Arts & Books

Book review: The hedonistic English sect that simply vanished

An illustration from Hell Broke Loose, a 17th-century critique of Ranterism

A Collection of Ranter Writings
Edited by Nigel Smith
Pluto Press, £17.99
Buy it here

The 17th century saw a profusion of sects in England. Most people today are familiar with the names of the Puritans, Quakers, Levellers and Diggers. Less well known is that of the Ranters, a libertine religious movement that thrived for three years following the execution of Charles I in 1649.

Unlike their better-known, ultra-conservative counterparts, the Ranters were renowned – and feared – for their libertarianism, pantheism and advocacy of free love. Believing that God dwelt within the self and nature, they rejected the literal truth of the Bible, the reality of heaven and hell, the Trinity and the notion of immorality, maintaining that salvation existed here on Earth. This, they believed, would be achieved through nudity, blasphemy, swearing and profanity, and, most of all, sexual liberty.

As with so many of their contemporary sects, Ranters were also millenarians. They believed Christ would return to Earth in a violent apocalypse to rule a kingdom of perfect saints.

Most threatening of all for the new Puritan social order that followed the regicide, Ranters believed that Christ’s atonement on behalf of mankind was sufficient to save believers to such a degree that they lived in state of “free grace”. That is to say, the Ranters embraced the antinomian heresy, which rejected the notion of external authority and obedience. This made them a potentially serious threat to the state and the stability of the country. No wonder the Puritans outlawed them in 1650, an action that seems to have succeeded, as the Ranters soon vanished – even if their spirit did not.

Nigel Smith has put together a collection of writings from this fascinating, if short-lived sect that emerged from the Baptist church. The editor places their emergence in the context of the mid-17th century, a bleak, violent era marked by economic hardship. Ranterism, says Smith, appealed to a distressed urban artisan class.

Smith notes Ranterism’s affinity with the Romantic movement of the 19th century. Both coincided with revolutionary political upheavals. Both challenged and sought to replace traditional authority. One prominent Ranter, Abiezer Coppe, writes here of “the Ministers, fat parsons, Vicars, Lecturers, &c, who (for their owne base ends, to maintaine their pride, and pompe, and to fill their own paunches, and purses) have been the chiefe instruments of all those horrid abominations, hellish, cruell, devillish persecutions in this Nation which cry for vengeance”.

Ranterisim developed a cult of pantheism. As another leading protagonist of the movement, Jacob Bauthumley, asserts here: “Nay, I see that God is in all Creatures, Man and Beast, Fish and Fowle, and every green thing, from the highest Cedar to the Ivey on the wall.” The very name of the Deity is called into question. In The Smoke of the Bottomless Pit (1650), John Holland defined God as “Being”, “Fulnesse”, a “Great Notion”, “Reason” and “Immensity”.

Ranterism, like Romanticism, or even like much of modern culture, turned the focus of worship inwards. As one Jacob Bauthumley put it: “Now for that which we call Heaven, I cannot conceive it any locall place, because God is not confined, or hath his Being or station in our setled compasse; and therefore I see that true which the Letter speakes, The Kingdom of Heaven is within you: and so I see Heaven to be there, where God displaies his own glory and excellency.”

Also in true Romantic spirit, the Ranters called for compassion for outcasts – for beggars, rogues and thieves – and for an emphasis on impulse and instinct. They believed that any act was good as long as it was done with passion and conviction.

Ranter Writings is a intriguing collection about a sect that was last in vogue in the 1970s, at the tail end of the era of free love. But I would liked to have learned more about the reasons for their disappearance.

Still, from purely a lexicological perspective, this collection is engrossing. Naturally, we have the archaic, south Saxon third person singular “-th” ending throughout – (“knocketh”), eventually superseded by the Northumbrian “-s”. But there are also charming, obsolete words such “asintullianated”, “mediately” and “tarrie”. And from Abiezer Coope we have distinctly pre-Joycean passages such as “dismall, and dolefull doome, and downefall foretold.”

The editor is correct to observe the absence of women in Ranterism. Adherents of free love nearly always tend to be men, and usually alpha males for obvious biological, Darwinist reasons. (This is why hippy communes invariably end up in patriarchal polygamy.)

It’s worthwhile seeing Ranterism in context of the print revolution of its era, and the profusion of pamphleteering that occurred in the mid-17th century. This was a period in which everyone seemed to have an opinion, and scrambled to have the most outlandish one, in order to attract the greatest attention. In other words, it was not unlike our own internet age.

This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (13/3/15).

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