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from Christopher Hill's

The World Turned Upside Down

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)

Defeat and Survival

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.

His last words were a call to death to reunite him with the material creation:

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.

Notes and Links

These texts are excerpted and annotated under Fair Use provisions, as a study guide and as a point of entry into a fascinating topic. Numbered footnotes below are from the original text, others are added here. Christopher Hill's book, The World Turned Upside Down, is a rich and thoroughly radical (i.e., goes to the roots) source on the period in which the Quaker movement arose. Readers are strongly encouraged to purchase and use an original copy.

John Robinson
Pastor to the pilgrims in the Netherlands.
J. Robinson, Works (1851), I p. xliv.
John Goodwin
An Independent, i.e., a minister who felt that the congregation of a church might make their own way, without control by outside ecclesiastic authorities.
J. Goodwin, Imputatio Fidei (1642), Preface.
Argument for freedom of the press written by John Milton (see below), published in 1644. (Link?).
A. S. P. Woodhouse, ed., Puritanism and Liberty (1938), p. 247.
John Milton
English poet and pamphleteer. In the Commonwealth government, he held an official position as 'Latin secretary.' Best known for his epic Paradise Lost, written after the restoration of the monarchy in England. Christopher Hill argues that his later works reflect on and defend the principles of the revolution, with more daring than most others permitted themselves.
Milton, Christian Doctrine in Works, Columbia edn., XIV, p. 9.
J. Goodwin, Hagiomastix (1646), Preface.
Members of a particular sect, especially adherents of a religious body regarded as heretical or schismatic. For Christopher Hill and other historians, this term serves generically for all religiously inspired dissidents during the English Civil War period.
William Dell
Chaplain in Cromwell's New Model Army, becoming in the process a radical anti-cleric.
Gerrard Winstanley
A spokesman for the Diggers, otherwise known as the 'True Levellers.' Christopher Hill finds him to be the most clearminded and thoroughly radical of the English Revolution. It has been argued that his religious framework closely maps out against that of the early Quakers and, indeed, that he had close associations with them.
In a 1996 talk, Hill speculates that Winstanley may have joined the Friends before he died in 1676. "It's uncertain whether this was our Gerard Winstanley or not. But where else could he go except to the Quakers, after the restoration of the Church of England and the House of Lords and the monarchy?"
John Bunyan
Parliamentary soldier and Baptist preacher. Arrested in 1660 for unlicensed preaching, he spent 12 years in prison. Most noted as author of Pilgrims Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come, one of the two or three books, including the Bible, most often found in the homes of English settlers in the colonies.
Winstanley, Several pieces gathered into one volume, Introduction.
Nayler's entry into Bristol
In October 1656, James Nayler rode into Bristol on a donkey, dramatizing the spirit of Christ that dwelt in him, as in everyone. For this act, in December 1656, he was tried and convicted for blasphemy by Parliament. At the time, many in Parliament regarded Nayler as the "chief" of the Quakers. Christopher Hill writes:
A few courageous Army officers defended Nayler, together with one or two members of the government whose policy of toleration was under attack. [...] But the consciences of many M.P.s, especially those who were just about to offer the crown to Cromwell, could not be reconciled to allowing Nayler to live. It was doubtful whether Parliament had any right to punish Nayler at all, and after nearly a month of debate this consideration among others helped to produce a more merciful sentence. And what was it? To be flogged through the streets of London, his tongue to be bored with a hot iron, his forehead branded; then to be sent to Bristol for a second flogging: and to be kept in prison until Parliament decided otherwise. [...] Nayler underwent his ordeal with fortitude, but physically he never recovered from it; he died three years later [in 1659, shortly after his release] at the age of 43. (Hill, pp. 364-5.)
One recent book that regards this series of events as the single most formative development in Quakerism (and as a crucial failure of the revolutionary movement in England) is Douglas Gwyn's The Covenant Crucified: Quakers and the Rise of Capitalism (Wallingford, PA: Pendle Hill Publications, 1995).
Strongly individualist religious dissidents, who believed that with the grace of God, they could do no wrong (antinomianism). They were among the most theatrical, often swearing and cursing in public, aiming their invective especially at the pompous and hypocritical well-to-do. If pressed by authorities, they might recant and vow their adherance to established Church doctrines, etc., believing that they could go back to their previous ways without any religious difficulty. (Quakers, on the other hand, chose never to swear, and instead faced the retribution of authorities.)
Edward Burrough
An early Quaker who, along with James Nayler, was prominent enough that he might have eventually led the movement, according to Christopher Hill, if he had lived and Fox had not taken and kept the lead.
Sense of the meeting
Method by which Quakers find agreement, even today. This form of consensus presupposes that there's always a way forward, a function of the holy Truth, which may be found though worshipful seeking and respect for all who deliberate together.
D. F. Glandish, ed., Sir William Davenant's Gondibert (Oxford Univ. Pr., 1971), p. 22.
Nicholas Culpeper
An apothecary and avowed republican who campaigned against the monopoly of the College of Physicians. He translated the College's sacred text, the Pharmacoepia Londinensis, into English. "He hoped to make every man his own physician, as the translation of the Bible made every man his own theologian (and as Lilburne hoped every man would become his own lawyer)" (Hill, pp. 298-99).
A radical faction of the New Model Army, who pressed for the goals they understood to be the purpose of the civil war (See The Bloody Project). After the first round of this war, they organized meetings in drilling fields in and around London, for instance in Putney Common, where many of the principles of democracy were first articulated (See the Agreement of the People). In 1649, Cromwell ordered several of the most radical units to go to Ireland to war against the Catholics (thus getting them out of the way). When they refused, they were attacked and demobilized, and Levellers throughout the Army were purged out.
G. Winstanley, The Breaking of the Day of God, sig. A 4v.
Religious movement that emerged in the north of England in the first years after the defeat of the Levellers and Diggers, absorbing these and other elements and giving them a more spiritual cast. By 1652 they pooled their resources and began a concerted campaign to spread their views into central and southern England, and later to other parts of the world.
S. Fisher, Testimony, p. 548.
T. Hall, Vindiciae Literarum, p. 215.
A.L. Morton, The World of the Ranters, pp. 98, 106, 132-3.
Henry Niclaes
Familist. The Family of Love spread from northern Germany into Holland and from there into England in the mid-16th century. They believed that men and women might recapture on earth the state of innocence which existed before the Fall: their enemies said they claimed to attain the perfection of Christ. They held their property in common, believed that all things come by nature, and that only the spirit of God within the believer can properly understand Scripture. In England there were Familists by the 1570s. They were particularly difficult for the ecclesiastical authorities to root out because -- like many Lollards before them -- they were ready to recant when caught, but not to give up their opinions. (Hill, pp. 26-7) Of Quaker scholars, Rufus Jones (1863-1948) is best known for his view that mystical movements elsewhere in Europe, especially the Familists, provided the basis for Quaker beliefs.
Jacob Boehme (1575-1624)
German theosophist and mystic, who thought God was in all believers and preferred the spirit in them to the letter of the Bible. By the 1640s his views were widely known among English Seekers and Independents. (Hill, p. 176. Hill points out that George Fox's protector, Judge Hotham, wrote a life of Boehme, and his brother Charles whom Fox also knew, was Boehme's translator.)
John Saltmarsh
A chaplain in Oliver Cromwell's New Model Army, and notable religious dissident who preached 'free grace' and the access of all to religious insight. By 1647 he had charged the officers of the New Model Army of betraying the cause of the people and of God. (Hill, p. 70.)
Wellingborough broadsheet
Radicals were strong in this district in Northamptonshire, central England. After the defeat of the Levellers at Burford in 1649, William Thompson made for Wellingborough, but was caught and killed just outside the town. The broadsheet, published soon after, espoused Digger views. In 1654, the area became a hotbed of Quaker activity, one of the first outside the North of England. (Cf. Hill, p. 124-7.)
Members of Parliament who voted for the execution of Charles I (1649) for treason against the people of England.
Christopher Hill comments, "I do not think this last fact justifies ... referring to Calvert as himself a Ranter" (p. 373).
William Erbery
Seeker and essayist who excoriated the established Church of England.
Joseph Salmon and Abiezer Coppe
Ranters. For Abiezer Coppe, see "Madman or Mystic?"
John Lilburne
Leveller writer and activist, tried by Parliament in 1649 and imprisoned during the final suppression of that movement. In 1638, he refused to tell his interrogators about books that had been smuggled in from Holland, which led to his brutal punishment. In the course of this, however, while he was whipped and publicly pilloried, the crowd sustained him through the ordeal, making this incident an early manifestation of the revolutionary spirit that carried into the Civil War.
    Among Levellers, Lilburne may be regarded as a moderate. He was the main author of the Agreement of the People. In 1655, well after the Levellers had been defeated, Lilburne joined the Quakers and, when he died in 1657, was buried in care of the Quakers in London, in a service that included a public procession of thousands, many wearing the sea-green ribbon that was the emblem of the Levellers.
Lawrence Clarkson
Ranter, later converted to the sect headed by Lodowick Muggleton, which went underground after the restoration of the monarchy. Christopher Hill researched and found traces of this sect (still underground!) in the early-1900s.
G. Winstanley, quoted in SabineThe Works of Gerrard Winstanley (Cornell Univ. Press, 1941), p. 600.
Morton, The World of the Ranters, p. 36.
Started in England as the "Shaking Quakers" in 1747. Under the leadership of Ann Lee, many moved to the American colonies. They established themselves first in New York State, in 1774, and expanded into other areas.
E.D. Andrews, The People Called Shakers (New York, 1953) esp. pp. 13-20, 27-28.
John Wesley
English evangelical preacher and founder of Methodism. He was deeply influenced by Moravian missionaries during his visit to Georgia in 1735, and in 1738 he experienced an assurance of salvation through faith in Christ alone, leading to his repudiation of the Calvinist doctrine of election/predestination.
J. Wesley, Journal (1864) pp. 10-11.
Wilkesite movement
John Wilkes was an English journalist and member of parliament. In 1764 he was imprisoned for having printed attacks on George III, and for ten years he wasn't allowed to take his seat in Parliament (1764-74).
Thomas Paine
English pamphleteer, who emigrated to the American colonies and participated in the Revolution, contributing the widely influential pamphlet Common Sense. Returning to England to continue the revolution there, he wrote the Rights of Man. Fled to France to escape prosecution, and later returned to America.