Richard Brothers — A Prophet Misguided
In the Early Years
Being born on Christmas Day in 1757 in Placentia, Newfoundland was perhaps a sign his life would follow a more than unusual path. Richard Brothers’ father was a gunner at Castle Hill, the local army post. As would be expected, he wanted more for his boy. So, at the age of fourteen, he sent him to Britain to join the navy.
In the navy, Brothers did well. Initially working as a midshipman, eleven years later, in 1783, he had progressed and was promoted to lieutenant. It was at this point when things began to radically change for Richard Brothers.
Things Began to Change
In 1786, he had married an Elizabeth Hassall. Perhaps everything was fine at first, but in time, his marital life began to fragment. To deal with it, he departed, seeking peace at sea and to the service. When he returned home, he discovered his wife had started a family with another man. He was likely unfazed, largely, as the meanings that shaped his life had begun to change.
For one thing, he’d found Christianity, a discovery that would go on to dramatically alter his life. When 1789 arrived, he left the military feeling it was incompatible with his new-found Christian beliefs.
By 1791, because of his beliefs—he had embraced the Quaker doctrines—he refused to swear an oath that would permit him to receive the half-pay he was due from the Admiralty. Thus, unable to accept his pension, he fell into debt and was soon sent to the workhouse for six months.
Becoming Gripped By Mental Illness
No doubt, it was at this time, he began to experience the onset of what, in modern terms, would’ve been understood as a mental illness. The zealousness he expressed for Christianity may have been the first step. However, now, he was overwhelmingly guided by his mental slippage. The trajectory of his life from here on in was largely in its grips.
It was likely some sort of delusional disorder, no doubt also tied to something like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. But diagnosis of such an ailment would’ve been beyond the medical knowledge at the time.
Besides, even in modern times, a delusional disorder is difficult to diagnose as well as treat. The challenge is simply because the sufferer often does not realise they have a problem. This was likely the case with Richard Brothers.
Embracing Life As a Prophet
As time progressed, he also adopted the life of a prophet. He believed this was his calling. Previous to his time in the workhouse, he had to deal with the real possibility, in his eyes, that the Almighty was speaking with him. He was torn, weighed down by the godly visions thrust upon him. Still in 1791, firm in his beliefs, he had broken his sword with a solemn vow to never again use it. Apparently, he had lain on his face for three days, refusing to eat, following a vision of London’s destruction.
Joseph Moser was a member of the board of the workhouse and spoke of Richard Brothers’ odd behaviour. He referred to Brothers’ “methodical kind of madness” which resulted in various outbursts regarding religion. Very clearly, he had descended into his own world, one now thoroughly defined by predictions and visions.
Prince of the Hebrews
He grew interested in politics and continued to share his myriad visions with members of the monarchy. He was soon asked to leave the area. In his delusions, he interpreted the entire episode as a communication from his lord —“the Lord God spoke to [him] … and said — Get away, get away from this place; be under no concern, it was not you that was despised and ordered away, but me, in your person, that sent you.” (p. 106)
Brothers had been incarcerated in Newgate prison, again for refusing to swear the oath in order to obtain his pension. As before, he fell into debt. He was tormented by his visions. He found life as a prophet to be arduous. After briefly turning his back on his calling, he once again opened his arms to what would be the central force in his life.
His delusions became more intense, now, and he became convinced he was the Prince of the Hebrews and nephew of the Almighty. His mission was to lead the Jews of all nations back to the land of Israel. By 1794, he had published his ideas in A Revealed Knowledge of the Prophecies and Times, Book the First.
His writing met with great success. His delusions had clearly touched a nerve, with the book quickly selling in England and reprints in Ireland, France, and the United States.
But his life as a prophet was to be cut short. His writings were invariably interlaced with political beliefs, ones that naturally caught the eye of the authorities. For instance, grave of all, he challenged the authority of King George III. He insisted that when he’s revealed as the Prince of the Hebrews, his “crown must be delivered up to me, that all your power and authority may instantly cease.” (p. 201)
He was swiftly charged with treason. Although, his case soon shifted to one governed by medical concerns rather than political ones. There was no question. He was declared to be insane and confined.
His incarceration resulted in an increased fervour of his followers, a belief that much like Jesus Christ, he was being unjustly persecuted. His popularity grew by leaps and bounds. Ultimately, a follower, who happened to be a member of the House of Commons, a Nathaniel Halhed, had Brothers removed to a private asylum in Islington.
Coming to and End
While in Islington, he wrote various pamphlets in which he declared his prophecies. For a while, Brothers’ delusions were politically oriented and so, they harmonised with many of the complaints and beliefs at the time.
Again, he stated he would be revealed as prince of the Hebrews and ruler of the world on the 19th November, 1795. Obviously, when this date arrived and this failed to occur, his popularity began to fade. Of course, there was no chance it could happen. It was all in his mind.
Brothers no doubt struggled with bouts of depression, contending with visions and delusions that frayed at the edges of his reality. Then, as now, there is no way to prevent a delusional disorder. As happened with Richard Brothers, once it strikes and is not addressed—something that would’ve been impossible at the time—one’s life gradually spins out of control.
Life With Mental Illness
Of course, there was no way to even identify a delusional disorder when Richard Brothers was alive. The only way to address the issue was to take the condition into account when making decisions. In the case of Richard Brothers, it was the decision to send him to an asylum rather than a prison. Mind you, the one was likely little better than the other.
As far as treatment, even today, again, because those who have it, fail to appreciate there’s a problem, it’s a challenge. However, if an individual is successfully diagnosed, at present, there are different type of antipsychotics that may help those contending with the problem. Medicines such as antidepressants may also help, as well as things like psychotherapy.
In the End
Ultimately, the story of Richard Brothers is a sad one. Many people who suffer from some sort of delusional disorder encounter numerous difficulties fitting into life. When they examine their lives, they see nothing wrong. And so, they carry on, encountering the difficulties anyone can expect. Their reality could not even hope to integrate with those around them.
Richard Brothers died on the 25th January, 1824. He’d living for a respectable 67 years, most of which was sadly imprisoned in a world of his own. Still, one hopes there were moments of joy, periods of light that could keep at bay the darker shadows of his condition.
Brothers, Richard 1794 A Revealed Knowledge of the Prophecies and Times (London: np), https://ia903009.us.archive.org/21/items/RichardBrothersRevealedKnowledgeOfThePropheciesAndTimes1796/Brothers_revealedKnowledgeOfThePropheciesAndTimes_bookI-2_1796.pdf, 7-8
Clarke Garrett 1975 Respectable Folly: Millenarians and the French Revolution in France in England (Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press), 180.
Schamber, Jon F. and Stroud, Scott R. 2000 The Prophet of Revealed Knowledge: Richard Brother, the Prince of the Hebrews and Hephew of the Almighty https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED447520.pdf
Dohey, Larry 2017 “The Prophet From Placentia” Archival Moments http://archivalmoments.ca/tag/richard-brothers/
Richard Brothers – http://olivercowdery.com/gathering/Newisrael.htm, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8626481
Unknown author – olivercowdery.com/gathering/Newisrael.htm, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8626373
Wikipedia 2022 “Richard Brothers” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Brothers#cite_note-FOOTNOTEChisholm1911-1
Wikisource “1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Brothers, Richard”