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Reflections  >  Abiezer Coppe - Madman or Mystic?

Abiezer Coppe's A Fiery Flying Roll and His Religious and Social Beliefs

by Darryl Ogier

This essay was produced in 1989 for the inspiring undergraduate course Radicalism in the English Revolution taught at the University of Warwick, U.K., by Professor Bernard Capp and Dr Robin Clifton. Although I hope it is of interest, I also hope I would produce a more sophisticated piece of work over a decade later. As with so much else, I am grateful to Professor Capp for his encouragement and insights.

"It may be some will say he is a mad man: But it is otherwise, as may be known by those that will speak with him."
- Richard Baxter on Coppe [1]

It would be a mistake to regard Abiezer Coppe (1619-72) [2] as a lunatic: a ranter in the sense of "to rant and rave", and hence, by association, "raving mad". The Dictionary of National Biography does not hesitate to tell us "that Coppe's mind was disordered is clear", although it is prepared to concede that "the pathetic side of his madness" is shown in the Fiery Flying Roll [3]. J.F. McGregor limits himself to calling Coppe "a social deviant", whilst A.L. Morton -- sympathetic to some of Coppe's ideas as he is -- does not doubt that Coppe was "unbalanced" [4].

Coppe himself did not help this sort of opinion. For example, when "brought before the [Parliamentary] Committee of Examinations, ... [he] disguised himself into a madness, flinging Apples and Pears about the roome" [5]. Hostile contemporary opinion went further, it appears, claiming "'twas usual with him to preach stark-naked ... and in the night to be drunk and lye with a wench ... also ... stark-naked" [6]. Coppe's writing too is unconventional, since he has "a prose style quite unlike anything else in the seventeenth century" [7].

In this essay I propose that whatever he may have been before or after the publication of A Fiery Flying Roll (1649/50) [8], Coppe shows little evidence of being unbalanced, in the sense of mentally ill, in the work.

The Preface announces that much of the imagery of the Roll is mystical. We would be wrong therefore to expect something which is easily understood. Coppe describes how he was given a painful vision. He was, he says, thrown into a fit and as he "lay trembling, sweating and smoaking", he experienced rebirth. He was cast into hell and yet all the time remained in the presence of "a little spark of transcendent, transplendent, unspeakable glory", which made his vision an ecstatic experience. He is subsequently inspired to go to London, although it is not revealed to him what he "should do, more than preach and print something". In the city he receives further supernatural instructions:

And behold, I writ, and lo a hand was sent to me, and a roll of a book was therein and the roll was thrust into my mouth; and I eat it up, and filled my bowels with it, ... where it was bitter as wormwood; and it lay broiling, and burning in my stomack, till I brought it forth in this forme [ie. in print].

In this way, Coppe claims to be delivering God's message to London. Besides this, he specifically claims God is immanent in him. This is first stated on the title page. The book, it says, is a work of God:

And all by his Most Excellent MAJESTY, dwelling
in, and shining through

God "that excellent Majesty, which dwels in the Writer" is the true author. Coppe is "the help of your Father" (ie. Auxilium Patris): God is in him. He regards himself merely as God's amanuensis.

Odd though all of this seems, Coppe was not saying something wholly novel when he claimed that God was residing in him. Mystics traditionally claimed experiences of union with God. Richard Rolle wrote "But wind up my will to wove with thee ay/That thou be buried in my breast and bring me to bliss". [9] Here Rolle begs for that union which Coppe somewhat vulgarly claims to have achieved. Juliana of Norwich and others expressed similar desires and achievement. Coppe, whilst undoubtedly saying something unusual, and borrowing Exodus 2 and 3 to say it, is making a claim in a long-established tradition. He states that God says that the author is "my swordbearer, to brandish the Sword of the Spirit, as he hath done severall dayes and nights together, throrow [throughout] the streets of the great city": a reference to Coppe's preaching. And like earlier and greater mystics Coppe deals not only in metaphysics, but also makes prophesies and demands works of reform.

And what has God got to say? The first message is one of a coming universal levelling. Coppe states that God inside him is neither a "leveller nor a digger of any previous sort. sword levelling, or digging-levelling, are neither of them his principle". God says that,

I come not forth ... either with materiall sword, or mattock, but now, ... I the eternall God, the Lord of Hosts, who am that mighty Leveller, am comming (yea even at the doores) to Levell in good earnest, to Levell to some purpose, to Levell with a witnesse, to Levell the Hills with the Valleys, and to lay the Mountaines low.

This represents an ambition somewhat exceeding the aims of the earthly Levellers and Diggers. Coppe goes on, by quoting and paraphrasing the Book of Isaiah, to describe this mighty levelling in some detail.

It will be seen then that Coppe believed that the Millennium was at hand. It would be a mistake to label him as particularly odd in this conviction. Bernard Capp confirms that "while never accepted universally, millenarian ideas won widespread support in England, especially during the civil wars", and such ideas were common to parts of the intelligentsia and common people alike. [10]

According to Coppe the coming apocalypse is not to be only an internal, or spiritual, overturning of the world, but a real, physical, one. The relevant chapters in Isaiah are to be interpreted literally and not to be "taken in the mystery [ie. metaphorically] only". Coppe saw himself as God's instrument announcing as much; the Judgement was coming indeed "within these few hours".

He addresses himself to the great ones. In the coming levelling, he picturesquely says, quoting Isaiah again: " a man shall cast his Idols of Silver, and Idols of Gold to the bats, and to the Moles". Coppe, although he claims he "never drew sword, or shed one drop of any mans blood" directs his polemic with great energy against established authority and the class interests of the rich and powerful. He offers no hope for puffed-up oppressors in the forthcoming overturning, although he time and again urges them to mend their ways:

Vengence is mine, Judgement, Hell, Wrath &c. all is mine (saith the Lord) dare not thou to set foot so impudently and arrogantly upon one step of my Throne: I am Judge my self Be wise, give over, have done.

His attacks upon the church and sects, the powerful and the hypocritical, are very wide ranging. He is a communist, a libertarian, a pacifist, an humanitarian and more: I will first look at his polemic directed at organised religion, including the sects and the Independents, who were in government as he wrote. He begins with a general condemnation of the abuses of the traditional clergy:

the Ministers, fat parsons, Vicars, Lecturers, &c. who (for their owne base ends, to maintain their pride, and pompe, and to fill their owne paunches, and purses) have been the chief instruments of all those horrid abominations, hellish, cruell, devillish, persecutions, in this nation which cry for vengeance.

There is a note of jealousy of his professional, hypocritical, competitors here. This is made explicit later on when Coppe recounts how the "carnall Gospellers ... crying out A Blasphemer, a Blasphemer, away with him" attacked and chased him from his preaching. He writes of the well-favoured harlot of the Book of Nahum, and predicts no good end for her:

at length I wrapt up my self in silence (for a season) for the well favour'd harlots confusion, &c.

And to thine eternall shame and damnation (O mother of witchcrafts, who dwellest in gathered Churches) let this be told abroad: And let her FLESH be burnt with FIRE.

We shall meet her again. Coppe hates the domination which the Church has exercised over the people:

Thou hast come to a poor irreligious wretch, and told him he must be of the same Religion as his neighbours, he must go to Church, hear the minister &c. and at least once a year put on his best cloths, and receive the Communion.

Tithes too disgust him, along with secular burdens upon the people:

How long shall I heare the sighs and groanes, and see the teares of poore widowes; ... O my back, my shoulders. O Tythes, Excize, Taxes, Pollings, &c.

And more than this, he hates the domination which the State has exercised over the people through the Church. In a discussion in the second part of the Roll Coppe suggests that when the poor wretch whom we have just left in his Sunday Best

finds this religion too course for him, and he would fain make after another, Then immediately thou huntest after him, following him from grosse Protestantisme to Puritanisme ... to Presbyterianism ... eating a bit of bread, and drinking a sip of wine ...

Coppe explains that this searching after religious fulfilment, encouraged, for her own self-interest, by the well-favoured harlot - who of course represents worldly religion, and the conspiracy of social repression between church and state - cannot be satisfied by the outward form of Holy Communion. The image of the well-favoured harlot is a good one, and a pleasing variation on the symbol of the Whore of Babylon used by other apocalyptic visionaries, and Coppe graphically describes how the time approaches when, "the welfavoured harlots cloaths stript off, her nakednesse discovered, her nose slit ... and the spirit pursuing, overtaking, and destroying her" there will be a new order, both "inward, and outward".

Coppe explains that "The true Communion amongst men, is to have all things in common, and to call nothing one hath, ones own". And this communist communion includes the duty of true charity in the brotherhood of all men:

His religion is in vain, that seeth his brother in want, &c. H's brother a beggar, a lazar, a cripple, yea a cutpurse, a thief ith' goal, &c.

Yet still the harlot drives the people, whom she keeps in ignorance, up the wrong path. And to the by now confused wretch (an individual representing the commonalty), kept from the secret that communism and universal charity are the true communion, Coppe asks "And wilt therefore hie thee to another, to wit, to Independency, and from thence perhaps to Anabaptisme so called".

He attacks the barbarity of branding blasphemers. "Let branding with the letter B. alone." He had been a prisoner himself "in Southwark neer S. Georges Church", and he argues that those "branded with the letter B. banished, or imprisoned fourteen weeks together, without bail or mainprise" should go free. He demands toleration of the Jews by the holy hypocrites. "Do thou O holy man (who knowest evill) lift up thy finger against a Jew, ... if thou dar'st, if thou dost, thou shalt howl in hell for it". The harlot's wickedness continues, but Coppe's message is clear: it will not continue for much longer. The day of Judgement is at hand.

He attacks the sects too for their hypocrisy:

Thou hast affronted, and defied the Almighty ... thou takest upon thee the name of Saint, and assumest it to thy self only, damning all those that are not of thy Sect.

and again, with extraordinary vigour:

give over thy Gospell Ordinances as thou callest them; for under them all there lies snapping, snarling, biting, besides covetousnesse, horrid hypocrisie, envy, malice, evill surmising.

He tells us that he did once see some promise in Presbyterianism, but that just as it had "begun to live i'th womb, [it] died there, and rot and stink there to the death of mother and child."

Coppe hates the church for its oppression of the common man, leading him away from the true gospel of community of goods and charity to one's neighbour, however wretched; and in the sects he sees only infighting and hypocrisy.

His attacks upon hypocrisy are of some importance to his message, and the title page of the Fiery Flying Roll announces that it is

Imprinted at London, in the beginning of that notable day, wherein the secrets of all hearts are laid open; and wherein the worst and foulest of villanies, are discovered, under the best and fairest outsides.

In advocating swearing, libertinism, and other "antisocial" behaviour he paints a picture of a "world turned upside down" (or inside out, to continue the "best and fairest outsides" metaphor) where these outward signs of vulgarity are shown to be as nothing compared with the wickedness of the purportedly godly and powerful who allow inequality and injustice to thrive.

His attacks upon the institutions of this world, and the very social fabric itself, are hardly less fiery than those upon religion. We will glance at his criticisms of law, war, and some social values to illustrate his profound disgust with the society he saw about him; a disgust which must have been heightened by observing the sufferings of the people after a succession of three bad harvests, l647-49. [11]

Coppe expresses sympathy for prisoners, as he does for beggars and all the oppressed in the world of the well-favoured harlot:

Mine eares are filled brim full with cryes of poore prisoners, Newgate, Ludgate cryes (of late) are seldom out of mine eares Bow before those poore, nasty, lousie, ragged wretches, say to them, Sirs, . .. we let you go free

We recognise some humanitarian concern too in Coppe's sympathy for the Levellers. He refers to the Generals' suppression of them the previous April. The Levellers who

acted as they did out of sincerity, simplicity, and fidelity of their hearts ... then were they most barbarously, unnaturally, hellishly murdered; and they died Martyrs for God and their Countrey

Coppe has no time for the petty capitalist ethic of parts of society either. He mocks their slogans by putting them in the mouth of the well-favoured harlot. Against his own charity she advises "hee's worse then an Infidell that provides not for his own family"; "True love begins at home"; and "Have a care of the main chance". Coppe cleverly attacks the view that "the attainment of material riches is the supreme object of human endeavour and the final criterion of human success", and agrees with Tawney that "Such a philosophy ... is the negation of any system of thought or morals which can, except by a metaphor, be described as Christian." [12]

It is a world of "abominable perfidiousnesse, falseheartednesse; self seeking, self-inriching, and Kingdome-depopulating, and devastating, &c." And in such a world, society at large is a target of Coppe's anger. We have seen several instances of his attacks on the proud oppressors of the lowly and miserable part of the population: the majority. His figures move, confused and exploited, in a blighted landscape.

On the offensive, Coppe is deliberately shocking and very rude, yet at the same time, paradoxically, he is defensive about his message. He is aware of the hostility that his opinions about Church and State and the sickness and corruption of society will arouse, and despite all of its oddness of expression the Roll goes some way to justify itself. Coppe stresses that God speaks through him, and that his detractors will have God to answer to if they mock him. Readers must "Read it through, and laugh not at it; if thou dost I'l [ie. God will] destroy thee, and laugh at thy destruction". Coppe is wary too of censors. He threatens those who burn or tear his book with being torn to pieces by God: "I charge thee burn it not, tear it not, for if thou dost, I will tear thee to pieces (saith the Lord) and none shall be able to deliver thee; for (as I live) it is the day of my vengeance."

More pacifically he makes an argument from authority to be read because he is a successful preacher. He recalls his popularity in London, and reminds the reader that the rich have been his hearers. In spite of all of his anti-wealthy prejudice, he uses his association with the wealthy to recommend his work:

... Wherefore waving my charging so many Coaches, so many hundreds of men and women of the greater rank, in the open streets, with my hand stretched out, my hat cock't up, staring on them as if I would look through them, gnashing with my teeth at some of them, and day and night with a huge loud voice proclaiming the day of the Lord throughout London and Southwark, and leaving divers other exploits ...

Coppe also goes to some pains to demonstrate that he is a learned man. He gives himself Hebrew initials on the title page and the name Auxilium Patris, and quotes Latin too, for example: Sero sapiunt Paryges, sed nunquiam Sera est ad Bonos mores via, from the grammarian Festus. [13]

His wide knowledge of the scriptures is also demonstrated. Only sometimes does he give references, but in fact every chapter in the Roll has some phrases, words or images drawn from the Bible. In these ways, by playing the game of intellectual sermonising according to the rules of the sixteen-hundreds, Coppe makes a claim to be taken seriously. He addresses himself to the Great Ones and so observes some of their conventions, writing in the proper code, to put his message across. His meaning, expressed through his frequent use of scriptural quotation and allusion, would have been readily apparent to his readers in his days of "Bible culture" and millenarianism.

Coppe's defensiveness against censors and mockers, his learning painstakingly demonstrated in the text, and his quaint appeal to the reader for a hearing because he has preached to the powerful with some impact, are important. They confirm that for all its strangeness Coppe wants the messages of the Fiery Flying Roll to be taken seriously.

There is a lot of the Old Testament prophet about Coppe, besides something of the mystic. The work's peculiarities, and the "ranting" behaviour of its author, are symptoms of the tremendous problems English society faced at the beginning of the l650s. In attacking the rich and proud, the church and sects, the law and its prisons and branding, war and social dislocation, and the importance given to money over neighbourly values, Coppe makes the Fiery Flying Roll a powerful polemic fitted to his confused times and fragmented society: fitted, that is, to a society in crisis.

We noted above that Coppe had some of the characteristics of a mystic. It is not surprising therefore that he writes in a mythological sort of way. What is the myth of the Roll? Put another way, what "sort of speech" does it use? [14]

Coppe's message is millenarian. The meaning of the message is shaped by his hostility to the repressions and norms of his society, especially with regard to religion and class differences, combined with a frantic, livid, concern that his message be taken seriously. The concept may conveniently be called "ranterism".

The myth Coppe creates - the sum of millenarianism + ranterism - is one of revolution: an imminent social and religious revolution whereby a new order shall overturn the old, and the meek shall inherit the earth. In creating this myth he goes some way to overcome the incongruity between his urging of social reform whilst at the same time preaching immediate apocalypse.

Coppe preaches revolution. His social and religious beliefs are those of a revolutionary libertarian. A modern definition of libertarianism is given by Lord Quinton, as

An extreme version of political liberalism, hostile to all forms of social and legal discrimination between human beings and favouring the absolutely minimal constraint by society on individual freedom of action. [15]

This describes Coppe very well. He was a libertarian in a millenarian, mystical and mythical way; in keeping with his times, his religious culture and his own psychological makeup. If we read the Fiery Flying Roll properly Coppe is revealed as much more than a lunatic. To call him "unbalanced" is to use hindsight, to call him mad is to misunderstand him altogether. His style is part of the way in which he tries to goad the powerful and hypocritical into recognising their errors and reforming. Since, "at a popular level, the millennium seems to have meant a future world freed from the insecurity of the seventeenth century", [16] Coppe's message found hearers and was intelligible in his own times of recent political revolution and serious social turmoil.

Sir Richard Southern has seen the mysticism of the Middle Ages developing in a situation where a

... drive towards increasingly well-defined and universal forms of organisation and effort was suddenly relaxed, and Europe began, from one point of view to fall apart, and from another to experience a new richness and variety of emotional life ... [17]

If that quotation is read mutatis mutandis to apply to post-revolutionary England, as I think it may be, then Coppe's mysticism, and the varieties of religious expression we see everywhere in his times, may be seen to originate in a similar falling-apart of prewar social and religious structures. A proper reading of Coppe's work shows his profound, if very fiery, concern with the social and religious situation of his day; a post-regicide, postwar, society in which many contemporaries, and Coppe himself, had seen their received world picture "overturn, overturn, overturn". The political revolution had brought nothing save misery and confusion for the common man.

Coppe's myth of revolution is still intelligible if we tune our listening to his times. We will repeat our epigraph as a conclusion - "It may be some will say he is a mad man: But it is otherwise, as may be known by those that will speak with him".


Notes and Links

Richard Baxter, Plain Scripture Proof of Infants Church-Membership (London, 1651), p. 148.
A.L. Morton, The World of the Ranters: religious radicalism in the English Revolution (London, 1970), pp. 107, 110.
Alexander Gordon, "Abiezer Coppe", in L. Stephen and S. Lee (eds), Dictionary of National Biography (63 vols, London, 1885-1901), vol. iv.
J.F. MacGregor, "Seekers and Ranters", in J.F. McGregor and B. Reay (eds), Radical Religion in the English Revolution (Oxford, 1984), p. 132; Morton, The World of the Ranters p. 89.
Morton, The World of the Ranters p. 103.
Morton, The World of the Ranters, p. 99.
C. Hill, The World Turned Upside Down: radical ideas in the English Revolution (Harmondsworth, 1972), p. 210.
The copy in the Thomason Collection at the British Library is marked "Jan. 4. 1649".
G. Bullett, The English Mystics (London, 1950), p. 50.
B. Capp, "The Political Dimension of Apocalyptic Thought", in C.A. Patrides and J. Wittreich (eds), The Apocalypse in English Renaissance Thought and Literature: patterns, antecedents and repercussions (Manchester, 1984), p. 101.
W.G. Hoskins, "Harvest Fluctuations and English Economic History 1620-1759" The Agricultural History Review, xvi (1968), p. 29.
R.H. Tawney, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (Harmondsworth, 1937), p. 280.
N. Smith (ed.), A Collection of Ranter Writings from the 17th Century (London, 1983), p. 268.
This phrase, and the methodology which follows its use, is drawn from R. Barthes, "Myth Today", in S. Sontag (ed.), Barthes: a pocket reader (London, 1983).
A. Bullock and O. Stallybrass (eds), Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought (London, 1977), p. 348.
B. Capp, "The Fifth Monarchists and Popular Millenarianism" in J.F. McGregor and B. Reay (eds), Radical Religion in the English Revolution (Oxford, 1984), p. 189.
R. Southern, Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages (Harmondsworth, 1970), p. 300.

© D.M. Ogier, 1999. This essay may be copied, quoted, and referred to freely, providing its authorship is cited.