an inappreciable influence on the growth of Christianity as a whole, their action being generally spasmodic and temporary.

Armstrong continued, on p. 177:

Up to the year 1865, or thereabouts, Mr. Desprez was firmly convinced of the truth of the position he had adopted in “The Apocalypse Fulfilled;” but he now began to review his theory. He commenced systematically to read foreign authorities on the subject of his studies. For the first time in his life he read the works of Renan, Colani, Strauss, Hilgenfeld, Langen, and other writers of various schools of thought who had treated the Messianic question. On this occasion, therefore, he approached the subject from a different and broader point of view, The issue was no longer between himself and the disciples of Cumming and Elliot. He was no longer the outspoken advocate for the literal fulfillment of all the prophecies in the New Testament–indeed, his growth in liberal ideas made him indifferent to the establishment of a theory which would satisfy the exigencies of plenary inspiration, Accordingly, the question presented itself for his decision, Was it possible that the Apocalypse he had once declared to be “fulfilled” was never fulfilled at all? Were all the eschatological passages in the New Testament the outcome of national hopes and aspirations of the Jews, destined never to be realised? He considered the question long and carefully, and at last–though not without severe mental trial–he came to the conclusion that the theory he had held so long, and on the elaboration of which he had spent the best years of his life, was groundless, and must be abandoned, This resolution involved a fresh start in his theological inquiry, as well as a wider field for his survey; but he immediately set to work to reconsider the whole Messianic question from the beginning. He now commenced a systematic study of the Book of Daniel, which he rightly styled “The Apocalypse of the Old Testament.”

If any reader is inclined to ask the question–in what light did Mr. Desprez regard the doctrines of the Christian Church which he professed to teach? –the answer may be given in his own words. Speaking of the alarm which might be created by his theory that the Second Advent was already past, he says, “It remains to be tried whether the ideas of a finished salvation, a perfected Christianity, an open kingdom of heaven, a life-state in Christ, an eternal reign in an eternal kingdom already set up, might not have a more constraining influence upon mankind than the questionable theory of an uncertain coming.”


1. Firmin Abauzit. A Discourse Historical and Critical on the Revelations ascribed to St. John. London, 1730.

2. Robert Townley. The Second Advent of the Lord Jesus Christ a Past Event. Simkin Marshall & Co. London. 1845.

3. The Universalist quarterly and general review, Volume 7. A. Tompkins, 1850. p. 216.

4. Philip S. Desprez, B.D. The Apocalypse Fulfilled in the Consummation of the Mosaic Economy, and the Coming of the Son of Man. Second Edition. London: Longman. 1855.

5. Richard Acland Armstrong, A Liberal Country Parson, In Memorium P. C. S. Desprez. The Modern Review, v. 1, 1880.

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