6.4. The sectarianism of the English Civil War


In 1625 Charles I took the throne of England as the successor of James I, and his reign proved to be an endless struggle between Royalty and the Parliament. It was a period marked by conflicts, plots, assassinations, intrigues, open violence and street movements. Between 1629 and 1640 the king managed to obtain absolute power and ruled England without the Parliament, but he gradually lost the loyalty of his supporters. As a result, amid the political and religious dissensions, in 1642 the English Civil War erupted.

The first part of the war, between 1642 and 1646, and the second part, between 1648 and 1649, were characterized by the instigation of the supporters of Charles I against the supporters of the Long Parliament. The third part of the war, between 1649 and 1651, consisted in the fight between the supporters of Charles II and the supporters of the Rump Parliament. The Civil War led to the execution of Charles I, the exile of his son Charles II and the replacing of the monarchy with the republican governments. In 1649 the Commonwealth was instituted until 1653, followed then by two Protectorates of Oliver Cromwell and Richard Cromwell. The Civil War ended with the victory of the Parliament at the Battle of Worcester on September 3, 1651. The Commonwealth was shortly revived between 1659 and 1660, before the restoration of the monarchy in the person of Charles II in the spring of 1660.

In the 17th century Britain’s religious life was significantly altered by the continental Protestants who sought refuge on the island. This influx of people fueled the religious fervency of the English people, while the invigoration of Catholicism through the Counter-Reformation generated the idea that Protestant England, due to its geographical advantage, has the special destiny to overthrow Rome.712 On the mainland, the Papacy had been able to secure for itself a continuous domination over Western Europe by suppressing any non-Catholic government with the help of the neighboring Catholic powers. But the English people have always had a great advantage against any foreign intervention: the English Channel. This natural defense allowed England to adopt the middle way of Anglicanism, to have a greater freedom in religious and political organization, and an increased level of tolerance toward innovation and radicalism.

Between the collapse of the totalitarian-monarchical system of government and the establishment of the parliamentary one, 1640-1680 were years of unprecedented freedom. The sense of social dissolution, the installation of chaos on all the levels of society and the fall of the Episcopal system encouraged the fanatics to come to the light and preach. Religious tolerance meant freedom of manifestation for the most aberrant and weirdest sects and doctrines. The fall of censorship unleashed a cascade of alchemical and astrological books, of almanacs that combined a more advanced Copernican astronomy with the astrological prophecies about the course and the outcome of the Civil War. The English – Bishop Hacket said in 1655 – are too credulous when it comes to vain prophecies. At the dawn of the Civil War the fanatics believed that the anticipated collapse of England was a prelude for the collapse of the world. In 1641 a pamphlet circulated about a 16-year-old girl from Nottinghamshire who returned to life before her own funeral and spent five days prophesying about wars and disasters followed by a final age of peace.713

The Protestant preachers called their parishioners to fight for the Parliament against the allies of the Antichrist, the tyrannical monarch, or even against the Antichrist himself, identified, naturally, with the Papacy: “There is no other head of the church but the Lord Jesus Christ ... Pope of Rome ... is that antichrist, that man of sin, and son of perdition, that exalteth himself in the church against Christ, and all that is called God.”714 Stimulated by the fall of the old certainties and by millennial enthusiasm, by the possibility to freely meet and discuss, from the eschatological insinuations of the poet John Milton to the soldiers of the Parliament army who believed that the Earl of Essex, their commander, was the embodiment of John the Baptist and that Jesus would soon join him, English society was experiencing the most diverse fatalistic feelings. During the Interregnum Milton depicted England as being saved from the traps of a worldly monarchy, as a chosen nation similar to the Israelite nation, and its leader Oliver Cromwell as a Moses of the last days.715 Such fantastic expectations and visions shaped the convenient notion that the Millennium would be first established in England, and only after that in the rest of the world.

John Dury, Samuel Hartlib and John Amos Comenius were inspired by the writings of Mede and Alsted and approved the idea that London was the place from which human and divine knowledge would spread.716 In 1628 Henry Burton followed Mede in the belief that they were living during the sound of the sixth angelic trumpet, followed by the seventh that leads to the emancipation of the world’s kingdoms from the influence of the Antichrist.717 Thomas Brightman, a cleric in Bedfordshire whose writings were published posthumously and enjoyed appreciation in the 1640s, postulated two millenniums. The second Millennium started around the year 1300 and had to finish around 1900 with a Protestant occupation of Rome and the fall of the Antichrist. John Cotton took Brightman’s ideas and claimed that resurrection would take place in a new England, separated from the Catholic hierarchical system.718 Thomas Goodwin was also inspired by Brightman and suggested that Christ would soon gloriously reign for 1,000 years. The beginning of the Millennium, he calculated, was the year 1650, but 45 more years were necessary for a complete installation. And, after a powerful depression made her hear inner prophetic voices, Elizabeth Parker Avery advanced her own version of the last days. According to Avery, the Catholic and Anglican persecution was a necessary phase for testing the saints, while the end of the world had to be preceded by mass revelations, a better understanding of the Word of God, an outbreak of unusual spiritual powers, and the rise of the Puritans to the status of millennial theocrats.719

The feeling that the structure of European society was faulty and it had to be changed was not new; Thomas More signaled this aspect in Utopia from 1516 and Tommaso Campanella in Civitas Solis from 1602. On the mainland, the Protestant Reformation failed to dismantle the Catholic system and to help the local princes gain more authority in relation to the German emperor. Things, however, evolved differently on the island. England, due to its geographical privileges, had the occasion to adopt a political system according to its own will. And the chaos of the Civil War, the subsequent decapitation of Charles I and the installation of the Commonwealth gave birth to a wide range of discussions about how society should be restructured.

The philosophers Thomas Hobbes and John Locke built systems of political philosophy; Leviathan and Treaties of Government promoted systems of government based on human reason; they criticized the Papacy’s temporal power and the marriage between politics and religion.720 Oliver Cromwell had the ambition to govern with a plutocratic parliament voted by an electorate of the rich. The Royalists, in turn, wished to crown Charles II and to maintain monarchism, one of the reasons being the biblical tradition starting with Saul and David, in contrast to parliament, which has no biblical support and is a purely human creation.

Back then the common Englishmen saw politics as subordinate to religion and they thought about politics in religious terms. Due to this fact, groups such as the Fifth Monarchists instigated for the establishment of a theocracy in order to prepare the path for Parousia, while Gerrard Winstanley’s Diggers defended a radical-agrarian solution. For others, however, haunted by the image of Christ coming to personally reorganize society, adopting one political system or another was irrelevant. Colonel Thomas Harrison said that the instauration of the Protectorate or maintaining the monarchy were only prolonging the power of this world in the hands of the people when God was about to take it from them.721 And Joshua Sprigge, the chaplain of Fairfax Independent, opposed the adoption of a new constitution on the grounds that they had to wait for God, who would bring a new heaven and a new earth. Similarly, for Lieutenant Colonel William Goffe the turbulence of his time was the work of Jesus Christ, who was destroying the injustice and the polity.722

The English Civil War was the period of great symbolic gestures and of acting outside normal patterns, when prophesying turned into a veritable profession. No matter if they interpreted the stars, popular myths, the Bible or experienced divine revelations, the prophets were treated with great respect. In 1644 the astrologer William Lilly sold around 1,800 copies of his work A Prophecy of the White King within three days of its publication. The Parliament granted him a pension of 100 pounds per year after the alleged fulfillment of the prophecies, and the common people took his work very seriously.

The turmoil of the Cromwellian revolution became the promised land for new political-religious groups because the overthrow of the monarchy significantly weakened the Anglican censorship. These groups were not political parties in the way they are understood today, but people gathered around certain beliefs. More exactly, they were a combination between political party, sect and secret society. Most of them had been founded before the Civil War, but they took advantage of the social chaos to come forward and make themselves heard. And, even though they supported different points of view, their rhetoric was similar. Furthermore, the allegiance to one group or another was very fluid, with the possibility to concurrently adhere to more groups. Therefore, it is difficult to distinguish between those who categorically militated for the establishment of the Millennial Kingdom, those who demanded the return to the pure worship of the early Church and the rejection of the Catholic ritualism, and others who wanted England’s laws to reflect a higher degree of morality.

Of all the movements, the Levellers were the most balanced in their demands. Without a coherent agenda, but determined to uproot the corruption of society, the Levellers were guided by the writings of the political agitator John Lilburne. They put the accent on the sovereignty of the people, the extended vote, equality before the law and religious tolerance. For Richard Overton freedom is an innate feature of every person, while Lilburne coined the expression “freeborn rights,” defined as rights with which every human being is born, in opposition to the rights bestowed by government through laws.723

By contrast, the Adamites were the weirdest, claiming that they had regained the primordial innocence of Adam and Eve. Although they were few in number, the Adamites became notorious due to their shocking manners. They lived in total lawlessness, practiced the “sacred nudism” and rejected the institution of marriage on the reason that it had been established as a consequence of original sin. Their parades of nudity and were meant to demonstrate that a person can regain the innocence of the first people through complete denial of garments and achieving shamelessness regarding his own and others’ nakedness. Thus, the Millennium would be established only when all people would accept nakedness and would live in peace.724

Indeed, garment denial by saints and prophets has a long biblical tradition, but in an entirely different context. The rejection of all earthly goods and the concept of equality of all men in front of God were usual motivations for total undressing. But nudity was a taboo during the Elizabethan and post-Elizabethan periods; at the time the elites, especially women, were maltreating their bodies with oversized and super-ornate clothes. The fashion aimed to hide the body as much as possible. So, Adamism was a protest against the social conventions and a burst of insanity that resembled more the orgiastic Roman festivals than the worship of Christ.

The Ranters were similar to the Adamites. Concentrated around London, without a leader or an interior organization, Ranterism was a quasi-millennial group which subscribed to Joachim of Fiore’s Age of the Spirit. The Ranters manifested themselves among the poor and they did not wait for a physical return of Christ, but believed that his Second Coming was inward, within the believers (a sort of invisible return). Abiezer Coppe declared that the “master of the armies” was about to remove all social and economic differences, while Joseph Salmon preached to English soldiers to lay down their weapons if they did not want to stand in the way of Providence. Thomas Tany and John Robins were also Ranters.

The Ranterist God was present in everything; the divine essence was as much in the ivy leaf as in the most glorious angel (pantheism).725 Hence, Christians were not subjected to any moral law, being freed through grace (antinomianism). The sacrifice of Jesus made the people free from sin and law. The Ranters did not hesitate to make parades of public nudity as well. They were even suspected of practicing the transfer of partners, illicit sex and other depraved activities. The Ranterist priest Lawrence Clarkson wrote in his journal that “sin hath its conception only in the imagination; therefore, so long as the act was in God, or nakedly produced by God, it was as holy as God.”726 In 1652 Mary Adams of Tillingham shocked the public when she proclaimed herself the Virgin Mary, claimed that she had become pregnant through the action of the Holy Spirit and that her child was the savior of the world. Mary Adams gave birth to a child indeed, but, as a divine curse, he was severely disfigured and died shortly after Adams was incarcerated for spreading false alarmist rumors.727

The Seekers were established through the sermons of the three Legatt brothers, active in London between 1590 and 1612. The Legatt brothers declared all the existing churches corrupt and proclaimed themselves the new apostles of God destined to form a new pure church. The Seekers were chaotic, informal and localized; strangely, the membership to a local Seekerist gathering did not exclude the membership to another group. They requested absolute religious freedom: an entirely voluntary exercise of faith and the toleration of heresy, blasphemy, Catholicism, non-Christian religions and even atheism. In fact, the Seekers promoted the respect and indifference regarding all other beliefs, without accepting any of them as authoritative. Instead, they, similarly to the sect of the Barrowists, preferred to wait for Parousia and the establishment of the real Church by Christ himself. Instead of religious services, the Seekers held meetings free of any ecclesiastical ritual, quietly, waiting for God’s revelation.728 William Erbery preached about universal salvation and peace, but he denied the divinity of Christ. However, the Second Coming was supposed to happen in 1640 through the “saints,” helped by the Holy Spirit. The Seeker William Sedgwick had a different opinion. After a woman in Saffham Prior claimed that she had had a revelation about the imminent Judgment Day, the credulous Sedgwick believed that God sent him a sign urging him to preach. At the end of 1647 he gave his work Leaves of the Tree of Life... to King Charles I, who read a small part of it and returned it reasoning that “the author stands in need of some sleep.”729

The Quakers, or the Religious Society of Friends, had views similar to those of the Ranters, but they were less despised because they were not antinomians. The founder of the movement was George Fox, the son of a weaver from rural England, who believed he heard the voice of Christ and started to preach in 1648. The Quakers believed in continuous revelation, that God directly speaks with every person and guides our lives, without the need for intermediaries such as priests or prophets. They absolutely rejected the idea of priests, churches or holy temples, all forms of religious symbolism and visible sacraments (such as baptism), but accepted the priesthood of all believers. The Quakerist worship did not have an individual in charge to lead the service; instead, the believers gathered in silence, which was interrupted only when someone felt the need to speak at the urge of the Holy Spirit. Any member could give a sermon if he felt that God asked him to. The Quakers thought about themselves that they were the restoration of the true Church of Jesus Christ, after centuries of apostasy. Therefore, they called themselves “saints” and described their faith through expressions such as “God is in all,” “inner light” or “Christ within.” The image of saints was confirmed even more when Fox and other Quakers were persecuted by the “modern Pharisees,” the Puritans and the Anglicans.730

In 1656, however, James Nayler went far beyond the standard beliefs of Quakerism: immediately after he was released from prison he entered Bristol riding a horse in a summer rain, accompanied by a handful of men and women shouting “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Sabaoth.” And they even put their clothes on the ground in front of the horse, imitating the entry of Jesus in Jerusalem. The purpose of this act was to emphasize the presence of the “inner light of Christ” in every person, but in the eyes of the outsiders Nayler was pretending to be Christ. The group was immediately arrested. In the pockets of the accused were found letters in which Nayler was compared with God, and a girl swore that she was resurrected from the dead by him while he was in prison. As punishment, Nayler was whipped on the streets of London, branded on his forehead with the letter “B” for blasphemy and condemned to two years of imprisonment.731

The Quakers were in fact more preoccupied with the moral invigoration of their society than with millenarist activism. The work The vials of the wrath of God upon the seat of the Man of Sin of George Fox was more a condemnation of football and wrestling, which Fox sought to outlaw together with theater, music, paintings, horse racings or anything else that could feed people’s pleasures.732

Quakerism was the largest sect of the Civil War because it managed to absorb other groups. In addition to the Seekers, Quakerism also absorbed ... (This text is incomplete. If you wish to read it in full, please purchase the book)

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