A minor nonconformist group of left-wing Puritan societies in early 17th-century England, living principally in Cumberland, Westmorland, and Yorkshire, who represented, along with the Dutch "Collegiants," the culmination of continental pietistic religion. They were closely allied to the Society of friends, which most of them had joined by 1652. Although different in views and practice from the Ranters and Fifth Monarchy Men, the Seekers likewise exhibited Antinomian and Millenarian ideas and were identified with the Independents of the Civil War and Interregnum periods. (see millenarianism.) The Seekers, finding neither truth nor spiritual satisfaction in any formal, ritualistic church, formed small communities of worshippers who were seeking and waiting for God's manifestation of the true church through new prophets and miraculous revelations. Their emphasis on a vital inner faith unfettered by reliance on the Scriptures, the Sacraments, preaching, and dogma was based on the principles of 16th-century German and Dutch spiritual reformers, including Kaspar Schwenckfeld of Silesia, Sebastian Franck of Schwabia, and Dirck Coornhert of Holland. Schwenckfeld held that the visible church had forsaken its authority and power, and Franck expected God, in the fullness of His plan, to restore the church to the purity and evangelical power of Apostolic Christian times. The term "Seeker" allegedly first appeared in England in J. Morton's tract, Truth's Champion (1617), but the Seeker Bartholomew Legate suffered martyrdom at Smithfield in 1612.
Although the unceremonious Seekers eschewed precise doctrinal definition, they generally agreed that all churches that had a visible organization and an ordained ministry, relied on the Bible as a source of faith, and administered Sacraments had fallen into apostasy because the infallible Divine Will had abandoned them. Since Seekers had questioned the efficacy of the Sacraments, even Baptism, and renounced Scripture as a sure means of salvation because of the loss of the true texts, although some Seekers studied it, Seeker services consisted of silent gatherings of families in homes and austere chapels wherein men would speak only when divine inspiration aroused them. Occasionally one among them would lead the meetings. The Seekers were among the first Englishmen to advocate absolute religious freedom for all. Seeker views were so similar to those of the Quakers that George fox made hundreds of converts among them, including such prominent leaders as Francis Howgill, Thomas Taylor, and John Audland, during a trip into the North Country in the early 1650s. John Saltmarsh, the Antinomian divine of the Parliamentary army, O. Cromwell's daughter, Claypole, and Roger Williams of Rhode Island professed Seeker ideas. Seekers authored numerous tracts until the Restoration, by which time their communities had generally dispersed.
Bibliography: r. m. jones, Studies in Mystical Religion (London 1909); Spiritual Reformers in the 16th and 17th Centuries (Boston 1914; pa. reprint 1959). j. hastings, ed., Encyclopedia of Religion & Ethics, 13 v. (Edinburgh 1908–27) 11:350–351. w. c. brattwaite, The Beginnings of Quakerism (2d ed. Cambridge, England 1955). g. fox, Journal, ed. j. l. nickalls (rev. ed. Cambridge, England 1952). d. masson, The Life of John Milton, 7 v. (London 1859–94; reprint Gloucester, MA 1962) v. 3, 5.
[m. j. havran]