Inspiration and Experience
Excerpted from Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1975) pp. 366-71.
In the radicals' mode of thought two strands are twisted. One is belief in the evolution of truth, continuous revelation. John Robinson preached the doctrine in his farewell sermon to the Pilgrim Fathers in 1620 (1), so it is fitting that the belief is often related to the discovery of the New World. Thus John Goodwin in 1642 argued that 'if so great and considerable a part of the world as America is ... was yet unknown to all the world besides for so many generations together : well may it be conceived, not only that some but many truths, yea and those of main concernment and importance, may yet be unknown.' (2) [...] This was a great argument for religious toleration, in Areopagitica and in the anonymous The Ancient Bounds (1645), which insisted that truth 'cannot be so easily brought forth' without liberty of conscience; 'better many errors of some kind suffered than one useful truth be obstructed or destroyed'. (3) 'The daily progress of the light of truth,' said Milton, 'is productive far less of disturbance to the church, than of illumination and edification.' (4) Through revelation of new truths to believers, traditional Christianity could be adapted to the needs of a new age; the everlasting gospel within responded more easily and swiftly to the pressures of the environment than did traditions of the church or the literal text. History is a gradual progress towards total revelation of truth. (5)
What then is the test of the new truth? It is plain blunt common sense. [...] Appeal to the collective common sense of ordinary men and women was what the sectaries meant when they appealed to experience, experiment: the experience must have been felt by the recipient very powerfully, but he must also be able to communicate it to his peers, and they must find it acceptable.
Here we come to the second principle of the radicals -- reliance on the holy spirit within one, on one's own experienced truth as against traditional truths handed down by others. How else can revelation be continuous? This emphasis was common to Milton, Dell, Winstanley, Bunyan, Ranters and Quakers. [...] One consequence of the stress on continuous revelation and on experienced truths was that the idea of novelty, or originality, cease to be shocking and become in a sense desirable. 'All that I have writ concerning the matter of digging,' Winstanley wrote in December 1649, 'I never read it in any book, nor received it from any mouth ... before I saw the light of it rise within myself.' (6)
But treachery lurked in the inner light. In time of defeat, when the wave of revolution was ebbing, the inner voice became quietist, pacifist. This voice only was recognized by others as God's. God was no longer served by the extravagent gesture, whether Nayler's entry into Bristol or the blasphemy of the Ranters. Once the group decided this way, all the pressures were in the direction of accepting modes of expression not too shocking to the society in which men had to live and earn their living. The radicals were so effectively silenced that we do not know whether many held out in isolation with Milton. We do not even know about Winstanley. But what looked in the Ranter heyday as though it might become a counter-culture became a corner of the bourgeois culture whose occupants asked only to be left alone. The inner light which formerly spoke of the perfectibility of the saints now came to reemphasize sin. We should not attribute this to the skill, inspiration or wickedness of George Fox or of anyone else. Fox was only the agent: Nayler or Burrough in his place would no doubt have had to act similarly. The openness of the religion of the heard, of the inner voice, to changes in mass moods, to social pressures, to waves of feeling, had made it the vehicle of revolutionary transformations of thought: now it had the opposite effect. The 'sense of the meeting' accepted the 'common sense' of the dominant classes in society. 'Inspiration,' said Davenant, was 'a dangerous word which many have of late successfully used.' (7) It was to cease to be an ideal to be aimed at for a century or more, till the romantic revival.
The Bond of Unity
Excerpted from Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1975) pp. 371-3.
"The printer Giles Calvert's shop perhaps came nearest to uniting the radicals in spite of themselves... He printed translations of Henry Niclaes and Jacob Boehme, the works of Saltmarsh, Dell, some Levellers, most of Winstanley, the Wellingborough broadsheet, many Ranters and very many Quakers, as well as the last speeches of the regicides..."
The inner light, then, was not for the sectaries mere absolute individualism, any more than the appeal to private interpretation of the Bible was. The appeal to texts and traditions was not merely antiquarian: the past was called into existence to redress the balance of the present. Printing and the protestant emphasis on education had made available translations not only of the Scriptures but also of other hitherto arcane documents. Nicholas Culpeper translated the Pharmacoepia Londinensis out of Latin into English so that poor men and women could cure themselves. Just as the Levellers elevated the jury over the judge, so the radical sectaries no longer looked up to the specialized, educated priest as the arbiter of precedent. For them the verdict lay with the congregation of believers, each member of which respected the spirit within all his fellow priests. The ideal was a society of all-round non-specialists helping each other to arrive at truth through the community.
There had been a unity in opposition to the old regime in church and state which extended over a broader spectrum of society, but even after this disintegrated, the classes to whom the sects appealed had much in common. Winstanley visualized national divisions being swallowed up in brotherly unity -- though particular churches must first 'be torn to pieces'. (8) For him the inner light or Reason is what tells a man that he must do unto others as he would they should do unto him; that he must cooperate. So he, and he alone, really transcended the dichotomy of individualism/collectivism through his vision of a society based on communal cultivation and mutual support. But Ranters too had a yearning towards unity. The Quakers were ultimately to give organizational form of a sort to this unity through 'the sense of the meeting'.
The tragedy of the radicals was that they were never able to arrive at political unity during the Revolution: their principles were too absolutely held to be anything but divisive. It was small consolation for Samuel Fisher to be able to jibe at John Owen in 1660: formerly you called us fanatics, now you are called one yourself. (9) The printer Giles Calvert's shop perhaps came nearest to uniting the radicals in spite of themselves -- 'that forge of the devil from whence so many blasphemous, lying scandalous pamphlets for many years past have spread over the land.' (10) Mr Morton stresses the importance of Calvert as a unifying force. (11) He [Calvert] printed translations of Henry Niclaes and Jacob Boehme, the works of Saltmarsh, Dell, some Levellers, most of Winstanley, the Wellingborough broadsheet, many Ranters and very many Quakers, as well as the last speeches of the regicides in 1660. Two years later he was still inciting the publication of seditious literature, and after his death in 1663 his widow continued his policy. When Clarkson in 1649 wished to get in touch with Ranters he was referred to Giles Calvert. (12)
Excerpted from Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1975) pp. 379-81.
'Have you also a right to all the women in the world?'
'Yes, if they consent.'
As the completeness of the radicals' defeat became evident, Erbery and Salmon deliberately sought refuge in silence, Coppe recanted, Lilburne turned Quaker, Clarkson Muggletonian. The conclusion of Winstanley's last pamphlet acknowledges defeat:
Truth appears in light, falsehood rules in power;
To see these things to be is cause of grief each hour.
Knowledge, why didst thou come, to wound and not to cure? ...
O power, where art thou, that must mend things amiss?
Come, change the heart of man, and make him truth to kiss.
O death, where art thou? Wilt thou not tidings send?
I fear thee not, thou art my loving friend.
Come take this body, and scatter it in the Four,
That I may dwell in One, and rest in peace once more. (13)
Yet nothing ever wholly dies. Great Britain no doubt fared the worse in some respects for rejecting the truths of the radicals in the seventeenth century, but they were not utterly lost. Just as a surviving Lollard tradition contributed to the English Reformation over a century after the defeat of Lollardy, just as a surviving radical protestant tradition contributed to the English Revolution, and both have still to be rediscovered by historical research, so the radicals of the English Revolution perhaps gave more to posterity than is immediately obvious. The broadside ballad of 1646, The World is Turned Upside Down (14), may well have been the old song of that name which was popular in the eighteenth century. It is said to have been played, appropriately enough, when Cornwallis surrendered to the American revolutionaries at Yorktown in 1781. [...] The phrase is used by the Shakers, a Lancashire group who were 'commissioned of the Almighty God to preach the everlasting gospel to America' in 1774. Their membership was drawn from artisans, labourers and servants; they believed that they had actually risen with Christ and could live without sin; they danced, sang and smoked at their meetings. (15) [...] John Wesley in 1746, talking to Antinomians in Birmingham, reports one whose views were virtually indistinguishable from those of the Ranters. He lived by faith and so was not under the law. Wesley asked him, 'May you then take anything you will anywhere? Suppose out of a shop, without the consent or knowledge of the owner?' 'I may if I want it; for it is mine: only I will not give offence.' Wesley's next question was predictable:- 'Have you also a right to all the women in the world?' The answer showed that the man in question was not just trying to annoy, but was describing a thought-out position: it was 'Yes, if they consent.' (16)
We need not bother too much about being able to trace a continuous pedigree for these ideas. They are the ideas of the underground, surviving, if at all, verbally: they leave little trace. It is unlikely that the ideas of the seventeenth-century radicals had no influence on the Wilkesite movement, the American Revolution, Thomas Paine or the plebeian radicalism which revived in England in the 1790s. Unlikely: but such influence is difficult to prove.