- Impossible twins: Clarkson and Fox
With the abolition of nominal censorship in 1641, what Davis has called deep-rooted ‘anti-formalism’ within Puritan thought exploded onto the extreme. We might only be speaking of a fraction of 1% of opinion but it was always going to be a fraction which made its voice heard. Thought nurtured within Antinomianism, grown in the wombs of Wickham Market or Grindleton, spilled out all over the place, often never announcing its parentage.
In contrast to the very Universalist approach adopted by many Quakers in later years, early Quakerism had a strictly defined Elect and Reprobate, it merely used subtly different language to define them: the Friends and the World. Quakerism in the 1650s as highly perfectist. On some extreme wings it was almost the apogee of perfectism in England.
Whether it is a popular idea or not, Quaker roots are so radical that it is almost undeniable that the Ranters were originally a twin-sister sect that would crystallise in the ultra-heady anti-establishment year of 1648/49 whilst more formalised Quakerism burst onto the Northern English scene in 1652.
Ranterism was not a self-defined concept; if anything, the grouping called itself ‘My One Flesh’. The identity of an Elect is also difficult. One thing is for sure: an absence or presence of sin is hardly going to be defining. Laurence Clarkson in, ‘A single eye: all light, no darkness; or light and darkness one’ says, “Sin hath its conception only in the imagination.” Ranters delighted in all sorts of pleasures, seemingly no matter how immoral. In truth, this was actually an extreme position even within the Ranter experience and only Clarkson amongst the main Ranter writers seems to have advocated it, his importance magnified because his writings rank amongst the best – and in parts, they demonstrate unanticipated beauty.
In the popular view Ranters spent most of their time sinning. But they insisted that there was no such thing, other than in the mind of Man. Source: From ‘Hell Broke Loose’ (1650) commenting upon the Ranters entering Blackfriars Church mid-sermon.
Therefore, in our retrospective view of history, we see somewhat of a stereotyping between Quaker and Ranter when, in truth, at least initially, there was probably a greater degree of fluidity across a permeable boundary. Both groups used the imagery of light and darkness in what must still have smacked of the Persian Mani to the authorities. For Prescillianism (named after Priscillian of Avila) both light and dark are in Man but the light is imprisoned by the material darkness and can only be revealed by overcoming matter. For Clarkson they needed to be reunited. Seeing the sin in Mankind was only a sign of having eaten of the forbidden fruit of Eden, an idea he had indirectly absorbed from the Eatonist, Tobias Crisp.
Once the stereotypes of extremist London Ranterism are cast aside, the Ranter position was passed through by many. Even Isaac Pennington, one of the most noted Quakers, seems to have gone through a somewhat similar state of mind. Indeed, it is possible that the Brierley-Tennant translation of the Theologia Germanica fell into the hands of someone headed in that direction.
Clarkson and his Ranter friends cut unlikely historical heroes with their immoral behaviour and subsequent rejection of it. By 1652 the then rare position of universalism was at least alive through the legacy of Gerrard Wynstanley’s Diggers and various Ranter milieux. In contrast, it had not yet taken any clear hold in the emergent Quaker movement, which was initially to see itself as a unique ‘Elect’, distinct from the World. However, there is no doubt that disillusioned Ranters were absorbed into the latter movement and may well have brought some variant of a more ‘universalist’ position with them.
Tobias Crisp’s influence on Clarkson has been well documented by Ute Dreher. Clarkson split from Presbyterianism at the time that it went from being ‘persecuted opposition to persecuting ruling party’. After a brief spell of Separatism, he became completely absorbed in both the writings and the teachings of Crisp.
A further influence at this stage of his life seems to have been Robert Lancaster. Como allocates quite some degree of importance to him. Lancaster was an Antinomian preacher in his own right who lived in Chimney Alley in St. Stephen Coleman Street parish from 1625 to 1639, the classic years of Antinomianism in the capital. Lancaster was tutor to Tobias Crisp’s daughter – even teaching her Hebrew by the time she was fifteen. After Crisp died of the pox in February 1642/43, he would provide the hagiographic preface to Crisp’s sermons, ‘Christ alone exalted’. Over that previous year, however, he had already established himself as one of the leading Antinomian thinkers and preachers in London, having been responsible for the eventual publication of Eaton’s ‘Honeycombe’. Together Honeycombe and Christ alone exalted represented an explosion of antinomianism in post-censorship London. Towne was on their heels.
All sorts of Antinomian texts could be purchased in Popes Head Alley. Robert Lancaster had Eaton’s ‘Honeycombe’ printed by one ‘R.B.’ and sold there in 1642. John Sweeting was selling the Everard translation of the ‘Theologia Germanica’ in Popes Head Alley in 1646.
Como’s assumption is that Lancaster was lay at the time. In fact, he probably matriculated sizar from St. John’s, Cambridge in 1586, which would fit Thomas Bakewell’s comments in ‘The Antinomians Christ Confounded’ (1644) that Lancaster was relatively old. Dreher describes the writer of the preface to Christ alone exalted as a classical scholar, highly expert in Oriental languages and an “erudite divine”. John Simpson – ‘God’s Eye on his Israel’ (1644), a markedly anti-Antinomian tract, describes Lancaster as one of “three grand patrons of the Antinomians” and outlines his examination by the Star Chamber that same year. He seems to have been at various places across Hampshire over the course of the 1650s: Quarley, in the vicinity of Andover in 1650, in neighbouring Amport in 1656 and he seems to have been minister at North Baddesley when he was ejected after the Restoration.
Quakerism itself went through staggering shifts in its first decades, reflecting the change from personal determination of what it meant to the imposition of an organised structure. There were political considerations imposed on top of that: the power-sharing of the late 1650s and the Restoration of the Monarchy. The emergent Quakerism of the early 1650s had no need for any means. Indeed, they were all to be eschewed: separate places of worship (steeplehouses), sacraments, hierarchies along with the future states of Heaven and Hell. In place of all these they would be silent in an actually realising eschatology. Far from peaceful they were the agent’s in the Lamb’s War and broke into churches mid-sermon, shouting down preachers.
However, it is dangerous to generalise too much. The Quakerism of George Fox was subtly different to that of, say, Thomas Taylor (i.e. the former Westmorland Seeker). And these divergences call into question any understanding of an Elect. It seems to have been so personalised that it could come to focus on an individual rather than a collective group. Fox had rivals for leadership, one of whom was James Nayler. Dorcas Erbery, daughter of the South Wales Seeker was involved in a relationship with Nayler and accompanied him through the streets of Bristol. More importantly than anything, she claimed that he was Christ and that he had raised her from the dead.
Even as early as 1653 – and certainly by the Restoration Quakerism of the early 1660s – there were noticeable changes with claims to perfection being scaled down, the historical Jesus being mentioned more rather than just as some sort of Everard-style allegory and the immediacy of the Second Coming being pushed forward. It was designed to broaden their appeal.
It did not always work. For example, one might have considered that John Webster of Clitheroe, former minister of Kildwick and the preface writer to Robert Towne’s ‘Reassertion of Grace’ would have found much in common. He certainly sympathised with them to start with. But by 1677 Webster had clearly moved for in ‘The Displaying of Supposed Witchcraft’ he comments on the vanity of presuming to be under the Spirit, a practice still followed by a “giddy troop of fanatical Quakers”. Webster’s later views, therefore, rather reflect those of Calvin who spoke of the ‘giddy men’. But then ‘giddy’ retained some its earlier meaning – ‘related to God’, an especially old root tied to Spirit possession in Indo-European societies.