Three Scenes from Baptist History – The First Fifty Years, 1612-1662: The Puritan Revolution & The Civil Wars.

Two more scenes from Rev. Arthur J Chandler’s unpublished plays on Baptist History, featuring Thomas Helwys and Col. John Hutchinson, plus a scene from David Starsmeare’s play, ‘Diggers: The Story of a Commune’, featuring Gerrard Winstanley.

Background – The First English Puritans & Exile in the Netherlands:

The Elizabethan puritans wanted to reform the church from within, to make it more like Jean Calvin‘s church in Geneva, as part of a ‘Corpus Christianum’, a Christian state. They simply wanted to purify the national church from all the ceremonial remnants, vestiges and vestments of Roman Catholicism. They also questioned whether there was any biblical basis for the authority of bishops over the Church. Some wanted to replace them with a system of elders and synods, with stricter discipline. This became known as Presbyterianism. Elizabeth I resisted these changes and James I hated Puritans, threatening to ‘harry them out of the land’ if they would not ‘conform’. While many compromised uneasily within the state Church, they were marginalised and very much on the defensive. Others eventually left of their own accord and small groups of ‘separatists’ grew up alongside the main Puritan group. They had formed their own independent congregation at Norwich in 1581, withdrawing completely from the Anglican Church, which they believed to be so polluted it could not be cleansed from within. They were led by Robert Browne (1550-1633), who became their pastor, so they became known as ‘Brownists’. Robert Harrison (d. 1585) was the ‘teacher’ within the church. The government of their chapel was based on a ‘covenant’, marking the beginning of the English Independent or ‘Congregationalist’ movement.

The ‘Pilgrims’ setting sail from Dartmouth: one group set out from Leiden in the Netherlands on the ‘Speedwell’.

They were persecuted by the authorities, the English government and the bishops, and driven abroad to the Netherlands. The Dutch were tolerant of religious nonconformity and allowed refugee status and freedom of worship to the English independents. In this way, the Netherlands played an important part in the life of English dissenters, who were often forced to find refuge abroad. Browne and Harrison took their small church to Middelburg, in Zeeland, where it survived for a few years. It survived for a few years but Brown later returned to England, where he eventually renounced his separation and resumed a ministry in the Church of England. Other leaders took over in the separatist movement, including John Robinson (c. 1576-1625) who, after living in Leiden, eventually emigrated to New England among the ‘Pilgrim Fathers’ via Plymouth, in 1621.

Scene One – Thomas Helwys in Amsterdam, 1612:

Another group, in Amsterdam, was led by John Smyth, who had been a fellow of Christ’s College, Cambridge. In 1608, he became convinced that no surviving church possessed the true ordinances, and baptised first himself and then the rest of his congregation. As a separatist group, they then fled from the harsh rule of James I and went into exile in Amsterdam rather than face the harsh penalties that threatened them at home in England. After his death in 1612, one of his associates, Thomas Helwys, led back to England a group that had split from Smyth’s former congregation.

Scene from an untitled typescript play by Rev. Arthur J Chandler (c. 1965), pastor of Bearwood Baptist Church, Smethwick, West Birmingham:

Mr and Mrs Thomas Helwys’ Living Room in Amsterdam, 1612. Doors right and left to the rear of the stage. Chairs have been arranged in rows facing left to accommodate nine or ten people. Mrs Helwys, duster in hand, is putting finishing touches to the room. There is a small table to the left, with a chair behind it. Enter, right, a man arriving early.

First Man: Good evening, Mistress Helwys.

Mrs Helwys: Good even’ to you.

First man: I see we make you busy with our meeting here tonight.

Mrs Helwys (Pleasantly): That’s nothing. I was but setting the chairs.

(Enter, right, Helwys. He passes through the room with MS in hand, obviously preoccupied. Mrs H. watches him, puzzled and affectionately concerned. He exits left. The man also watches, and then lays his coat and hat down.)

First Man (Chattily): I hear there is important business to discuss tonight. ‘Twas only by the providence of God I was able to be back in Amsterdam.

Mrs H: Yes, I shall be glad when he has got it off his mind (still with her eyes on the door through which Helwys has passed).

First Man: Who? Master Helwys?

Mrs H: He has been restless for days, sleeping little and eating scarcely at all. All day long he works in his study and sometimes far into the night.

First Man: It will be his writing that he works at so feverishly. He was ever so when inspiration was upon him.

Mrs H (doubtfully): Maybe. But there is something more…

First Man: Is there something troubling him, think you?

Mrs Helwys: Most assuredly there is.

First Man: Then tonight he means to share it with us, and that will lessen his burden.

Mrs Helwys (deliberately): No, I think he has made up his mind: I don’t know what about. Today he has been calmer. Only… he walks around with his mind far away. save sometimes when he has looked at me… as though he would tell me something but cannot.

First Man: That is strange, for with you he has shared all his thoughts. What can it be?

Mrs Helwys: I know not. I only fear. (Enter JOHN MURTON, right)

Murton: Good evening, Mrs Helwys. I hoped to come earlier but was detained. May I go to Master Helwys?

Mrs Helwys: Yes, go in. He will be glad to see you.

(Voices outside, right, as of others arriving. Mrs Helwys, after a hurried survey of the room, goes out, to return later with wearing a bonnet and mittens for the meeting. She sits at the rear, facing the audience. Church members arrive in twos and threes and greet one another. There are several women among them. Men remove hats and coats. Women sit demurely. After a few moments, Murton and Helwys enter together. Murton is tense and solemn. They appear to discuss how they shall proceed. Helwys takes the floor. There is silence. Several members bow slightly forward, expecting prayer. Mrs Helwys is tense, nerving herself for what is coming.)

Thomas Helwys: Before we pray, I want you to know all that is in my mind, that we may pray for in fuller fellowship. Some of you know that for a long time I have been concerned about our witness here. I have wondered if it had not been better for us to have remained in England, for when has God decreed that men should fly from persecutions? I, at any rate, must go back, my friends.

All: Go back?!

Helwys: Aye – go back. Our time in this land has not been wasted, for we have here come to a fuller understanding of our Master’s will. And we have been richly blessed in the water of Believer’s Baptism. But the word has now come for us to return. There is much need for faithful witnesses in our own land. To us have been revealed new truths about our Christian faith and worship, and we cannot – dare not – keep them to ourselves. We must witness to them before our own people. If need be, we must suffer for them too. Murton is of like mind and will come with me.

First Man: But you are a marked man. They will throw you into prison.

Helwys: What if they do and it is God’s will? (turning to his wife) There, too, I may witness to my faith. My wife has done so before me, and I pray that I may not be afraid if my time should come. (At the mention of his wife several heads nod gravely and there are murmurs of admiration.)

Second Man (in dismayed tones): But your writings! What of those? Given though we have been few in number here, your writings have reached many in England.

Helwys (He shows MS): What good are my writings if I am not faithful I’m my living? That which I have recently written – it is finished – I must take it myself and present it to King James.

All: To the King?!

Helwys: Yes, it is a plea for religious liberty for all peaceable citizens among his subjects – whether they be Papists or Separatists, or of whatever connection. (They bow their heads, Mrs Helwys bows her head in prayer, her face grimly set to keep back her tears.)

In TEMPORAL matters the King’s power is supreme. We acknowledge it and confess ourselves his faithful subjects. (murmurs of assent). But in SPIRITUAL matters no man is our master save God alone. (louder murmurs of assent). Oh, that I could move the King! Let us pray…


Spitalfields, London:


“They came back, greatly daring, into certain trouble and persecution. They settled as the First Baptist Church in Spitalfields, London, Thomas Helwys’s latest treatise having set forth their Declaration of Faith to the world. Helwys was soon thrown into prison and there he died some years later. John Murton carried on the gallant fight. He addressed to Parliament a passionate plan for religious toleration for all. He was in Newgate Prison at the time, yet he contrived to write it, and to smuggle it out of prison.”

The First English Baptists:

Helwys’ group founded the first openly ‘Baptist’ church in England, the General or Arminian Baptist Congregation at Spitalfields in London, in 1612. Arminianism was a rejection of Calvinist ideas of predestination and ‘God’s Elect’, and an affirmation of the belief that God’s grace is available to all. Henry Bullinger, a mid-sixteenth-century divine popular with puritans wrote that:

The simpler sort are greatly tempted and exceedingly troubled with the question of election. For the devil goeth about to throw into their minds the hate of God, as though he envied us our salvation, and had appointed and ordained us to death.

H. Bullinger, (in Parker Soc., 1849-52), Decades, p. 187.

Thomas Helwys himself had agreed in 1611 that the doctrine of predestination…

… makes some despair, as thinking there is no grace for them and that God hath decreed their destruction. And it makes others deeply careless, holding that if God have decreed they shall be saved then they shall be saved, and if God hath decreed they shall be damned they shall be damned.

Quoted by A. C. Underwood (1947), A History of the English Baptists, p. 144.

In the background, there is a depiction of his execution.

Baptists practised believers’ baptism as a sign of their belief in universal grace and the exercise of free will. From their earliest days, they viewed ‘dipping’ (total immersion) as an outward symbol of an inward grace. By rejecting infant baptism, they directly challenged the right of the Church of England to control the lives of all their parishioners from the cradle to the grave. Until the 1630s, when Charles I and Archbishop Laud formed their fateful partnership, however, mainstream puritans felt no need to consider leaving England, for they felt tolerably at home in its established church. By 1638, there were also Calvinists in London who practised believers’ baptism, and these became known as ‘Particular Baptists‘. They had grown out of the first independent congregations in the capital, and their understanding of the church as a gathered community led to their profession that only the baptism of believers fitted such a view. It is not known exactly when they adopted full Baptist views. What we do know is that they were among the first of the ‘sects’ to oppose tithes and ‘Hireling preachers’. The extent to which the early Baptists were influenced by the European ideas and the theology of the Radical Reformation and the beliefs of the Anabaptists is still hotly contested. Helwys’ group had been much influenced by the Dutch Mennonites, but both the General and Particular Baptist churches developed out of a conscientious search for the true pattern of the apostolic church of the New Testament and the first century, forming the only pattern of church organisation for all successive generations. Unlike the Anabaptists and Mennonites, however, and like the Quakers at the time of the Civil Wars, the English and Welsh Baptists were not pacifists in the sense of rejecting participation in all warfare.

These youthful Baptist churches were hurled into the debate, current in the seventeenth century, on the relationship between church and state. They championed their own particular answers to that controversy at great personal cost. They also soon became involved, to varying degrees, in the millenarian speculations of the mid-seventeenth century. Like many others, the Baptists eagerly thumbed through the eschatological passages of the books of Daniel and Revelation, seeking the signs of the times and looking for guidance about proper Christian obedience. In his seminal (1972) work, The World Turned Upside Down, Christopher Hill gives a ‘worm’s eye view’ of the English Civil War, in which he ‘visited’ the various religious sects of the time, of which the Baptists and Quakers, as we know, with the benefit of hindsight, would survive and become dissenting denominations. As a consequence, we tend to impose outlines that are far too well defined on the early history of English sects and to read back later beliefs into the 1640s and ’50s. Hill is, perhaps, somewhat guilty of this himself.

The conflict between Parliament and the King was complemented by a conflict between ‘Presbyterians’ and ‘Independents’ on the side of Parliament. Political ‘Independents’ were those who thought, like Oliver Cromwell, that there was no point in fighting unless you were determined to win. The ‘Presbyterian’ grandees, however, who were strong in the House of Lords and among the gentry and ruling oligarchies in London and other trading towns, were anxious to reach a compromise with the King, if he would only accept their terms. But Charles’s obduracy gradually strengthened the hand of the win-the-war party whose support came from ‘the middling sort’, the lesser gentry, yeomen and artisans. Cromwell’s policy of promoting by merit among the troops under his command those who, though not gentlemen, had ‘the root of the matter in them’, and were therefore motivated by their faith eventually led to the creation of the New Model Army, officered by men who were competent military leaders with a determination to win. Religious toleration was the natural accompaniment of this approach to men outside the ruling landowning hierarchies.

Before 1640 nearly all Englishmen and Welshmen other than ‘recusant’ Catholics were, at least on the surface, members of the Church of England, having been baptised as infants. They were liable to be punished in its ‘spiritual’ courts for a wide variety of ‘sins’, including working on one of the innumerable saints’ days that divided up the agricultural calendar. They had to pay tithes, ten per cent of their income, to maintain the parson of their parish, in whose selection they had no say, and were punished (before 1650) for not attending Sunday services in their local parish church. The clergy were expected to read government circulars from the pulpit and were told which subjects not to preach on. For King Charles, control over the Church was therefore as important as control over the armed forces. Many men and women bitterly resented this apparatus and atmosphere of coercion in matters of conscience, but if they stayed away from the church and met in their own houses for worship and discussion, this was also punishable in the church courts. Apart from the many thousands who emigrated to the Netherlands and New England, many others, especially poorer dissenters, met in underground separatist congregations, which, as the political crisis deepened, became revolutionary cells. Religion and politics thus became inextricably intertwined.

Then, in 1640, the church hierarchy effectively collapsed during the meeting of the Long Parliament. Separatist congregations came up from underground and met openly, electing or ‘calling’ their own ministers, rejecting the state church and its parochial clergy. Toleration, therefore, became a social and political issue as well as a religious one. If men and women of the ‘meaner sort’ were to meet together in their own congregations, unsupervised by university-educated clergymen, for religious discourse, this would inevitably lead to the discussion of political subjects as well. Moreover, if lay people were to be permitted to preach, it was unlikely that their audiences would want to go on paying tithes to maintain parish ministers they did not want to hear. Eventually, there would be no state church to tell people what to think, and no livings for its clergy. So, for the Anglican establishment, behind ‘Toleration’ lurked the abolition of the traditional means of social control and an attack on property. Yet Oliver Cromwell and the ‘Independents’ supported it, many at least on genuinely conscientious grounds. Their need for a wide mass basis of support in order to defeat the King enabled their views to triumph.

Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector, from a miniature.

In the decade from 1643 to 1653, Hill suggested, there was a great overturning, questioning, revaluing, of everything in England, in which old institutions, old beliefs, old values came into question. The following scene demonstrates how this radical mood affected every level of society, from the gentry downwards.

Scene Two: Colonel John & Lucy Hutchinson in Nottingham, 1643.

Col. John Hutchinson

In a scene from Rev. Arthur J. Chandler’s play, Vignettes of Colonel Hutchinson, John and Lucy Hutchinson (see my separate, previous article on them) are reading books and pamphlets confiscated from a Baptist group that has been meeting at the Cannoniers’ room at Nottingham Castle, where Colonel Hutchinson was Governor in 1643.

They are waiting to discuss the baptism of their fourth child with a Presbyterian Minister:

“Lucy: I don’t know whether Mr Foxcraft will have anything more to say, but I really feel that these Baptists are right on the question of Baptism.

John Hutchinson: I agree. Having read these books and papers I found in the cannoniers room, I find it most difficult to controvert the arguments they have brought forward. I am especially impressed by this book by Tombes, one of their divines. If they’re right and we accept their views, one thing is clear.

Lucy: You mean about the baby?

JH: Yes. If we are convinced that the baptism of infants is not in accordance with the teaching of Christ and His apostles, we should not have him baptised.

Lucy: That is true.

(Foxcraft, a Presbyterian Minister is shown in by Thomas)

Oh, come in Mr Foxcraft, we have been expecting you.

Fox.: Thank you, Mrs Hutchinson, thank you, Colonel. Do you wish to discuss the matter of baptism with me a little further?

JH: We do, Mr Foxcraft. You know what we have begun to feel in the matter.

Fox.: Yes, Colonel Hutchinson. You seem convinced that this writer, John Tombes is right, though as a Minister of the Presbyterian order, I find it difficult to agree.

JH: The arguments seem very sound to me, Mr Foxcraft. As I told you I found this book and other literature being used by the soldiers who met in the cannonier’s room. We have studied it carefully and are aware of the opinion that Tombes is right.

Lucy: I’ve spent hours comparing these writings with the Scriptures and feel sure the author is right. We should not baptise an infant child.

Fox.: And pray when should a child be baptised then, Mistress Hutchinson?

Lucy: When he has freely made his decision to follow our Lord, Mr Foxcraft, then, contends Tombes, the sacrament becomes effective. If this teaching is true we should not have our newborn infant baptised. Yet, on the other hand, it is right that we should hear what learnéd and godly Ministers who think otherwise have to say.

JH: I am said to have a little more learning than is becoming a gentleman. Peterhouse taught me a great deal. I attended their Chapel constantly, though their stretching of superstition to idolatry did not escape my notice. Lincoln’s Inn further trained my mind to think logically. I have brought what ability I have to my study the subject since these books came into my possession. We have discussed this subject with other clergymen, Mr Foxcraft. Now, pray, what is your opinion? Should this youngest of our children be baptised as the rest of our children were?

Fox.: Most certainly, he should, Colonel Hutchinson. A gentleman in your position should set a public example in these matters.

JH: And how would you defend this practice, Mr Foxcraft, in view of what we have read in the Scriptures?

Fox.: It has been the practice of the Church to baptise infants from the earliest days, Colonel Hutchinson. As early as the second century, Iranaeus, among the Church fathers, refers to it. It is the Church’s buckler of federal holiness. You should in no wise let it go.

Lucy: But, reverend sir, is it not true that even in the fourth century, infant baptism was the exception rather than the rule? And, may we not also go back earlier even than the second century and examine the practices of the Church in the first century recorded in the writings of the Apostles? It is not at all clear to me that an infant should be baptised. Indeed, it is obscure and mysterious.

Fox.: Mistress Hutchinson, however dark and mysterious it may seem to you, I counsel you to conform to the general practice of other Christians and let the baptism take place.

JH: Would you counsel a man to perform an act against what he believes in his heart to be right? (Foxcraft is silent for a time)

Lucy: Before you answer, Mr Foxcraft, may I add another word? You were present a few days ago when all the Ministers from the town dined with us and we discussed this matter with them. The Colonel explained his doubts and you heard their answers.

JH: They also said that the baptism of infants had been the practice of the Church since primitive times and that I should hesitate before setting aside that position with respect to the children of believing parents to which, it may be, the Holy Spirit has led the Church, and that I should conform to it. Now if I consider that this argument is overthrown, what do you advise me to do?

(Foxcraft is silent again, then turns around again.)

Fox.: Colonel Hutchinson, Mistress Hutchinson, I can say only this. If you are not convinced of the warrant of the practice of infant baptism from the Word, you are committing a sin if you proceed with it. You, as I, must do what you believe to be right.

JH: Then this child shall not be baptised until he seeks this sacrament of his own accord. But hear me further, Mr Foxcraft, we shall not retract one iota of our public benevolence and civilities among those who do not hold these views, nor shall we stay away from public worship within the Castle and City.

Fox.: May He who is our Guide lead you into all righteousness and truth.

… (Exit Lucy)...

Baptists, Independents & Levellers in the New Model Army and the Commonwealth:

Streeter’s plan of the Battle of Naseby, 1645. Col. Pickering’s Regiment was at the front and centre of the Parliamentarian Infantry lines (bottom).

The victorious New Model Army of Fairfax and Cromwell, formed by parliamentary order in 1645, held religious opinions which largely differed from those of the Presbyterian-dominated Parliament. Independents, including Congregationalists and Baptists, were dominant both in the leadership of the army and especially among the rank and file. For example, Daniel Axtell had been a Lieutenant in Essex’s army and joined Col. John Pickering’s Regiment as the first captain in March 1644. He was one of a number of Baptists, including, including John Lilburne and Richard Overton, the Leveller leaders, of humble and obscure origins who rose to positions of influence in and through the New Model Army. By the end of the first civil war in 1646, toleration existed in fact, if not in theory, guaranteed by the Army, which was in no mood to stand any ‘nonsense’ from the ‘Presbyterian’ majority in the House of Commons. Puritan preachers had called on soldiers to fight against the Antichrist, a vague symbol of all that was oppressive and tyrannical in the old order. Millennarian hopes for a reconstruction of society to benefit the poor and lowly were in the air. As early as 1644, rank-and-file Parliamentarian soldiers had asked a horrified royalist divine about ‘the Whore of Babylon’:

What do you know but that this is the time of her ruin, and that we are the men that must help to pull her down?

E. Symmons (1644), Scripture Vindicated.

By the Antichrist or ‘the Whore of Babylon’ the Puritan preachers were referring to the Pope or bishops: others were subsequently to apply the terms to the royalists more generally, then to the Presbyterians and finally to Oliver Cromwell himself; it was a widely extendable phrase. In 1647, Parliament ordered the Army to disband, without even providing for full payment of arrears of wages due and without producing any of the social and political reforms which the troops had expected. The rank-and-file revolted and, after a period of hesitation, most of their officers supported them. An Army Council was set up in which officers and elected representatives of the ordinary soldiery – ‘Agitators’ – sat side-by-side. It was ‘Major’ Axtell and two other ‘agitators’ who prepared a statement of the grievances of what by then had become Hewson’s regiment. The Lieutenant-Colonel, John Jubbes, another religious radical, represented the regiment at what became known as ‘the Putney Debates’ in the late autumn of 1647. Twenty officers and ordinary soldiers from the regiment also signed a letter setting out the political agenda of the Levellers. Colonel John Hewson was himself of humble origins, a sometime honest shoemaker in Westminster, who had joined the Earl of Essex’s regiment as a Captain at the start of the Civil War. He was known as an arch-radical and religious zealot but held a very different view of the Levellers than many of his officers and men. In February 1648, following a soldier petition to Fairfax, Hewson expressed a typically disciplinarian view when he commented:

“We have had trial enough of Civil courts, we can hang twenty before they will hang one.”

D Wolfe (1944), Leveller Manifestoes of the Puritan Revolution.

In his view, Hewson was very close to Cromwell’s justifications of his forceful putting down of the Leveller Rising at Burford a year later. Perhaps dismayed by his Colonel’s remarks, John Jubbes left the regiment shortly afterwards to join a group of radical pacifists in London. He was replaced as Lieutenant Colonel by Daniel Axtell, who then commanded the guard at King Charles I’s execution. Although as an MP, John Hewson signed the King’s death warrant, as a member of the Council of State, he later opposed Cromwell’s usurpation, continuing to do so from within the Protectorate after others had resigned. He also remained tolerant of religious radicals like the ex-Quartermaster and Quaker, James Nayler, when he appeared before parliament on a charge of blasphemy in 1656.

As an unrepentant regicide and republican, Daniel Axtell subsequently threw in his lot with General Lambert, in one last desperate attempt to reimpose the rule of the Major Generals, but in April 1660, Lambert’s forces were routed by Axtell’s former regiment at Daventry in Northants. Axtell himself escaped the battlefield, but was later captured and eventually executed as a regicide. Other Baptists had long since left the Army to plant churches in different parts of England and Wales. Thomas Collier, a former army chaplain, established a Baptist congregation in the Taunton area. Thomas Edwards, the presbyterian author and publisher, commented that:

“Truly ’tis a sad thing that that in all the towns and cities (for the most part) taken by the parliament’s forces, this should be the fruit of it, that errors and heresies should abound there, and that sectaries of all sorts get places of profit and power.”

Edwards, Gangrena, (1646).

In this struggle for positions of influence, the New Model Army, as a professional standing army that was difficult to disband, had been ‘on the spot’: Parliament and the Presbyterian clergy were far away. It was in vain that Herbert Palmer in 1646 urged the House of Commons to fill the deserted pulpits in the North, saying that Churches… will be your strongest castles if you furnish them with ministers. He also pointed out that larger maintenance payments were necessary to persuade such ‘spiritual commanders’ to fight the Lord’s battle in the North. One of Mercurius Politicus‘s correspondents was still saying in November 1650 that, in the North, a mission of presbyterian ministers would do as much good service to the state as a regiment of soldiers in a shire.

Under the Commonwealth and Protectorate, an established church was permitted to continue, but allowed Presbyterians, Independents and Baptists to act as ministers in it, according to the choices of the individual parishes. When a parish living became vacant, an eclectic body of ‘triers’ was formed in order to appoint a new minister, comprising laymen as well as clergy and Presbyterians, Independents and Baptists fairly equally represented. The triers were not empowered to impose any doctrinal test, but to satisfy themselves of three things: that the ‘presentee’ was well-grounded in the essentials of the Christian faith, that he was competent to preach and that his moral life was above reproach. Those dissenters who wanted to continue to worship apart from the national church were permitted to do so, as long as they didn’t disturb the peace. Some Baptists accepted office in the state church, but the majority chose to continue independently.

Samuel Fisher & Baptists Beliefs:

If ministers were dependent on the voluntary contributions of their congregations, as was made explicit by the church covenant in Independent churches, they would also have to reflect the theological and political outlook of these congregations, and so the church as an instrument for imposing and maintaining a consistent outlook would cease to exist. In the even more democratic churches of Baptists and other sectaries, the distinction between clergy and laity ceased to exist. The fundamental Baptist principle of believer’s baptism meant that each individual must choose or be chosen by a congregation after he had reached ‘the years of discretion’: it too disrupted the idea of a national church. As Samuel Fisher wrote in his Baptist days:

“Once give over Christening the whole parish infancy, and then farewell that parish posture which the Pope set up in all Christendom some six hundred years ago, yea then down falls the parochial-church-steeple-house, priesthood, pay and all. Amen, so be it.”

S. Fisher, Christianismus Redivivus, Christendom Both unchrist’ned and new-christ’ned (1655), p. 201.

Samuel Fisher was the son of a hatter from Northampton, educated at Trinity College and the puritan New Inn Hall, Oxford. Although a lecturer in Kent in the 1630s, where he underwent Presbyterian ordination in 1643, he resigned his living when he became a Baptist. A pastor to the congregation in Ashford, he maintained himself by farming, before becoming a Quaker in 1654. He died of the plague in 1665. In his Baptist period, Fisher published a lengthy defence of ‘dipping’ as against ‘sprinkling’ in which he wrote in a distinct style, using alliterative abbreviations, e.g. PPP for Pope, Prelates, Presbyters (or sometimes Priests) and called on the latter to depart from that papistical posture of parish churches and pastoral relation to such as are not sheep.

Apart from his advocacy of believer’s baptism, what is most interesting about Fisher’s doctrines is his application of them to Biblical criticism. Protestants, both in Britain and on the Continent, thought that all would be unity itself among them once they turned from the traditions of the Church to the text of the Bible: but among the reformed clergy, the Bible increased rather than diminished conflict. Fisher claimed that dark minds diving into the scriptures, divine lies enough out of it to set whole countries on fire. … till men turn to the light and Word within, there would be no peace. This thinking was very similar to that developed by Baruch (later Benedict de) Spinoza, who was born in what is now the Netherlands, in 1632, of Portuguese Jewish (Sephardic) descent. He lived much of his life in Amsterdam, where he was eventually expelled from the synagogue for his unorthodox beliefs. Notoriously, he suggested that the Pentateuch was written not by Moses but by Ezra. He is generally thought of as one of the first rationalists of the period, and thus a founding father of the European Enlightenment. Where the study of the Bible was concerned, he was a crucial figure in casting doubt on the biblical miracles, which he thought were either fictitious or descriptions of natural processes. He argued that nothing could ever happen contrary to the laws of nature, which were mechanistic in nature, and that God does not intervene in natural events. In this, he was an antecedent of the British deists of the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, ‘Deism’ being the belief that, though there is a God, his activity is confined to the creation of the universe, after which he took no part in its running. People had doubted the truth of the biblical miracles before, but Spinoza combined a belief in God’s existence with a conviction that he did not do anything to change the natural order of events. He also thought that biblical stories of miraculous events might simply be records of visions and dreams.

Cromwell’s Bible (which he took on campaigns).

Among many possible approaches to the Bible, two stand out among the slightly earlier and roughly contemporary English radicals. One was to use its stories as myths, to which each could give his own sense, a sense that need not consider the original meaning of the text. Thomas Edwards’ twenty-ninth Error was:

“We did look for great matters from one crucified at Jerusalem sixteen hundred years ago, but that does us no good; it must be a Christ formed in us. ”

Edwards (1646), op.cit.

The distinction between ‘the history’ and ‘the mystery’ was also made by the radical Welsh Baptist ‘Arise’ (Rhys) Evans, who held a dialogue with Oliver Cromwell as Protector. Another approach denied the infallibility of the Bible or subjected it to intense textual criticism. But in general, there remained a consensus among reformed theologians that the books of both testaments were by the people they had been traditionally attributed to, and no one approached the questions of authorship and authenticity as completely open ones, as Spinoza did with the Hebrew texts. Although he paid no attention to the Greek texts of the New Testament, the Roman Catholic Church still placed his works in its Index of Prohibited Books. At a less scholarly level, we see the process of textual criticism at work in the Records of the Churches of Christ gathered at Fenstanton, Warboys and Hexham. There we hear men and women rejecting the Bible, or parts of it they did not like, in the name of a spirit within them. They were applying John Milton’s theory that the Bible must be subordinated to ‘human convenience’. He was glad to find that the ideas he arrived at by searching in his own conscience could be found in the Bible, but they had greater authority for him because they were already in his conscience than because they were in the Bible. But in applying Milton’s test of the convenience of men in society, ordinary members of the congregation could always be out-quoted, if not convinced, by the Baptist organisers and ordained ministers.

The scholarly underpinning of this position on the primacy of the human conscience was done more effectively by Samuel Fisher. Holding that the spirit is far more important than the letter of the Bible, Fisher asks how reliable the text really is. It was silly, he suggested, to call it ‘the Word of God’, claiming that there is no evidence of divine authority for the present canon of the New Testament. He makes an interesting comparison with attitudes towards the Qu’ran:

“Nor will it do to say that the universal reception of the present canon guarantees divine inspiration: what about the Koran, ‘the public possession of many generations and in actual authority among men as a standard throughout the whole word of Mahometanism’?”

John Bunyan had similar doubts. A translation of the Qu’ran had been published in 1649, which explains the sudden awareness of its importance. For Fisher, the Christian Bible was…

“… a bulk of heterogeneous writings, compiled by men taking what they could find of the several sorts of writings that are therein, and … crowding them into a canon, or standard for the trial of all spirits, doctrines, truths; and by them alone”.

Fisher’s writings are a remarkable work of popular Biblical criticism, based on real scholarship. Its effect is to demote the Bible from its central position in the protestant scheme of things, to make it a book like any other. After a century of sacrifice to bring the Scriptures to the ordinary laymen, Fisher says that there are enough Bibles for anyone who can read them and has money to buy them. For him, the Bible is read too much and heard too often. The martyrs of the previous century would have been shocked to see that Protestantism had come to that. Fisher’s book brought to an end the epoch of protestant bibliolatry. The diversity of sects, each with its own interpretation of the Bible, had dissolved protestant unity. It was the end of the authority of the Book: but by no means a return to the authority of tradition. It was the beginning of the authority of conscience, both individual and congregational, the doctrine of the ‘inner light’ which could replace the absolute centrality of the Bible of the Puritan divines without shattering the foundations of the Protestant faith. In this way, Fisher deserves greater recognition as a precursor of the English enlightenment than he has received since his own day. His personal transition from Presbyterian to Baptist to Quaker was guided by his developing doctrine of scripture.

The ‘questioning’ of established political institutions became more intense from the Sping of 1649, when radical Independents and sectaries, understandably, began to see a better future for themselves under the Commonwealth, for all its imperfections, than under the Presbyterian-dominated Long Parliament. But there were limits to their intervention: on 2 April, William Kiffin headed a deputation of Baptist ministers which presented a petition to the Rump, dissociating themselves from William Walwyn’s Leveller ‘manifesto’, The Second Part of England’s New Chains and disavowing any intent to intermeddle with the ordering or altering civil government. The Leveller organisation had been so strongly linked to the General Baptists that the latter’s withdrawal of support seriously weakened the movement. Kiffin later joined other Independent ministers, including the pastor of the congregation which included John Lilburne (the Leveller leader) in putting his name to a pamphlet attacking Walwyn’s Wiles, which unjustly accused him of immorality, irreligion and seeking to make all things common. This latter accusation may, in part, be a reference to the group of True Levellers, or ‘Diggers’ who emerged out of the general movement on 1 April 1649 to establish an early ‘commune’ on St George’s Hill, near Kingston in Surrey. Their leader was a Baptist from Wigan in Lancashire, Gerrard Winstanley, who may have known of various earlier anabaptist experiments of an economic nature on the Continent.

Winstanley had supported Parliament in the first civil war, but in 1648 he rejected both the ‘Presbyterians’ and ‘Independents’ no less than he had the royalists. God’s sincere-hearted ones, scattered abroad in the kingdom, he believed, shall stand and look on whilst the Royalists, Presbyterians and Independents sheathe their swords in one another’s bowels’. Nevertheless, this wrath, bitterness and discontent that appears generally in men’s spirits in England, seemed to Winstanley to suggest that liberty is not far off and that the British Isles might be the tenth part of the city of Babylon that shall fall off first. Winstanley hoped to help God in this great work. He tells us that he was, for a long time a good Puritan church-goer, believing as the learnéd clergy believed. But he came to see that such a life was one of confusion, ignorance and bondage. He went through the ordinance of dipping, but he did not long remain a conventional Baptist. In the early months of 1648, he published three theological tracts which wrestle with the subjects of poverty, evil and selfishness, foreseeing a glorious future in which God will reveal himself to the despised, the unlearned, the poor, the nothings of this world. Already Winstanley had broken with the traditional theological framework which most of his contemporaries accepted: he suggested that, in the end, everyone will be saved. One of his main concerns was already to insist on freedom for the poor. It was wrong that:

… sharp punishing laws were made to prevent fishermen, shepherds, husbandmen and tradesmen from ever preaching of God any more.

For Winstanley, God was to be found within every human being:

He that looks for a God without himself and worships God at a distance, he worships he knows not what, but is led away and deceived by the imaginations of his own heart. … he that looks for a God within himself … is made subject to and hath community with the spirit that made all flesh, that dwells in all flesh and in every creature within the globe.

This God is Reason – a social Reason which says:

Do as thou wouldst be done unto … For Reason tells him, Is thy neighbour hungry and naked today, do thou feed him and clothe him, it may be thy case tomorrow, and then he will be ready to help thee.

Winstanley had got thus far in his thought by July 1648, trying to understand the poverty and humiliation which had overtaken him and so many others caught up in the national situation. Dozens of other mechanic preachers were using the newly-won liberty of the press to grapple with the problems of the revolutionary epoch: most of them hoped that the national crisis marked the beginning of God’s Kingdom on earth. We have some clues to Winstanley’s use of the Biblical idiom which he shared with almost all his contemporaries, for example, his use of God to mean Reason, and of Babylon to stand for the old order which has to be overthrown. The clergy, Winstanley declares, have no special claims to respect as interpreters of the Scriptures, for the very text of the Bible depends on tradition. The clergy themselves are time-servers in a privileged state church that must be abolished, and all men and women must be given liberty to worship as they please. The months between October 1648 and January 1649 were crucial to the English Revolution. In them, the army seized power, purged Parliament, negotiated with the Levellers a modified Agreement of the People, and brought the King to trial. It was a time when ideas developed rapidly. When Winstanley asked himself why…

most people are so ignorant of their freedom, and so few fit to be chosen commonwealth’s officers,

… his answer was that…

the old kingly clergy … are continually distilling their blind principles into the people, and do thereby nurse up ignorance in them.

The economic and political situation in the early months of 1649 was particularly explosive. Many in London were starving. Levellers and Army radicals felt that they had been deceived in the negotiations which led to the trial and execution of the King: the republic that Independent Grandees had set up fell far short of the reformed democratic society they had hoped to see. They demanded the reappointment of the Agitators and recall of the General Council of the Army. In April mutinies broke out when soldiers who refused to serve in Ireland were demobilised without payment of arrears. On 27 April Trooper Robert Lockyer was shot; his funeral two days later was a vast demonstration of support for the Leveller movement in London. Many more serious revolts broke out among the troops and on 14 May, Cromwell and Fairfax cornered and broke up the mutinous regiments at Burford in the Cotswolds. The ‘Digger’ movement appeared at the height of the unrest when on 1st April a group of poor men collected on St George’s Hill in the parish of Walton-on-Thames and began to dig the wasteland there, then sowing it with corn, parsnips, carrots and beans. Their numbers soon rose to twenty or thirty: an observer noted:

“They invite all to come in and help them and promise them meat, drink and clothes … They give out, they will be four or five thousand within ten days … It is feared they have some design in hand.”

In the following scene from David Starsmeare’s educational play, we imagine a church service from the previous week. The dialogue reveals the intertwining of religious, economic and social motivations of the Diggers and Gerrard Winstanley.

Scene Three – Demonstration in Walton Church, 1649:

From a play by David Starsmeare (1978), Diggers: The Story of a Commune. London: Blackie.

“(The parish church of Walton-on-Thames in Surrey. Among the congregation are FRANCIS DRAKE (the Magistrate), and his wife, ELIZABETH, Mistress Martha and Miss Henrietta, their daughters, forming one group, on the right. On the left are SUSAN, GERRARD, TOM STARR & NED BICKERSTAFFE. They all sit as the hymn comes to an end. The MINISTER enters the pulpit and begins to preach.)

MINISTER: In the twenty-eighth chapter of Ezekiel is it is written: “Though hast been in Eden, the garden of God… Thine heart was lifted up because of thy beauty. Thou hast corrupted thy wisdom because of thy brightness. I will cast thee to the ground and I will destroy thee.”

Dear brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ, Ezekiel spoke of the Prince of Tyrus, but there are Herods and Caesars in each generation. We told Charles Stuart we would have no bishops, he forced us to have bishops. We told him we would not pay his taxes, he forced us to pay taxes. We told him we would be ruled by Parliament, he dissolved Parliament for eleven years. For this did we slay him at Whitehall but a few weeks ago.

Oh my dear brothers and sisters, let us render thanks to the Lord that this war is over. Let us shout Alleluia!

ALL: Alleluia!

MINISTER: Let us pray now that the soldier will return to the plough, that trade may flourish and the wheels of industry may turn. Let each man pay a tax to a just government and his tithe to a just church.

(WILL, ROB & MEG lead a group of protesters before the pulpit. The MINISTER is at first unaware of their presence.)

WILL: Tithes? That’s ten per cent of all we earn.

ROB: Two shillings in every twenty, brothers, one pound in every ten.

MINISTER: O Lord… look down we pray upon the Councillors of State who rule this land. May they build for us a new Jerusalem. …

WILL: It sounds like the old Jerusalem if we must pay tithes. …

ROB: Come down from the pulpit, Vicar, quickly now.

MINISTER: Do not call me Vicar.

WILL: Come down! Or would you have us pull you down?

(The MINISTER leaves the pulpit.)

ELIZABETH: You are a magistrate, Thomas, stop this nonsense.

ROB: Stay in your place, Mr Drake, we mean business here.

MINISTER: Who are you people? What do you mean by invading my church?

WILL: Brothers and sisters, do you see this Bible? It was given to the people by old King James. Have you read it? Have you considered it deeply? Fairy stories! Nothing but tales to keep children in order!

ROB: When the world was empty and we waited for Jesus, the Bible gave us consolation. But now Jesus has come. He is born in our hearts.

WILL: Down with the Bible. It has served its turn.

(WILL throws the Bible to the floor. The MINISTER retrieves it on his knees.)

MINISTER: You will burn in hell for this!

MEG: My people, do not be alarmed. We bring peace such as you have never dreamed of.

ROB: The peace that dwells in the hearts of the saints.

WILL: Jesus has come again.

MINISTER: Do you call yourself Messiah?

ROB: When the axe removed King Charles’ head, each man took charge of his own destiny.

MEG: I proclaim the sovereignty of the people!

WILL: When the axe removed the Archbishop’s head each man became the priest of his own salvation.

MEG: I proclaim the sovereignty of the people.

WILL: Alleluia!

MEG: People of this parish, depose your minister and pay not one penny of his tithe.

WILL: What have tithes to do with the coming of the Kingdom?

ROB: People of Walton, depose your magistrates, those fat-bellied landowners who bleed the poor.

MEG: Christ is the magistrate in your heart. You need no other. He has come in glory. He has set up His Kingdom and we are in paradise.

WILL: Who now needs the kings and magistrates, ministers or Sabbath days? Every man is a walking Jesus. Every day is holy.

MINISTER: You speak profane nonsense.

ROB: You give thanks for the death of a king and accuse us of being profane? It is you who are profane for you rule this parish more harshly than Charles ever ruled England.

WILL: Yes, more wickedly than Israel was ruled by Babylon. Ezekial said unto Israel: I will be glorified in the midst of thee and there shall be no more pricking briar or a grieving thorn.

ROB: Bring the thorns, brothers.

(Two men come forward with a bundle of gorse and briar)

WILL: We place these thorns on your pulpit, Vicar. May you never preach there again.

(The pulpit is filled with thorns.)

MEG: Dear children of God, take this word and preach it through Walton. The sabbath is ended.

ROB: Tithes are ended.

WILL: Kings, magistrates and ministers, all are ended.

MEG: We proclaim that Christ has come again. His spirit walks with the saints.

WILL: The day of glory is at hand.

ROB: No more shall there be pauper or beggar.

MINSTER: Now I know you are mad. Who will feed the pauper? Who will give alms to the beggar?

WILL: In the fullness of time shall all be provided.

MINISTER: Depose me and many shall starve. I feed many mouths with the bread of charity. And where do I find this charity? Among the poor? NO, it comes from the rich, from the landowners and magistrates of this county.

ROB: You give bread and demand obedience.

MINISTER: Can you feed the poor? Can the invisible Christ feed them without help from the wealthy? Who but the minister and the magistrate can cure the miseries of the time?

WINSTANLEY steps forward.

GERRARD: I can, minister, I can do it very easily. … I can feed the poor of the parish.

MINISTER: Gerrard Winstanley, sit down, please. Their madness has touched your wits. …

GERRARD: I will say what I must, and then I’ll be gone. I can feed all the common people of England!

MINISTER: Oh, you are rich, are you?

GERRARD: No, I am a poor man.

MINISTER: Then where is your fortune to begin this work?

GERRARD: I have a very great fortune, sir, which has been held from me and my kind for six hundred years. I mean the common land, the hills, the royal parks and forests. Why two-thirds of England has never felt spade or plough. Folk like Ned and Tom here shouldn’t need charity. They are farmers.

WILL: We shall level all fences. Down with enclosure. The people are sovereign, let them possess all.

GERRARD: No, Esau, for that would be a new tyranny. Let the rich stay within their enclosures.

ELIZABETH: We thank you for that.

GERRARD: But let the poor dig up the common land.

ELIZABETH: But it is we who control the commons, Mr Winstanley.

GERRARD: Ay, but by what right?… Do you know, Mr Drake? Elizabeth? (pauses) Then, I will tell you. You hold these rights from the Crown. But how did the Crown possess these rights? Common land should be for all common folk. … The Crown possessed these rights by the conquest of the people. … I don’t mean King Charles, I mean the Conqueror. Before the Normans came, each man could use the commons as he wished – to graze his cattle, to raise his crops. The forest gave timber for his dwelling, fuel for his fire. But the Norman king set landlords over us and Englishmen became slaves to property. (1.)

WILL: As Babylon ruled Israel so did the Normans rule England.

ROB & MEG: Alleluia! Alleluia!

GERRARD: And then did the Norman power exact its due in rent and tithe. The common lands were fenced with laws and no man could dwell upon them.

MINISTER: The commons are protected by ancient law.

GERRARD: Norman law.

MINISTER: You may walk upon them, you may pick up sticks for your fire, you may even graze cattle upon them. But you may not raise a dwelling or dig the earth.

GERRARD: You speak like a conqueror. You begged us to give thanks that the King was dead but you have given no thought to what must follow. His sovereign power has passed to us.

WILL: The sovereignty of the people!

GERRARD: You keep shouting that, but have you considered what it means? It means the common land is ours again.

WILL: No more shall there be pauper or beggar.

ROB: Come with us, Jacob; you shall be our leader.

MINISTER: Go with these blasphemers and I shall ban you forever from my church.

GERRARD: I shan’t mind that. I shall build a new temple for the Lord. I have been chosen. I see now that I have reached my hour. Let all who wish to know more of me gather next Sunday upon George’s Hill. … But if you come, come not in your best attire. Our prayers will be the spade in the turf, and our psalms the ringing of axes. (2.)

(He walks out of the Church with SUSAN… the protesters leave the church, chanting):

WILL, ROB & MEG: The priesthood of all believers! The Sovereignty of the people! The Sabbath is ended. Tithes are ended. Kings, magistrates and ministers, all are ended. We proclaim that Christ has come again. His spirit walks with the saints. No more shall there be pauper or beggar.

(TOM and NED leave their places and follow the procession out. Unable to enter his pulpit, the MINISTER speaks from its steps. As the chanting fades, he regains his composure.)

MINISTER: I do not believe in tyranny. For that crime did we kill the King. But there must be order. There must be magistrates, there must be ministers. The Sabbath must be kept holy, the Bible is the word of God, and you must pay me your tithe. All these things are enshrined by law. I trust, that as Magistrate, you will make a full report of these events…

(MARTHA leaves as the lights fade.)


(1.) The notion that England was ‘a paradise’ before the Norman Conquest was known as ‘the Norman Yoke’ and was shared by many religious radicals and ‘levellers’. Although it is largely a ‘myth’, powerful at that time, which does not square with the facts (especially Domesday), historians do believe that some aspects of rural discontent were due to vestiges of feudalism, some of which were revived under Stuart rule.

(2.) Winstanley follows the Puritan practice of dropping the title ‘Saint’ from people ‘canonised’ by the Roman Catholic Church. Puritans used the term ‘saint’ to mean anyone who had found faith in God through Jesus Christ and had made a public profession of it their faith.


Sir Thomas Fairfax, Lord General of the Army in 1649.

Local property-owners called on the Council of State to intervene with military assistance. Thinking that great conflux of people may be beginning whence things of greater and more dangerous consequence may grow, the Council of State alerted the Surrey JPs and General Fairfax. The latter sent a couple of troopers down to see what was happening. From the report of Captain Gladman to Fairfax, it is clear that he thought the Council was being unduly alarmist. On 20th April, two of the Digger leaders, Everard and Winstanley, were brought before the Commander-in-Chief. They kept their hats on in Fairfax’s presence, the traditional symbolic rejection of social and political authority by dissenters. Their intention, they told the general, was to cultivate the wastelands as a communal group. They hoped that, before long, the poor everywhere would follow their example, and that property-owners would voluntarily surrender their estates and join in with the communal production. On the same day, they published a manifesto, The True Levellers’ Standard Advanced was sent to the printer. It appeared on 26th April. Fairfax refused to take the incident seriously but visited the colony himself at the end of May and had an amicable exchange with Winstanley, who repeated his assurance that the Diggers would not use force. However, the colony was raided more than once, crops and huts were destroyed, individuals were beaten up and horses killed. An action for trespass was brought against the Diggers in court at Kingston which resulted in heavy fines and distraint of property.

Places referred to in the play and supporting texts.

Some time in or before August 1649 the colony abandoned ‘George’s Hill’ and transferred to Cobham Heath, a mile or two away. But they were not left in peace there either. After a meeting at the Red Lion Inn in Cobham, a boycott of the Diggers was organised. Then Francis Drake, lord of the manor of St George’s Hill, together with Parson Platt, the lord of the manor at Cobham, had Winstanley arrested and fined again for trespass. In November, the troops were called in again, and although they themselves showed some sympathy towards the True Levellers, their presence emboldened the local yeomen and freeholders. The soldiers stood by while houses were pulled down, tools and implements destroyed, the corn trampled and men beaten and arrested. Winstanley was convinced that the poorer tenants were forced to participate under the threat of eviction, though ‘in their hearts they are Diggers’. But the Diggers continued to be treated with brutality and by the winter of 1649-50 the colony was in dire financial straits. It lasted almost exactly a year, through to the following spring. At their peak, they were cultivating almost eleven acres. But although their economic and social experience was an obvious failure, Winstanley’s writings have provided them with a lasting legacy that has given them a significance far beyond their numbers and agricultural production.

Winstanley’s Writings on Religion & The Church:

Winstanley was aware of the enormous influence of the Church on the illiterate mass of the population and regarded the clergy as propagandists in the service of the existing property system. He saw the danger of appealing to an uneducated democracy, and could not find in contemporary conditions of society the social force which could put through the changes necessary to make the common people aware of what might be done. Initially, God seemed the only answer:

‘The whole world we see is corrupt, and it cannot be purged by the hand of creatures, for all creatures lie under the curse and groan to be delivered, and the more they strive the more they entangle themselves in the mud, because it must be the hand of the Lord alone that must do it. … I do not speak that any particular man shall go and take their neighbour’s goods by violence or robbery (I abhor it) as the condition of the men of the nations are ready to do in this fleshly-settled government of the world. But everyone is to wait till the Lord Christ do spread himself in multiplicities of bodies.”

Winstanley, like almost all of his fellow Baptists, was not an absolute pacifist. Although he abjured violence for the Diggers, he had supported Parliament in the civil war; in 1648 he had looked to the civil power for defence against what he regarded as the tyranny of the greatest enemy, ecclesiastical tyranny. In 1650 he urged men to take the Engagement to support the Commonwealth. He believed that Biblical threatenings against the rich shall be materially fulfilled, for they shall be turned out of all. He advocated extreme forms of non-violent resistance. In January 1649, he called upon those that labour the earth and work for others that live at ease … the hand of the Lord shall break out upon every such hireling labourer and you shall perish with the covetous rich men. One of his most powerful passions is his hatred of parsons and the state church, a virulent anti-clericalism which he shared with John Milton. Their reasons were similar: parsons were paid to do a job that no one should be paid for; they used their privileged positions to impose standards of conduct on others.

Anti-clericalism had a long tradition in the English radical movement. Wycliffe’s Lollards of the late fourteenth century had rejected a separate clerical caste, William Tyndale attacked priests who acted not for the love of your souls (which they care for as the fox doeth for the geese). In the 1640s, the Leveller William Walwyn was one of the most forceful exponents of anti-clericalism. The clergy, he wrote, pray, preach and do all for money. Ministers should have no power of jurisdiction but should be limited to preaching, and no one should be compelled to come and hear them. Heresy-hunting was due to the clergy’s fear for their power and emoluments. The anonymous author of Tyranipocrit Discovered (1649) denounced scholarly parsons who have no experience in that honest simple life of tilling the land, nor keeping of sheep. Such critics wanted to get rid of a trained university clergy, appointed from above and paid by tithes, and to leave the field open to mechanick preachers, craftsmen who would maintain themselves by labouring six days a week and so would not need tithes to support them.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 002-2.jpg
Ploughing with Oxen.

For Winstanley, the English state church was anti-Christian, a cheat by means of which vested interests and the covetous sought to defend themselves against the searching light of truth. Against it, he appealed with confidence to the poor and the humble, to the oppressed, and to the power of human reason, to education and science. As far as he was concerned, kingly power, clergy, lawyers, buying and selling, were all intricately linked. The myth of the ‘Norman Yoke’ included the idea that the role of lawyers was to protect property and that of the clergy was primarily to keep people quiet by telling them of a heaven and hell, after death, which neither they nor we know what will be. In return, they got tithes for their pains. They were also there to maintain the institution of marriage as, essentially, one of protecting property relations: A man must not take a wife but the priest must give her him, and the same was true of christenings, burials, education. And what is the end of all this but to get money? If a man labours the earth to get his bread, the priests must have the tenths of his increase, or else some oppressing impropriator. Tithes were crucial to the existence of the state church and linked the clergy to the propertied orders of society. The sheep of Christ, as he put it, shall never fare well so long as the wolf or the red dragon pays the shepherd their wages. He saw the professional clergy as at best superfluous, at worst the paid propagandists of a wicked social order. Ploughmen, he thought, may do better than they that take tithes to tell a story. As far as the priesthood was concerned, he condemned it in the strongest terms:

Priests lay claim to heaven after they are dead, and yet they require their heaven in this world too, and grumble mightily against the people that will not give them a large temporal maintenance. And yet they tell the poor people that they must be content with their poverty, and they shall have our heaven here (that is, a comfortable livelihood in the earth) and heaven hereafter too, as well as you?

Winstanley’s moral indignation flashes out against the whole profession in words similar to those of Voltaire’s criticism of the Roman Catholic Church in the following century. His concept of ‘Reason’ has been taken to be an anticipation of another French philosopher, Rousseau’s General Will, though it is not confined to one community. The ‘light of Reason’, according to Winstanley, is in all mankind but does not completely dominate the thinking of any single individual all the time: some may calculate that it is to their advantage to compete with and destroy one another. But this would change as Reason itself knits every creature together into a oneness, making every creature to be an upholder of his fellow and so everyone is an assistant to preserve the whole. Winstanley saw an intimate connection between the divided society of his day and the Eternal Decrees which condemned the mass of humanity to an eternity of suffering. For both Calvinist and Anglican theologians, the Fall of Man led to covetousness, private property and the divisions of society, and to the state which protects property. Laws are necessary safeguards against the sinfulness of fallen nature. The Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England rely heavily on the doctrine of ‘original sin’ to justify property and the authority of magistrates, against ‘Anabaptist’ heresies. The rebel Puritan MP John Pym agreed in 1641 that laws were necessary to put ‘a difference betwixt good and evil’. Winstanley reversed the order: covetousness and private property are the causes, not the consequences, of the Fall:

When self-love began to arise in the earth, then man began to fall. … When mankind began to began to quarrel about the earth, and some would have shut out others, forcing them to be servants: this was man’s fall.

Exploitation, not labour, is the curse. Buying and selling, the laws regulating the market and property itself were all part of the Fall. So for Winstanley and other Diggers, like the poet Robert Coster, it originated in murder, theft and covetousness (‘individualism’), necessitating the state. That is why and how Winstanley could fuse the myths of the Fall and the Norman Yoke: he took neither of them too seriously as historical fact, nor the former as fundamental to his theology. His main quarrel with the clergy of the ‘traditional’ churches was not a theological one, but that they claimed a monopoly of interpreting the Bible, and suppressed the free spirit in the uneducated. The spirit in men in his day was above the Gospel, he asserted, and he argued that the Bible should be used to illustrate truths of which the individual is already convinced. As we have seen, he shared this view with Milton and other radical independents, both religious and political. Unlike some of them, including Cromwell, he advocated complete religious toleration for anyone to worship, read and teach as they saw fit, and not just the Christian God. This would include Papists, Jews and Muslims. In his ideal state, there would be no religious test for office-holders. Winstanley severely criticised those who based their belief merely on the letter of the Bible. ‘There are good rules in the Scripture,’ he wrote condescendingly, ‘if they were obeyed and practised.’ But he would not make the Bible his main source for a code of conduct.

Winstanley held what was then the highly unorthodox view, even among ‘General’ Baptists, that all mankind shall be saved at last, since it does not make sense to believe in an omnipotent and beneficent God who will torment his creatures to all eternity. He denied the existence of a three-decker universe, with heaven and hell, a personal devil or a bodily resurrection. Heaven, he equated with mankind, and God with ‘Reason’ within men and women, which would eventually redeem them from the only true hell, that which they have created for each other on earth. Winstanley left open the question of any other hell: he merely wrote that nobody knows or can know anything about it, least of all the preachers who emphasised it so much. Hell exists in men because of the evil organisation of society and the concept is then perpetuated into eternity by those who benefit from it. Winstanley, who among all the radicals, came nearest to building up materialism that which was neither totally static nor susceptible to of only cyclical transformation. For him, the abolition of private property would cause a fundamental revolution, and science and invention would continue to keep society in motion. It would have been more difficult for sin and hell to survive in Winstanley’s commonwealth. His concept of God and ‘Reason’ as being synonymous is of the ‘lifeforce’ that pervades the whole universe and dwells in every creature, but supremely in man. He wrote that:

If you subject your flesh to this mighty governor, the spirit of righteousness within yourselves, he will bring you into community with the whole globe. … O ye hearsay preachers, deceive not the people any longer by telling them that this glory shall not be known and seen till the body is laid in the dust. I tell you, this great mystery is begun to appear and it must be seen by the material eye of the flesh. And those five senses that is in man shall partake of his glory.

An engraving from a Levellers’ broadsheet of 1649, designed by Germano Facetti.

In certain parts of his thought, Winstanley’s scepticism was explicit, e.g. his reference to people like ‘wise-hearted Thomas’, who believe nothing but what they see the reasoning for. He rejected the God of the traditional churches, ‘the God of this world’ from whom landlords claim title to the land and priests a right to tithes. He seems to have believed in the Trinity as a metaphorical term since he referred to the spirit within mankind as both Jesus Christ and ‘the Holy Ghost’. Prayer, for him, is the sum of ‘the reasonings of the heart’, and Holy Communion is not a specific sacrament restricted to ‘church’ but ‘the breaking of bread’ (i.e. eating and drinking) in any believer’s house in love and communion with one another, as the Diggers celebrated it on George’s Hill. But despite his unorthodox, perhaps heretical views on such matters, in The Law of Freedom, Winstanley develops his advocacy of rational science while at the same time seeming to draw on the theology of Calvin and the ‘divine’ poetry of Milton. When we read passages such as to know the secrets of nature is to know the works of God, we could be forgiven for thinking that we are reading Calvin’s Commentary on Genesis. Yet we can believe him when he claimed to be self-educated and not to have got his main ideas from anybody else. Winstanley wanted universities to cease to turn out clergymen, their main function in seventeenth-century England. Why, he asked, do university scholars try to suppress free preaching by laymen? It is, he replied, because…

the Light of Truth that springs up out of the earth, which the scholars tread under feet, will shine so clear, as it will put out the candle of those wicked, learnéd deceivers.Those that are called preachers … seek for knowledge abroad in universities and buy it for money, and then deliver it out again for money, for a hundred or two hundred pounds a year. … The upshot of all your universities and public preachers … is only to hinder Christ from rising…

University ‘Divinity’ was ‘a cloak of policy’ to cheat the poor of ‘the freedom of the earth’. Before a true reformation would be possible, Winstanley argued, the clergy’s ‘mouths must be stopped,’ though not, he was careful to add, ‘by the hand of tyrannical human power’, as they themselves have stopped the mouths of others. So through his theology, Winstanley reached conclusions that scientists were arriving at by other means in the seventeenth century: that new ideas drawn from contemporary experience were better than traditional truths, untested in the milieu of the revolutionary middle decades of that century. Winstanley claimed that it was the work of the devil to tell a man that he must believe what others have writ or spoke, and must not trust his own experience.

The Rule of the Saints & The Protectorate:

The Rump had few mourners among the dissenting churches, but the ‘Saintly’ Barebones Parliament which replaced it in 1653 had even fewer, certainly not outside the ranks of the Fifth Monarchy men. The ‘question’ now was how many of the radical independents in the ‘gathered churches’ would align with the Fifth Monarchists in opposing the drift towards the authoritarian government of the ‘Protectorate’ and how, in particular, the large number of Baptist congregations would react. ‘Anabaptist’ was still used as a generic label for extremist sectaries in the religious and political vocabulary of the mid-1650s. But though some prominent Baptists such as Hanserd Knollys and Henry Jessey remained suspicious of the Protectorate, others of reputation, including Kiffin, John Spilsbury and Joseph Fansom published a circular letter to the Baptist churches in January 1654, urging them not to engage against it, because the Barebone’s Parliament had brought ‘magistracy’ into disrepute. Cromwell remained tolerant and indulgent towards the many Baptist officers in the army in Ireland who opposed the Proclamation of the Protectorate there, unwilling to make martyrs of old comrades and showing that he could tolerate a few dissidents unless or until they engaged in open disobedience. He also knew that the vast majority of the army was strongly supportive of the Protectoral régime.

As Hill pointed out, however, among the locally gathered dissenters, God had been democratised, especially by the Baptists and Quakers. He was no longer the greatest feudal overlord, a kind of ‘high king’. He was in all his saints, but he is almighty and gives them of his power. In the Baptist churches of the interregnum, forms of democratic discussion became institutionalised. Mrs Attaway used to call for objections after her sermons, for it was their custom to give liberty in that kind. The former army chaplain and Leveller Henry Denne had a similar practice. At the Bell Alley Baptist church, public debates were held at which all might voice their opinions. It was a rule among the General Baptists that it shall be lawful for any person to improve their gifts in the presence of the congregation. Away from Westminster and the London Independent churches, men moved easily from one critical group to another, and a Quaker in the 1650s had far more in common with a Baptist of his own day than with a modern member of The Society of Friends. in 1653, a Fenstanton farmer was afraid that his landlord would turn him out if he joined the Baptists. The Baptist preacher, Henry Denne, told him to trust God and he would be a better landlord than Mr Bendwich. The Quaker Margaret Fell urged her husband in the same year.

Be not afraid of man. Greater is he that is in you than he that is in the world.

Isobel Ross (1949), Margaret Fell, p. 119.
Women Sectaries and the Sexual Revolution:

Margaret Fell’s role in the birth and growth of the Quaker movement has been well-documented, as has the role of women in early worship among Friends, including in a number of contemporary depictions, like the one below. Women had played a prominent role in the heretical sects of the Middle Ages, and this tradition came to the surface again in revolutionary England and Wales. Sects allowed women to participate in church government, and sometimes to preach. The Particular Baptists extended the functions of the laity to include women among their preachers. Women had voted in Hugh Peter’s Congregational church in Rotterdam in the 1630s. Female preachers abound in the pages of Thomas Edwards’ Gangrena in which, horrified, he cried out:

“If a toleration were granted, they should never have peace in their families more, or ever after have command of their wives, children, servants.”

Women did far more than preach, bad as that was for Edwards, though other divines like Samuel Torshell, writing in 1645, asserted that there was no difference between men and women in the state of grace. For Edwards and others, women threatened to subvert the marriage bond. Unequal marriages were anti-Christian yokes, they claimed: a wife might forsake an anti-Christian husband, just as a husband might an anti-Christian wife. The preacher, Mrs Attaway did just that, in the company of William Jenny. In 1641, Mrs Chidley argued that a husband had no more right to control his wife’s conscience than the magistrate had to control his. Quakers, following the example of some Baptists, practised marriage by declaration before the congregation, with no other civil or religious ceremony.

In addition, the liberating effect of the breakdown of church courts and the sexual lives of ordinary people helped to bring about something of a sexual revolution in revolutionary England and Wales. Social historians have estimated that at least one in every three brides in seventeenth-century England was pregnant when she was married and that bastardy was commoner in the country than in France. It also seems that adultery and sex outside marriage was more prevalent than both before and after the period. John Bunyan tells us that he himself heard a man in Oliver’s days advise a girl whom he was seducing, or tempting to uncleanliness with him to say, when you come before the judge, that you are with child by the Holy Spirit. Hostile opponents of the sectaries naturally made more of such tales than perhaps they warranted. Gerrard Winstanley wrote a pamphlet, The Saints Paradise, to dissociate and warn the Diggers from the Ranters’ excessive community of women, but he was also careful to say that no one should suppress that ranting power by their punishing hand, for it is the work of the righteous and rational spirit within … that must suppress it. He added that if thou wilt needs be punishing, then see thou be without sin thyself. In his Baptist days, Lawrence Clarkson was accused by a county committee of ‘lying in the water with a sister, whom he was dipping at night’. Clarkson replied to the accusation with the statement that…

“… Surely your experience teaches you to the contrary, that nature hath small desire of copulation in water – at which they laughed.”

Winstanley seems to have had some trouble in the Digger colony with Ranters who joined the community and ’caused scandal’. They attached too much importance to ‘meat, drink, pleasure and women’. Sexual promiscuity broke the peace in families and led to idleness. It also led to venereal disease, the incidence of which in England had presumably increased in the wake of armies and their camp followers. It may have been his experience with Ranters that convinced Winstanley of the need to have laws and rules in his ideal community, and punishments to deal with the idle and ignorant, the unruly and the ‘self-ended spirits’. Although he was no ascetic, Winstanley made a valid point against the Ranters’ advocacy of ‘free love’:

The mother and child begotten in this manner is like to have the worst of it, for the man will be gone and leave them, and regard them no more than other women … after he hath had his pleasure. Therefore you women beware, for this ranting practice is not the restoring of but the destroying power of the creation. … By seeking their own freedom they embondage others.

Winstanley (1649/50), A Vindication of those … called Diggers.

A decade late, the Baptist turned Ranter leader, Lawrence Clarkson, accepted this point, having originally hoped that his ethic would free both men and women from tormenting themselves for imaginary sins. Sexual freedom, in fact, tended to be freedom for men only, so long as there was no effective birth control. This was the practical moral basis for the Puritan emphasis on monogamy. Sexual liberty was a ‘hit-and-run’ affair among the poor. Many putative fathers must have taken to the road, leaving the mother and the parish authorities to carry the baby. We can see here perhaps yet another attraction of the itinerant life for a Ranter like Clarkson. He gave a thin religious veneer to practices that had long been common among vagabonds, squatter-cottars and migrant craftsmen. It was said in 1654 that Vagabonds be generally given to horrible uncleanliness, they have not particular wives, but consort together as beasts. Contemporaries explained the ‘whoredoms of the Welsh’ by the mountain air: the modern historian more wisely sees them as the product of a society that refused to accept English protestant marriage laws. Rejection of church marriage not just by Ranters, but also by Baptists and Quakers, was in one sense a traditional attitude of the lower orders of society, looking back to Lollard and Familist practice.

Winstanley’s pamphlet of 1650, calling on common people to support the Commonwealth in the hope of further advance in a radical direction, also attacked the Ranters, whose sexual libertinism was disrupting the Diggers’ attempts at disciplined communal cultivation of the wastes. Their sexual practices, he suggested, merely stood traditional values on their head; it was not the transvaluation of values which, in their different ways, both the protestant ethic and Digger ‘communism’ strived for. He was just as fiercely opposed to the Ranters to the ‘clergy power’ which restrains the liberty of the inward men, not suffering him to act in the liberty of himself. The economically significant consequence of Puritan emphasis on sin was the compulsion to labour, to save, to accumulate, which contributed so much to make possible the Industrial Revolution in Britain. Only Winstanley put forward an alternative. Exploitation, not labour, was the curse of fallen, covetous man: Abolish exploitation with the wage relationship and labour in itself, to contribute to the beauty of the commonwealth, would become a pleasure. Unfortunately, this was never to be more than a dream.

The ‘Shattering’ of the Baptists and Independents:

The Baptists achieved an early peak of numerical strength and national influence during the interregnum, but even before the Restoration their influence their position was seriously compromised by the loss of members to more radical sects such as the Quakers and the Fifth Monarchists in many places. Vavasour Powell, a committed Fifth Monarchist in Wales, saw two stark alternatives. He asked his congregation whether God would rather have Oliver Cromwell or Jesus Christ reign over us? A Bristol (Broadmead) Baptist in 1654, when he heard that two Frenchmen had been imprisoned for foretelling the end of the world in 1656, was worried because he was not prepared for that event.

When these Baptist congregations claimed the local independence they were seeking, however, they were not claiming total competence for the local congregation. The need for mutual assistance from congregation to congregation led very early to the setting up of a General Assembly amongst the General Baptists, and of regional ‘associations’ amongst the Particular Baptists. From the early 1650s, there was a rapid expansion of Particular Baptists in Wales, who initially filled the spiritual gap, though in some parts they were then superseded by Quakers. Hill suggested that the Fifth Monarchists and early Quakers must have had a great deal to do with the ‘shattering’ of Baptist and Independent churches from which ultimately the Quakers were to benefit. In 1650, it was, apparently, by listening to the errors of Diggers, Levellers and Ranters that Baptist churches in Huntingdonshire… were ‘shaken’ and ‘broken up’.

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Nevertheless, both General and Particular Baptist structures survived to become important tools for expanding the work. They also became forums for discussing theological and disciplinary queries, and so for establishing a ‘Baptist viewpoint’. Particular Baptist association meetings discussed such issues as…

“the gathering of churches, believer’s baptism, communion with the unbaptised, the ordination of ministers, the maintenance of the ministry, the place of the magistrate, missionary activity, liturgical usages – such as vocal ministry, breaking bread, psalm-singing, foot-washing, anointing the sick – ecclesiastical discipline, the grounds and manner of exclusion, domestic duties and relationships.”

Who, then, supported the Baptists’ itinerant preachers? They had to live, and there were so many of them, often operating in competition with each other, both among the Baptists and the other sects. Some level of rational organisation was essential. The organisers of the sects used the Bible against what they called the ‘fancies’ of those whom the spirit was still moving in ways that were becoming unpopular; the ‘rebels’ rejected the Bible’s authority over them, even though they could not produce scholarly reasons for doing so that could compete with the learning of Henry Denne. But the organisers of the sects faced a dual problem. In the Records of the Churches of Christ gathered at Fenstanton, Warboys and Hexham, the participants discussed the pressure of landlords, driving their tenants to attend the parish churches. We can see that the tenants knew that as long as they conformed outwardly to the state church they had a chance of being left to their own devices. But the Baptist organisers did not leave them alone, perhaps making too many demands on normal frail humanity.

Restoration, Repression and Respectability:

So long as the end of days seemed imminent, psychological tension could be maintained, and intense moral pressure was tolerable, but not for the everyday world. And when in the restoration period fierce persecution came, it drove all but the most dedicated believers back to the state church. This increasingly meant that the membership of the sects became restricted to a self-selected élite of financially ‘independent’ men and that it was not a realistic option for ordinary tenant farmers and labourers. All this suggests that the seventeenth-century sects, as they established themselves, lost a large section of their earlier memberships after the old church was restored. Nevertheless, it has been estimated that by 1660 there were roughly three hundred General and Particular Baptist churches. Many of these played an important role not just as places of worship, but as social services, giving their members some protection in the tough mercantilist world. The Fenstanton Baptists distributed poor relief, even if partly as an institute of social control. A woman who went back to her local parish church – forced to do so for the maintenance of herself and her children – got seven shillings to satisfy her necessities as soon as she had repented.

The Restoration brought a quarter of a century of intermittent persecution by the Stuart state. As the world ‘righted’ itself, it also closed in on the sects, and their organisation tightened in response. Local evidence, such as The Broadmead Records for Bristol, gives graphic details of the price of dissent in these years. When Charles II was restored, it was claimed, then Satan stirred up adversaries against us, and our Trouble or Persecution began. Already in 1655, however, the Fenstanton Church had resolved that no member of the congregation shall travel from place to place without the advice and consent of the congregation to whom he belongeth, such consent to be in writing. In other words, in the years before the Restoration, dissenting churches were already self-regulating as far as the poor, itinerant preachers among them were concerned. In the 1670s John Bunyan’s church in Bedford showed great severity against members who did not pay their debts, and Bunyan himself advised deacons to use poor relief to encourage industry and discourage idleness. This is another reason why in the latter part of the century the nonconformist churches ceased to proselytise among the urban poor: they had enough to do to avoid and survive persecution by the state and to look after their own villagers. It was yet another argument against doing anything that would cause more prosperous, ‘respectable’ members to leave.

The restoration enabled the universities to survive, almost untouched by the scientific ideas which had invaded them during the Revolution. But continuing unchanged throughout it meant that their social role was transformed. They retained an intimate association with the Anglican church even though the latter had now lost its monopoly position. So Oxford and Cambridge became isolated from the mainstream of national and international intellectual life, a backwater, just as nonconformists, excluded from the universities, evolved in dissenting academies a culture that was as one-sided on the other side – utilitarian, provincial, sectarian. The split which Winstanley had hoped to bridge, between useless specialised scholars and ill-educated practical men, remained.

The radicals no longer hoped to turn the world upside down: they continued to compete with each other, even more desperately, as they adapted themselves to it. Baptists excommunicated ‘Ranters’ and ‘Quakers’, Quakers attacked Baptists and Ranters as being anti-Christian. To judge by the surviving local chapel books, ex-communication was one of the main activities among the ‘old dissenters.’ The maintenance of internal purity disrupted unity: without internal purity, survival was impossible. After Cromwell’s death in 1658, a period of desperate confusion ensued, in which radical groupings and opinions revived. There was still a broad agreement between the sects on political aims – opposition to the state church and tithes – but on theological issues, they split. As late as 1659, a series of pamphlets by a self-declared ‘gentleman’, William Covell, proposed to settle all wastelands and commons on the poor forever, to establish cooperative communities with no buying and selling among their members, to tax the rich in order to pay for the aged and to abolish the state church. But also in the same year, the disunity on doctrinal matters prevented the concerted effort which alone might have saved the Good Old Cause; in 1660, the consequences of these divisions were revealed in all their political ugliness. All sects were anxious to disavow those they considered to be more radical than themselves, to show how moderate and reasonable they alone really were. The schisms were used to bring about the restoration of the monarchy. The crucial question was asked by another pamphleteer in 1660:

Can you at once suppress the sectaries and keep out the King?

Most moderate Puritans and supporters of Parliament had by that time decided that they could not. During the revolutionary decades of the 1640s and ’50s, ordinary people were freer from the authority of the state church than they had ever been before, and were not to be again for centuries afterwards. Due to this temporary freedom, in particular the lack of censorship, we have a pretty full record of what they discussed. They had speculated about the end of the world and the coming of the millennium; about the justice of God in condemning the mass of humanity to eternal torment for the original sin of Adam; some of them became sceptical of the existence of physical hell. They contemplated the possibility that God might intend to save everybody and that there might be something of God within each of us. They founded new sects to express these new ideas. They attacked the monopoly on ‘divinity’ held by the privileged profession of the Anglican clergy. They criticised the existing educational structure, especially the universities, and proposed a vast expansion of educational opportunities. They discussed relations of the sexes and questioned parts of the protestant work ethic. Above all, these fresh human experiences could be used against both the dead weight of tradition within the Church and to balance the authority of the bible. The radical Baptist army chaplain, Thomas Collier, preaching to the Army at Putney in 1647, offered to confirm one of his points from Scripture, although he added:

I trust I shall declare nothing unto you but experimental truth.

Quoted in Woodhouse (1938), Puritanism and Liberty, p. 390.

One consequence of the stress on continuous revelation and on experienced truths was that the idea of novelty, of originality, ceased to be shocking and even became widely desirable among dissenters. Winstanley emphasised that the Law of Righteousness, about which he wrote extensively, was New. He told the clergy that this question should not be answered by texts from Scripture but that the answer is to be given in the light of itself, which is the law of righteousness … which dwells in man’s heart. He agreed with other dissenting voices that it was the devil himself who persuaded men that novel ideas, drawn from experience, were a sign of error. For Winstanley, as we have seen, God and Reason were one and the same, so that the Christ within his heart preached secularism. This meant that in a time of defeat when the tide of revolution was ebbing, this inner voice became quietist, pacifist. All the pressures were in the direction of accepting modes of expression not too shocking for the society in which men had to live and earn their living.

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The radicals were so effectively silenced that, apart from those well-known for other reasons, like John Milton, whose hatred of priests, an established church, forms, ceremonies and tithes was as fierce as that of any of the radicals, we know little of what happened to them. Milton continued to reject the distinction between clergy and laity and thought that the meanest artificer might exercise the gift of preaching. But for most, opponents and supporters alike, the time of experimentation was over. ‘Inspiration’ said Sir William Davenant, was a dangerous word which many have of late successfully used. The doctrine of ‘the inner light’, then, was no longer for the sectaries mere absolute individualism, if it ever had been. It was to be balanced by ‘the sense of the meeting’ and ‘common sense.’ But John Bunyan’s question remained to ‘haunt’ the former radicals:

“Were you doers or talkers only? What canst thou say?”

John Bunyan by Thomas Sadler 1684.jpg
John Bunyan

If Milton had intellectual affinities with the radicals but was set apart from them by his patrician status and assumptions, Bunyan shared the social and political attitudes of the radicals, but not their theology. Bunyan enlisted in the Parliamentary army when an edict demanded 225 recruits from the town of Bedford. There are few details available about his military service, which took place during the first stage of the English Civil War. A muster roll for the garrison of Newport Pagnell shows him as private “John Bunnian”. In Grace Abounding, he recounted an incident from this time, as evidence of the grace of God:

“When I was a souldier, I, with others, were drawn out to go to such a place to besiege it; But when I was just ready to go, one of the company desired to go in my room, to which, when I had consented, he took my place; and coming to the siege, as he stood sentinel, he was shot into the head with a musket bullet and died.”

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The birthplace: Steel engraved print with hand colour,
published in The Youth’s Magazine, 1848. Harrowden, Bedfordshire

Bunyan’s army service provided him with a military vocabulary which he then used in his book The Holy War, and it also exposed him to the ideas of the various religious sects and radical groups he came across in Newport Pagnell. The garrison town also gave him opportunities to indulge in the sort of behaviour he would later confess to in Grace Abounding: So that until I came to the state of Marriage, I was the very ringleader of all the Youth that kept me company, in all manner of vice and ungodliness. Bunyan spent nearly three years in the army, leaving in 1647 to return to Elstow and his trade as a tinker. He was baptised as a believer into a local nonconformist fellowship in Bedford and began to make known to others the Saviour whom he had found, finding great success as a lay preacher for them from 1653. His first writings were against George Fox and the Quakers; his theology developed in controversy with them, as well as with the ‘Ranters’. Between the years 1655 and 1660 he often preached in the neighbourhood of Bedford, but in 1660 he was put into Bedford County Gaol for preaching without a license; ‘lay preaching’, by people other than ‘ordained’ clergymen was made illegal after the Restoration of Charles II in 1660. One object of that restoration had been to put tinkers back into their callings. Bunyan’s parents had been cottagers and his second wife described him in 1661 as a tinker and a poor man, therefore he is despised and cannot have justice. But Bunyan recalled a lot from the revolutionary decades when he came to write The Pilgrim’s Progress in gaol, commenting on the ease with which, after the restoration, puritans became propertied and respectable. In 1658 he had written that …

more servants than masters, more tenants than landlords, will inherit the kingdom of heaven.

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John Bunyan, from an eighteenth-century engraving. He is dreaming of the beginning of Pilgrim’s Progress, with Christian fleeing the City of Destruction.

‘God’s own,’ he wrote in the same year, are most commonly of the poorer sort. We call Bunyan a Calvinist, but if so, he was a Calvinist with a difference. His questions above show that he shared Winstanley’s activism and that he believed that heaven had to be striven for; it was not a reward of inheritance as many of the hyper-Calvinistic Baptists came to believe in the restoration and later Stuart period. Bunyan’s theology represented the outlook of mobile small craftsmen, itinerants like himself. The hero of The Pilgrim’s Progress is one of the people: the law and its courts, he knows, will not give him justice. Salvation must be the arbitrary gift of God’s grace from outside because the essence of the Fall had been a breach of God’s arbitrary, irrational prohibition. We can see Pilgrim’s Progress as the greatest literary product of the poorer sort, the epic of the itinerant: As I walked through the wilderness of this world, Bunyan laid himself down to sleep in a den which he lighted on: Pilgrim’s Progress was the dream he dreamed. The first of the two books was first published in 1678, following release from his imprisonment, during which he wrote the first draft. The later two-part volume became the most important and popular book after the Bible itself, and often the only volume accompanying it in the labourer’s cottage.

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The cover of the 1916 edition, published by The Religious Tract Society (London): ‘Evangelist’ points the way to Christian.

At first, following the Restoration, it seemed that a national compromise in the state church could be achieved between Puritans and episcopalians. Richard Baxter, a former army chaplain (to Cromwell’s troopers and later to the Lord Protector himself) and a leading Puritan ‘divine’, became a chaplain to Charles II, though he refused an offer to become the Bishop of Hereford, preferring instead to return to his old church at Kidderminster. But when it became clear that he could not go back there, he settled down to preach once a week first at St Dunstan’s in the West end of Fleet Street and then at St Bride’s Church at the other end. He hoped to bring about a reconciliation between the restored bishops and the Puritans, but the bishops were bent on getting back all the churches and parishes from those they saw as ‘usurpers’. They also believed, in any case, that the people had been wrongly taught by preachers who often lacked their level of university education.

They persuaded the King to agree to ‘The Act of Uniformity,’ which tried to make everyone return to the state church to worship in a uniform way. It also dictated that all the Puritan ministers were to promise to use the new (1662) Prayer Book and to obey the bishops and that, if they did not do this by St Bartholemew’s Day, 24th August 1662, they were to be turned out of their churches. Baxter was one of the many ‘good and true’ ministers who felt they could not promise this. Though he was not opposed to the use of the Prayer Book, he did think it wrong to force people to do so if it was against their conscience. Being turned out of their churches also meant being turned out of their homes, so that, according to Baxter, hundreds of good ministers with their wives and children had neither home nor bread. Many of their parishioners tried to help them and followed them out of the churches, listening to their preaching and teaching in private houses. So a year later another law was passed, ‘The Conventicle Act’, to stop all such meetings and to send everyone caught attending them to prison. Baxter himself had to change his home nine times in three years because spies were regularly set on him. On one occasion, two magistrates tried to arrest him while he was visiting the sick and praying with them, which would have constituted a breach of the law. Another time, he was preaching in a private home when a bullet was fired through the window at him, narrowly missing him.

Those arrested included many who were already attending independent worship, among them many Quakers, Baptists and Independents, of whom John Bunyan was the best known outside the capital. All of these groups now went by the name ‘nonconformist’ since they all refused to conform to the litany of the new Prayer Book. The Baptists were effectively back in the same situation they had been fifty years earlier, without any freedom to worship in their own ways, according to their own ordinances and in their own chapels.


Tim Dowley (ed.) et. al. (1977), The History of Christianity. Berkhamsted: Lion Publishing.

Christopher Hill (1975), The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution. Harmondsworth: Pelican Books.

Christopher Hill (ed.) (1973), Winstanley: The Law of Freedom and Other Writings. Harmondsworth: Pelican Books.

David Starsmeare (1978), Diggers: The Story of a Commune. Glasgow: Blackie & Son.

John Barton (2019), A History of the Bible: The Book and Its Faiths. London: Allen Lane (Penguin Books, Random House).

Austin Woolrych (2002), Britain in Revolution, 1625-1660. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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