Radical Religion in Cromwell's England: A Concise History from the English Civil War to the End of the Commonwealth

April 14, 2011

Arch-conservatives such as Lewis Namier and A.L. Rowse could never understand why other historians wasted their time on the patently obvious losers of history and the "lunatic fringe", rather than concentrating on the mainstream. Andrew Bradstock resists making false claims either for the original importance of the groups discussed here or for their legacy over time. But in this text, which is aimed at the general reader, he offers a compelling and accessibly presented case as to why they still matter and retain their relevance for today's debates on liberty and values.

Worth noting is that Bradstock writes as a professor of theology, not of history, and as one who was himself raised within a Particular Baptist family and church. This is a study, therefore, based on experience and not just "book learning" - a central platform for all the 17th-century radicals he discusses here.

The groups that form the subject of this volume certainly had common denominators. All grew out of the power vacuum of the 1640s and the collapse of censorship. Their social appeal was chiefly to craftsmen and others in the middle ranks, rather than to the very poor. All had minority followings, although the Quakers in particular went through a period of astonishingly rapid growth in the second half of the 1650s. Most of the groups operated at the interface between religion and politics; Levellers indeed, strongest in London and Parliament's New Model Army, were chiefly noted for their radical political agenda.

Only the Muggletonians, in this respect as in others, stood out on a limb with their curiously distinctive theology, their predilection for cursing and their reticence to evangelise. Unsurprisingly, since most of these groups resolutely resisted civil and religious authority, they were confronted with obstacles and persecution. The Levellers and Diggers were suppressed. Many of the early Quakers were roughly handled and imprisoned for their stridently egalitarian beliefs and practices.

Women achieved a numerical prominence in several of these groups, exerting new-found freedoms in the process. A few - Quaker organiser Margaret Fell and Fifth Monarchist visionary Anna Trapnel are examples - had key roles in their own right.

With few exceptions, the groups discussed here were short-lived; the Ranter experiments, for instance, probably lasted only two or three years. There were tensions and rivalries between some of the groups, especially among those who claimed a monopoly of the truth. Religious tolerance lay in the future.

But boundaries separating some of these radical groupings were ill-defined anyway and it was relatively easy for individuals to migrate from one to another. The Digger leader Gerrard Winstanley, for example, started off as a Baptist and died a Quaker.

Equally noticeable, however, was internal fracturing within some of the sects. Loosely organised, they developed strikingly different wings. General Baptists and Particular Baptists were theologically divided. The Leveller leadership did not always speak for the rank and file.

Bradstock's book invites comparison with a 1984 volume of essays edited by J.F. McGregor and Barry Reay, Radical Religion in the English Revolution; one of the main differences is that Seekers, the most amorphous of the radical religious groupings, get considerably more space in the earlier volume. Not surprisingly, since he has published other works on Winstanley and the Diggers, Bradstock shows most originality in that chapter. On the Fifth Monarchists he is content, by and large, to follow Bernard Capp, their chief modern historian.

But the guiding influence most consistently apparent here is that of Christopher Hill, author of The World Turned Upside Down (1972). No other historian is mentioned even half as frequently. Rather pointedly, Hill's chief adversary on the subject of the Ranters, J.C. Davis, is very quickly passed over and not even identified by name.

Radical Religion in Cromwell's England: A Concise History from the English Civil War to the End of the Commonwealth

By Andrew Bradstock. I.B. Tauris, 234pp, £52.50 and £15.99. ISBN 9781845117641 and 7658. Published 14 February 2011

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