What Happened to Balthasar Bekker in England? A Mystery in the History of Publishing

In: Church History and Religious Culture
Andrew Fix Lafayette College, Easton, Pa. USA 18042–1768;, Email:

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This article looks at the fate of Balthasar Bekker's De Betoverde Weereld in England. The famous work opposing the earthly activity of evil spirits, rejecting the reality of witchcraft, and debunking spirit stories by suggesting natural causes for the supposed supernatural events, was published in Amsterdam (following a rowe with the original Leeuwarden publisher) by Anthony van Dale in 1692–1693 and caused an intense controversy. Bekker was a strict monotheist unwilling to hand over any of God's power to evil spirits or the Devil, an advocate of the accomodationist school of Scriptural interpretation that had landed Galileo in jail in 1633, a serious student of spirit “superstition” with works such as those of Reginald Scot, Abraham Paling, and Anthony van Dale in his library. And he was a Cartesian: he owned Clauberg, Heereboord, Sylvain-Regis, etc. His opponents said that if one did not believe in evil spirits one could not believe in God. Bekker's book went through several Dutch printings, was right away translated into French and German, stirring reaction in those countries (the new book by Nooijen, Unserm Großen Bekker ein Denkmahl? looks at the German reaction). In England plans were afoot to translate the Betoverde Weereld by 1694, and Book I was translated and published. But that was all that got done. The highly controversial Book II and the final two books remained untranslated and unpublished. Why? Not for a lack of interest in evil spirits in England: witness the works of Glanvill, Henry More, George Sinclair, John Webster, and many others. Ghost stories were not lacking—just see the “Devil of Tedworth” and “Beckington Witch” stories. I argue the failure was a result of the vicissitudes of the London publishing industry, especially the relatively new periodical publishing, and of the eccentric, intellectual, but unfocussed general publisher John Dunton, who ruined himself and the Bekker project with his poor business sense (his wife ran the shop for him and when she died he was lost) which led him to travel to Dublin and Boston in search of publishable manuscripts (even on spirits!) instead of allowing him to concentrate his resources on Bekker. As a result, Bekker's work remained little known in the English-speaking world and its significance was almost totally overshadowed by the work of Locke. Would Daniel van Dalen, Jan ten Hoorn, or Willem Blaeu have made the same mistake? Also, Dunton put a goodly amount of his resources into the risky new periodical market and lost money that could have financed publication of the last three books of De Betoverde Weereld. Just because of the controversial nature of what he said, Bekker deserved better in England.

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