Civil War; Ranters, Quakers and Revolution by Richard Gunn



Title of Talk:

Civil War; Ranters, Quakers and Revolution by Richard Gunn


The Ranters

Bullet points of what you would like to talk about:

  • Mid 17th century Britain during a time of Revolution
  • Commentators of radicalism
  • Origins of radical and grassroots thought
  • Ranters and Quakers


About the talk and subject:

My aim is to share with you the riches of a historical period. In the mid seventeenth century, Britain was plunged in a revolution. In the course of the revolution, ‘church courts and the censorship broke down [1].
The result was an upsurge of popular and radical thinking – much of it thinking of an apocalyptic kind. (The term ‘apocalyptic’ is one which I shall explain but, in this note, I pass over it in silence.) Not the least important feature of the uncensored period of the civil war period is its impact on generations of subsequent radical thought.
Frequently, commentators on radicalism look back only to the early decades of the twentieth century, when Lenin and Luxemburg debated what was termed the ‘problem of organisation’. It is assumed that, beyond Lenin and Luxemburg, only nineteenth-century social democracy was worth considering. My proposal is that such a view of radicalism’s sources is too narrow.
The upsurge of ideas in the seventeenth century’s uncensored years is a resource on which a historian can and must draw. In his The Democracy Project (Allen Lane 2013), David Graeber points to the Quakers or Society of Friends – founded in the mid-seventeenth century – as a source of the Occupy movement of 2011-2013. Occupy’s emphasis on the notion of ‘horizontality’, not to mention the notion of ‘prefiguration’, replays seventeenth-century in a radically different context.
It is perhaps unsurprising that the mid-seventeenth century upheaval has given rise to numerous interpretations. The school-book term ‘English Civil War’ is unhelpful not least because ‘Presbyterianism’ which, as Thomas Hobbes noted in his Behemoth fed into the Civil War, became a point of contention north of the Scotland/England divide. If the so-called ‘English Civil War’ was a revolution, how is this revolution to be pictured?
Was the Civil War a successful ‘bourgeois’ revolution – ‘successful’ in that it launched U.K. capitalism on its way? Or was it a failed popular revolution – ‘failed’ since, in 1660, the monarchy was restored and, by the end of the seventeenth century, the U.K. was ruled by a far-from-progressive social élite [2]. My preference is for the second of these terms. However, ideas from the mid-seventeenth century did not disappear.
That went under ground. The following words were written not by a twenty-first theorist of the Occupy movement but by John Saltmarsh, in his Smoke in the Temple in 1646: ‘Let there be free debates and open conferences for all and of all sorts that will, concerning differences in spirituals; Where doors are not shut, there will be no breaking them open.’ [3]
I should acknowledge that my talk to the Ragged University covers much the same ground as my ‘Ranters, Quakers and Revolution Today‘ – which appeared on the Edinburgh Society of Friends website at My presentation was on November 11th 2018.
Addressing the Ragged University, I drop the assumption that my audience are Quakers in main. Tonight, my aim is to bring life into a period oft history that may or may not have been a focus of your attention. At this point, I should mention that Christopher Hill, especially in his The World Turned Upside Down (quoted earlier) is the historian who has done most to restore the ‘failed popular revolution’s’ voice.
Tonight, I do not attempt to sift through Civil War movements or theorists in an exhaustive way. My focus is on what Geoffrey Nuttall has termed the ‘milieu’ of seventeenth-century radical thought. [4] When I quote a specific theorist, it is for illustrative reasons. I should add that seventeenth century prose is characteristically forceful and clear.
In my presentation of November 11th, I set alongside George Fox (the carsmatic leader of the early Quaker movement) and Abiezer Coppe, whose Fiery, Flying Rolls (or Roules), both published in 1649), which gave voice to Ranter views. The Ranters, I explain in passing, were a famous or notorious radical grouping which subsisted in Civil War years. The grouping was, on principle, informal so that J.C. Davis’s charge that the Ranters did not exist [5] miss the point. At various points in his Journal, Fox tells us that he encountered Ranters – with whom he did not see eye to eye.[6]
In the second Fiery, Flying Roll, Coppe refers to a ‘free community’. [7] and the community that he has in mind is a community of an anarchistic kind. Famously or, once again, notoriously, Ranters as part of their anarchism performed outrageous actions – much as, in the twentieth century, dada and Surrealist artists cultivated performative art. Such actions had the aim of ‘arousing the bourgeoisie to rage’.[8]
Consciously or unconsciously, the eighteenth century Quaker harked back to Quakerism’s Ranterish beginnings when he employed ‘guerrilla theater’ to awaken the conscience of Quakers in Philadelphia who possessed slaves.[9] The logic of performance art or guerrilla theater is to challenge its observer to respond in an enlightened and socially free way.
A comparison between Coppe and twentieth century Surrealism might be followed in greater detail them is possible here. In the second Roule, Coppe reminds his reader that ‘God hath chosen BASE things’.[10] If valid, his reminder is of the first importance. In the Classical, or pre-Christian world, Plato had defended his Theory of Forms by absurdity by admitting that Forms of ignoble substances – his examples being hair and dirt – did not exist.
In the twentieth century, the anarchist and Surrealist Georges Bataille wrote a fascinating memoir on a paper whose title speaks for itself: ‘The ‘Old Mole’ and the Prefix Sur in the words Surhomme [Superman] and Surrealist’. [11] In both cases – in Bataille and in Christianity, as portrayed by Coppe – a profound revaluation of values takes place.
Here, I do not follow through the ‘BASE things’ comparison. Instead, I turn to the ‘milieu’ of radical thinkers of whom Coppe was a member. For the majority of radicals in the civil war period, a major social and cultural and, indeed, spiritual change was on the way. Coppe underlines the closeness of this change in a number of ways. ‘Never was there such a time since the word stood as now is’; ‘It is but a very little time; ‘Its the last daies.’ [12] In the light of this imminence, performative art and actions of outrage acquire increased point. In George Fox’s case, what is striking is the tenacity with which, although the radical cause was vanquished, he held to to the perfectionist theology that he favoured from the 1640s onwards. [13]
My final point regarding Coppe concerns the radical ‘milieu’ once again. I have suggested that…
When writers trace the origins of radical and grassroots thought, social democratic thought in the nineteenth century and the Leninism of the first half of the twentieth century is frequently uppermost in their mind. My suggestion here is that such a tracing of interest is too narrow. Radical thought at the time of the seventeenth century civil war is a no less central source of ideas. This circumstance is noted by David Graeber who, in his The Democracy Project, points to Quakerism (the Religious Society of Friends) as a source of the 2011-2013 Occupy movement’s.[14]
The Quaker movement emerged in and through the upsurge of radical and uncensored thought that took place at the time of the seventeenth century civil war – of which more below. This article covers similar ground to my ‘Ranters, Quakers and Revolution Today’ – a presentation given at Edinburgh Society of Friends Meeting House on 11 November 2011. My paper was posted on ‘Quakers in Scotland’ at[15]
In the present short paper, I am not directly concerned with politics but with the history of radical ideas. If a reader is interested in the origins of the Occupy movement, a reference to social democracy or Leninist politics is too narrow to bring important issues to light. For Occupy, for example, ‘horizontality’ is important, as is a ‘prefigurative’ political stance, but the Leninist and social democratic traditions look at horizontality and prefiguration askance. [16]
When, for instance, orthodox Marxism discusses what it terms the ‘problem or organisation’, the question of what form of organisation is most effective in bringing about a specific change is the only question that enters debate. When the range of sources that we are willing to consider is broadened, Occupy-style features spring to light. There is nothing in Lenin that is the equivalent of John Saltmarsh’s declaration of 1646:
‘Let there be free debates and open conferences and communication, for all and of all sorts that will…Where doors are not shut, there will be no breaking them open.’ [17] If Occupy-style horizontality is construed in terms of Hegelian mutual recognition, [18] the resonance between 1646 and 2013 has an almost uncanny ring.
There are, to be sure, barriers in the way of turning to the seventeenth century to highlight present-day revolutionary themes. The most significant is the circumstance that, at the time of the seventeenth-century civil war, political debate and radical polemic was conducted in a theological framework that is unfamiliar today. If we are to move easily in Saltmarsh’s and other radicals’ writings, we must familiarise ourselves with a theological idiom that is not our own. We must, so to say, be unphazed by Saltmarsh’s invocation of free grace or by Abiezzer Coppe’s and George Fox’s underscoring of ‘perfection’ as a theme. [19]
At what point should we plunge into plunge into seventeenth-century radicalism’s theological idiom? Where, in other words, should a history of ideas begin? In a sense, our beginning is immaterial. Seventeenth century writers express themselves forcefully, and a reader – even a twenty-first century reader – becomes rapidly familiar with issues at stake. Let me turn, directly, to a radical who is in some way distinctive but with whom present-day similarities can be found. I shall assume that Abiezzer Coppe’s Fiery Flying Rolls (both of 1649) speak for the Ranter movement as a whole.
Who or what were the Ranters? The safest answer is that the Ranters were an informal grouping who flourished when, in the 1640s, ‘church courts and the censorship’ broke down. [20] (A twentieth-century historian has argued that the Ranters did not exist, but this is only to say that their informality passed under the radar so far as his analysis. [21]
In his Journal, Fox tells us of meeting Ranters – with whom he did not see eye to eye – on a number of occasions.[22]) At this point, a convenient term may be introduced into our discussion. In a treatment of the Quaker James Nayler, Geoffrey Nuttall refers to a number of radical Civil War groups – he mentions Familists and Seekers as well as Ranters – as forming a common ‘milieu’. [23] It is the term ‘milieu’ that I wish to emphasise. Sects and Movements may differ on a number of issues, but seventeenth century radicals were interlinked on a number of fundamental issues. If these isesues are kept in view, interpretation of them does not go far away.
The Ranters, and Coppe w+i-th them, were anarchists. When Coppe champions the noyion of a ‘free community’, [24] an anarchist community is what he means. As part of their chamioning of anarchism, Ranters were famous or notorious for performing intentionally provocative acts. Ranters advocated free love – Coppe tells us that he may ‘kisse and hug Ladies…without sin’ [25] – and drank alcohol; they favoured ‘swearing i’th light, gloriously’ because ‘what God hath cleansed, call not uncleane’. [26]
When I introduced Coppe a few moments ago, I mentioned that, in some respects, similarities with the present day can be found. The Ranter practice of performing provocative actions is one such similarity. In the twentieth century, performance art and provocative actions were ‘a means of arousiing the bourgeoisie to rage’.[27] In the early eighteenth century, the Quaker Benjamin Lay became a master of what Marcus Rediker terms ‘guerrilla theatre’ to the same effect. [28] In Lays case, the social target was Quakers in Philadephia who owned slaves.
Another theme in Coppe which seems prescient is less dramatic. In the seconf Fiery Flying Roll, Coppe reminds his reader that ‘God hath chosen BASE things’. [29] In Classical philosophy, Plato had attempted to protect his Theory of Forms from a charge of absurdity by arguing that Forms of ignoble substances such as hair or dirt did not exist. Christianity’s prioritising of ‘BASE things’ suggested that a re-evaluation of values was under way.
In the twentieth century, strikingly, the anarchist and Surrealist Georges Bataille supported baseness and castigated authoritative and top-down lines of thought. [30] In the twentieth century, the anarchist and Surrealist Georges Bataille had castigated au top-down authority. The point could be explored further. Bataille and the Ranters seem to say analogous things.
I have said enough to indicate that present-day radical or revolutionary thinking is more than an application of social democratic thought. A discussion might follows which explored the relation betwee, say, Quaker and Ranter outlooks or schools. Here, I do not attempt to be conscientious. I rely on the term ‘milieu’ to make clear where the emphasis of such a discussion should lie. I end by commenting on two patterns of thinking which seventeenth century radicals tended to employ.
The first notion that I consider is prefiguration: be the change – or, at least, be a first installment of the change – which, as a radical, you want to bring into being. In the twentieth century, the feminist movement (and, relatedly, the anti-war movement) came to see organisation in prefigurative terms. [31] In the seventeenth-century Civil War period, groups such as the Ranters and the Diggers explored prefiguration as an idea.
By contrast, in the ‘problem of organisation’ debated by orthodox Marxism (and referred to earlier in this paper), political strategies and tactics were assessed in instrumental terms alone. The notion of figuration had no place. As Graeber’s The Democracy Project makes clear, and as R. Gunn and A. Wilding have emphasised in a number of joint papers published online by the Heathwood Institute and Press, Occupy and Occupy-style politics championed a radicalism of a prefigurative kind. In this and other regards, Occupy looked beyond the Leninist and social democratic traditions. It picked up where seventeenth century radicalism left off.
The second is the imminence of political change. As quoted above, for Coppe and other seventeenth-century radicals, ‘It’s the last daies’. This sense of living on the edge was intrinsic to Occupy’s initiatives. If the mutual recognition at which Occupy aimed was tomake an appearance, it was ro begin in the here and now – despite mud and police lines and, sometimes, amateurism.
On the day before the Occupation in Gezi Square, Istanbul, was cleared by Erdogan’s water canons, Occupiers held a party – getting the symbolism on which I am insisting exactly right. [32] Lenin’s The State and Revolution, which inserts an epoch of state socialism between communism and the present, casts aside the living movement that he claims to respect.
In my ‘Ranters, Quakers and Revolution Today’ (, I set Fox and Coppe alongside one another – and refused to say which of them I preferred. Here, although I have concentrated on Coppe, the same refusal is present. Radicalism has (or should have) a past without heroes. Villains – like Erdogan at the time of Gezi – are easy to find.
This evening’s paper ends on a sober rather than an uplifting note. My claim is that, if we turn to the mid seventeenth century, and especially to the period when censorship was lifted, there is much to see. We encounter precursors of ourselves. The grey-suited era of social democracy and the era where radicalism wore Leninist character armour is at an end. What happens next? I am tempted to reply to this by saying: nothing happens. In the course of this nothing-happening, we have a world to save.


  1. C. Hill IIThe World Turnes Upside Down (Penguin Books 1975) p. 23.
  2. Why ‘far from progressive’? See the eye-opening Albion’s Fatal Tree: Crime and Society in Eighteenth-Century England edited by D. Hay and others (Verso 2011).
  3. Saltmarsh quoted in A.S.P Woodhouse, ed. Puritanism and Liberty (Dent 1974) p. 181.
  4. For ‘milieu’, see G. Nuttall James Nayler: A Fresh Approach (Friends’ Historical Society 1954) p. 2.
  5. J.C. Davis Fear, Myth and History (Cambridge University Press).
  6. There is a famous on-going question about the relation between Ranters and Quakers. Fox and the Ranters certainly differed in temperament. It is striking that, in his Journal, Fox seldom criticises Ranters on a theological basis.
  7. Coppe in N. Smith, ed., A Collection of Ranter Writings from the 17th century (Junction Books) p. 96.
  8. H. Richter Dada: Art and Anti-Art (Thames and Hudson) p. 9.
  9. See M. Rediker The Fearless Benjanin Lay (Verso) p. 61.
  10. Coppe in Smith p. 106.
  11. G. Bataille Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939 (Manchester University Press n.d.) p. 32.
  12. Coppe in Smith pp. 92, 109, 110.
  13. This point is stressed, and further explained, in my paper of November 11.
  14. D. Graeber The Democracy Project (London: Allen Lane 2013) pp, 194-5, 218.
  15. In order to avoid confusion, I should make it clear that I am not a Quaker although I am sympathetic to a number of Quaker ideas.
  16. On horizontality, see Graeber Democracy Project pp. 26-7, 194-5. For a discussion of prefiguration, see A Wilding, R. Gunn, R.C. Smith, C. Fuchs and M. Ott ‘Occupy and Prefiguration – A Roundtable Discussion’ [published online by Heathwood Institute and Press on 10 November 2014]
  17. Quoted in A.S.P. Woodhouse Puritanism and Liberty (London Dent 1974) p. 181.
  18. As it is in R. Gunn and A. Wilding ‘Occupy as Mutual Recognition’ [published online by Heathwood Institute and Press ( on 12 November 2013].
  19. For Coppe on ‘perfection’, see N. Smith, ed., A Collection of Ranter Writings from the 17th century (London: Junction Books 1983) p. 103.
  20. ‘Perfection’ is a theme emphasised throughout Fox’s (London: Pengiun Books 1998).
  21. C. Hill The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution (Harmondsworth: Pengiin Books 1975) p. 23.
  22. My referemce is to J.C. Davis and History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1986)
  23. See Fox Journal (Penguin Books) pp. 63-7, 138, 149-50, 159, 176, 212, 384, 343.
  24. G. Nuttall James Nayler: A Fresh Approach (London: Friends’ Historical Society) p. 2.
  25. Coppe in Smith p. 96.
  26. Coppe in Smith p. 107.
  27. Coppe in Smith p. 92.
  28. H. Richter Dada: Art and Anti-Art (London: Thames and Hudson 1964) p. 9.
  29. M. Rediker The Fearless Benjamin Lay (London: Verso 2018) p. 61.
  30. Coppe in Smith p. 106.
  31. See G.Bataille ‘The ‘Old mole’ and the Prefix Sur in the words Surhomme [Superman] and Surrealist” in his Visions of Excess: Selected Writings 1927-1939 (Manchester: Manchester University Press 1985).
  32. For an influential use of the term prefiguration, see S. Rowbotham, L. Segal and H. Wainwright Beyond the Fragments (Merlin Press 1979) pp. 132, 147. I have always regretted that I was not at this party. See messages of support by John Holloway and Richard Gunn in Otonom (No. 28) July-September 2013 p. 43.


This event St John’s Church Hall (Princes St, Edinburgh, EH2 4BJ) at 5.30pm on 16th December 2018