Humanism and The Tradition of Dissent

Writing in the last century, Eduard Bernstein recognized the importance of this social ferment for all subsequent democratic and socialist currents, not only for Britain but for the West as a whole. His study, Socialism and Democracy in the Great English Revolution, following the model of historical studies that his mentor, Friedrich Engles, had pursued, reached conclusions that church historians are only now rediscovering. The American Quaker press, for example, only during the past year has engaged in a lively discussion of the findings of a contemporary Quaker historian who has put forward impressive evidence that earlier Quaker writers minimized or neglected the extent of the social and political radicalism (and a concomitant religious radicalism) that characterized the fledging Quaker movement. At a time when Quaker agitation swept much of the laboring and artisan classes of England, causing tremors even in New England and the American South, their leading preachers included a number of the militant radical of the Commonwealth and Restoration periods, not all of whom restricted their revolutionary doctrine to the realm of the spirit. One of them, James Naylor, for a time rivaled George Fox himself as leader of the popular movement (which was not yet a sect), and frightened parliament into devoting “weeks and months to this affair” (Bernstein), following a mass demonstration in Bristol with Naylor acting out the role of Christ entering Jerusalem, complete with palm branches and jubilant hordes. Until the presently ongoing revision of Quaker history, Quakers had dismissed the Bristol episode, which came close to actual rebellion, as a momentary enthusiasm and a sign of Naylor’s psychological breakdown. But as Bernstein remarked of the imprisonment and public ban placed on Naylor by Parliament, “Such a prohibition, and so appalling a punishment, would not be pronounced against a man who is considered insane…But Naylor’s writings and letters show no trace of mental aberration.”

Naylor’s social gospel was a radical “liberation theology” couched in the mystical-apocalyptic symbols of 17th-century egalitarianism. Early in his career he had been imprisoned for blasphemy for denying the physical resurrection of Christ. His Saviour was a carbon copy of the avenging messiah of the impoverished and oppressed who had been proclaimed by the Lollard “poor brothers” in England nearly three centuries earlier, and by kindred Anabaptist “prophets” in Europe until crushed in the suppression of the left-wing Reformation – with Luther’s blessing.

This story is no excursion into the esoterica of a minor sect. Lilborne, like many of his followers, became a Quaker. So also did John Bellers, a major figure of political idealism and democratic feeling, to whom Bernstein devoted his concluding chapter, as “Champion of the Poor and Advocate of a League of Nations.” Sir Henry Vane, parliamentary leader after the death of Pym an enemy of Cromwell’s royalist ambitions, moved in a circle of advanced democratic radicals that included Naylor and other Quakers and like-minded dissidents. (Vane while still a young man had served briefly as governor of the infant colony of Massachusetts, but had been dismissed by the Puritan leadership for alleged theological irregularity and soon returned to England.) The Quakers were but the most long-lived survivors of a democratic-radical tendency committed to social equality and liberty of conscience (“soul liberty”) that moved the majority of “Round heads” of Cromwell’s army and its political ‘partisans. (George Fox recorded in his Journal that he had received the doctrine of “soul liberty” from a conventicle of Baptists he had encountered in his youth.) English Baptists, “Brownists” (progenitors of the Pilgrims of Plymouth), refugee Anabaptists and Mennonites from the continent, Quakers, and sects long forgotten, made up a Joseph’s coat of dissent that even half a century later caused the young Voltaire to marvel in admiration of English religious diversity – pluralism, as our century would call it – with some thirty sects, he noted, living peaceably side by side.

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