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Who were the english radicals?


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

Eearly 1647, met a group of shattered Baptists‘ a splintered congregation of General Bs near Mansfield, Notts - major connection – the group now calls itself 'Children of the Light‘ and Fox is its key figure – Elizabeth Hooton, a prominent member of the group, becomes an important spiritual ally of Fox in latter 1640s – Fox builds a network of these groups in Midlands October 1650 – Fox arrested and imprisoned at Derby for blasphemy under the new Blasphemy Act designed to round up Ranters – his preaching of moral perfection in the power of the Spirit sounded to some like Ranter equation of good and evil – spent one year in prison there – the Parliamentary army tried to recruit him out of prison but he refused on pacifist grounds – wrote provocative epistles to town leaders, debated clergy in his cell, was generally radicalised during this period toward a more confrontational ministry.

October 1651 – released – writes in his Journal that he felt like a lion set loose among the beasts of the field – now preaching an apocalyptic message – the day of the Lord – !Christ is come to teach his people himself and bring them off all the world‘ s ways and religions‘ – a second-coming message, but centered in present experience – the light within each person‘ s conscience is Christ‘ s presence to teach them directly, lead them into all righteousness, obviating the need of a professional clergy, gathering people into worship groups to wait upon the Lord‘ s direct teaching in silence, speaking only as spoken through by Christ‘ s own direct revelation in the light/Spirit – anyone moved by Christ, male or female, rich or poor, has authority to speak and help Christ lead the group in that moment Moving up into Yorkshire, Fox began to connect quickly with some able Seekers and ex-soldiers – along with the apocalyptic message came confrontational, conflict-producing methods – entry into parish churches to argue and denounce the clergy – denunciations of unfair trading practices in the marketplaces – preaching repentance and the day of the Lord in the streets – these polarizing tactics often unleashed mob violence or arrest and imprisonment against early Quaker preachers – but they also drew sympathetic individuals out and these formed new Quaker worship groups.

1652 – Fox moved across Yorkshire into Westmorland and Lancashire with exponentially increasing effects – hundreds of Seekers in Westmorland were convinced in two weeks time in June 1652 – Fox‘ s message was the call northern radicals had been waiting for and they quickly became the vanguard of a movement that grew so rapidly in the north that neither local nor national authorities could see a way to repress them as had been so easily done with Levellers, Diggers and Ranters in the previous decade.

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 – but tracts like The Three-fold Estate of Antichrist also suggest that the gentry and magistracy were in deep collusion with the established clergy in upholding the power of the Dragon in England Early Friends called their movement the !Lamb‘ s War‘ , utilising images from the Book of Revelation – they viewed themselves as the faithful on Mt Zion following the Lamb into apocalyptic holy war against the forces of the Dragon – Fox and early Friends read Revelation not as predictions of an imminent future but the description of an unfolding present – they followed its imageries and understood that the kind of eschatological change they were experiencing and catalyzing around them must be deeply conflictual in nature – just as they experienced deep-seated deceit and resistance in their own personal transformation in the light of Christ, they understood that they must confront the same dark forces in society around them – but they understood that their conflict was nonviolent, their weapons spiritual – mobs and magistrates might deal violently with them, but the tactics of the Lamb‘s War were consistently nonviolent.

Early Friends shifted the focus of political conflict from the political superstructure to the social infrastructure of England – they learned from the hollow victory of the Civil War and from the defeated republican agenda of the Levellers that the new Puritan powers would maintain control jealously – the logic of the kingdom was transformation from the grassroots, not an attempt to seize state control – and as Christ had shown in his own life and death, this transformation involves suffering.

Quakers were soon filling up prisons around England like no other group had done in living memory - - they cheerfully accepted this as part of their witness and kept meticulous records of what Friends were suffering across the nation – I think this martyrological impulse derives partly from the Anabaptist tradition and partly from the Lollard tradition, which was strong around Fox‘s village in Leicestershire.

The Lamb‘ s War can be seen as a nonviolent cultural revolution – it confronted a variety of social mores and modeled an alternative, more peaceful and egalitarian social order among Friends – the behavioural codes of early Friends were aimed to reach to the light, or witness, of Christ within each person – these included plain speaking, a more simple dress and lifestyle, a respect for the spiritual authority of women, etc. – these codes could get an individual in trouble quickly in the highly mannered society of C17-England – eg, not showing verbal and gestural deference to social superiors, employers, parents, judges, clergy, etc. were very unnerving and suggested all sorts of threatening meanings to a Puritan establishment anxious to settle church and state into something viable in the 1650s.

Friends threatened the government like no other movement of the period – their exponentially growing numbers and surprisingly quick communications and coordination inspired fear and repression, particularly from 1656 onwards – their apocalyptic warnings to Oliver Cromwell, Parliament and others could easily be construed as veiled threats of a Quaker insurrection – though a few Quakers did get drawn into plots in 1659, they were strongly denounced by the leadership of the movement.


'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 on 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 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:

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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