|Was seventeenth century humanist author John Milton on "our" side, despite his endorsement of heterosexual polygamy? Since writing an earlier GayNZ.com article on Luther, Philip of Hesse and polygamy in the sixteenth century, I had a look at John Milton's advocacy of polygamy in his De Doctrina Christiana, and became aware why contemporary fundamentalists seem reluctant to reclaim the author of Paradise Lost (1667) and other classics. To be sure, there is some debate over whether De Doctrina Christina actually warrants inclusion within the Miltonic canon. William Hunter and several proponents of the exclusion theory investigated the text and found that while the underlying text was the work of Milton, given what is currently known about Milton's style, vocabulary and humanist scholarship, it may also reflect later, posthumous additions. Thus, it may represent an unfinished work in progress, or have been posthumously edited, or be partially collaborative, given the onset of Milton's blindness. Is this a conservative/liberal split? If De Doctrina Christiana is included within Milton's canon, then Milton looks like a Unitarian religious humanist, rather than as an orthodox Puritan. Without De Doctrina Christiana, he looks more like the latter, which is what C.S.Lewis proposed when he suggested that evangelical Milton enthusiasts sidestepped De Doctrina, and focused on his masterpiece, Paradise Lost. However, contemporary Milton scholars have found relevance to that contemporary work, and one theologian has concluded that the work is legitimate, and consistent with the worldview represented within Paradise Lost.
The transcription of Milton's dictated observations was thus a faithful reproduction, and Milton indeed regarded heterosexual polygamy asa permissible stance within his model of biblical interpretation. So what are we left with? Despite Lewis' remarks, Milton appears to be out of favour with contemporary fundamentalists due to his possible Unitarianism, and thoroughgoing republicanism, which extended into a refreshing liberal humanist stance on matters like divorce, meaningful religious freedom and opposition to censorship, although he seems to have also been an unreconstructed sexist when it came to women's rights. Milton is viewed as entertaining radical suspicion toward hierarchies, and while he was biblically centred, he placed his own freedom of conscience above anyone else telling him how to read the bible, hence his Unitarianism and more orthodox liberal humanist stances. Can we therefore safely read Milton? I must confess, I've never relied on criteria of political correctness to dictate my reading choices anyway, but LGBT readers should consider this. Milton is a freethinker, who champions freedom of conscience and opposition to censorship, even given his Unitarian Christian overlay. We might disregard his biblical reliance, but his commitment to freedom of conscience, opposition to censorship and enforced religious orthodoxy can be reclaimed for we modern LGBTs. As for the question of polygamy, modern consciences might still come to conclude that while LGBT civil unions and same-sex marriage are permissible, precisely on the grounds of freedom of conscience and enforced religious orthodoxy, there may be other reasons why one might not grant heterosexual polygamy the same legal recognition, given disturbing questions about domestic violence and child sexual abuse within some schismatic Mormon polygamist communities in Canada and the United States. Should it therefore be subject to humanitarian refugee considerations in the case of polygamous refugee families with children, and in that case alone? I will continue to cherish the grandeur and craft within Milton's work, but I won't go all the way, with his endorsement of polygamy. Recommended: John Bryson: The Tyranny of Heaven: Newark: University of Delaware Press: 2004. John Rumrich "The Provenance of De Doctrina Christiana" in Mark Kelley, Michael Libe and John Shawcross (ed) Milton and the Grounds of Contention: Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press: 2003. John Shawcross: Rethinking Milton Studies: Newark: University of Delaware Press: 2005. John Spong: The Sins of Scripture: Sydney: Harper Collins: 2004. [What happens when freedom of conscience, opposition to religious orthodoxy and open, critical scholarship occurs today. Invaluable for its openness to LGBT rights and so much more...] Craig Young - 31st March 2006