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The Ranters

The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution

by Christopher Hill
Viking, 353 pp., $8.95

Each generation re-creates the English revolution in its own image. In an age of Parliament and Empire the Victorians admired the morally earnest architects of constitutional liberty—Hampden, Pym, and the makers of the Petition of Right. Even Cromwell, whose relations with Parliament had been continuously unhappy, was paradoxically commemorated by the erection of a statue outside the Palace of Westminster. Later, with the coming of universal suffrage, interest shifted to the more radical figures who emerged in the wake of the Civil War, particularly the Levellers, whose dramatic assertion of universal political rights was revealed in the newly discovered text of the Putney Debates. The Levellers had proclaimed fundamental law as well as democracy, and in the 1930s and 1940s their extensive writings were assiduously edited by American scholars.

Meanwhile the rise of communism had directed attention to the neglected career of the Digger, Gerrard Winstanley, whose followers had in the year of Charles I’s execution established small collectivist colonies to till the soil, and whose doctrines seemed (and still seem) to anticipate much of what was most penetrating in Marxian analysis. Parliamentarians, Levellers, and Diggers have thus together enjoyed most of the historical attention lavished on the thought of the two mid-seventeenth-century decades. The preoccupations of historians are symbolized by three great monuments: S.R. Gardiner’s Constitutional Documents of the Puritan Revolution, C. H. Firth’s edition of The Clarke Papers, and George H. Sabine’s collection of the writings of Winstanley.

Times change, however, and with them historical fashions. An age of long hair, pop music, and sexual freedom can hardly be expected to find its heroes in the grim figures of Pym and Cromwell (even if Cromwell at his daughter’s wedding did allow mixed dancing until five o’clock in the morning). Interest is predictably shifting to the more far-out aspects of the interregnum scene—to the Quakers, Seekers, Ranters, Muggletonians, Fifth Monarchists, and other religious enthusiasts, libertarians, and eccentrics whom previous generations curtly dismissed as the “lunatic fringe.” Already we have had Dr. B. S. Capp’s excellent study, The Fifth Monarchy Men.1 Now in a book of fundamental importance Christopher Hill has brought the hitherto despised Ranters to the fore. He has brilliantly succeeded in demonstrating both their great interest in the history of thought and their uncanny relevance to the contemporary world.

As a study of radical ideas during the Puritan revolution The World Turned Upside Down thus differs from its predecessors in passing quickly over the Levellers and focusing its main attention on the years immediately after the king’s execution in 1649, when the defeat of political democracy appeared fairly certain but when the emergence of a new radical culture still seemed possible. The essence of this “counter-culture” was not so much political as theological. For, in spite of a bewildering variety of individual responses, the Ranters, Diggers, and early Quakers were united in proclaiming a fundamentally new view of man, which involved the repudiation of 1500 years of religious teaching.

Ever since the beginning of Christianity theologians had taught that men were depraved by nature and that there was a conflict between the spirit and the flesh. For Catholics holiness had required asceticism; the body was to be subdued and human love distrusted. To some extent this doctrine was modified during the Reformation. Protestants held that a godly life could be led within the world; the abdications implicit in celibacy and monasticism were not just unnecessary but positively wicked. Yet though Luther and Calvin taught that the goods of the world were to be enjoyed, there was an ambivalence about their attitude. Protestants continued to insist upon the absolute depravity of natural man. Human beings could not hope to save themselves by their own efforts. Only God could make a man elect, and His ways were mysterious: there was “no damned merit about salvation,” as Dr. Hill dryly puts it.

The Christian continued to wage a desperate war against his own nature, knowing that the majority of mankind was destined for hellfire. Since the best cure for lust was labor, the Puritan eased his anxieties about salvation by throwing himself into a life of unrelenting toil. Punctuality, frugality, and the postponement of instinctual gratification were basic to the Protestant ethic. The paradox, of course, was that this sense of human worthlessness proved to be for many men the positive foundation of a life of achievement, of endless striving to demonstrate membership in God’s elect. But for others the fear of damnation and the strain of living with their consciences bred pessimism and suicidal despair. The Puritan clergy, said Thomas Hobbes, “brought young men into desperation and to think themselves damned, because they could not (which no man can, and is contrary to the constitution of nature) behold a delightful object without delight.”

Dr. Hill shows with great clarity how the concept of sin was not merely the buttress of the Protestant ethic but also the foundation of an oppressive political and social order. For it was because men were so depraved by nature that government was necessary to restrain their evil impulses; and it was because the elect were a minority that political power could not be shared by all. The authority of kings, landlords, and clergy was thus founded upon the concept of intrinsic human sinfulness.

Even before the Civil War there had been two separate attempts to lift this theological burden. On the one hand the Arminians played down the theme of human depravity, preferring to stress the potentialities of unaided human reason. But the Arminians were elitist in their social attitudes and uninterested in the emancipation of the masses. On the other hand the teachings of Francis Bacon constituted a deliberate effort to undo the Fall and to create paradise on earth by applying technology and rational improvement to the relief of man’s estate. But Bacon’s Promethean aspirations were, as we know, to meet their nemesis in a world of pollution, over-population, and technological horror. Besides, there was a coldness about Baconian utilitarianism, an apparent suppression of the human affections: “They do best who, if they cannot but admit love, yet make it keep quarter, and sever it wholly from their serious affairs and actions of life” (Bacon, Of Love).

The great attraction of Christopher Hill’s radicals is that they combined an optimistic view of man’s potential with a frank acceptance of the body, while avoiding both the elitism of the Arminians and the desiccation of the Baconians. Theirs was to be a world in which rational improvement could be combined with sensuous enjoyment, liberation from sin with social democracy. Of course, to portray them all in this way would be to see undue method in their madness. Ranterism was a permissive creed and it attracted its fair share of cranks and impostors. But at the core of the movement lay doctrines of great profundity.

What the Ranters did was to take Calvinism to its logical conclusion. For if a man was predestined to be saved then how could he sin? “He that is assured of his election,” taught one Elizabethan cleric, “may do any evil that he will.” The conviction that the regenerate were exempt from the moral law was an old one. It went back at least to the twelfth-century abbot Joachim of Fiore, who had held out the prospect of a new age of the Spirit, when men would be emancipated from the letter of the Bible. It was to be found among the German Brethren of the Free Spirit, and in the sixteenth century it came to England via the Familists, later flourishing among the Grindletonians, the Jacobean Yorkshire sect. It reached its culmination among the group of Ranters who were active between 1649 and 1651, and who openly repudiated what Milton called “the greatest burden in the world…superstition…of imaginary and scarecrow sins.”

The Ranters held that Christ died for all and that universal salvation was possible. Since human beings were perfectible there was no need to hate the body, for it was itself a manifestation of God. They thus came to be associated with reckless indulgence of the senses. They expressed their liberation from the now superseded Biblical Law by drinking, smoking, swearing, and free love. “There is no such act as drunkenness, adultery, and theft in God,” held Lawrence Clarkson. “What act soever is done by thee in light and love is light and lovely, though it be that act called adultery.”

The striking feature of this antinomianism of the Civil War sects is that it so often led to materialistic pantheism and even to total secularism. For the Ranters, heaven and hell were mere states of mind and there was no God but nature. “God,” wrote Joseph Salmon, “is that pure and perfect being in whom we all are, move and live; that secret blood, breath and life, that silently courseth through the hidden veins and close arteries of the whole creation.” Since God was everywhere there was no difference between sacred and profane. Human reason was itself a manifestation of God; hence the position of a man like Edmund Hickhorngill, who propounded, it was said, “no other rule to himself but his reason, which if a man sin not against, he shall be happy enough.” Christopher Hill shows how for Gerrard Winstanley “God and Reason became one; the Christ within our hearts preached secularism.”

To trace the origins of infidelity to the most enthusiastic of the religious sects would be to propound an altogether novel genealogy for the Enlightenment. But Dr. Hill does not exaggerate the modernity of these early radicals. They attempted to abolish external constraints in favor of an internal, self-imposed morality. But, as he points out, their escape route from theology was itself theological. Nevertheless, their rejection of absolute depravity carried with it dramatic political and social implications. Having abolished sin, the sects could afford to be egalitarian and democratic. They could dispense with the clergy, who had lived “by telling people of their sins.”

They could even repudiate the Protestant ethic. For Ranters and Diggers frugality ceased to be a virtue. “The greatest sin against universal love,” thought Winstanley, was “for a man to lock up the treasuries of the earth in chests and houses, and suffer it to rust or moulder, while others starve for want to whom it belongs—and it belongs to all.” As sexual libertarians the Ranters attacked the monogamous family, preaching polygamy and divorce. Abiezer Coppe claimed that he could “kiss and hug ladies, and love my neighbour’s wife as myself, without sin.” “There’s no heaven but women,” declared Thomas Webbe, “nor no hell save marriage.”

Analogies with the contemporary scene go beyond the Ranters’ penchant for the love-in. The sects allowed women to preach and even to divorce themselves from ungodly husbands. They appealed to the young and justified the rights of sons against fathers. They favored the use of tobacco and alcohol to heighten spiritual vision. They accepted eccentric behavior, ritual nudism, and a cult of “foolishness for Christ.” Dr. Hill sees a surrealist quality in the writings of Abiezer Coppe. Even the “occult explosion” is paralleled by the taste in the 1650s for astrology and hermetic magic and the aversion to the rigors of disciplined study. Dr. Hill indeed credits the sectarians with an awareness of the need for “a dialectical element in scientific thinking,” which the coming of the mechanical philosophy was to extinguish.

For a moment the reader rubs his eyes at the extent of Dr. Hill’s enthusiasm for this radical program. It was, he says, “a heroic effort to proclaim Dionysus in a world from which he was being driven, to reassert the freedom of the human body and of sexual relations against the mind-forged manacles which were being imposed.” We are reminded of Yeats’s bald-headed scholars annotating the erotic dreams of Roman youth:

Lord what would they say
Did their Catullus walk that way?

But it would be surprising if the Master of Balliol, whose unrelenting application has produced a major historical work every other year for the last decade, were really repudiating the whole of the Protestant ethic. In fact Dr. Hill, though admiring the Ranters for their liberating tendencies, condemns them for their fecklessness and lack of organization. “Sexual promiscuity broke the peace in families and led to idleness,” he reminds us, “to a Hippie-like existence for which others had to pay by labour. It also led to venereal disease.”

The real heroes of The World Turned Upside Down are not the Ranters but the Diggers, above all Winstanley, the greatest imaginative genius produced by the revolution, author of “the one possible democratic solution which was not merely backward-looking,” the communal cultivation of the commons. Winstanley, in his mature phase at least, was no anarchist. He believed in magistrates and punishments. He respected science and he wanted universal education. A pantheist who interpreted the Bible allegorically, he saw the Fall not as a historical event but as a drama reenacted in every individual, born innocent, but subjected to the pressures of a corrupt, propertied society.

There is no man or woman needs to go to Rome nor to hell below ground, as some talk, to find the Pope, Devil, Beast or power of darkness; neither to go up into heaven above the skies to find Christ the word of life. For both these powers are to be felt within a man, fighting against each other.

Only the erection of a classless society on earth could create a new heaven. This was how Winstanley solved the old problem of labor which had lain at the heart of the Protestant ethic. For when the wage relationship had been ended then work would become a pleasure.

The influence of both Diggers and Ranters was short-lived. In a remarkable chapter Dr. Hill shows how even before the Restoration Ranterism had been taken over and disciplined by the Quakers. With the triumph of George Fox over James Nayler (Trotsky to the former’s Lenin?) the sense of sin was restored to the Quaker movement. With the return of Charles II and an authoritarian political order the doctrine of sin once again became the buttress for property, with heaven and hell the essential sanctions for the behavior of the lower classes. The sects turned quietist and melted into the middle-class culture of the day. Rational science reached its culmination in the writings of Newton and Locke. But the Dionysian element had been lost. It became a “world in which poets went mad, in which Locke was afraid of music and poetry, and Newton had secret irrational thoughts which he dared not publish.”

In some areas Ranterism must have survived. A. L. Morton has shown how its doctrines influenced William Blake2 and we know that the early Methodist preachers frequently came up against “ranters” whose beliefs and behavior resembled those of their Commonwealth predecessors. But the real problem is to account for their emergence in the first place. Christopher Hill points to the breakdown of censorship and clerical control which enabled an underground tradition of lower-class skepticism to come into the open. He reminds us of the millennial expectations generated by the mobilization of the masses in the extraordinary New Model Army, with its preachers and elected representatives. He suggests that Ranterism derived its recruits from the masterless vagrants who tramped the roads of England and the undisciplined inhabitants of the forest and heathland areas of the North and West.

Yet his genealogy of the movement remains ambiguous. For if it “gave ideological form and coherent expression to practices which had long been common among vagabonds, squatter-cottagers, and the in-between category of migratory craftsmen,” it was also “an extension downwards of the attitudes of the traditional leisured class—dislike of labour, sexual promiscuity, swearing.”

To say that more remains to be discovered about the origins of this remarkable creed is not to criticize The World Turned Upside Down. It has many claims to be regarded as Christopher Hill’s best book to date. It reveals its author’s phenomenal grasp of the printed literature of the period and it is written in his usual plain style, direct, concise, even laconic. Sometimes the sentences are laid end to end like logs, rather as in Bacon’s Essays, and the effect is of similar aphoristic density. The work is less a compact monograph than an open-ended and wide-ranging survey, posing many questions to be answered and throwing out many ideas to be challenged. Wry humor and a strong sense of the contemporary immediacy of its message distinguish this book from much academic writing. So does the generosity of the author’s references to the work of other scholars, particularly younger ones. For Dr. Hill bears no resemblance to those Ottoman princes who felt it necessary to slaughter all their brothers in order to make their throne secure.

  1. 1

    Rowman & Littlefield, 1972.

  2. 2

    In The Everlasting Gospel (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1958). Mr. Morton’s The World of the Ranters (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1970) has hitherto been the only serious discussion of Ranterism itself.

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