Saturday, 11 May 2013

Book Review - Andrew Bradstock’s Radical Religion in Cromwell’s England

BRADSTOCK, Andrew, Radical Religion in Cromwell’s England: A Concise History from the English Civil War to the End of the Commonwealth London: I. B. Tauris & Co Ltd, 2011, pp xxvi + 189. ISBN 978-1-84511-765-8, Paperback, £15.99

In Radical Religion in Cromwell’s England Andrew Bradstock aims to provide a concise and accessible history of the most notable radical religious groups of the English Civil War and Commonwealth periods. In addition to an introduction and conclusion, the book is divided into seven chapters, one dedicated to each of the following groups: Baptists, Levellers, Diggers, Ranters, Quakers, Fifth Monarchists and Muggletonians. Bradstock writes in a clear and comprehensible way, making the book suitable for students and general readers as well as the more serious scholar. In handling the content, the author has achieved a good balance between the big picture and smaller-scale detail and, because each chapter stands alone, the book can be used selectively by those who wish to fill specific gaps in their knowledge. Bradstock clearly has a real affection for these radical religious groups, but he does not allow his obvious enthusiasm to detract from the need to offer balanced profiles. Throughout the book, a particular effort is made to address the role of women within each movement, presumably in order to rectify omissions in previous introductory sources.

The book offers a wide range of fascinating insights into the hopes, fears, excitement and disappointment of this turbulent period. Established structures of social control had broken down, apocalyptic expectations were running high and the prospect of further revolutionary change was very real. First and foremost, the radical religious groups under consideration here were regarded as dangerous and threatening to those in power because they were intent on dismantling the very basis of social order within a Feudal society: the church-state power block. It was commonplace in seventeenth-century English radicalism to attribute the country’s ills to the Norman Conquest and the Feudal system it established. Within this system, established religion functioned as the principal agent of social control. Bradstock quotes Charles I saying that “people are governed by the pulpit more than the sword in times of peace” (p. xv). Not surprisingly, all these radical religious groups faced persecution of one form or other at the hands of the authorities. They were portrayed as what Stanley Cohen has called ‘folk devils’ and were linked in particular with the greatest religious folk devils of the time, the violent Anabaptists of Munster from a century or so before.[1]

In many ways, the first three groups considered (Baptists, Levellers and Diggers) reflected the radical optimism generated by the Civil Wars of the1640s, whereas the latter four groups (Ranters, Quakers, Fifth Monarchists and Muggletonians) represented a variety of responses to the disappointment and despondency caused when those hopes and expectations were not realised. In particular, the crushing of the Levellers and the Diggers in 1649 appears to have set the scene for the development of the four radical groups that emerged in the 1650s. Of the ‘groups of hope’, the Baptists were ‘free church’ pioneers; the Levellers were reformist proto-democrats and the Diggers utopian anarcho-communists. Of the 1650s groups, the Ranters were nihilists raging against the system, the Quakers offered an inward path to spiritual and social transformation, the Fifth Monarchists were violent revolutionaries (the ‘paramilitary wing’ of the radical Baptists and Independents) and the Muggletonians provided an undemanding if slightly eccentric path to assured salvation.

Given Bradstock’s previous research interests and publications, it is not surprising that the chapter dedicated to Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers is the strongest. He provides a clear and detailed explanation of the Digger vision, in which the fall of humanity was understood in terms of the emergence of private property, causing violence, inequality and injustice. It is interesting to note that, apart from the belief that the earth should again become a ‘common treasury for all,’ most other Digger ideas reappear in the emerging Quaker movement. This includes a belief in Christ’s return inwardly and spiritually, a commitment to non-violence and the rejection of social graces such as hat honour.

Having outlined the many strengths of the book, it has to be said that it contains a number of weaknesses. The level of theological analysis offered for each group is quite variable. The attention given to the theological foundations of the Digger movement is both rich and detailed; however, Quaker theology is somewhat neglected in favour of a focus on the political impact of Friends and the response they provoked from those in power. Bradstock notes that none of the Quaker distinctives were entirely new and this may explain the limited attention he gives to their theology. However, one might argue that it was the unique combination of beliefs and practices and the way they were lived in the world that made the early Quaker movement innovative and influential. The Levellers receive the least theological attention and, although Bradstock debates the point, he does seem to accept that this group was essentially a forerunner of secular democratic movements. In his treatment of this period, Bradstock appears to neglect the influence of socio-economic factors, arguing that the English Civil War was essentially a war of religion (p xiv). However, in seventeenth-century England, religion and politics were inextricably bound together and could not be separated in any meaningful way. Bradstock’s perspective is somewhat surprising, given the obvious influence of Christopher Hill and other Marxist historians on his thinking. Some consideration of the impact of the transition from Feudalism to Capitalism on the emergence and development of these groups would have been useful. Bradstock debates the appropriateness of applying the term ‘radical’ to the groups outlined in the book. The etymology of the word ‘radical’ suggests a ‘return to the root’. In the case of both Baptists and Quakers, it is clear that the desire to return to the purity and simplicity of the apostolic church was a key preoccupation. Unfortunately, he pays little, if any, attention to the ‘Christian primitivism’ evident in many of these movements.

Bradstock’s treatment of the Quakers also raises a number of concerns. His profile of the group relies too heavily on Barry Reay’s account in The Quakers and the English Revolution and his guidance on further reading is not well-balanced.[2] Although he lists valuable works by Catie Gill and Phyllis Mack about Quaker women, he excludes such essential references on early Quakerism as Douglas Gwyn’s The Covenant Crucified and Rosemary Moore’s The Light in their Consciences.[3] Surprisingly, Bradstock accepts uncritically the traditional account of James Nayler’s re-enactment of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem at Bristol in 1656, asserting that his behaviour confirmed people’s worst fears and brought the Quaker movement into disrepute (p.111). This ignores the political machinations of a Parliament intent on repression, the impact of internal leadership struggles and the fact that Nayler’s conduct was non-violent and in line with the early Quaker use of outward signs to represent inward spiritual experiences. As a result, Bradstock adopts a perspective that appears to blame the victim for the persecution he suffers. Finally, one or two questionable assumptions are evident. In his description of Fox’s Pendle Hill vision, Bradstock suggests that this convinced him of his calling to found a new church (p.96). However, it is clear that Fox’s outlook at this time was far more eschatological than denominational. Bradstock also refers to Quaker belief in the ‘inner light’; a term that Rosemary Moore argues was not used by early Friends.[4]

Nevertheless, despite these reservations, Andrew Bradstock’s Radical Religion in Cromwell’s England represents a valuable introductory reference for anyone interested in finding out more about these intriguing groups and the turbulent religious and political circumstances in which they emerged. As Christians begin to come to terms with the circumstances of post-Christendom where the Church no longer finds itself at the centres of power, the stories of radical religious groups such as these provide valuable insights into the experience of living as disciples at the margins of society.[5] This book will wet the appetites of many readers who, in addition to exploring the author’s recommendations for further reading, will want to seek out more comprehensive bibliographies.

Stuart Masters
Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre, England

[1] Cohen, Stanley (1973) Folk Devils and Moral Panics (Harper Collins)

[2] Reay, Barry, (1985) The Quakers and the English Revolution (Temple Smith)

[3] Gill, Catie, (2005) Women in the Seventeenth-Century Quaker Community (Ashgate), Mack, Phyllis, (1992) Visionary Women: Prophesy in Seventeenth-Century England (University of California Press), Gwyn, Douglas, (1995) The Covenant Crucified: Quakers and the Rise of Capitalism (Pendle Hill Publications), Moore, Rosemary, (2000) The Light in their Consciences: The Early Quakers in Britain, 1646-1666 (Pennsylvania State University Press).

[4] Moore, Rosemary (2000) p.81

[5] Murray, Stuart, (2004) Post-Christendom: Church and Mission in a Strange New World (Paternoster)

Monday, 25 February 2013

Social and Economic Justice in the Hebrew Scriptures

Those unfamiliar with The Bible are often surprised when they find out what it has to say about social and economic justice. The long association of Christendom with power and wealth has obscured the radical teachings to be found throughout the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. In this posting I have provided a sample of Old Testament passages that give a glimpse of this radical vision of justice and a warning about the consequences of greed and a lack of concern for those in need.

Deuteronomy 15:7-11

 If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted towards your needy neighbour. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be. Be careful that you do not entertain a mean thought, thinking, ‘The seventh year, the year of remission, is near’, and therefore view your needy neighbour with hostility and give nothing; your neighbour might cry to the Lord against you, and you would incur guilt. 10 Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. 11 Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbour in your land.’

Psalm 82:3

Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.

Proverbs 19:17

17 Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and will be repaid in full.

Proverbs 22:16

16 Oppressing the poor in order to enrich oneself, and giving to the rich, will lead only to loss.

Proverbs 29:7

The righteous know the rights of the poor; the wicked have no such understanding.

Isaiah 1:17

17  learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan,
    plead for the widow.

Isaiah 58:6-12

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, 10 if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. 11 The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. 12 Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.

Isaiah 61:1


61 The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners;

Jeremiah 22:3

Thus says the Lord: Act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place.

Ezekiel 16:49-50

49 This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. 50 They were haughty, and did abominable things before me; therefore I removed them when I saw it.

Amos 5:11-15

11 Therefore, because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them;
you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine.
12 For I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins—
you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate. 13 Therefore the prudent will keep silent in such a time; for it is an evil time.
14 Seek good and not evil, that you may live; and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you, just as you have said. 15 Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate; it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.


Amos 5:21-24

21 I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. 22 Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings,
I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon. 23 Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. 24 But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Micah 6:8

He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

Zechariah 7:9-10

Thus says the Lord of hosts: Render true judgements, show kindness and mercy to one another; 10 do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Wealth, Inequality and Justice - Some New Testament References

Those unfamiliar with The Bible are often surprised when they find out what it has to say about wealth, inequality and justice. The long association of Christendom with power and wealth has obscured the radical teachings to be found throughout the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. In this posting I have provided a sample of New Testament passages that give a glimpse of this radical vision of justice and a warning about the consequences of greed and a lack of concern for those in need.

Matthew 6:19-21

New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised (NRSVA)

Concerning Treasures

19 ‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Matthew 6:24-25

New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised (NRSVA)

Serving Two Masters

24 ‘No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.

Matthew 19:21

New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised (NRSVA)

21 Jesus said to him, ‘If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’

Matthew 25:34-40

New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised (NRSVA)

34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” 37 Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” 40 And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Luke 3:10-11

New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised (NRSVA)

10 And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’ 11 In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’

Luke 16:19-31

New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised (NRSVA)

The Rich Man and Lazarus

19 ‘There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side 24 He called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.” 25 But Abraham said, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. 26 Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.” 27 He said, “Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— 28 for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.” 29 Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.” 30 He said, “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” 31 He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”’

Acts 2:44-45

New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised (NRSVA)

44 All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.

Acts 4:34-35

New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised (NRSVA)

34 There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. 35 They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.

1 Timothy 6:9-11

New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised (NRSVA)

But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.

The Good Fight of Faith

11 But as for you, man of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness.

1 Timothy 6:17-19

New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised (NRSVA)

17 As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. 18 They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, 19 thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.

James 2:1-4

New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised (NRSVA)

Warning against Partiality

My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favouritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Have a seat here, please’, while to the one who is poor you say, ‘Stand there’, or, ‘Sit at my feet’, have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?

James 4:1-4

New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised (NRSVA)

Friendship with the World

Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures. Adulterers! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.

1 John 3:17

New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised (NRSVA)

17 How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?