The Sectarian Cancer

  • Jerome Friedman


The execution of the king was the most dramatic event of the English Revolution, but the dismantling of the Church of England was almost as important in the life of the average Englishman. Both events had unfortunate consequences. Charles was executed to end tyranny, but his death introduced more than a decade of hapless and ineffective politics. Similarly, the dismantling of Anglicanism introduced a period of religious anarchy characterized by the growth of sectarianism. Scripture warned that false prophets would proliferate before the end of days, and many of these sects actually claimed to be heralds of the apocalypse. Sectarianism, then, like the obvious political anarchy, seemed just one more sign that God was angry with England.


Title Page Radical Sect Radical Belief Scandalous Account Sectarian Cancer 
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  1. 1.
    Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution (London: Maurice T. Smith, 1972) is the best source for revolutionary-age radical sects. Also, Frank J. McGregor and Barry Reay, Radical Religion in the English Revolution (Oxford; Oxford University Press, 1984). F. D. Dow, Radicalism in the English Revolution 1640–1660 (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1985). For a broader perspective, see the excellent bibliography in Michael Mullet, Radical Religious Movements in Early Modern Europe (London: Allen & Unwin, 1980).Google Scholar
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    Double supralapsarianism was the view of predestination favored by Calvin’s successor, Theodore Beza, and the the Belgian Conference of 1561. It maintains that God predetermined both the elect and the reprobate (hence, double) before (hence, supra) the beginning of time. Or, that in God’s wisdom, Adam and Eve were predestined to fall so that He would be able to punish the wicked of the future. Some found this doctrine quite awesome and held to the more tolerant single infralapsarian predestination, which maintained that God predeterminbed only the elect and did so within time, after the fall. Hence, God permitted some individuals to work their way into heaven through good works. This position, often considered that of the Roman Catholic church, was rejected by most Protestants who, because of their own notions of original sin, rejected the possibility of good works. Those Calvinists who rejected the Catholic position but could not accept the strident double form mentioned above might accept a middle position such as double infralapsarian predestination, which argued that God predestined both the elect and damned but did so within time, after the fall in Eden. At least this position did not make God the mainspring of evil in the world. These issues came to a head in early-seventeenth-century Holland at the Council of Dort, where the TULIP formula, an acronym for five axioms of belief, finally settled the issue for orthodox Calvinists. This declaration affirmed (1) Total depravity of mankind (because of original sin); (2) Unconditional grace (that is, unmerited for the elect); (3) Limited atonement (only the elect could atone, but obviously did not need to); (4) Irresistable grace (even the most evil person can not resist grace if he is predestined for election); (5) Perservarance of the saints only (or, that only God’s elect can stay the course of righteousness, even if they commit evil sins while the reprobate can never merit forgiveness). For more information concerning predestination and related themes, the reader might consult Charles D. Cremeans, The Reception of Calvinist Thought in England (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1949); and M. Walzer, The Revolution of the Saints (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965).Google Scholar
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    The Ranters will be discussed in detail later. For additional information about Clarkson, see the Dictionary of National Biography 4:461–463, and Jereome Friedman, Blasphemy, Immorality and Anarchy: The Ranters and the English Revolution (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1988), pp. 96–122.Google Scholar
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    The best biography of Servetus remains Roland Bainton’s Hunted Heretic: The Life and Death of Michael Servetus (Boston: Beacon, 1953). For an in-depth analysis of Servetus’s eclectic theological system, see Jerome Friedman, Michael Servetus: A Case Study in Total Heresy (Geneva: Droz, 1978).Google Scholar
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    Readers can consult the following for additional information about these sects: Concerning the Familists, the two most recent studies are Jean D. Moss, “Godded with God”: Hendrik Niclaes and His Family of Love (Philadelphia: American Philosohpical Society, 1981); Alastair Hamilton, The Family of Love (Cambridge: James Clark, 1981); Rufus M. Jones’s older studies on mystical and spiritual religion remain of value for his insights, humanity, and clean prose. Among other works, see his Studies in Mystical Religion (London: Macmilan, 1923). Concerning the Ranters, the most recent study is Friedman, Blasphemy, Immorality and Anarchy, and from very different orientations, J. C. Davies, Fear, Myth and History: The Ranters and the Historians (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986); Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1961); Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down, chapter 9 tells us about “Seekers and Ranters” and chapter 10 about “Ranters and Quakers.” G. F. S. Ellens, “The Ranters Ranting: Reflections on a Ranting Counter Culture,” Church History 40, no. 3 (1971), pp. 91–107. Ellens compares the Ranters to recent counterculture hippies. Frank J. McGregor, “The Ranters,” B.Litt. degree thesis, University of Oxford, November 1968, n. 1434; McGregor, “Seekers and Ranters,” in J. F. McGregor and B. Raey, eds., Radical Religion in the English Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984. A. L. Morton, The World of the Ranters (London: Lawrence and Wisehart, 1970). More of a collection of general essays than a true analysis of Rantism, this volume has one general chapter on Ranters and one on Clarkson, with the remaining five chapters devoted to aspects of Leveller democratic thought. Nigel Smith, ed., A Collection of Ranter Writings (London: Junction Books, 1983) features selections by Coppe, Clarkson, Salmon, and Bauthumley as well as a good introduction by Smith. Concerning the Muggletonians, first cousins to the above, see Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down and Christopher Hill, Barry Reay, and William M. Lamont, The World of the Muggletonians (London: Temple Smith, 1983). Since publication, two of these authors have disagreed concerning the primacy of Reeve and/or Muggleton. See Lamont’s “The Muggletonians, 1652–1979. A Vertical Approach,” Past and Present, no. 99 (May 1983), pp 22–40. Hill’s rejoinder and Lamont’s subsequent rebuttal are: Hill, “The Muggletonians,” Past and Present, no. 104 (August 1984), pp. 153–58; W. Lamont, “A Rejoinder,” Past and Present, no. 104 (August 1984), pp. 159–63. Concerning the Quakers, consult Robert Barclay, The Inner Life of the Religious Societies of the Commonwealth (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1876); W. C. Braithwaite, The Beginnings of Quakerism, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1955) and The Second Period of Quakerism, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961); the following by Rufus Jones: Studies in Mystical Religion; Spiritual Reformers in the 16th and 17th Centuries (London: Macmillan, 1914); The Quakers in the American Colonies (New York: Macmillan, 1923); The Later Periods of Quakerism (London: Macmillan, 1921); and more recently, Hugh Barbour, The Quakers in Puritan England (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1964) and Barry Raey, The Quakers and the English Revolution (London: Temple Smith, 1985).Google Scholar
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    See Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium. For an opposing point of view, see Robert Lerner, The Heresy of the Free Spirit in the Later Middle Ages (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1972).Google Scholar
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    Henry C. Lea, A History of the Inquisition in Spain, 4 vols. (New York: Macmillan, 1906–7). This study remains the English language standard for scholars studying the Alumbrados.Google Scholar
  9. 10.
    See for instance, John Calvin, Treatises Against the Anabaptists and Against the Libertines, trans. Benjamin W. Farley (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1982). Luther’s views and tirades against the “enthusiasts” are by now legendary.Google Scholar
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  13. 17.
    Concerning Arthington, see Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1971), pp. 134ff.Google Scholar
  14. 20.
    Concerning the Diggers, consult the following: Lewis H. Berens, The Digger Movement in the Days of the Commonwealth (London: Simkin, 1906; reprinted London: Holland and Merlin Press, 1961); T. Wilson Hayes, Winstanley the Digger (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979); W. H. G, Armytage, Heavens Below: Utopian Experiments in England, 1560–1960 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1961); and Christopher Hill, The Religion of Gerrard Winstanley, Past and Present Supplement, vol. 5, Oxford, 1978.Google Scholar

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© Jerome Friedman 1993

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  • Jerome Friedman

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