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Radical reformers in England


Doug Gwyn

Two sources of early Quaker radical witness:

1. Spiritualist Reformation

This tradition filtered in to England in the C16 and was embodied in groups like the Family of Love in Elizabeth‘ s reign, then by Seekers (dropouts from all churches, waiting for a new revelation and new apostles) in the 1640s – Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers, as well as the Ranters, generate from this scene

2. The Anabaptist Reformation

Early 1647, met a group of shattered Baptists‘ a splintered congregation of General Bs near Mansfield, Notts major connection

October 1651


Quaker preaching and tracts restated many of the religious and political ideas already articulated by those groups, but had a way of turning previous ideas and experiments into a concrete and practical programme of radical religious witness and community building.

Quaker apocalyptic witness targeted the established church most centrally as the primary obstacle to Christ‘ s reign on earth through the free consciences of men and women willing to turn to his teaching

Early Friends shifted the focus of political conflict from the political superstructure to the social infrastructure of England

Quakers were soon filling up prisons around England like no other group had done in living memory

The Lamb‘ s War can be seen as a nonviolent cultural revolution

Friends threatened the government like no other movement of the period


'The Levellers are the first modern political movement organized around the idea of popular sovereignty. They are the first democrats who think in terms, not of participatory self-government within a city-state, but of representative government within a nation-state. They are the first who want a written constitution in order to protect the rights of citizens against the state. The first with a modern conception of which rights should be inalienable: the right to silence (torture to extract a confession was a normal judicial procedure over most of Europe) and to legal representation; the right to freedom of conscience and freedom of debate; the right to equality before the law and freedom of trade; the right to vote and, when faced with tyranny, to revolution. The Levellers are thus not merely the first modern democrats, but the first to seek to construct a liberal state. Not only do their objectives have a contemporary ring, but the very language they use is often indistinguishable from our own'. David d Wootton '-The, Levellers', in J. Dunn, ed., Democracy's Unfinished Journey, 508BC to 1993AD (OUP 1992), p. 71.

The Diggers came to prominence in 1649 when they occupied some common land in Surrey, England. They established a self-sufficient commune there, issued a manifesto called The True Levellers Standard Advanced, and appealed to others to join them. Among their leaders were Gerrard Winstanley and William Everard, and they took their action both as a practical response to their hunger and as a first step towards creating a communist ‘ that is, moneyless and propertyless - society. They inspired similar ventures across England, but opposition from local gentry forced their experiment to close after a year. A key Digger tenet was that the earth was created by God for all to share ‘ a ’Common Treasury". Individual ownership was not part of the creation story, and Diggers aimed to restore the earth to communal ownership. In this they went further than many of their contemporaries who, while they accepted that a ’propertyless" age had once existed, argued that the ’Fall" made its realization again impossible. Fallen humanity was so subject to impulses of greed, fear, envy and lust that society could not only survive unless accommodation were made to the need to own and protect private property. The Diggers, however, believed that human nature was affected by social factors, that self-interest and greed were sustained by the system of buying and selling; and therefore as people discovered the benefits of communitarian living they would be transformed and the process of breaking down the system built upon private ownership would be unstoppable. Diggers envisaged a gradual process in which, as people set up communes, the system of hiring labour - the only way the rich could manage their huge estates - would disintegrate. Had their programme succeeded it would have transformed society in a profoundly radical way.

Also underpinning the Diggers" hopes for the restoration of society to its original communitarian state was a belief that such a restoration constituted the second coming of Christ. Christ would not appear suddenly or dramatically but ’rise up" in men and women and enlighten them to the delights and benefits of owning land in common. Christ"s appearance would effect a change at the level of the individual and society, leading to a recovery of that state of true community not known since before the Fall. To the Diggers, Christ remains ’buried" in the earth, giving it a sacred quality. It is our ’true Mother...that brought us forth" and that ’loves all her children", wrote Winstanley, though she is hindered from ’giving all her Children suck" because landlords enclose the land and force poor people to starve. The Diggers" theology was very different from that taught by the Church. Diggers stressed the immanence of God and how everybody has their creator dwelling within them, and thought the doctrines of the Church were designed to keep people in subjection to the authorities. They saw the clergy, along with landlords and lawyers, as a sort of unholy trinity upholding the iniquitous system under the king, and while they welcomed the removal of the monarchy and introduction of the Commonwealth, they argued that only a total transformation of the system over which the king presided would lift the people"s burden. Hence they appealed for the interests of the poor majority to be recognised, for Parliament to make the Common-wealth exactly that.

Although the Diggers were committed to appeals to Parliament and to direct action they never advocated the use of violence. They believed that the use of the sword would merely result in one section of society lording it over the other, as was the case at present. And since, once Christ began to rise in men and women he could not be stopped, the question of using violence to change society did not arise.

Although the Diggers" venture was short-lived their ideas have long survived them, mainly because of the powerful pamphlets of their main theorist Gerrard Winstanley. The Diggers stand within that marginal political tradition which has argued the case for communitarian and ecologically-sensitive economic arrangements over market-based economies predicated on profit, competition and individualism. They continue to inspire writers and activists on the left, from anarcho-syndicalists to antiroads protestors, from Christian socialists to Greens.

Andrew Bradstock United Reformed Church, London, UK _ Gerrard Winstanley: the emergence of private property as the Fall of Adam in leafy Surrey

Between 1648 and 1652 Winstanley wrote tracts while he was actively involved in the 'Digger' colony he helped to create on St George's Hill in Surrey. The Diggers had a vision, not just to improve the lot of the hungry and landless through the cultivation of the commons, but to create a communist, that is, moneyless and propertyless, society of the kind they believed had existed before the Fall. Diggers held the Earth to have been originally a 'common treasury' for all to share. The Fall they regarded as the practice of buying and selling land, which allowed some to become rich and others to starve. From the consequences of this Fall humanity stood in need of redemption. True freedom could not be enjoyed by all until the land was held again in common. The practice of …digging‘ soon spread to many parts of the south and midlands, but the hostility of local landowners ensured no colonies survived for long, though it is arguable that, had the movement not been suppressed, the 'commonwealth' then being fashioned under Cromwell might have been more literally that.

Online Resources

Anabaptist historical roots: Glimpses: The Anabaptists and Menno Simons World of Ren/ Ref: The Radicals of the Reformation (Chapter 15) Radical Reformation BELIEVE an online glossary of theological terms. History of Western Civilization: The Anabaptists Dr. E. L. Skip Knox - Boise State University AnaBaptist Beginnings and Mennonite Beginnings The Anabaptist View of the Church by Jack Heppner The Anabaptist Vision by Harold S. Bender Victor Shepherd's Heritage page on Menno Simons The Mennonites' Dirty Little Secret What Christians could learn from Menno Simons and how he rescued the Anabaptist movement. by John D. Roth Balthasar Hubmaier andübmaier.htm A portrait of Hubmaier Mennonite Origins and the Mennonites of Europe By Harold S. Bender The Anabaptists and their Stepchildren by F.N. Lee Charlie's Heretics Tour : Amish, Cathars, Hussites, Hutterites, Jews, Mennonites, Unitarians, Waldensians ... presented geographically & chronologically. Reformation Guide: Radical Reformation Links for WH 528–The Reformation Schleitheim Confession (1527) The Dordrecht Confession of Faith (1632) A Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective (1995) The Roots and Fruits of Pietism

There are quite a few Home sites online related to Anabaptism and its subsequent history - and the continuing groups:

Mennonites, Hutterites, Amish, and various Brethern. Canadian Mennonite Online Encyclopedia Contents .. Source Documents Who are The Mennonites – The Amish Anabaptists: Separate By Choice, Marginal By Force by Elizabeth Scott Historical articles Micheal Sattler Mennonite Connections on the WWW A catalogue of Mennonite and Amish resources on the Internet - Extensive links Church of the Brethren Net Menno Simons Anabaptism in 16th Century Europe by Ronald J. Gordon Brethren Groups - Information and links of various groups Bible Views: Mennonite-Anabaptist Links to articles, books, confessions Schleitheim Confession (1527) Hutterian Brethren in North America

History : Jacob Hutter Peter Riedeman Jacob Wiederman Groups of Hutterites in NA Religion Hutterite Genealogy HomePage Master site Index Map Index Bruderhof Hutterites An article about Hutterite communities in Eastern Washington State An Article about the Amish in Lancaster, Penn.

Bibliographical links: Classics of the Radical Reformation: A Books List Anabaptist Bibliography MennoLink Books Mennonite Bibliography Mennonite Books Online Amish Bibliography Hutterite Books Mennonite Family History: Books on Anabaptism

The Mayhem at Munster: Charisma and History: The Case of Münster, Westphalia, 1534-1535 by Tal Howard Melchiorites Cathedral Taeufer 1534-1535: (German) The short-lived city state in Westphalia and its catastrophic end. City of Munster
Catholic Encyclopedia: :
Muenster -- : Anabaptists Web site for The Tailor King by Anthony Aurthur, includes illustrations.

Sources from © 2000 Barry McWilliams

FOR FURTHER READING ON EARLY FRIENDS: Douglas Gwyn, Apocalypse of the Word: the life and message of George Fox (Friends United Press, 1986). Douglas Gwyn, The Covenant Crucified: Quakers and the rise of capitalism (Pendle Hill, 1995). Douglas Gwyn, Seekers Found: atonement in early Quaker experience (Pendle Hill, 2000). Ben Pink Dandelion, Douglas Gwyn, Timothy Peat, Heaven on Earth: Quakers and the second coming (Woodbrooke/Curlew, 1998). Rosemary Moore, the Light in Their Consciences: the early Quakers in Britain, 1646-1666 (Penn State University Press, 2000).

Doug Gwyn Quaker Studies Tutor Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre (

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