A Collection of Ranter Writings from the 17th Century

Published in History Today

Coppe went up and down London streets 'with his hat cockt, his teeth gnashing, his eyes fixed, charging the great ones to obey his Majesty within him.' Clarkson as 'Captain of the Rant' entertained women to his lodging house but made canny financial provision simultaneously for his wife. This was the ugly face of Protestantism. It was what countless opponents of the Reformation had inveighed against since Munster: antinomianism was the logical, if perverted, conclusion of dissent. Anabaptists attracted the opprobrium in sixteenth-century Europe; Quakers inherited this legacy in later seventeenth-century England. But it was the Ranters who were the enemy of orthodoxy in England in 1650.

Oddly there has been no modern collection of their writings (apart from the selection which Norman Cohn appended to his Pursuit of the Millennium in 1957). Nigel Smith is to be congratulated, therefore, for bringing the writings of Coppe, Clarkson, Salmon and Bauthumley together for the first time in one volume. It is good to hear them speaking directly to us and not merely through the mouths of their critics. Even this, however, is only partly true. A wearisome proportion of Coppe's and Salmon's writings is taken up with recantation of views falsely imputed to them; when they are speaking to us it is often in code. Clarkson's Lost Sheep Found of 1660 is included properly as a record, from the Ranter side, of his experiences in the late 1640s. But this source should be used with caution. From his Muggletonian base he was as anxious to lampoon former beliefs as his orthodox critics were: it would be like going to late-Paul-Johnson to find out what made a socialist tick in the 1950s.

Mr Smith's introduction is more helpful in putting these writings in a literary, rather than in an historical, context. He correctly sees Tobias Crisp as an important influence. But Crisp's sermons had been condemned by the Westminster Assembly of Divines for their antinomianism, and it was Richard Baxter's perception of the link between hyper-Calvinism and Coppe's eccentricities which caused him to revise his own doctrinal views and ultimately those of many of his Protestants followers. The child of Ranterism was arguably the new Left Arminianism of the 1650s and 1660s. Winstanley blamed the Ranters for the bad press which his Digger communes received: his Englands Spirit Unfoulding of 1650 is not only a critique of Ranterism but a step towards his revised philosophy in 1652. It was fear of the Ranters which inspired the Rump Parliament legislation against adultery, swearing and blasphemy in 1650. It was no less a potent background influence on its successor parliament's proceedings against James Nayler. Fox wrote Nayler out of later Quaker history precisely in order to clear his sect of its Ranter associations. Mr Smith should have made clear that the 'one T. Reeve' who got six months for Ranterism in 1650 was brother to the founder of Muggletonianism: the early history of that sect likewise cannot be disentangled from its efforts to escape the Ranter accusation.

These are all, therefore, solid ground for historians welcoming this collection, even if the writings themselves remain elusive. A.L. Morton and Christopher Hill have written illuminatingly about them, but it is good that students now have the chance to sample at first hand for themselves Coppe's 'fiery flying roll', Clarkson's 'single eye', Salmon's 'heights in depths and depths in heights' and Bauthumley's ‘light and dark sides of God' – all published in that memorable year when 'the POWERS of Heaven and Earth Was, Is, and shall be Shaken, yea Damned, till they be no more for EVER'.

William Lamont

A Collection of Ranter Writings from the 17th Century

ed. Nigel Smith. 278 pp. (Junction Books, 1983)

The History Today Newsletter

Sign up for our free weekly email

X