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Another side to history...

Introduction | Overview | Off-Site Links

Who reads history, anyway?  Why bother?

(Why even bother to read the following paragraphs?)

Well, sometimes it's interesting. There's another side to history, not generally taught in school, where women and men (like us) had a hand in making history. For their boldness, they suffered. Their stories survive, in fragments. For example...

Most people don't realize that there was a revolution in England in the mid-1600s. In the course of a decade or so, betrayed by the men it helped push into power, the revolution lost steam and was finally crushed. Many people who were active in the revolution fled to the Americas. Of those who remained in England, many were imprisoned, their property was seized, and they were forced to live out their lives quietly, often in poverty, and lost in the margins of history.

One group survived intact. Their numbers actually grew in the first decades after the revolution. By the early 1700s, when the generation who remembered the revolution had died, and indeed when religious and civil liberties were finally becoming more widely accepted, this group had turned inwards. Whether farming on the land, working in commerce, or following other trades, these people, "in scorn called Quakers," began to prosper. They lived quietly and raised their children as best they could, sometimes pulling up roots to seek a better life elsewhere. Typically, they didn't boast of their early history.

Of course, the same story could be told of other groups. Certainly the early Christians had a radical faith which they tried to put into practice. For a long time they suffered for their boldness. They had a Spirit, a Vision. Even after the Catholic Church was firmly established in the region, from time to time this Spirit burst forth. Indeed, the early Quakers were convinced that they worshipped and preached in the very same spirit that the early Christians had known; they also insisted that this spirit pre-dates the historical Christ, that it can be seen moving in the Old Testament and in the lives of many who have never even heard of Jesus.

And today, isn't it the same old story? What ever became of the so-called "counterculture"? Where are the radicals, the hippies, the people who dare to imagine that "the world can live as one"?

Perhaps we can take lessons, in two directions. We can study what happens today in the light of the centuries and varieties of our experience. And we can review our history in the light of what happens around us now. What might we learn?

How's this for an idea? Maybe every group existing today has a history, a deeply rooted understanding that people anywhere can do their own history, if they dare. Maybe each group has habits, ways, traditions, etc. that carry this insight, like a torch, into the present. To be "radical" is (quite literally) to return to the roots of our own experience, to relearn lessons corrupted over time, and to put these lessons back into practice...

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Overview of materials available in these pages

These web pages harken back to the period of the early Commonwealth of England, from the late 1640s into the 1650s. It's a long time ago! Far enough back that most of us have forgotten what happened, but close enough that writings from that time can be meaningful to us without being filtered and translated by "experts" who may not be sympathetic to our interests. Curiously, many of the issues that were being struggled over then are still alive today.

In some respects, perhaps we have advanced. Certainly many of the specific demands that the radicals made then have been realized, if partially, in the three and a half centuries since. For example, here is An Agreement Among the People, one of the very first declarations of the basic principles of modern democracy. The soldiers and officers of Cromwell's New Model Army, who had overthrown the British monarchy and were soon to establish a Commonwealth, publicly debated this document in 1647. These debates centered on some of the basic contradictions still with us today, still fought in the halls of Congress, in the streets and prisons, and in the public media of America and around the world.

The basic demand of the so-called "Levellers," that everyone be directly represented in government, was expressed in these mild words:

That the people of England, being at this day very unequally distributed by counties, cities, and boroughs, for the election of their deputies in Parliament, ought to be more indifferently proportioned, according to the number of inhabitants...

Effectively, this meant giving people the right to vote. But the leading officers of the Army worried that extending the right to vote beyond the propertied classes would mean "anarchy." And indeed, in three and a half centuries the right to vote has never been secured for everyone. Children, convicts, foreigners, and others are still excluded, although obviously we are all affected by decisions made by governments. And propertied interests (i.e., the wealthy) are still very privileged in our system, just as the radicals of 1647 saw in their day when they also demanded

That in all laws made, or to be made, every person may be bound alike, and that no tenure, estate, charter, degree, birth, or place, do confer any exemption from the ordinary course of legal proceedings, whereunto others are subjected.

This "levelling" or egalitarian tendency had a long history in England. In 1381, rebellious peasants sang the verse:

If Adam delved [dug] and Eve span,
  Where then was the gentleman?

Quakers are still known for having used "plain speech" – the familiar 'thee' and 'thy' instead of the honorific 'you' and 'your' – for a long part of their history, and for refusing to give "hat honor" to aristocrats. Such practices reflect the Quaker "testimony" of equality, which carried on radical traditions deeply rooted in English history. But these quaint practices were actually a "fall-back" position, part of what little could be maintained under difficult circumstances. Many of the first generation of Quakers had been personally involved in making the revolution in England. As radical Puritans, Independents, and Seekers, as Diggers and Ranters, and indeed, as soldiers in the New Model Army and as civilians in the "Leveller" campaigns, they had been looking for ways to bring the Kingdom of God into the world. However, between 1648 and 1651, in the hurly-burly of corrupt politics and military force, many of these groups found disillusion and defeat.

Their disillusion is recorded in several documents included in these pages. For instance, when a second round of Civil War erupted, some wondered in The Bloody Project who really benefitted from continued violence? When the more radical units were ordered out of England to fight the Catholics in Ireland, some wondered, in The Levellers Vindicated, how their fellow soldiers could have been induced to break their solemn vow to stand by the revolution. And many pointed out, for instance John Lilburne in his Just Defense against charges of treason, that wealthy merchants and higher-ups in government were manipulating the laws of the land to benefit themselves at the expense of the common people.

In the wake of defeat, radicals turned in various directions. Some, called the "ranters," personalized the revolution, declaring their freedom as individuals in the grace of God to do as they wished, so long as they harmed no-one. Others, calling themselves "Diggers" or "True Levellers," took direct action, farming in areas they declared to be for common use. And some turned to millenarian rabble-rousing, anticipating a "Fifth Monarchy" of Jesus returning to rule the earth in person.

From the early 1650s onward, rubbing elbows with these folks were the early Quakers, men and women who spread the idea that Christ was already present (and indeed had always been) as a "seed," an "inner voice" or "light." Finding this presence took humility, but ironically, in their humility many felt led by the Spirit to confront the existing system of established religion. They went into churches (they called them "steeple-houses") and openly challenged the ability of ministers ("priests") to adequately represent God. They refused to pay tithes and sought to pull out other props that established religion provided the regime in power.

The Quaker movement first exploded in the hilly country of the North of England, then spread into other corners of Britain and into New England. In many places they met with savage resistance, led and directed by local authorities. They did little to reassure their foes, but moved again and again to attack hypocrisy and privilege. It seems they often had protection from the army that occupied the British Isles after the civil wars, as is shown in a close reading of Fox's Journal. Sometimes they found soldiers their first (even their only) sympathizers and converts in an area.

John Lilburne's Resurrection as a Quaker in 1655, perhaps startling to his friends in London, fits the pattern. A Puritan militant and Leveller leader, he had risen to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel before he was forced from the army. In his pamphlet he personally renounces the use of violence.

The Quakers' success among the most militant, and now disillusioned, supporters of the Revolution angered and threatened the elites of what was now the Protectorate. By 1656, the Quakers faced concerted repression by the establishment, focussed most prominently in the trial, torture, and imprisonment of James Nayler by Parliament for 'blasphemy.' Friends were forced to regroup and to find the inner resources and discipline needed to survive as an organization when, up to that point, they had been a much looser movement. Edward Burrough provides a brief history of the early Quaker movement, in an epistle written in 1658 as an introduction to a book written by George Fox defending the Quaker faith.

In 1660, the Commonwealth period ended with the return of Charles II to take the throne that was emptied when his father, Charles I, was executed after a trial by Parliament following the second round of civil war. Many of the powerful and well-to-do in England now supported the restoration of monarchy. Continued agitation by the radicals, including increasing numbers of Quakers, had threatened to topple their system of privilege.

A good introductory book on the radical movement in this period is Christopher Hill's book, The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution. He's actually written a number of books on the period. Included here are some of Hill's reflections, concerning the insights that the radicals shared and how these ideas were buried and lost -- but perhaps not entirely. The book has been reprinted from Penguin, and is highly recommended. (Other books are listed in a bibliographic page.)

The experience of Quakers after the Restoration is complex. On one hand, for example, Leveller principles were applied in Quaker governance of West New Jersey, and then, to a lesser degree, in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. On the other hand, a Quaker elite also developed -- including George Whitehead, William Penn, Robert Barclay, and George Keith. In one case in point, however, when Keith attempted to herd Quakers back to the "Christian" fold, he failed, partly because the Quaker leadership in Philadelphia stood by their somewhat unorthodox members and refused to buckle under pressure.

In the centuries after, Quakers were involved in the abolition of slavery and the early feminist movement, far out of proportion to their numbers. These movements were closely tied together, and much more radical than is typically portrayed. Then, in this century, many Quakers joined in the early civil rights and anti-war campaigns, contributing some of the more decentralized aspects of organization. Later, the anti-nuclear movement (and more recently, the anti-globalization movement) adopted and developed methods of organization -- 'affinity groups' -- that were pioneered and promoted by Quaker activists.

In other campaigns, Quakers generally have been more ambivalent. Except for local involvement, they were aloof from the development of trade unions, cooperatives and early socialism. In the early part of this century, while wobblies and reds were laying the foundations of a strong civil liberties position, Quaker attorney general A. Mitchell Palmer probably represented the views of most Friends with his "Red Scare" campaign. The decades since World War II have seen renewed activism by Quakers, and new growth in the Religious Society of Friends.

In a sense, Quakerism is just an example -- of a group that has struggled to hold on to its original insights, that has been forced to compromise with secular authorities, that over the centuries has sustained a way of life that provides a sort of 'free space.' Other groups, too, have had similar experiences, and through these experiences all of us have a chance to learn, to improve, to progress. In other words, we are all learning as we go along.

From the period of the English revolution we can trace other threads of influence -- into the U.S. Constitution and the notion of people's "rights," into communitarian and libertarian movements, into the arts and sciences, free-thought, and more open sexuality. These threads, of course, reach back much further in history, and weave together with influences from other peoples and traditions.

Just as the Quaker movement, in its early years, gathered up the embers of the English revolution and kept them burning, there are many other movements today that are creating and sustaining new spaces for the freedom struggle. In this eclectic world society, however, no organized religion can hold center stage as the Quakers did for a brief moment in England. Thus it is interesting to study the differences between the older movements and the modern ones.

One current movement that won't get much attention here is the Internet itself. May these pages stand as one small example and let's leave it at that...

Another example is the so-called "Rainbow Family of Living Light," a loose group that emerged in the early 1970s and now has survived long enough to see a new generation coming up following "family" or "tribal" ways. The differences between the mid-1600s and the late 1900s are so great, it makes the similarities that much more remarkable.

Meanwhile, other groups and individuals have emerged in this century that closely resemble those running around back then. Some are quite self-conscious about the similarities, for instance the Diggers who popped up in San Francisco in the 1960s. And John Lennon, more than anyone else this century, reincarnated Gerrard Winstanley. The back-to-the-land movement in the 1970s resembles in some ways the spread of radicals to the margins of Britain's expanding empire (and I'm quite aware of the negative aspects of each side of this comparison).

The Levellers, too, have reappeared at odd moments, for instance in the 1974 coup d'etat by the "Captains of April" who overthrew the Salazar/Caetano dictatorship in Portugal and conceded independence to Mozambique, Angola, and Guinea Bissau (the last major European colonies in Africa and Asia). Much more unclear, however, is whether democracy can be brought at the point of a gun.

Ranters, too, abound on the net, and the Pagan movement today shares much of the same orientation. "An it harm none (if it harms no one), do what you will."

Introduction | Overview | Off-Site Links

Off-Site Links - A page of links to other sites

Historical context, up through the 1600s


Diggers, Ranters and other radical Puritans

The early Quakers - writings, histories, and modern reflections

Moving on, from the 1700s onwards

The ancient Rights and Liberties of the people, still contested

Archives and Study Centers

Reflections on History, and Herstory

Toward a History of the Present Time