And Other Adventures in the History of the Law



Copyright © 2000 Leonard W. Levy. All rights reserved.
ISBN: 1-56663-277-3

Chapter One

The Ranters:
Antinomianism Run Amok

Reminiscing about the years 1649-1651, when he was called "Captain of the Rant," Laurence Clarkson wrote:

I brake the Law in all points (murther excepted:) and the ground of this my judgement was, God had made all things good, so nothing [was] evil but as man judged it; for I apprehended there was no such thing as theft, cheat, or a lie, but as man made it so; for if the creature had brought this world into no propriety [property], as Mine and Thine, there had been no such title as theft, cheat, or a lie; for the prevention hereof Everard and Gerrard Winstanley did dig up the Commons, that so all might have to live of themselves, then there had been no need of defrauding, but unity one with another.

The reference by the Ranter Clarkson to Everard and Winstanley, the Digger leaders, showed a kinship. They did not believe in private property or in sin as organized religion taught it, although they differed radically about the meaning of sin. In England in the spring of 1649, the Diggers, those religious mystics who sought to establish a Christian communist community, had occupied St. George's Hill in Surrey. They dug the ground and planted vegetables because, as Winstanley explained in The True Levellers Standard, "the great Creator Reason made the Earth to be a Common Treasury" for all mankind. The government fined them for trespass and prosecuted them for both unlawful assembly and disorderly conduct; soldiers destroyed their little utopian community.

    "Digger," like "Ranter" and "Leveller," was a term of contempt. In a political tract of 1647 advocating the sovereignty of the common people, Clarkson spoke of the "True Levellers," a name which the Diggers adopted. Cromwell despised them all—Levellers, True Levellers, and Ranters. "Did not the levelling principle," he asked, "tend to reducing all to an equality ... to make the tenant as liberal a fortune as the landlord?" Winstanley, knowing that poor people worked for only four pence a day and that the price of flour was high, remembered the prediction "The poor shall inherit the earth," and he added, "I tell you, the scripture is to be really and materially fulfilled.... You jeer at the name Leveller. I tell you Jesus Christ, who is that powerfull Spirit of Love, is the Head Leveller."

    Men of the "true" leveling principle, Diggers and Ranters, were a tiny minority in England who posed no military or political threat, but their theory resonated subversion of Christian society. Even the Socinians, as well as the Baptists and other autonomous congregational sects, could agree on that. If Paul Best, John Fry, and John Biddle had converted much of the nation to their anti-Trinitarianism, England's momentum toward intellectual freedom and an open society would have accelerated, but the future would not have significantly differed. If the Levellers, the constitutional radicals led by John Lilburne, Richard Overton, and John Wildman, had triumphed, political democracy would have come swiftly, followed by some amelioration of the injustices of the class system and the economic order. If Winstanley, Clarkson, and Abiezer Coppe had prevailed, law and order, the Protestant ethic, private property, the class system, and even Christianity itself might have disintegrated in a revolutionary and blasphemous upheaval. Although the threat of such an upheaval remained rhetorical, the government summarily squashed it. The Ranters could not be ignored; they were too blatantly offensive, deliberately going to extremes to shock, to show contempt for society, and to scorn its right to judge them. As political radicals, the Ranters had the clout of pipsqueaks, but as antinomian libertines, they stirred envy, disgust, and hostility, as did their late-medieval precursors, the Brethren of the Free Spirit.

    Antinomianism defies definition even more than Puritanism or Independency. The word in its narrowest sense means being against the law—generally, the moral law; specifically, the Ten Commandments. But antinomianism need not be taken in its narrowest sense except, perhaps, in the case of those who, like the Ranters, wholly repudiated the concept of sin. Too narrow a definition of antinomianism misses its religious argument—namely, that, God's grace being unbounded, eternal salvation is open to all, that salvation begins here on earth and not beyond the grave, and that the righteous or moral man does not, or cannot, sin. A world of difference exists, of course, between "does not" and "cannot." The antinomians lived in that contradictory world and could not consistently resolve its contradiction.

    Antinomianism begins with the proposition that human nature is perfectible and is perfected even in this world through the gift of divine grace. God makes the moral law subordinate to His grace or love, just as He makes the spirit of the Bible transcend its letter. Antinomians such as Behmenists, Familists, Grindletonians, Seekers, and Quakers believed that divine inspiration and spiritual regeneration perfected the soul, making the acts of a righteous or perfected man correspond with and even supersede the moral law. In Christ none can sin; sin is a temporary aberration pardonable through spiritual regeneration. Antinomians magnified the compelling nature of grace. They emphasized man as redeemed, not man as the fallen and depraved Adam. They focused on Paul's doctrine that salvation is attained not by observance of the Law but by faith inspired by the divine spark within the soul. Christ, Paul proclaimed, lived within him (Galatians 2:20). "The Father is in me" is also a doctrine of the Gospel of John 10:38. An Epistle of John reinforced antinomianism's mystical principles: "No one born of God commits sin; for God's nature abides in him" (1 John 3:9), and "God abides in us and his love is perfected in us" (1 John 4:12).

    Antinomian readings of such texts were intensely exalting, personal, and liberating. Antinomianism was not easily communicable or understandable to someone not on the same spiritual wavelength. Antinomians scarcely agreed among themselves. Perhaps there were as many brands of antinomianism as there were inner selves. The Ranters reflected an extreme: antinomianism run amok into religious anarchism. Not that there was a different sort of rant for every Ranter, but Ranters differed sharply. Joseph Salmon, George Foster, Laurence Clarkson, William Franklin, and John Robins were dissimilar Ranters but definably Ranters. A former Ranter fancifully classified seven types of schools of Ranters and to each gave an exotic name—Familists, Shelomethes, Clements, Athians, Nicholartanes, Marcions, and Seleutian Donatists. The Ranters themselves made no such distinctions, did not worship in churches of any sort, and never organized into sects.

    The conduct and opinions of Abiezer Coppe suggest why he became the most notorious of the Ranters, although he was no more "typical" than any other Ranter. The repressions of Coppe's early life suggest reasons for his later libertinism. So puritanical was his upbringing that thoughts of hell consumed him; he kept a daily register of his sins and "did constantly confess." His tears, he wrote, were his drink; ashes, his meat; and his life, "zeal, devotion, and exceeding strictness." At seventeen he entered Oxford as a "poor scholar" to study for the ministry, but the civil war ended his formal education. An enthusiast for the parliamentary cause, he became a preacher to an army garrison. Drifting from Presbyterianism to Baptism, he continued his search for religious satisfaction. The histrionic powers that Coppe later displayed as a Ranter must have been at his command as an itinerant Baptist preacher, for he claimed to have "dipped" about seven thousand people.

    In 1649, a year that began with the execution of Charles I and ended in the sudden emergence of Ranterism, Coppe underwent a spiritual conversion that was not at all uncommon at the time. He heard terrifying thunderclaps and saw a light as dazzling as the sun and as red as fire; "with joy unspeakable in the spirit, I clapt my hands and cryed out, Amen, Halelujah, Halelujah, Amen." Trembling and sweating, he felt divine grace sweeping over him. "Lord," he shouted, "what wilt thou do with me," and the "eternal glory" in him answered that he would be taken into the everlasting kingdom after first being thrown into "the belly of hell." He was among all the devils, he reported, but "under all this terrour, and amazement, there was a little spark of transcendent, transplendent, unspeakable glory ... triumphing, exulting, and exalting itself," till at last he was the "Eternal Majesty" and heard a voice saying, "The spirits of just men made perfect." It was the antinomian message: a pure or sanctified man can do no evil. After four days and nights of revelations, Coppe received his divine commission: he must go to the great city of London to spread his new gospel. Thus he explained his conversion to Ranterism as a spiritual experience, although by conventional standards of morality and religion Ranterism was obscene, blasphemous, and seditious.

    In London, Coppe preached his antinomian version of the doctrine of the Free Spirit: Christ's death liberated mankind from sin, God dwells within everyone, and all shall be saved, all except perhaps the prosperous and powerful. Coppe's theology was saturated with a hatred of the rich. He assaulted "men and women of the greater rank" in the city streets, ranting and gnashing his teeth at them, while proclaiming that the day of the Lord, the "great Leveller," had come. He embraced the poor and the diseased, and he became a libertine. "Twas usual with him," recorded an Oxonian biographer who knew him, "to preach stark naked many blasphemies and unheard-of Villanies in the Daytime, and in the Night to drink and lye with a wenche, that had been also his hearer, stark naked." He was imprisoned for fourteen weeks, possibly for similar conduct. In London he fell in with Laurence Clarkson and an orgiastic group of Ranters who called themselves "My One Flesh," probably to symbolize their unity with all God's creatures. A 1650 vignette of "Ranters ranting" depicts Coppe, "their Ring-leader," as having drunkenly "bestowed an hours time in belching forth imprecations, curses, and other such like stuffe, as is not fit to be once named among Christians." He was supposed to have retired that night with two of his "she-Disciples." The rumor was that "he commonly lay in bed with two women at a time." The cursing, nudity, adultery, drunkenness, and generally immoral behavior (none of it sinful to Coppe) reflected the Ranter repudiation of Puritan middle-class conventions.

    Coppe's eloquent and cadenced biblical rhetoric was a mix of mystical ravings and social radicalism. Antinomianism (a repudiation of the moral law), pantheism (the doctrine that God dwells within all creatures), and a repudiation of private property suffused Coppe's utterances. In late 1649 he wrote his sensational tract A Fiery Flying Roll [of Thunder] and its successor of the same title. The two tracts purported to be Coppe's witness to a divine warning issued against "all the Great Ones of the Earth." Their dreadful day of judgment was at hand. God would save England with a vengeance. The gospel, according to Coppe, was "I overturn, overturn, overturn." The bishops, lords, and king had had their turn, and the surviving great ones would be next. Although Coppe identified God as "Universal Love," served by "perfect freedom, and pure Libertinisme," the love did not extend to those who could not endure "levelling." "Behold, behold, behold, I the eternall God, the Lord of Hosts, who am that mighty Leveller, am comming (yea even at the doores) to Levell in good earnest ... putting down the mighty from their seats; and exalting them of low degree." God would level riches and bring "parity, equality, community" to avenge the deaths of the army Levellers who had been shot for mutiny. Coppe himself was a pacifist who repudiated "sword levelling, or digging levelling"; rather than fight, he preferred to be drunk "every day of the weeke, and lye with whores." The real sins, he declared to the great ones, were wealth, pomp, and property—and taking the "enslaved ploughmans money from him." Coppe would rather starve than do that, although stealing from the rich was not sin.

Mine eares are filled brim full with cryes of poor prisoners, Newgate, Ludgate cryes (of late) are seldome out of mine ears. Those dolefull cryes, Bread, bread, bread, for the Lords sake, pierce mine eares, and heart, I can no longer forbeare.

Werefore high you apace to all prisons in the Kingdome,

Bow before those poore, nasty louisie, ragged wretches, say to them ... we let you go free, and serve you,

Do this or (as I live saith the Lord), thine eyes (at least) shall be boared out, and thou carried captive in a strange Land.

... undo the heavy burdens, let the oppressed go free, and breake every yoake. Deale thy bread to the hungry, and bring the poore that are cast out (both of houses and Synagogues) to thy house. Cover the naked: Hide not thy self from thine own flesh, from a creeple, a rogue, a begger, he's thine own flesh. From a Whoremonger, a thief, &c. he's flesh of thy flesh, and his theft, and whoredome is flesh of thy flesh also, thine own flesh.

    In an anticlerical passage, Coppe represented God as demanding that branding with the letter "B" for "blasphemy" be ended. The clergy could not judge "what is sinne, what not, what evill, and what not, what blasphemy, and what not." They served God and Jesus for money, and for all their learning could not understand the real meaning of sin: oppressing the people. Coppe reversed orthodox values when he declared his belief that what was called good was evil, "and Evill Good; Light Darknesse, and Darknesse Light; Truth Blasphemy, and Blasphemy Truth." To the pure, all things are pure. Cursing by some was more glorious than praying by others. What God cleansed should not be called unclean.

    The second Fiery Flying Roll warned those who had "many baggs of money" that the Great Leveller would come "as a thief in the night" with sword drawn, and say "deliver your purse, deliver sirrah! deliver or I'll cut thy throat." The rich should turn over their wealth to the cripples, lepers, rogues, thieves, whores, and to all the poor, "who are flesh of thy flesh, and every whit as good as thy self in mine eye." The "fat swine of the earth" would soon "go to the knife," if they did not obey the command to "give, give, give, give up, give up your houses, horses, goods, gold, Lands, give up, account nothing your own, have ALL THINGS common, or els the plague of God will rot and consume all that you have." In other chapters Coppe explained how he had found "unspeakable glory" in the basest things, how he had found God in gypsies and jailbirds ("mine own brethren and sisters, flesh of my flesh, and as good as the greatest Lord in England"), and how the path to salvation lay in abandoning "stinking family duties," biblical laws, and personal possessions. The presence of God within him filled his life with joy and beauty, not to mention "concubines without number." In his final chapters, Coppe returned to the theme that kings, princes, and lords, "the great ones," who pleaded "priviledge and Prerogative from Scripture," must yield to "the poorest Peasants" to fulfill the grand design: "equality, community, and universall love." His closing jeremiad (from James 5:1)—"Howl, howl, ye nobles, howl honourable, howl ye rich men for the miseries that are coming upon you"—revealed Coppe's utopian vision: "For our parts, we that hear the APOSTLE preach, will also have all things in common; neither will we call any thing that we have our own.... Wee'l eat our bread together in singleness of heart, wee'l break bread from house to house." The same thought is in Winstanley.

    Abiezer Coppe was a religious eccentric and a spiritual anarchist, but he was not demented and, judged by his time, was not a capricious sport. Millenarian and mystical traditions reached back into the Middle Ages. The foremost doctrine of Ranterism, that God lives within every creature, was an old heresy bolstered by scriptural evidence. That heresy thrived in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries in most of Europe as the Free Spirit movement, and it cropped out in an entirely different form in Elizabethan England when Dutch and German immigrants imported Hendrik Nicholas's Familist beliefs. Christopher Vitell, a disciple of Nicholas, translated his works into English. The Familists survived royal persecution and the libels of even radical sectarians. Henry Ainsworth, a Separatist, in 1698 said that no one wrote "more blasphemously" than Nicholas; and Edmond Jessop, who despised English Anabaptists, described the Familists as "the most blasphemous and erroneous sect this day in the world." Yet Nicholas explicitly repudiated libertinism and preached that personal righteousness bears witness to a new life, which showed that one has experienced the inward revelation that God or Christ is within one's spirit. Such mystical knowledge led to the Familist belief that regenerated people, in whom Christ dwells, have reached perfection and cannot sin; that belief opened Familists to the antinomian charge. They also invited denunciation by exalting the spirit above Scripture. Anabaptists advocated similar principles, and so did the Behmenists. Others, called Seekers, believing that there was no true church yet, wandered in search of a revelation of God's glory. Even John Murton, the tolerant Baptist leader, condemned Familists and Seekers (although he would not silence them) for advocating the "libertine doctrine" that people need not hear preaching or read the Bible. Gilbert Roulston, who was once a Ranter, designated a particular school of them as Familists or members of the Family of Love, which he traced to a German of Elizabeth's time. Another anti-Ranter writer entitled his tract The Bottomless Pit Smoaking in Familisme.

    Familism influenced Coppe and the Ranters. In 1649, the turning point in the history of Ranterism, four of Nicholas's English books were reprinted. But Ranterism was more directly a product of the civil war of the 1640s and of the revolutionary upheavals that accompanied it. The period was both disruptive and creative. The overthrow of the episcopacy and of their ecclesiastical courts, which had maintained law, order, and status, and helped keep people in subjugation to state and church, snapped religious restraints. People formed "gathered churches" or voluntary congregations and separated from society. They advocated universal grace and took up all sorts of old heresies as if they were new revelations. The inner light in the soul of the individual believer, whatever he believed, became the highest standard of authority in spiritual matters. Judging what was sinful was left to personal conscience, and men were saying that the clergy, with the support of the rulers, had invented sin as a means of suppression. People felt emancipated. They were free from sin and from prosecutions for sin; they were free to form their own congregations, to preach as they pleased, or to choose lay preachers. They felt free to argue against and reject the orthodoxies of the past. In the absence of effective censorship, those who dreamed of new worlds freely expressed themselves. Infinite liberty and utopia seemed within the realm of possibility, especially in religious matters. Next to instinctual needs, religion was still the most important aspect of life—and of death. John Biddle, the Socinian, rationally rejected original sin and eternal damnation, while uneducated people—herdsmen, tinkers, soap makers, and weavers—instinctively came to the same conclusions.

    In 1644 a conservative identified "Antinomians and Familists" as "enemies of civil government, who seek to overthrow the eternall Law of God, on which the civil law is built...." He was saying, in effect, that religious questions contain or mask political and social issues. That inference can also be drawn from a sermon preached before the House of Commons in 1647 by Thomas Case. Case warned that, if liberty were granted to sectaries, people would claim their birthright to be free from parliaments and kings and even rebel against them. "Liberty of conscience, falsely so called," Case added, "may in good time improve itself into liberty of estates and liberty of houses and liberty of wives." Within a year, Levellers mutinied in the army, and in the next year a king was beheaded, while Diggers, Ranters, and others proclaimed that property should be shared in common and that there should be free love. The free exercise of religion, coming almost all at once in the 1640s, after the sudden breakdown of the usual controls, burst forth in a torrent of exotic and eccentric religious opinions, many of which were precursors of Ranterism. And many openly or implicitly expressed political positions.

    In that, nothing was new. When there was a dispute, provoked by Laud, within the Church of England on the placement of the altar, the issue was as much over who should control the church as it was theological. If the altar was at the far end of the church, above the congregation and railed off from them, the people received the sacrament from the priest on their knees before the railing; if the altar was a table within the nave, on a level with the congregation, they could take the sacrament closer to God, seated, and on equal terms with the priest. Presbyterians wanted the elders to select the minister, whereas the Independents said that the whole congregation should choose him: the theological issue pitted ecclesiastical oligarchy against congregational democracy. So did the sectarian demand for lay preachers, especially because the pulpit was a public rostrum for the expression of political and social ideas. Thomas Edwards, the Presbyterian cataloguer of the heresies and blasphemies that infected England in 1646, believed, rightly, that many disorders attributable to wrong opinions and practices derived from "mechanics taking upon them[selves] to preach and baptize, as [did] Smiths, Taylors, Shoo-makers, Peddlars, Weavers," and even women.

    The Calvinist doctrine of predestination was obviously theological but was as surely political in its implications. Sin having corrupted human nature, eternal damnation was the just reward for all mankind. God in His mercy, however, had for His own reasons predestined some people for salvation; they were the elect. Although they could not know they were the saints, their spiritual rigor and material prosperity were a sign, which made them best qualified to govern church and state. But if Christ had died for all mankind and all were saved, then all were equally qualified to govern. Amid the "gangrene" in Protestantism, Edwards reported, was the common doctrine "That by Christs death, all the sins of all the men in the world, Turks, Pagans, as well as Christians committed against the morall Law and first Covenant, are actually pardoned and forgiven, and this is the everlasting Gospel," meaning universal salvation. Edwards listed corollary doctrines that the Ranters would popularize. The Creator was responsible for people's sins and for the "Pravity, Ataxy, Anomy" which is in them. God loves them whether they pray or sin, do good or evil. It could not stand with the goodness of God to damn his own creatures eternally, "nor would he pick and choose" among people in showing mercy, for if He manifested His love to only a few, "it is far from being infinite."

    Two other "errours" in Edwards's catalogue concern Ranterism. One was the argument for religious liberty made by Roger Williams in a book of 1644 which Parliament ordered burned. Some "eminent sectaries" endorsed the argument, Edwards said, and they added that, where conscience was concerned, "the Magistrate may not punish for blasphemies, nor for denying the Scriptures, nor for denying there is a God." The second "errour," in Aesopian language, was "That God the Father did reign under the Law, God the Son under the Gospel, and now God the Father and God the Son are making over the Kingdom to God the holy Ghost, and he shall reign and be poured out upon all flesh." That was remarkably like the message of A Rout, A Rout, the first Ranter tract, which appeared in early 1649. Its author, Joseph Salmon, believed that God had progressively manifested himself: first when he gave the Law to Moses, then when he revealed himself through Jesus, and finally in the present age, when he destroyed the monarchy and was spreading his spirit upon all the people of England. But Parliament and the army, Salmon wrote, had made themselves "as absolute and tyrannicall as ever the King"; the "Grandees," he warned, should watch out, "for the Lord is now comming forth to Rip up your bowels." If the grandees laid down their swords and sought deliverance, they would replace oppression with "a blessed Freedom."

    Salmon wrote shortly after Charles had been beheaded, when the Rump Parliament—the approximately fifty Independents who survived Pride's Purge of the Presbyterians—and the Council of State governed England. For people like Salmon, Clarkson, and Coppe, "the fall of the monarch," as A. L. Morton observed, "was only the first stage in vast changes by which the whole social order would be turned upside down." Radicals versed in the Bible expected that "the world would be turned upside down" (Acts 17:6). England had become a republic; even the House of Lords had been abolished. Yet the country was governed as autocratically as ever. The government represented substantial property owners and the generals of the New Model Army. "We were before ruled by King, Lords, and Commons," said a Leveller leader, "now by a General, A Court Martial, and House of Commons: and we pray you what is the difference?"

    Ranterism probably developed because the difference was so very little, blasting the expectations of many people and leading them back to religious expression as their only consolation—and their only way of venting defiance against everything their rulers stood for. The "tyranny" of the generals and of Commons was a Ranter theme. For a time there had been a reasonable expectation that a New Jerusalem would arise in England. The constitutional radicals, the Levellers under John Lilburne, demanded popular sovereignty, a genuinely democratic government, and civil and religious liberty. The common soldiers of the New Model Army constituted the rank and file of the Leveller movement and of the gathered churches of the sectaries. The civil war seemed to them a revolution signaling the reconstruction of society. William Dell, one of the leading preachers of the army, told his congregation of soldiers, "the power is in you, the people; keep it, part not with it." He said of them, after a victory over royalist forces, "Poor illiterate, mechanic men turned the world upside down." Leveller leaders encouraged the vision that the ordinary people were on the threshold of inheriting the earth. Richard Overton, in his Appeale ... to the ... free people in general, wrote, "I am confident that it must be the poor, the simple and mean things of this earth that must confound the mighty and strong." But the Levellers miscalculated their strength when negotiating with the generals, "the Grandees," for a united front in securing their program from Parliament. The people, a Leveller despairingly wrote, grieved; "they are deceived, their expectations ... frustrated, and their liberty betrayed." A royalist commentator pointed to the reason: "The Grandees and the Levellers can as soon combine as fire and water; the one aim at pure democracy, the others at an oligarchy."

    When the generals rejected the Leveller program, the radicals had no choice but to submit or rebel. Their leaders repudiated the government and the generals in a manifesto calling for the abolition of the Council of State because it was a front for military despotism. The House of Commons condemned that seditious tract as tending to cause mutiny in the army and branded its authors as traitors. The next day, Cromwell arrested Lilburne, Overton, and two others, sending them to the Tower of London on a charge of treason. From the Tower they published further incitements, including the third Agreement of the Free People, the climax of Leveller thought. A week later mutiny broke out in the army, but Cromwell responded with overwhelming force. His defeat of the Levellers at Burford destroyed their military power. By no coincidence, Ranterism soon became prominent. "You have killed the Levellers," Coppe accused the "Great Ones," and "Ye have killed the just." That refrain, like his assault on the rich, was an echo from James 5:6.

    Ranterism was a religious phenomenon among the defeated and disillusioned political left. Politics had failed, pamphleteering had failed, mutiny had failed. Only religion remained. When the Stuart tyrant was beheaded in January 1649, there had been talk about King Jesus succeeding King Charles. Regicide, the defeat at Burford, and the dispersion of the Diggers later the same year were shattering events that provoked a crisis of faith. If the time of deliverance was at hand, millenarian expectations and social radicalism required further revelations. George Fox began his travels throughout England in 1649, proclaiming his "Quaker" message of love and the divinity within all persons. Those who became Fifth Monarchists first insisted in 1649 that the kingdom be turned over to them, to be governed by officers appointed by the power of Christ. Others survived their despair by becoming Ranters.