Born at Bordeaux into a French Protestant family, which may perhaps have had Jewish ancestry, Isaac La Peyrère (1596–1676) was the author of one of the most controversial books of the seventeenth century. According to La Peyrère, Adam and Eve had been created to be the parents of the Jews, God’s chosen people. At the time of their creation, the Gentiles already existed, and peopled the whole earth outside Eden; at the Fall, Adam’s sin was imputed back to them. Many of the events related in the Old Testament affected the Jews only, for example, Noah’s Flood was confined to Palestine.
La Peyrère had originally developed his ideas about the pre-Adamites in the context of a new theory of Jewish Messianism which he first advanced in the early 1640s, when he was working as a secretary to the Prince de Condé. He argued that it was necessary for Christians to purify and simplify their religion in order to attract the Jews to join it, and that a messianic ruler (possibly Condé himself) would emerge to restore the Jews and establish a universal monarchy. The Jews remained God’s original, chosen people; they were the descendants of Adam and it was wrong to persecute or vilify them. Their salvation was an essential prelude to universal redemption.
La Peyrère was discouraged from publishing his pre-Adamite theory in the book which he produced in 1643, Du rappel des Juifs, but he continued to develop it during the ensuing decade. Travels which he undertook in Scandinavia alerted him to the problem of the ancestry of both the native inhabitants of North America and the eskimos of Greenland. Neither of these peoples seemed to fit easily into the genealogies set out in the book of Genesis, thus giving support to the hypothesis that the biblical account of the dispersion of peoples related to the Jews alone. With the encouragement of the exiled Queen Christina of Sweden, La Peyrère was eventually persuaded to publish his pre-Adamite theory in Holland in 1655. Condemnations swiftly followed, leading to La Peyrère’s arrest and imprisonment in Brussels. Shortly afterwards, he converted to Catholicism and was taken to Rome, where he had an audience with Pope Alexander VII, and abjured his heresies.
The newly-penitent La Peyrère deployed the hypothesis of men before Adam in order to attack the Calvinist method of interpreting scripture according to the literal sense, reason, and the individual conscience. He argued that this method had led him into his heresy, and that belief in pre-Adamites was indeed consistent with a Calvinist approach to the Bible. Catholics, in contrast, were bound to accept the ruling of the Church on disputed issues, and to interpret scripture in accordance with its teaching. As a result, following his conversion, La Peyrère repudiated his former views because he was instructed to do so by the Pope. He continued, however, to hope for the establishment of a universal, Christian monarchy, perhaps under the Pope’s direction. The messianic and pre-Adamite themes of La Peyrère’s early work continued to appear in his later writings, and were the subject of discussions with the young Richard Simon in the 1670s, after La Peyrère had become a lay member of an Oratorian seminary near Paris. Simon, who later became one of the greatest of contemporary linguists and biblical critics, and whose own work on the inconsistencies in Protestant approaches to scripture proved deeply influential, was unimpressed with La Peyrère’s learning, although no doubt taken with his skill in sceptical argument and confessional polemic.
La Peyrère’s Prae-Adamitae was translated into English almost immediately after its initial publication in Holland. In August 1655, Hartlib noted proudly that he had discovered the identity of the author of Prae-Adamitae, ‘as I take it le Pere…or Liperira a french-man’ (Hartlib Papers, 29/5/42A [Ephemerides, 1655]). On 24th October, the stationers Thomas Underhill and Nathaniel Webb petitioned for the suppression of the English translation which was then being printed by Francis Leach, on the grounds that the book was ‘putting a blasphemous slur on the Bible testimony concerning the creation of man’ (Calendar of State Papers Domestic, 1655, p. 393).
Many contemporary Protestants were worried by the implications of La Peyrère’s work, and by the doubts which it cast on the historical narrative of the Bible. Mainstream English churchmen and Calvinists were especially worried about the effect Men Before Adam might have in a country where the teachings of several new sects, notably the Quakers, already threatened the traditional authority of scripture. In some ways, it was the timing of the publication of La Peyrère’s ideas, rather than the ideas themselves, which generated anxiety. As Simon later remarked, La Peyrère was not an original or a consistent scholar. His work contained several familiar libertine ideas and criticisms of traditional exegesis, often founded on well-known classical or Jewish precedents. The notion that there might have been some kind of people before Adam had already been explored, for example by Paracelsus, as a solution to the problem of the settlement of the Americas (for more orthodox answers to this, see catalogue nos.49 and 50 ). Sir Thomas Browne (see catalogue no. 47 ) had rejected Paracelsus’s ‘non-Adamical men’ (Pseudodoxia epidemica, Book 4, chapter 11), but more radical contemporaries were also aware of the textual ambiguities in Genesis to which La Peyrère would later draw attention. Thus, writing of his career as a Ranter in the later 1640s, Laurence Clarkson remarked that ‘I neither believed that Adam was the first Creature, but that there was a Creation before him, which world I thought was eternal’ (The Lost Sheep Found, in Smith (ed.), p.185). As Browne had outlined in Religio medici (1642–43), there were perfectly good orthodox reponses to such beliefs, and the doubts which spawned them. It was quite possible to accept the literal truth of scripture without demanding that the Bible explain itself at every turn, for example by accounting for the peopling of the cities which Cain built after the murder of Abel (Genesis 4). The solution to the problems raised by La Peyrère which most English Protestants adopted was to urge a greater concentration on what the text of the Bible actually said, rather than worrying about what it did not say. This was accompanied by a widespread rejection of the notion of personal inspiration espoused by Clarkson or the Quakers, and the renewed advocacy instead of the close reading of scripture, especially under the guidance of an educated clergy, as the safe route to religious understanding.