Humanism and The Tradition of Dissent

From King William’s coronation to Lord Cornwallis’ surrender, to Appomattox Courthouse, to the waters off Newfoundland where Churchill and Roosevelt issued the Atlantic Charter, and to the present, the English speaking peoples have engaged in the most protracted, most extensive, and generally most successful struggle for individual freedom and rights of conscience in human annals. One does not have to be a cultural chauvinist to recognize the impact of that singular experience on world civilization.

But while William and his Norman overlords were the occasion for the long struggle, they take none of the credit for the achievement. The communal life of the underclass – whose native language, manners, and values were to their conquerors synonomous with the vulgar and the uncouth – gave rise to collective habits and responses of anti-authoritarianism that made the national character one of sustained resistance to the court culture and its religious establishment. It must be underscored that this development preceded the “official” Protestant reformation, which was directed from the top downward, by nearly two centuries — if we begin counting only from the Lollard enthusiasm of Wycliffe’s “poor preachers,” who galvanized the lower classes of England into what was both a social and a religious revolution. Lollardry was never suppressed, despite fitful persecution; and attributes of English dissent that are often described as Calvinist and Puritan (both representative of the “high” ecclesiastical parties of Protestantism) in fact antedate those establishment reformers by many generations – a glaring instance of refusing to acknowledge a fact of history until its “official” representatives have entered upon the stage. Lollard dissent and separatism represented a far more radicalizing and democratizing force than the establishment forms of Protestantism that later attempted to supersede and humble them; and, indeed, as the resistance to Calvinist encroachments by Cromwell’s army of radical separatists would prove, the old dissidents never surrendered to the establishment Calvinism of the Presbyterian-Puritan faction (even though the Calvinists shared the same Pauline-Augustian theology already familiar to the Lollardized masses from the preaching of Wycliffe’s Poor Brothers). A historian of the Lollard-separatist tradition, Thomas Cuming Hall, summed up the matter by observing that on Cromwell’s death the official Calvinist (Presbyterian) party betrayed their separatist rivals and were in turn betrayed by the Restoration. The left wing of the popular republican forces of the Commonwealth period, remembered especially for the two of their more organized and identifiable factions, John Lilburne’s radically democratic Levellers, and Gerard Winstanley’s anticlerical Christian communist Diggers, consisted of a complex assortment of social theorists and visionaries who combined an iconoclastic, sometimes anarchistic, religious utopianism with class-conscious revolutionary politics.

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