Birch, James (DNB00)

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BIRCH, JAMES (fl. 1759–1795), heresiarch, was born in Wales, but the date is unknown. He became a watch-motion maker in London, living in Brewer's Yard, Golden Lane, Old Street Road, afterwards in Little Moorfields. He was converted to the Muggletonians, his name first appearing in their records 1 July 1759; that of Mrs. Birch is mentioned 22 July 1759. He wrote in 1771 a rhythmical account of his conversion ('Travels from the sixth to the ninth hour'), fifteen stanzas of eight lines each, dated 5 Dec. (unprinted). In 1772 he rejected two points of Muggletonian orthodoxy: viz. the doctrine that believers have present assurance of salvation (this, Birch thought, was often withheld till death); and the doctrine that God exercises no immediate oversight in human affairs, and affords no present inspiration (on these points Birch reverted to the original views of John Reeve, the founder, along with Lodowicke Muggleton, of the sect). So far he only led a party within the Muggletonian body, which as always been liable to eruptions of Reevite heresy. But in 1778 Birch began to claim personal inspiration; this lost him ten followers, headed by Martha, wife of Henry Collier. The Collierites were regarded by Muggletonians as mistaken friends; the Birchites were known as the Anti-church. Birch was maintained in independence by his followers, his right-hand man being William Matthews, of Bristol. In 1786 there were some thirty Birchites in London, and a larger number in Pembrokeshire. In 1809 they are alluded to in a 'divine song' by James Frost as 'anti-followers;' at this time and subsequently they had a place of meeting in the Barbican. Whether Birch himself was living in 1809 is not known; the last occurrence of his name in the Muggletonian archives is in 1795; two of his London followers were surviving in 1871 in old age. Birch published, about the end of last century, 'The Book of Cherubical Reason, with its Law and Nature; or of the Law and Priesthood of Reason,' &c.; and 'The Book upon the Gospel and Regeneration,' &c. They bear no date, but were sold by T. Herald, 60 Portpool Lane, Gray's Inn Lane. Very incoherent, they are scarcely intelligible even to the initiated in the small controversies from which they sprang. One of Birch's opinions is curious: 'Not one of the seed of Faith dies in childhood' (Cher. Reas. p. 46).

[MS. Records of the Muggletonian Church; Birch's Works (Brit. Mus. 1114 i. 3, 1 and 2); paper Ancient and Mod. Muggletonians, Trans. Liverpool Lit. and Phil. Soc. 1870.]

A. G.