Religious Dissenters at the time
of the English Civil War
Well, I want to continue on with the threat of schism that is emerging under Francis, but first let’s go back for a posting or two on the history of the Church of England. My readership always falls when I do straight history instead of commentary on present situations and their historical impact, but I do have a small but devoted following on this Church of England series and I do think there are lessons we can learn from that history. Not the least lesson is just how many readers, including Anglicans and Episcopalians, have forgotten (or never known) that the Church of England was decidedly Protestant in both theology and praxis (and that means liturgical praxis) in the second half of the sixteenth century and pretty much right straight through until the early 19th century.) I guess I should give a spoiler alert about that.
We left our saga of the Church of England after talking about the Seekers and the Quakers, groups that rejected both clergy and sacraments in favor of a more interior approach to religion. (We had already treated the more traditional—by comparison—Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and Baptists. The Quakers, as I said, rejected any trappings of traditional Christianity such as Baptism, Holy Communion (they viewed true Communion as an interior and highly personal experience, perhaps somewhat akin to the pious custom of “spiritual communion” among Catholics) as well as any structured liturgy or Creed. While originally quite orthodox in their doctrines about Christ and about salvation, over time Quakerism has developed a breadth of opinions that range from orthodox Christian to Unitarian and even Universalist. They are to be commended on their holding fast to the key principles of charity (brotherly/sisterly love) and pacificism which are needed values for all Christians to recover. We Catholics could do a bit better on this, and might perhaps if it weren’t for the Krazies among us who keep insisting on baptizing their Tea Party whimsies into a sort of pseudo-Catholic orthodoxy. This by the way is why Pope Francis drives them krazy as he just isn’t on their page. But I digress.
As radical as the Quakers were, there were plenty of groups off to their left. One of these groups were the Fifth Monarchy Men. They took their name from the Book of Daniel that spoke of the four ancient monarchies that would precede the reign of Christ. (These were the Babylonian, Persian, Greek (Alexander the Great), and Roman Empires.) The Fifth Monarchy Men, devoted to the Fifth Monarchy—that of Christ—took the “Number of the Beast”, 666, and believed that in 1666 Christ would return and establish an earthly kingdom. The Fifth Monarchy Men initially cooperated with Cromwell in his overthrow of the Stuart kings, but they rejected the idea of any earthly government save of that of “King Jesus.”
Another group which emerged at this time were the “Levelers” or, as they were often popularly known, the “Diggers.” The Diggers were influenced by the writings of Gerard Winstanley (1609-1676) and believed that God’s plan was for the land, from which all derived their sustenance, to belong to all and not to be private property of the landowners. This was at a time when much of the “common land”—the open pastures and fields which did not belong to any one person and to which all had access to pasture their sheep or cattle—was being increasingly appropriated and “enclosed” (fenced in by stone walls or by shrubbery) by great landowners. The Diggers began themselves to cultivate the common land and even land left fallow by the wealthy, and the powerful owners in an attempt to establish small agrarian communities where property was held in common after the example of the Acts of the Apostles. Like the Fifth Monarchy Men they were anarchists.
Then there were the Ranters. The Ranters rejected all religious authority over individuals—not only that of the Church and the clergy, but even of the Bible. They believed that individuals should surrender themselves to the Divine Spirit within themselves. Under the influence of this “Divine Spirit” one could not sin—there were no boundaries set on behavior other than those set by the Spirit on an individual. They got a bit of a reputation for sexual immorality and they also rejected private property.
The Muggletonians were a breakoff group of the Ranters led by one Lodowicke Muggleton. Muggleton taught that there is no Divinity but Jesus Christ, the glorified human man; that the devil is the illogical use of reason; that heaven is a realm of light beyond the stars; hell is this earth with the sun and moon extinguished; angels are beings of pure reason; and that the soul dies with the body but will be raised with the body at the end time. Muggletonians survived into the mid-twentieth century before dying out.
There are numerous other groups, but along with the entries on the Congregationalists, Baptists, Quakers and others already mentioned, this gives a good spectrum of the variety of sects and cults into which the Church of England devolved during the English Civil War. This is always the problem with schism: keeping a movement united and from shattering into a variety of ever more extreme groups. We have seen that in our entries with the Lefebvrists , with the sede-vacantist groups and others who reject the authority of the Second Vatican Council and how they divide and subdivide into new and more extreme groups.