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loose canons
There's a thin line between saintliness and madness. Here are inspiring tales of holy folly that laugh in the face of human wisdom... and also breathtaking examples of religious stupidity that fly in the face of common sense.

As told by Stephen Tomkins

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13: The Bristol Blasphemer
HE QUAKERS HAD THE SENSE to spring up in the 1640s, England's first ever period of religious toleration. This meant that if they wanted persecution and opposition as a sign of divine approval, they really had to push the boat out.

This presumably is what inspired James Nayler, one of the first Quaker leaders, to proclaim himself Christ. He was a Yorkshire farmer, and one day while he was out ploughing he got himself a calling. So he gave up his possessions and toured the country, telling everyone that if they had God's spirit they were equal to God.

His enchanting preaching and sumptuous hair got him a devoted following, largely of women.

Someone (God, apparently) told them that the Second Coming would be in 1656, which they got very excited about. But it got to October, and there was still no sign of it. So they finally realized that the answer had been under their noses all the time: James Nayler was Jesus.

So he rode into Bristol on horseback, in the pouring rain, with the women laying their cloaks before him in the mud, singing to him, "Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Israel." All men are equal to God, but some are more equal than others. They were still singing as they were led into prison.

Surprisingly, the story doesn't end with an execution. Instead, Nayler was whipped through the streets, branded with a "B" for "blasphemer" and had a hole bored through his tongue. He was left in the stocks, where a friend stroked and kissed him and licked the hot brand. Another put up a sign saying: "This is the King of the Jews."

Later, Nayler wrote a letter from prison renouncing his folly. And he announced that although he had previously rejected the other Quakers (in his temporary post as Judge of the Living and the Dead), he would now be reconciled with them. Which I'm sure was a great relief to them.

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St Simeon
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