An Extract from the upcoming book “Unrelenting: Between Sodom and Zion” by Kevin D. Annett
You furnish your parts toward eternity; great or small, you furnish your parts toward the soul. - Walt Whitman, 1858
Peter Annett, 1693-1769, England
Not much is known about him besides his publications, but I seem to know him the best of all. He is remembered only for what he wrote and published, and how much his works alarmed both church and state.
Peter’s days as an old man shackled in the public stocks at Charing Cross in London are documented, part of the record of the Court of King’s Bench that tried and condemned him for “blasphemous libel”. So too are we aware of his year at hard labor in Bridewell Prison, where inmates survived only if they could pay their jailer. But most of Peter’s pulse and fiber are unknown, at least to the official historians, whose concern rarely dwells on the substance of a man.
But I have always known Peter Annett, sharing as we do the courage that beats time and decay and will continue to animate my path even as I they fade into the ether. And in that certainty there is greatness in our having striven relentlessly and to be finally recognized by the ones who matter: those souls who like Peter and I fight on and endure from the shadows, and whose flickering spirits are encouraged by what we wrote and ignited.
“For reason is a divine faculty” thundered Peter’s defiant words from the walls of London. “It is the divinity operating within us; it is God incarnate; and it is in this army that we, the Free Enquirers, enter as volunteers. Our weapons are not carnal but spiritual and shall prove mighty in treading down Satan and dispelling all doctrines founded in fraud and fear.”
Philip Annett, 1810-1876, Upper Canada
There is an old photograph of him that I recognized immediately without having to be told. For Philip Annett was my great-great-great grandfather, and when it mattered he went beyond words and took up arms against the British Empire.
The photo of him was taken after the Rebellion, when everyday life had not dissipated his thousand-yard gaze. His large blacksmith hands rest squarely on the arm of his chair and on a Bible. When I first beheld that image, his hardened Baptist face seemed to be seeking me out.
Years ago, I spent a day looking for Philip’s grave in the forested back country near Watford, Ontario that was home to nine generations of Annetts. The cemetery eluded me, as does most of Philip’s story, besides the bare bones of his war. For in December, 1837, Philip left his farm and his family along with other young armed men to overthrow the clique that still owns Canada. We know of William Lyon McKenzie, but not those of the rank and file of our home grown aborted revolution, men like my distant grandfather. They are the silent microbes lingering still in our blood, having made and prepared me like Philip for a moment of freedom.
Kevin Annett, born 1956, Edmonton
Unseen men hate me and want me ended for what I know, even when that knowledge remained a mystery to me until I held a child’s bone in my hand. And then the crossword puzzle fell into place, and the shadow stepped forward and became flesh, horrible and unrelenting. But what is it that led me so far in my exile to that defining moment?
I suppose one might as well ask why an arrow flies to its mark. The fact of an invisible bow string puller doesn’t explain the why. Peter Annett publicly denounced church and state in 1761 because somebody had to and not only because of Peter. And the gun was placed in Philip’s hands long before he picked it up.
I am writing to a people and for an industry and in an age that requires plain and simple stories that thrill, chill and console our flailed lives, where endings are as neatly accomplished as goodness mastering the Void; and yet, conversely, where moral ambiguity has the final word. There is no ultimate meaning, sighs the worldly wise modern reader; so make us happy.
Neither Peter nor Philip had such nihilio to contend with, in their Biblically-infused time. Complete truth was as expected as the moral certainty that a genuine judgment awaited us, and that difference makes their words and acts seem strange to us. For Peter actually believed in the possibility of his declared aim to “expose all the hidden works of darkness, and drive falsity to the bottomless pit”. And Philip simply marched off straight at the enemy.
Being so much like both of them, I share their heart and compass. But when I shouted rightness at the monster that put children in the ground it just stared back at me dumbly, and its lifeless acolytes chattered on about monetary compensation and reconciliation.
We have not been free, Peter and Philip and I, to leave the dead to bury their dead. Our trio has persisted in stripping back and unearthing the careful concealment of every new abomination, and insisting that something besides its grief is still possible. That purpose runs through us as our bloodstream – our one sure companion.
Charing Cross, London, January, 1762
He stands alone in the garbage-strewn wooden stocks, locked securely in a half-bent posture. His eyes are tired but unafraid, since he had been expecting this moment for many years. A crowd of people, some of them his friends, gawk and yell at him, or toss offal or more brutal objects at his face.
“Peter Annett, let all men know this just and lawful verdict, that as the author of seditious writings you are condemned as a blasphemer and most treasonous subject by His Majesty the King and his Attorney General, and in punishment thereof you are sentenced to stand twice in the Pillory at Charing Cross and at the Royal Exchange, and from there to serve no less than one year’s imprisonment at hard labor in the Bridewell.”
The magistrate’s voice may have echoed that day in his mind, but it made no difference to Peter.
Released from prison the next year, “broken in body but not in spirit” according to a biographer, he began to write and publish once again about how the Bible defied common Reason and the church denied God’s own justice.
Lambton County, Upper Canada, December 9, 1837
It was the worst winter in decades, even by Canadian standards. The livestock that weren’t huddled together in the cabin with Philip Annett’s family were all dead in their stalls or in the fields. The entire country was iced up at every level, from top to bottom, locked into a political arrangement that benefited only a few: something that Philip reminded his wife Sarah and even his two infant sons whenever he could.
He and Sarah were England born and bred. But their sons were of this good soil, and Philip strived to give them a life unlike the tyranny they had fled and which reached out to engulf them from the capital of York that would one day be called Toronto.
Just a few years earlier, Philip had written a letter to his parents and siblings in the village of Frome in Wiltshire that exclaimed,
“You must all come to Canada whilst you have a chance. If you don’t come soon likely you will starve. I was agreeably surprised when I came here to see what a fine country it was, it being excellent land bearing crops of wheat and corn for 20 or 30 years without dung. Here you have no rent to pay, no poor-rates, and scarcely any taxes. No game-keepers or Lord over you. Here you can have every good thing. Here is a land of liberty and plenty and we are held in respect by our neighbors. And we aim to keep things so.” (May 24, 1830)
Philip Annett and so many small farmers and tradesmen like him were on a collision course with a despotism that was freezing their liberty to death.
Far to the east, a fat man named Sir Peregrine Maitland who owned most of York at the behest of another fat man on a throne in London had just abolished the token body called the Legislature of Upper Canada. As the colonial Governor, Maitland ruled alone. He made the laws and enforced them through his friends known as the Family Compact: a coterie of Bankers, Bishops and Bureaucrats all related by marriage or kinship. And those self-appointed men gazed west, and hungered for all of the rich land then occupied by Indians and men like Philip Annett.
And so despite the cold and its arrangements, twenty seven year old Philip grasped hold that morning of the only musket his family owned as he left his wife and two sons to join nine other armed farmers who were his neighbors in what would become Watford, Ontario. Together in an oxen-pulled wagon, Philip and his friends fought through a blizzard towards the troubled town of York where awaited a promised army of liberation.
London, England – September, 1761
The man in the shadows crouches over the closely bunched typeset by candlelight. He and the harried compositors work only at night, lest a patrol of Watchmen spot their activity and bag them all. The next morning, their labors and precautions will be rewarded as the first issue of Peter Annett’s Free Inquirer will appear in the streets and on the walls of the poorest parts of the City, where it will be read and celebrated.
The Inquirer will be Peter’s culminating creation and his final mark on the world. For the old man is living on borrowed time.
The Anglican Bishop of London, a man named Thomas Sherlock, wants Peter put away forever, for his pamphlets have mocked and rocked religious orthodoxy for years. Twice before Peter has been imprisoned for blasphemy, and for the venomous impudence of his words. A special band of Watchmen has been privately employed by the Bishop to hunt Peter down and smash up the printing press that he relies on. Bishop Sherlock is a friend of the King, and he routinely jokes at court that pursuing free thinkers like Peter is as thrilling as a royal fox hunt at Hampton.
A cousin of a friend of Peter who is employed in the royal kitchen has advised him of the Bishop’s words, spoken over much drink. But the news gives Peter no pause, if his deeds mean anything. For he does not slacken as his moment approaches.
Peter briefly raises his tired eyes from the typeset at a sound outside the printing shop. Then he turns back to his work and his beloved words, undeterred. At that moment, he still stands on the other side of the fire. He is still capable, which means that even if he knew what awaited him he would still go to print that night. He is 68 years old.
The Aftermath: Canada, 1840
Philip Annett and his band of brothers failed in their quest for liberty, as the world measures these things. The army of Republican patriots was scattered by Tory militia in a single hail of bullets north of York, long before Philip and his neighbors joined them.
This rapid defeat of the Rebellion no doubt saved my ancestor from a hanging or deportation, which claimed hundreds of the rebels. Philip returned to his farm and raised his family of eventually eight children, including his son James, who begat Calvin, who begat Ross, who begat William, who begat me.
The rest of the country also settled down into an imposed quiescence called The Act of Union, a royal edict that entrenched the colonial Family Compact as the sole rulers of a united English and French “Canada”. The power of an unaccountable church and state became absolute, and the seeds of the Canadian Genocide were sown. For the same year that the oligarchy was thus embedded, the first Indian schools were established by the ruling Anglicans and Catholics to save the “savages” from themselves, and thereby midwife their extermination.
Canada was thereafter launched down a road over which some view as “law, order and good government under the Crown”, while others consider it a way of mere servile dependency. Still others say that the two descriptions amount to the same thing. Either way, the land and the government would remain in the same few pale hands.
As for we Annetts, the spirit of Philip and Peter lay dormant for awhile in our clan of Bible-belt farmers and teachers, but it was never extinguished, waiting for the right soil and heart from which to bloom once again.
It emerged slowly, with its usual unforeseen consequences. Its compulsion was to impose uniformity on a humanity that required unending correction. It adopted as its ultimate sign of peace a Roman military symbol.
Like its founding story, of a naked man and woman given strict orders by an unflinching Boss and then doing otherwise and being cursed for it, what came to be called Christianity was an enormous, double-headed incongruity: two messages pretending oneness. We are loved yet damned. We are given reason but ordered not to use it. We are free but enslaved, thanks to an Original Offence, by us: the disobedience of our first brother-sister ancestors, God’s first children, who would incestuously seed a human race that was both treasure and plague.
Does this dissociated message account for the subsequent centuries of benevolent massacre wrought by Christianity and its nations? Is such twisted belief responsible for its obsessive intolerance of any other message, its zeal to exterminate differences, to obliterate all other peoples for their own good while all the time professing love?
By the time my ancestors arrived in Canada in 1820 from the persecuting shores of England, this puzzle had murdered its way around much of the planet. It tightly regulated all life and all thought wherever it went as it was forced to do, considering its own essential disharmony. Any clear and reasonable mind could see through this confusing contradiction calling itself Christendom. Reason was therefore outlawed.
The ban on thinking was a mainstay of the power of both church and state across Europe since the two were one, born of the same Roman root. But in 1440, Johannes Gutenberg and his moveable printing type posed a serious threat to the ban, and the Catholic Church obligingly made it a crime to print Bibles: an offense punishable by slow death by fire. This prompted Gutenberg’s apprentices to assume false names and live in hiding lest they be arrested. But things changed slowly. In 1546, Etienne Dolet was burned alive in Paris for publishing books not approved by the Roman Catholic Church.
Harboring thoughts outside church doctrine was always dangerous and often deadly. Perhaps that’s why the 17th and 18th century rationalists who emerged from the long European night were wealthy and protected persons, parlor aristocrat-philosophers like Voltaire and Diderot who couched their musings in abstractions that posed a threat to nobody. Christendom could tolerate bits of such discourse in a vacuum, provided it didn’t reach the mass of people and become a social movement that might threaten the elite of church and state, whose power rested on deception.
But my ancestor Peter Annett was different.
Although he was a correspondent with Voltaire and influenced Thomas Paine, Peter’s biographer called him “more a pamphleteer than a philosopher.” Regardless of the pejorative insinuation, the label fit the man: for Peter was a firebrand who wanted to wipe away ignorance and fear, not merely comment on it. He wanted to engage with the man of the street, and the woman, for he was an early advocate of female equality. He longed to mobilize the crowd, not merely preach to it.
Many others were sharing Peter’s mood as the 18th century dawned, and strained at the narrow censorship and conformity of England. They began to challenge the ban on reason, vocally and in print. Peter Annett was not the only such bacilli in the body politic.
The Blasphemy Act of 1698 was their reward, a Crown law that made it a crime punishable by years at hard labor to publicly deny the Trinity or the divinity of Christ. Peter would one day be made a targeted example under this law simply because he so publicly situated divinity not in religious doctrine but in the human mind.
To quote one of his biographers, “he was practically the first Deist who sought to reach the multitude of the people, and his punishment expressed the special resentment aroused in the governing classes to such a policy”. And yet Peter carried his persecution proudly and like a badge of honor after his release from prison at the age of seventy one and in collapsing health. His mind and will held out until the very end.
What compels a soul to carry on its lonely purpose in the face of certain destruction is never clear, even after so many examples. Fully aware of the cost of unswerving and publicly proclaimed reason in his time and place, Peter Annett joined his fate to my own and to Philip, somehow bridging the ages in the great river that carries the three of us still.