Apocalyptic prophecies such as those of Anne Wentworth were not anomalous in seventeenth-century England. In fact, when Wentworth predicted the date of the arrival of the Apocalypse, she participated in a tradition that stretched back at least into the 1300s of men and women who tried to calculate or prophesy the arrival of Doomsday (Thomas 141). According to Keith Thomas in Religion and the Decline of Magic, the Reformation only heightened interest in predicting the Apocalypse, because the new availability of Scripture made the Biblical books of Daniel and Revelation accessible to the layperson who then interpreted the apocalyptic predictions contained therein literally; medieval schoolmen, on the other hand, had often read them allegorically (Thomas 141). Throughout the reign of Elizabeth, the belief that the Apocalypse’s arrival was imminent became a popular one and was supported by the testimony of many prophets (Thomas 141). It was not until the Civil War, however, that the belief in the imminent arrival of the Apocalypse reached its zenith in popularity. Christopher Hill notes in The World Turned Upside Down that the social turbulence of this period contributed to the spread of apocalyptic thought: “In the highly-charged atmosphere of the 1640s, many people expected it [the Apocalypse] in the near future” (Hill 95-brackets added). A belief not only in the coming of the Apocalypse but in the coming of the 1000-year reign of Christ on earth (the millennium) as predicted in Revelation 20:4 became particularly popular among the lower classes and the radical Parliamentarians:
It is difficult to exaggerate the extent and strength of millenarian expectations among ordinary people in the 1640s and early 50s…To many men the execution of Charles I in 1649 seemed to make sense only as clearing the way for King Jesus (Hill 96).
This millenarian anticipation of Christ supplanting earthly government with His own was heightened by a large number of prophets who predicted both the date of Christ’s Second Coming and the nature of His millennial rule (Capp 42-43).
But while millenarian prophecy dominated in the 1640s and 1650s, apocalyptic prophecy in general dwindled after the 1660s, according to Keith Thomas:
The spate of prophecy was sharply checked by the Restoration, the return of the Anglican Church, and the persecution of the Dissenting sects. The governing classes were determined to prevent any recurrence of the social anarchy of the Interregnum years and most of the sectarians themselves were anxious to demonstrate their law-abiding character. There were still some visionaries who claimed direct revelations from God or who uttered prophecies of imminent doom, but after the 1660s they became less common (Thomas 144).
Thomas notes that Anne Wentworth was one of these uncommon, post-1660 utterers of doom (Thomas note 2, 144). It is possible that Wentworth’s apocalyptic fervor was the result of her retention of the millenarian sentiment that permeated the culture in the 1640s and 50s; in fact, millennial tracts did not entirely disappear until 1746 (Thomas 145). However, Wentworth never clearly posits herself as a millenarian in her writings. She does perhaps allude to the millennium when she says in The Revelation, “But Jesus hath purchased Redemption for all / His own Elect; and reign with him he shall” (The Revelation 17, C3 recto). But unlike millenarians who often dwell on the future events of Christ’s one-thousand-year reign on earth, Wentworth does not describe Christ’s future kingdom as lasting for one-thousand years or as being an earthly rather than a heavenly reign. Wentworth’s apocalyptic beliefs and prophetic activity, then, may not have had close historical precedents; rather, her prophesying may have hearkened back to the prophetic activity of previous centuries in which the coming of the Apocalypse alone was predicted, not the coming of the millennium.
The lateness of Wentworth’s advent as a prophet in the seventeenth-century may account for some of the hostile reaction she received. Wentworth was still prophesying the coming of the Apocalypse as late as 1679, by which time prophecy had become largely unpopular, according to Thomas:
In the later seventeenth century it became orthodox to declare that the gift of prophecy had ceased; God had sent all the revelation that was needed and the books of Daniel and Revelation were to be understood metaphorically (Thomas 145).
Wentworth, then, may have appeared on the prophetic scene thirty years too late to become truly popular. As aforementioned, her prophecies only seemed to have received serious attention during the Fall of 1677, and evoked a quite hostile reaction from both her husband and his fellow Anabaptists. The unpopularity of Wentworth’s prophetic activity, however, may have had less to do with its historical belatedness than with Wentworth’s gender.