English Civil War Radicalism

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ENGLISH CIVIL WAR RADICALISM. Radicalism in the 1640s and 1650s was a fluid and dynamic phenomenon in which religious and secular ideas were often impossible to separate. Individuals frequently transferred their allegiance upon encountering a new and charismatic leader, while others broke away to forge their own individual paths. But from within this flux several more coherent movements emerged, and it is their stories we trace here.


The first of these movements to appear was that of the Baptists, a group whose origins can be traced back to a group of Puritan separatists who had fled to the Netherlands in 1608. Under the influence of Dutch Anabaptists, some of them quickly adopted the principle of adult (or believer's) baptism, and the principle of general redemption, which held that saving grace was available to all who accepted it through faith. Returning to England in 1612, they founded the first General Baptist church in London. Some of the other refugees, still Calvinist, returned later to establish a semi-separatist church in the capital, and by 1638 some of its members had broken away to form a Particular (or Calvinist) Baptist congregation. The Baptists were thus divided from the beginning into two distinct movements, the General and Particular Baptists, each deeply suspicious of the other.

The religious freedom of the 1640s allowed both movements to expand rapidly, and in 1644 the Particular Baptists issued a Confession of Faith signed by representatives of seven London churches. By 1660 there were about 250 congregations, roughly 60 percent of them Particular Baptist, with perhaps 25,000 members in all. Particular and General Baptists agreed that baptism was only a valid sacrament for adult believers and should be administered by immersion in a river, following biblical precedent. They also agreed that each congregation should enjoy total independence. Both found recruits among artisans and small farmers, both attacked tithes and university learning, both found support in the New Model Army, and both nurtured millenarian dreams. But their fundamental division over the means of salvation outweighed these similarities.

The Particular Baptists, closer in spirit to the Independents, or Congregationalists, were always anxious to stress their respectability. The General Baptists, by contrast, more distant from the Puritan mainstream, were more anticlerical and more evangelical. Leaders such as Thomas Lambe (d. 1686), a soap boiler, preached to large crowds in London and toured southern England on missionary campaigns, often challenging the clergy to public debate in a manner that foreshadowed the Quaker movement of the 1650s. The Presbyterian polemicist Thomas Edwards (15991647) denounced Lambe and his kind as blasphemous anarchists. In reality, both Baptist movements were primarily concerned to secure religious toleration. While many individuals were drawn away by more radical groups, leaders such as William Kiffin (16161671), a Particular Baptist merchant, persuaded the majority to cooperate with the parliamentary regimes of the period.


The Leveller movement, which emerged toward the end of the civil war, was primarily political in spirit, but most of its leaders had roots in radical Puritanism, and the gathered churches provided a key recruiting ground. This movement developed from fears that a postwar settlement would bring few rewards for the common people. In particular, Leveller leaders such as "Freeborn John" Lilburne (c. 16141657), Richard Overton (c. 16251664), and William Walwyn (16001681) recoiled at the prospect of a rigid new uniformity under a national Presbyterian church. Using pamphlets and mass petitions, the Levellers pressed for both religious freedom and a range of social and economic reforms, including sweeping changes to the law, economic freedom for small tradesmen, and the removal of tithes and taxes. Their central demand, however, was a radically new political order to make government accountable for its actions. The Levellers saw authority flowing upward from the people, not downward from a divinely appointed king. Monarchy and a House of Lords had no place in their vision, and they demanded reforms to make popular sovereignty meaningful in practice as well as theory: a wide franchise (to include most male householders), annual elections, decentralization, elected local magistrates and judges, and a written constitution to guarantee basic human rights, especially religious freedom.

Parliament ignored their demands, and in 1647 the Levellers turned instead to the New Model Army, under Thomas Fairfax (16121671) and then Oliver Cromwell (15991658). The soldiers had mutinied in spring 1647, exasperated by Parliament's attempt to disband them without meeting legitimate grievances over pay and indemnity. The Levellers secured considerable influence among them and believed that a "citizen army" could act as agents of the sovereign people to overthrow Parliament and establish the new political order. The soldiers' representatives, or "Agitators," presented the first "Agreement of the People," an outline draft constitution, to the Army Council at Putney in October 1647. But as the country slid back toward a second civil war, the officers regained control and the Levellers found themselves outmaneuvered. Parliament took steps to meet many of the soldiers' grievances, while the military coup of December 1648 (Pride's Purge), which led to the abolition of the monarchy and House of Lords, cut much of the ground from beneath their feet. Moreover, in March 1649 the Commons guaranteed religious freedom to the Baptists and other separatists, which prompted them henceforth to distance themselves from the Levellers. Though the Levellers railed at the "tyranny" of the new republican regime, they had run out of options and their program provided far too narrow a base to stand any real chance of success.


Despite their nickname, the Levellers always protested their support for private property. By contrast, the Diggers, or "True Levellers," fully accepted the principle of economic equality and placed it at the very heart of their ideology. The Diggers had little impact on political events, and most of our information about them comes from the prolific writings of their leading theorist, Gerrard Winstanley (16091676). A failed tradesman, Winstanley experienced a religious conversion that convinced him that a new age was dawning in which the inner spirit would restore men and women to Adam's perfection before the Fall. Winstanley saw the overthrow of Charles I (ruled 16251649) as proof that the new age was at hand, and on 1 April 1649, inspired by a vision, he persuaded a small band of disciples to establish a communist settlement at St. George's Hill, near Walton-on-Thames in Surrey.

To the Diggers, all freedoms depended on economic freedom, by which they meant freedom from want. Winstanley dreamed of a society in which there was neither money nor private property, with everyone working to produce food and goods freely available to all, as needed, from communal stores. Moreover, human nature would be transformed as the inner spirit drove out sin in each individual. In such a perfect moral commonwealth there would be little need for laws or coercion. Winstanley repudiated the use of force, insisting that the communes were to be voluntary, and the Diggers planted only on common or "waste" land, leaving private landowners free to enjoy their own properties. Communist and propertied societies could thus coexist in peace, he explained, though he clearly hoped and expected that mass migration to the new communes would trigger the speedy collapse of private estates. At least nine other Digger communes sprang up across southern England and the midlands within the next few months, though little is known of their fate.

Winstanley's own settlement soon encountered problems. The Diggers had expected hostility from local gentlemen and clergy, but they were also viewed with deep suspicion by many ordinary folk who regarded the commons as a valuable asset for rough grazing and firewood. The settlement also prompted fears that an army of squatters would bring crime and violence in their wake. Repeated attacks forced the Diggers to shift to Cobham, a few miles away, by August 1649, and the settlement collapsed entirely in April 1650. That spelled the end of the movement. But Winstanley later published a defiant manifesto, The True Law of Freedom (1652), in which he revised and developed his utopian dream. Despite the recent disappointments, he stood by his faith in a classless, communist, agrarian society. He had lost his earlier millennial fervor, and he no longer looked for the sudden transformation of human nature. His text spelled out the laws and government that he now recognized as necessary bulwarks against tyranny and popular disorder alike. Winstanley dedicated the tract to Cromwell, with little expectation of any response, and the despairing verse that closes the work leaves little doubt that he was now writing for future generations rather than his own.


At one point the Digger commune had been interrupted by a group of Ranters, whom Winstanley condemned out of hand. The Ranters are the most difficult of all radicals to categorize; historian J. C. Davis has denied that any such "movement" ever existed. Contemporaries disagreed; radicals and conservatives alike described encountering Ranters over several years, and Parliament responded in 1650 with an act outlining and condemning their beliefs. Neither a sect nor a party, the Ranters are best described as a loose cluster of individual cells that held similar if not quite identical ideas and attitudes. Like many radicals, they anticipated an imminent millennial future. Abiezer Coppe (16191672), their most interesting pamphleteer, claimed that the overthrow of king and lords foreshadowed a far greater revolution that would sweep away all hierarchy, privilege, and property. The Ranters, convinced (like Winstanley) that God's spirit was to be found within, proclaimed that to the pure, all things were pure. Such a principle could easily open the way to immorality of every kind, and Ranters were repeatedly condemned as promiscuous and blasphemous atheists. Some individuals did pursue the libertine implications of their creed. Others, especially Coppe, proclaimed a social gospel that echoed Christ's Sermon on the Mount, defining true religion as caring for the sick and destitute, and condemning the traditional Puritan preoccupations with sex, blasphemy, and "correct" forms of worship as mere hypocrisy. The real sins, Coppe insisted, were the pride and greed that sustained a social order both oppressive and unjust.

Most contemporaries reacted with horror to what they knew or heard of the Ranters. Their alleged "atheism," their rejection of heaven and hell, of all churches, and of traditional moral values, and their violent language and extreme behavior ensured that "Ranter" became a general term of opprobrium. With the Act of 1650, Ranter pamphlets were banned, but it is clear from Quaker and other radical writings that their ideas lived on throughout the 1650s.


The Fifth Monarchists, the most politicized of the religious movements of the period, took shape in 1651 in response to still unfulfilled millenarian expectations raised by the king's execution in 1649. Taking their name from the vision of four beasts or world empires from the seventh chapter of the Book of Daniel, they looked for an imminent fifth: the reign of Christ. Their first target was the "Rump" Parliament, which they blamed for blocking Christ's kingdom; they were delighted when Oliver Cromwell dissolved it in April 1653, under pressure from army officers and religious radicals. They also welcomed his decision to summon a nominated assembly of the godly ("Barebones Parliament"), instead of calling fresh elections. The assembly, which contained a dozen Fifth Monarchists and many other religious radicals, pushed for sweeping reforms, whereupon Cromwell took fright and assumed power himself, as lord protector, in December 1653. Viewing him no longer as a second Moses but as the agent of the Antichrist, the Fifth Monarchists became his implacable enemies. They continued to demand a range of social reforms, which in many respects resembled those of other radical groups, including law reform, the abolition of taxes and tithes, and the relief of the poor. But taking the Old Testament as their model for the government, law, and society of the coming kingdom, the Fifth Monarchists looked for rule by a godly elite, "the visible saints," and they rejected outright the democratic values of the Levellers and Diggers. At the same time they insisted that biblical Israel had been a just society, and they guaranteed a better life to everyone willing to live quietly under the new order.

The Fifth Monarchists insisted on their right to take up arms against Cromwell, but in the event most proved reluctant to convert their violent rhetoric into open resistance. They were too weak to challenge the regime alone, and their attempts to subvert the army and build alliances with radical Baptists and republicans proved abortive. A bid by Thomas Venner (d. 1661), a cooper, and the congregation he led at Swan Alley, Coleman Street, to launch an uprising in London in April 1657 failed dismally. The collapse of the Protectorate in 1659 revived their hopes briefly, only to be dashed once more by the Stuart Restoration in 1660. Another attempted uprising by Venner's followers in 1661 was easily crushed, bloodily this time, and the movement gradually faded away as it became obvious that its millenarian expectations had been ill founded. Most Fifth Monarchists drifted back to the Independent or Baptist churches from which they had come.


The Quakers, the last movement to arise, emerged in 16521653 in the north of England, a region largely untouched by religious radicalism. Spreading south in 16541655, they grew rapidly to number some 40,000 by 1660. Their leaders and evangelists, such as George Fox (16241691) and James Nayler (16181660), were mainly small farmers and tradesmen. Women played a far more prominent role in the Quakers than in any other radical movement. Quaker belief centered on the inner light, which they insisted was capable of transforming each individual in this life and securing salvation in the next. Their religion stressed personal experience and repudiated outward forms; they insisted that the "church" was a gathering of believers, not a building or institution. Quaker worship was spontaneous and emotional (hence their nickname), and they rejected all professional ministers and sacraments. They laid equal stress on the practical consequences of conversion; Quakers rejected all worldly vanities and pleasures and applied a strict ethical code to their daily lives. But only in 1661 did they adopt pacifism as a general principle; the early Quakers' violent rhetoric prompted fears that they were subversive and dangerous, a suspicion reinforced by their refusal to observe conventional gestures of deference, such as doffing their hats. Their aggressive evangelism brought them enemies as well as converts; Quaker preachers, many women among them, often harangued crowds in the marketplace and interrupted church services. Moreover, their stress on the "Christ within" appeared blasphemous, and when James Nayler rode into Bristol on a donkey in 1656, imitating Christ's entry into Jerusalem, a horrified Parliament sentenced him to be branded, bored through the tongue, and floggeda sentence that was duly carried out. New laws on vagrancy and Sabbath observance in 1657 were aimed at the Quakers, and their outright refusal to pay tithes (rather then simply attacking them) led to numerous prosecutions. Roughly two thousand Quakers had been imprisoned by 1660.

Of all these groups, only the Baptists and Quakers (or Society of Friends) have survived. The radicals' dreams failed to materialize, and fear of their extremism helped pave the way for the Restoration. Nevertheless they had a lasting significance, inspiring later generations and forming part of the Nonconformist bloc that successfully thwarted all attempts to reimpose a monolithic state church. The radicals thus helped to shape the pluralist values of individual freedom that define Western culture today.

See also Anabaptism ; Calvinism ; Cromwell, Oliver ; Dissenters ; England ; English Civil War and Interregnum ; Parliament ; Puritanism ; Quakers ; Utopia .


Barbour, Hugh. The Quakers in Puritan England. New Haven, 1964. Sensitive account from a Quaker perspective.

Bradstock, Andrew, ed. Winstanley and the Diggers 16491999. London and Portland, Oreg., 2000. Valuable essays on Winstanley's life and his settlement.

Capp, Bernard. The Fifth Monarchy Men: a Study in Seventeenth-Century English Millenarianism. London, 1972. Still the standard work.

Davis, J. C. Fear, Myth and History: The Ranters and the Historians. Cambridge, U.K., 1986. A spirited but controversial argument that the "Ranters" were largely invented by conservatives to discredit their opponents. For a debate between Davis and his critics see Past and Present, 129 (Nov. 1990) and 140 (August 1993).

Hill, Christopher. The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas during the English Revolution. Harmondsworth, U.K., and Baltimore, 1975. A magisterial survey of radical ideas and movements.

Manning, Brian. The English People and the English Revolution. Harmondsworth, U.K., and New York, 1978. Two important chapters on the Levellers, and early chapters on the popular street politics in 16401642.

McGregor, Frank, and Barry Reay, eds. Radical Religion in the English Revolution. Oxford and New York, 1984. Very useful essays on all the groups covered in this article.

Reay, Barry. The Quakers and the English Revolution. London, 1985. The best short introduction, from a non-Quaker perspective.

Sanderson, John. 'But the People's Creatures': The Philosophical Basis of the English Civil War. Manchester, U.K., and New York, 1989. Chapter 2, "Levellers and anti-Levellers" (pp. 102127) gives a good account of the concept of popular sovereignty.

Shaw, Howard. The Levellers. London, 1968. A clear, short introduction.

Tolmie, Murray. The Triumph of the Saints: the Separate Churches of London 16161649. Cambridge, U.K., 1977. On the Baptists and Independents and their Leveller links.

Bernard Capp

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