Anxiety About Homosexuality and Apocalyptic Worldview is An Old Marriage: 10 Questions for the Author of Visions of Sodom: Religion, Homoerotic Desire, and the End of the World in England

John Martin's painting The Great Day of His Wrath (1851-53).

What inspired you to write Visions of Sodom: Religion, Homoerotic Desire, and the End of the World in England, c. 1550-1850?

There is a great book by Paul Hallam called the Book of Sodom (Verso, 1995) which is an anthology of writing about Sodom and Gomorrah from the Bible to Proust and beyond which I have always really liked and I thought that this was great source material. Also I was puzzled by the question of why Protestant propagandists after the Reformation wrote so much about sodomy and sodomites. This is a persistent theme in this writing and I thought it was also a great source for understanding how early modern Europe understood “unnatural” sexuality of all kinds, and homoerotic behaviour and desires in particular.

Many scholars of the modern period have written about religion and sexuality in recent years—Mark Jordan, Sue Morgan, Jacqueline DeVries and others. They have recognised that religion is a vital context for understanding morals and the history of sexuality. Using the material in the book was a good way of extending this treatment of these two themes backwards in time. I am also a great admirer of the British writer Marina Warner, who has written some great books about how modern society is underpinned by ancient myths and tales, and I wanted to examine in a similar way how the Sodom story has acted as an origin myth of homoeroticism in Western culture.

What’s the most important take-home message for readers?

That religion really matters when we try to understand sexuality in historical perspective. At least until the 19th century religion was the background for almost all discussions of morality, especially in vernacular literature aimed at a general audience.

Also that the Sodom story has functioned as an origin myth of homoeroticism, of a city or polity given over to lust. In that respect the biblical account of Sodom and Gomorrah has played a key role in linking sexual excess, social breakdown and apocalyptic dreams of the world’s end. The story still retains enormous power in some places. This is especially true of the religious Right across the world, but particularly in America where far-Right pastors and theorists of the apocalypse like Tim LaHaye (one of the fathers of the religious right in the US and one of the authors of the popular Left Behind series of religious thrillers) have consistently invoked Sodom and Gomorrah in order to show that homosexuality is likely to corrupt the nation.

As LaHaye put it in 1978 “homosexuality is to be a part of the buildup of the ‘perilously evil times’ that are prophesied for the last days.” Such sentiments are not safely in the past either. In February 2015 Texan megachurch pastor Robert Jeffress argued on biblical authority that increasing toleration of homosexuality and gay marriage was one of many signs of the moral disorder that would herald the rise of Antichrist and the end of time. Many of these ideas have been exported around the world along with the missionary activities of the Christian Right.

Is there anything you had to leave out?

There was originally a chapter on the French Enlightenment philosopher Pierre Bayle and his debunking of anti-popery. That chapter was also about how Bayle’s work influenced debates on Catholicism in England in the 18th century—I did this by looking at the career of the former Catholic turned Protestant propagandist and general rogue, Archibald Bower. I replaced that with a chapter on the changing idea of lust in the 18th century. I will come back to the Bayle material later.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your topic?

Michel Foucault famously said that early modern sodomy was “an utterly confused category.” I aimed to show that this was not how it appeared in the 17th/18th century, and that Protestantism provided a satisfying and complete set of explanations for the existence of homoeroticism in the world—most obviously that it had descended from the original Sodomites into the Roman Catholic church.

Did you have a specific audience in mind when writing?

I like to think that I wrote the book in a readable style and have explained most of the key concepts in such a way that a general reader could understand them. But I also recognise that it is an academic book written for specialists and my peers, and that that entails some detailed discussion of some quite difficult themes which will not appeal to everybody.

Are you hoping to just inform readers? Entertain them? Piss them off?

Was it Rimbaud who said that all art should shock and provoke? I was aiming to show how thinking about fornication, homoeroticism, sodomy etc was part of the Protestants’ world view and not something marginal to their thought. As Protestantism and anti-Catholicism were key components of English/British national identity, it is clear that these debates and discussions were central to the making of that identity.

These forms of thought were also exported in many ways to the US and Britain’s empire. I suppose some people may not like that. Inevitably there are going to be debates with other historians, but I think I have treated them with respect. Some people may read the book as an attempt to show that “religion” is homophobic but that is not how I see it. The book is not some anti-religion polemic that aims to discredit religion in general, but merely to show that certain prophetic and apocalyptic discourses are concerned with sexual disorder and its representation in scripture and religious debate. It is a picture of a world view.  

What alternative title would you give the book?

I was going to call it ‘Searching for Sodom’ as it is also about how people have tried to pin down the meaning of the story. But I like the one I chose.

How do you feel about the cover? 

I love it, Chicago did a great job.

Is there a book out there you wish you had written? Which one? Why?

When you publish any book there’s always the book you didn’t write, which is a better version of the one that you did write. I really admire the erudition of writers like Eric Auerbach, Peter Brown, Marina Warner and more recently the British academics Robert Mills (who wrote a book called Seeing Sodomy in the Middle Ages) and Helen Parish who writes about clericial celibacy, but they are very different writers to me. Also there are some incredibly learned books on the early modern period such as Anthony Milton, Catholic and Reformed, Stuart Clark, Thinking with Demons, Alexandra Walsham, Providence in Early Modern England, and The Reformation of the Landscape, and the huge tomes of Peter Lake. These are monuments of scholarship that I read with awe. Foucault’s History of Sexuality is also one of my favourites.   

What’s your next book?

I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a book at the moment, but I’m working on the different meanings of lust in late 17th/early 18th century English religious debate. Lust was a feature of original sin, and only gradually took on the sexual meaning it has now. I’m aiming again to study how these ideas have a lasting impact on European society by taking the study up to the 20th century when many writers on morals said things that were directly derived from this Christian tradition.