Sunday, 27 March 2011

Radical Religion in Cromwell’s England A concise history from the English Civil War to the end of the Commonwealth Andrew Bradstock published by I.B.Tauris 2011 pp189 paperback £15.99.

This book is a rarity. Under conditions where current historiography of the English Civil war is mostly controlled by revisionist historians who think that groups such as Ranters, Diggers or Levellers should be mere footnotes of history this book is a welcome change to this practice and seeks to examine the origins and religion of these groups.

Bradstock, who is a Howard Paterson Professor of Theology and Public Issues at the University of Otago New Zealand is to be commended for taking on such a book in a very hostile intellectual climate. After all a large number of the historians, such as Christopher Hill and Brian Manning who Bradstock quotes have fallen slowly from favour.

Having said this Bradstock is not immune to the siren call of the Revisionists. This book while examines groups such as the Levellers, Ranters, Diggers, Fifth Monarchists in some detail he does so while eschewing any linking of these groups to the changes to England’s social and economic development at the time. A second concession to the revisionists is his almost apologetic reasoning for using the word Radical to describe these groups. In the end Bradstock does not bow to this pressure.

Bradstock begins with a real question. Why study these groups? To answer this, he makes a valid point when he says you define your attitude to the civil war by your attitude to the radical sects.

In the introduction, Bradstock uses the quote from Winstanley to set the scene for his history of these groups. The present state of the old world is running up like parchment in the fire.' claimed Gerrard Winstanley, leader of the radical religious group the Diggers, in mid-seventeenth century England.

The blurb advertising the book describes the period as “one of the most turbulent periods in that country's history. This title presents ideas and modern movements which emerged during this period”.

For the student of this time this is an excellent introduction to the groups such as the Levellers, but it does have weaknesses outside of the ones mentioned above. While you cannot fault his research or his writing style which is very accessible the book is very light in an analysis.

He breaks down the religious groups into their own chapters. To his credit, Bradstock cites Hill as one of his influences from an early age, but it is clear that Bradstock comes from an entirely different social and political standpoint from Hill.

He grew up in a Baptist household while his first encounter with these groups was “The World Turned Upside Down" Bradstock seems to have not to have taken on board too much of Hill’s placement of these groups in a social or economic setting.

The majority of the book concentrates on “Religious issues and the Bible” and for him, religious issues “drove the conflict and affected the way people thought and acted. Bradstock is of the firm opinion like John Morrill who coined the phrase that the civil war was “Europe’s last war of religion”.

While the book “focuses on people who joined together to a certain body of ideas and who wanted political, economic, social and religious change” you get very little understanding of the massive social and economic changes which the writings of the religious sects were a distorted reflection, he writes as though their writings were unconnected with social reality.

The book does, however, challenge the conception that interest in these groups is nil and he believes that these groups still have a resonance with societal problems in the 21st Century. Which is true after all we are still grappling with many of the issues discussed by Ranters and Diggers such as the nature of democracy, dictatorship and social inequality.

The fact that these groups sought to understand the social, political and economic changes of their day within the framework of religion is not a surprise. Cliff Slaughter makes this point “Like the religious systems of all class societies, Christianity is a set of beliefs whose meaning can be turned in different and sometimes opposite social directions. Since it is not a rational or scientific theory of the world its parts may be rearranged and selected according to the needs and inclinations of the faithful. For the revolutionary workers under modern capitalism religion is, without any qualification, part of the armoury of reaction. But in previous epochs, before the objective conditions existed for an oppressed class fully to comprehend social reality and achieve its own liberation, the framework of all social doctrine, reactionary and progressive, remained religious. The two-sidedness of Christian development (on the one hand, it served to defend feudal and then capitalist reaction, on the other it served as an ideological cover and inspiration for revolt) is rooted in the very nature of universal religions. In Marx’s words, ‘Religious misery is at the same time the expression of real misery and the protest against that real misery’.”

While Bradstock does not have very much to say on modern day revisionists, he does provide some information on past controversies. Perhaps the most famous were the remarks by J C Davis who went further than most historians by doubting that a group like the Ranters even existed. Perhaps this is a little inaccurate Davis did think they lived but he attempted to “restrict them to three or four individuals. Anything more was the creation of hostile pamphleteers”.

In Fact according to Christopher Hill Davis main argument was that the radical sects were largely a figment of the imagination of the Communist Party Historians Group. In reply this Hill said I don't think I need comment on Davis's allegation that the rediscovery (or invention) of the Ranters in the 1970s was part of a conspiracy between Communist and ex-Communist historians. This is flattering to A. L. Morton and myself, though I hardly think it will recommend itself to Norman Cohn, who preceded both of us, and the many other good historians who have studied them. But the analogy perhaps tells us something about Davis's mode of thought. Conservative conspirators invented the Ranters in the seventeenth century, communist conspirators re-discovered (or re- invented) them in the twentieth. The opposing arguments are both necessary if we are to avoid the just possible alternative, that the Ranters did in fact exist. Why is it so important for Davis to prove that they did not? What is he frightened of?

Perhaps the strongest aspect of this book is Bradstock's placement of the groups such as the Levellers within the context of the day. This is a very healthy thing to do. Bradstock makes it is clear that much of what the Levellers fought for was incredibly radical for the time. The Levellers appeared and were in fact organised like a political party in the years 1645-46. They were responsible for many of modern day political techniques such as mass demonstrations, collecting petitions, leafleting and the lobby of MPs. Their strength mainly lay in London and other towns and had quite considerable support in the army. The movement was an extremely disparate group containing groups such as the Diggers or as they have called the True Levellers and Ranters who were on the extreme left wing of the Leveller movement.

The central plank of its manifesto was the call for a democratic republic in which the House of Commons would be more important than the House of Lords. A Leveller would have wanted redistribution and extension of the franchise, legal and economic reform on behalf of men of small property, artisans, yeoman, small merchants, and the very layer which made up the Levellers themselves.

Bradstock outlines very well the persecution suffered by the radical sects. The treatment of the Quaker leader James Nayler even by today’s’ standards is truly shocking. The Baptists, who were one of the smallest groups were constantly hounded akin to the McCarthy which hunts of the Communists of the 1950s and 60s. Their leaders were regularly imprisoned and tortured.

Bradstock also makes the point that to arrive at an objective understanding of the size and influence of these groups is not helped by the exaggerated fear and reaction to them by the authorities. Cromwell, however, was acutely aware that the ideas of the Levellers and the smaller groups within them such as the Diggers and Baptists were becoming a dangerous business. Speaking of the Levellers Cromwell said of what he called the ‘lunaticks’ “You must break these men, or they will break you”

The book on numerous occasions cites the fact that the authorities accused the sects of breaking the social fabric of society. And from the choice of a few quotes below this fear was not altogether unfounded. Ranters leader Coppe highlights this friction between classes:

‘Mighty men! ... Those that have admired, adored, idolized, magnified, set you up, fought for you, ventured goods, and good name, limb and life for you, shall cease from you.’ ‘For this Honour, Nobility, Gentility, Propriety, Superfluity. &c. hath (without contradiction) been the Father of hellish horrid pride, arrogance, haughtiness, loftinesse, murder, malice, of all manner of wickednesse and impiety; yea the cause of all the blood that ever hath been shed. from the blood of the righteous Abell, to the blood of the last Levellers that were shot to death.’

‘Hear one word more (whom it hitteth it hitteth) give over thy base nasty, stinking, formall grace before meat, and after meat ... give over thy stinking family duties, and thy Gospel( Ordinances as thou callest them; for under them all lies snapping, snarling, biting, besides covetousnesse, horrid hypocrisie, envy, malice, evil surmising.’

‘Kings, Princes, Lords, great ones, must bow to the poorest Peasants; rich men must stoop to poor rogues, or else they’ll rue for it ...

‘Howl, howl, ye nobles, howl honourable, howl ye rich men for the miseries that are coming upon you

‘For our parts, we that hear the Apostle preach, will also have all things common; neither will we call anything that we have our own.

‘Do you (if you please) till the plague of God rot and consume what you have.

‘We will not, wee’ll eat our bread together in singlenesse of heart, wee’ll break bread from house to house.’

No wonder that George Fox, the Quaker, found the Ranters, ‘were very rude, and stirred up the rude people against us.’

 Bradstock offers little insight into the social origins of any leaders of the various groups. Gerrard Winstanley leader of the Diggers was a businessman and that his radicalism coincided with one of the most revolutionary chapters in English history but that merely points out that at certain times men and women are moved by such profound events such as wars and revolution and that their thoughts during peaceful times sometimes move at glacial speed during revolutions they speed up dramatically.

His avocation of the redistribution of land through the pamphlet called The Law of Freedom in a Platform, saw him elaborate a Christian/Communist basis for society in which property and wages were abolished. From A Declaration from the Poor Oppressed People of England he said "The power of enclosing land and owning property was brought into the creation by your ancestors by the sword; which first did murder their fellow creatures, men, and after plunder or steal away their land, and left this land successively to you, their children. And therefore, though you did not kill or thieve, yet you hold that cursed thing in your hand by the power of the sword; and so you justify the wicked deeds of your fathers, and that sin of your fathers shall be visited upon the head of you and your children to the third and fourth generation, and longer too, till your bloody and thieving power be rooted out of the land".

The ideas of the sects such as the diggers were not entirely new and are very much in direct descent from the continental groups of century’s before.Bradstock is clear that these millenarian ideas expressed by the likes of Winstanley have their origins in the lower strata of society. These ideas were anathema to the victorious upper-middle classes represented by Cromwell and Ireton.

As Cliff Slaughter says “for the understanding of some of the great problems of human history, the study of religion is a necessity. What is the relationship between the social divisions among men and their beliefs about the nature of things? How do ruling classes ensure long periods of acceptance of their rule by those they oppress? Why were the ‘Utopians’ wrong in thinking that it was sufficient only to work out a reasonable arrangement of social relations in order to proceed to its construction? It was out of the examination of questions like this in the German school of criticism of religion that Marx emerged to present for the first time a scientific view of society. ‘The criticism of religion is the beginning of all criticism.”

I would recommend reading this book. It is first of its kind for a long time. Let’s hope it is not the last book that seeks unwittingly to challenge the grip of the revisionists on current civil war writing.


1. Andrew Bradstock is Howard Paterson Professor of Theology and Public issues at the University of Otago, New Zealand. His previous post was heading up Church and Society in the United Reformed Church and Director of the Christian Socialist Movement.

2. Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium (Seeker and Warburg. 1957).

3. Religion and Social Revolt Cliff Slaughter Labour Review Vol 3 No 3 June 1958

4. The Lost Ranters ? A Critique of J C Davis by C Hill

5. Did the Ranters Exist G E Aylmer Past and Present No117 1987

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