On the Rant

E.P. Thompson

  • Fear, Myth and History: The Ranters and the Historians by J.C. Davis
    Cambridge, 208 pp, £22.50, September 1986, ISBN 0 521 26243 7

Professor J.C. Davis has written a book to show that the Ranters did not exist. There was no Ranter sect: no organisation: no acknowledged Ranter leadership. Those alleged to be leaders did not agree with each other on some points of doctrine; or they denied that they were Ranters; or they quickly recanted; or (like Laurence Clarkson, or Claxton, who acknowledged in his autobiographical The Lost Sheep Found that he had been known as the ‘Captain of the Rant’) might have been falsifying their own record for the sake of better setting off their new convictions (Clarkson had become a Muggletonian). Accusations of drinking, swearing and sexual libertinism against the Ranters can be dismissed as the lampoons of opponents or the sensationalism of the ‘yellowpress’. Accounts of Ranter beliefs and practices coming from Quakers, Baptists and other observers are valueless as evidence, being doctrinal polemics or lampoons. Davis demonstrates all this with tedious repetition and a swaggering pretence of rigour. He rounds it off with sixty pages of reprints from the worthless and salacious ‘yellowpress’ anti-Ranter tracts. This is like tying a large lead weight to the neck of whatever weakling kitten of the imagination has survived immersion in the tedium of his text, and sinking it finally to the bottom of the pond.

How, then, did it come about that both contemporaries and subsequent historians have supposed that there were Ranters? Two answers for that. First, in the disturbing times of 1649-51, a fictional, mythic image of Ranterism was projected, as a kind of moral grande peur. Once the Ranter bugaboo had arisen it was found very serviceable as a threat, or as a smear, in controlling doctrinal deviance or in effecting the consolidation of discipline in other sects. Secondly, the revival of interest in the Ranters since 1970 is explained in terms of the supposed ‘goals’ of the Communist Party Historians Group in 1946-56, the realisation of which may be seen in A.L. Morton’s The World of the Ranters and Christopher Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down. At the same time, these and other historians wished to find precursors for the anti-hegemonic ‘hippy’ culture of the late 1960s, and Norman Cohn (whose membership of the CP Historians Group has gone unrecorded) wished to clobber that culture, and to show the way in which millenial Ranting led on to totalitarianism. So the old bugaboo was dug up and dressed in modern jeans.

What is silly about all this is that Davis has set up a historiographical bugaboo of his own. To ‘rant’ was a term of insult, and ‘Ranter’ was, like ‘loony Left’, a term invented by opponents. It is not likely that Coppe or Bauthumley or Richard Coppin would have assented to the sobriquet. As for the historians, perhaps Cohn, in The Pursuit of the Millennium, was a little credulous, since his thesis required that millennial sects be seen at their most crazy. But Morton, Hill and others have always been at pains to make it clear that there was never a Ranter sect. ‘It is extremely doubtful whether there ever was a Ranter organisation’ – thus Hill, who also comments on the ‘very wide discrepancies’ between the theology of such men as Salmon and Bauthumley and ‘the licentious practices of which rank-and-file Ranters were accused’. Nor does Hill ever pretend to some uniformity of Ranter doctrine. The World Turned Upside Down and The Experience of Defeat derive their richness of texture from their scrupulous attention to diversity among these unclubbable heresiarchs. As for Morton’s The World of the Ranters, this also insists that the Ranters were never a sect: ‘there is no evidence for any formal organisation or generally received body of doctrine.’ The ‘literature about the Ranters is uniformly hostile and frequently nothing but the lowest type of gutter journalism’, ‘pamphlets of the lowest, muck-raking type’ (i.e. Davis’s ‘yellowpress’). Morton considers, on the basis of such evidence as Clarkson’s The Lost Sheep, that the accounts of Ranter licence ‘may not be entirely without foundation’, but he, like Hill, handles all accounts with caution.

A historian who might with reason feel a sense of grievance at Davis’s historiographical bugaboo is Frank McGregor, whose unpublished thesis on the Rangers (Oxford, 1968) has been pillaged by David wholesale, yet who gave to him the most interesting part of his case. For McGregor, in several articles, has himself developed the argument that George Fox and others used the odium of Ranterism as a useful disciplinary control, and, in the case of early Quakerism, this ‘undoubtedly contributed to the victory of group discipline’. But while Davis takes over this finding, he reproves and even scoffs at McGregor (‘juvenilia of an early thesis’) because his other conclusions are less convenient. Not only does McGregor identify a core of authentic ‘Ranter’ texts (by Coppe, Bauthumley, Salmon and perhaps Clarkson), but he concludes that Ranterism did exist as ‘a loosely co-ordinated campaign’, a ‘mood’, and a ‘movement of enthusiasm’, whose presence may be located rather exactly in 1650-1. This is perfectly consonant with Ranterism’s other function as an instrument of discipline – a bugaboo – which belongs to the years after 1651. Indeed, the uneasy memory of the excesses of enthusiasm of the annus mirabilis, 1650, with its heresiarchs, prophets and messiahs, with John Robins and Thomas Tany, with its ‘witchcraft fits’ and speaking with tongues, provided the odium of example which sobriety needed.

Davis has therefore written a book which is silly and unnecessary. No one has ever pretended that the Ranters were organised, as Puritanism’s Militant Tendency. Hill, Morton and McGregor have already developed all that is valid in Davis’s case, with more learning and attention to text than he can muster. Professor Davis’s rehearsal of cautions as to the unsatisfactory character of the evidence as to Ranterism might – although familiar to scholars – have been worth writing up as an article. But the evidence as to a brief but infectious moment of Ranter enthusiasm comes from so many sources and has been endorsed by so much reputable scholarship that it is merely perverse to deny it.

Davis has written a work of anti-history, which discovers no new sources, throws no new light on obscure places, but whose object is to destroy the findings of scholarship and leave in their place nothing but a knowing tebbit-like sneer. No doubt, with time and patience, the slashed canvas will be restored by experts on Commonwealth intellectual history, of whom I am not one. My excuse for intervening is a long interest in the antinomian inheritance, as it extended through the 18th century. One of Professor Davis’s disabilities is an insensitivity, or lack of interest, in theological discriminations. He constructs a ‘paradigm’ of Ranterism in the crudest terms: ‘a shared pantheism, rejection of moral values and scriptural authority, associated significantly with atheism, mortalism or materialism, gave them a common identity.’ Antinomianism is described, equally crudely, as involving the ‘rejection’ of sin, repression and hell, and involving, in practice, the ‘flouting of moral conventions, systematic impiety and pantheistic complacency’. Having set up these blunt criteria, Davis is able to show that each one of the supposed Ranter leaders did not unambiguously meet them, and hence to exonerate them all.

Antinomianism, in Davis’s text, is an intellectually null heresy which can be identified only if it gave rise to fornication, blasphemy, or ‘atheism’, or to a manifestly radical social stance. But antinomianism is more interesting than that, has more scriptural and intellectual authority, and can be more fundamentally unsettling to the equipoise of orthodoxy. The heresy can be derived from many sources (including gnostic and Behmenist), but it may also (less esoterically) find authority in St Paul’s Epistles to the Romans and to the Galatians. These passages, which originated in Paul’s polemics against the slavish observance of Jewish ceremonial and ritual regulations, might be taken to have a much wider significance. The Mosaic Law was seen, not only in its ceremonial edicts but also in its moral commandments, to be the necessary rules of government imposed upon a faithless and unregenerate people: ‘The law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster,’ (Galatians, 3, 24-25). Christ, by his sacrifice upon the Cross, in fulfilment of God’s ancient covenant with man, ‘hath redeemed us from the curse of the law’ (Galatians, 3. 13). Thereafter it is not by ‘the works of the law’ but by ‘the hearing of faith’ that believers may be justified (Galatians, 2 and 3, passim). Believers are ‘delivered from the law’ (Romans, 7, 4-6).

This is not all that St Paul said, nor is it without ambiguity. Those with a nicely-discriminating palate might classify the tenets of some Commonwealth enthusiasts as solifidian rather than antinomian: they rested more upon Lutheran premises of ‘free grace’ than Calvinist premises of ‘election’. The solifidian premise rested particularly upon Romans 3 (23-25, 28):

For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God;

Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus;

Whom God hath sent forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood ...

Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.

The zealous life of theological private enterprise which was thrown open by the English Civil Wars allowed hundreds of humble experimenters in doctrine to fashion eclectic systems, now drawing upon Calvin and now upon Luther, now upon Joachim of Fiore and now upon Boehme. The results are not likely to satisfy Davis’s crude criteria.

It has long been supposed that, in the brief climax of the Ranters, antinomianism in one form or another assumed epidemic proportions. In this moment, the doctrine of ‘free grace’ seems more significant than the doctrine of election. Both Morton and Hill suggest that John Saltmarsh (whom Davis does not mention) had a profound influence upon the Ranter moment. In Saltmarsh’s Free Grace (1645) Christ’s blood was shed for all mankind, and all the sins of believers were ‘done away on the Crosse’. ‘The Spirit of Christ sets a beleever as free from Hell, the Law, and Bondage, as if he was in Heaven, nor wants he anything to make him so, but to make him believe that he is so.’ The Gospel is ‘a perfect law of life and righteousnesse, or grace and truth; and therefore I wonder at any that should contend for the ministry of the Law or Ten Commandments under Moses.’ It was as a preacher of ‘free grace’ that Clarkson first made his mark. James Nayler, who is sometimes taken as the leader of a ‘Ranting’ tendency in early Quakerism, was equally known as a defender of ‘the universal free grace of God to all mankind’.

Davis passes by, with one glancing reference, Christopher Hill’s substantial demonstration that John Milton was influenced by the Ranter ‘milieu’, and that he trod ‘a perilous path on the fringes of antinomianism’. Yet how else are we to understand Michael’s doctrine in Book 12 of Paradise Lost: ‘Law can discover sin, but not remove ...’

So Law appears imperfet, and but giv’n
With purpose to resign them in full time
Up to a better Cov’nant.

Christ, by his sacrifice, fulfilled the old Mosaic Law, delivered mankind from its curse, and:

      to the Cross he nailes thy Enemies,
The Law that is against thee, and the sins
Of all mankinde, with him there crucifi’d,
Never to hurt them more who rightly trust
In this his satisfaction.

Henceforward those who are justified by faith (but not by ‘legal works’) enter upon a state of grace, subject to no laws save ‘what the Spirit within/Shall on the heart engrave’.

Davis also appears to scoff at Christopher Hill’s ‘categoric’ assertion that Bunyan ‘moved in Ranter circles in his youth’ – an assertion documented in The World Turned Upside Down by 14 references to Bunyan’s Works. The testimony of Baxter, Bunyan, Muggleton, George Fox and all Quakers, is disallowed because this served the polemical purposes of marking out the permissible boundaries of sectarian doctrine. This (which was McGregor’s old thesis) may indeed be true, but it by no means disproves the reality of a Ranter ‘moment’. It is notorious that in sectarian history (whether religious or secular) some of the fiercest polemics are between groups which draw upon a common inheritance and share certain premises. In its earliest years Quakerism was involved in unseemly polemics with the Muggletonians, in which each side accused the other of having gathered up former Ranters among their adherents. I cannot see any reason why this may not have been true of both, since both originated in the Ranter ‘moment’ and both defined their doctrines and practices in part as a rejection of Ranter excess.

Indeed, in those early years there was little attempt to deny that former Ranters had converted. Muggleton, in The Acts of the Witnesses of the Spirit, described how, in 1652, ‘these Ranters were the most Company we had at that time,’ and they used to club 12d per week ‘to have Discourse with us’; the meetings took place in a victualling house in the Minories, at a ‘Meeting of the Ranters’ in Aldersgate Street, and elsewhere. In 1654 Reeve was writing of those called ‘Ranters’ as a ‘generation deceived’ – yet ‘there are many of the tender-spirited elect of God among them’ whom the Lord in due time will call back again (Sacred Remains). Two years later John Reeve was writing to Christopher Hill (that scholar of astonishing longevity, who was then earning his living as a heel-maker in Maidstone) describing how ‘one of the chief speakers of the Ranters’ had been converted to the truth of the Commission (this was almost certainly Laurence Clarkson), as a result of which Reeve had just been visiting half a score of ‘his people’ – husbandmen and tradesmen in Cambridgeshire – and had brought them to ‘this truth’ (Supplement to the Book of Letters).

The case of the early Quakers is more sensitive, because it touches on delicate points of doctrine. If there was a central Ranter tenet it was perhaps a mystic pantheism, which took God as dispersed throughout all creation: ‘they had no other God but a Spirit without a Body, which they said was the Life of every thing’ (Acts of the Witnesses). They ‘glory of a union with a God or Christ within them, calling themselves eternity, or everlasting love, and one pure being with the Creator’ – or so John Reeve wrote in 1654. For some early Quakers also God was ‘an infinite Spirit, that fills Heaven and Earth, and all Places, and all Things’, whereas ‘as touching Christ’s Flesh, we are Bone of his Bone, and Flesh of his Flesh, and we have the Mind of Christ’ (Samuel Hooton in The Neck of the Quakers Broken). However George Fox interpreted these beliefs, there were contemporary observers who insisted that many Quakers held themselves to be vectors of the divine spirit in the most literal sense. These believers, like the Ranters, saw the faithful as the embodiment of the divine, or as ‘my one flesh’. In a passage of Alexander Ross’s A View of All Religions Quakers are made to say that ‘some of them are Christ, some God himself, and some equal with God, because they have the same spirit in them which is in God’; that ‘Christ hath no other body but his church’; and that ‘we are justified by our own inherent righteousness’ – so that many believed that they ‘cannot sin’.

None of these beliefs is disreputable, although Ross did add some sillier comments, such as that Ranters are ‘a sort of beasts’ and that the ‘lives and demeanours’ of Ranters and Quakers are ‘much alike’. Muggleton’s testimony on this was precisely the opposite. He also denounced the libertinism of some Ranter practice, ‘where all was good, lying with their Neighbour’s Wife, deflouring Virgins, couzening and cheating’. But those former Ranters who joined the Society of Friends were, for this reason, ever-anxious to demonstrate their conversion by ‘their Exactness of Life, and good Conversation’. When the ‘melancholy Devil’ of Quakerism cast out ‘those merry Devils which they had upon the Rantingscore’, then the ‘greatest things that I have heard the Quakers do, is to find Fault with a Piece of Ribbon, or Gold-button, or a Bandstring’. In this interpretation we cannot understand early Quakerism if we erase the Ranters from the record, because Quaker sobriety in life, dress and manners was precisely a signal to the world that they had repudiated Ranting excesses – but not necessarily Ranting doctrine, for they would still have ‘the Quakers Bodies to be Christ’s Flesh and Bone’: ‘The Quakers Principle,’ declared Muggleton in A Looking-Glass for George Fox, ‘is but the Ranters refined into a more civil Kind of Life. For the Ranters were so grossly rude in their Lives, that spoiled their high Language, and made People weary of them; but the Quakers that were upon the Rant are the best able to maintain the Quakers Principle of Christ within them.’ Other contemporaries concurred. According to Baxter, ‘Quakers ... were but the Ranters turned from horrid Prophaneness and Blasphemy to a Life of extreme Austerity on the other side. Their Doctrines were mostly the same with the Ranters.’

I am not a specialist in this period and I cannot hazard what the truth as to Ranter behaviour may be. But if they were, as Davis has it, ‘no more than a mythic projection’, then this projection cast extraordinarily long shadows. It is found, both as influence and rejection, in Quakerism, in Baptism, in Milton and Bunyan, and in a hundred other places. Something like a ‘Ranter’ tradition keeps turning up in the 18th century, both as polite mysticism and Behmenism (by way of Dr John Pordage, an associate of reputed Ranters) and in little churches and sects in London: Seekers, Ranters, Salmonists, Coppinists (who republished works of Richard Coppin), and such eccentrics as the ‘Sweet Singers of Israel’, described in 1706 as ‘very poetically given, turning all into Rhime, and singing all their Worship. They meet in an Ale-house and eat, drink and smoak ... They hold that there is no Sin in them ...’

The doctrine of justification by faith, in its antinomian inflexion, was one of the most unsettling and potentially subversive of the vectors which carried the ideas of Commonwealth heretics through to the 19th century. It troubled early Methodism; and A.L. Morton was right to argue that the inheritance of antinomianism came down to William Blake, even if his suggestive The Everlasting Gospel simplifies what was inherited. This is one among several reasons why an obscure impulse remains of historical significance.

It may not matter much whether there were real self-confessed Ranters and Ranter Meetings or not. But it seems improbable that the Ranters were invented simultaneously by Fox, Bunyan, Baxter, Muggleton, Reeve and scores of others only to advance their own sectarian disciplinary purposes; nor in order to advance the goals of the Communist Party Historians Group three hundred years later. The World Turned Upside Down and associated scholarship by several hands seem to me to be among the most creative historiographical impulses of recent years. This work has disclosed to the non-specialist new worlds of thought and has helped us to regard intellectual history in new ways.

Of course this work is not privileged. It carries no immunity from criticism, nor would its authors ask for this. Yet it merits respect, and for this reason I dislike the tone of Professor Davis’s work. While pretending to respect for Hill, Morton and their colleagues, they are addressed as ideologues or charlatans. The fact that this meagre bit of anti-history has come from a prestigious university press and has been received with acclaim by several reviewers is a comment, not on its merits, but on the uncreative mediocrity of these latter days: and also, perhaps, on the encroaching thatcherism of the upwardly-mobile historical mind.