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Response to Review of Radical Religion in Cromwell’s England: A Concise History from the English Civil War to the End of the Commonwealth

I am indebted to Scott Spurlock for his thoughtful and incisive review of my recent book. In these days when demands on academics’ time are probably at an all-time high, it is humbling to find a peer who has taken the trouble, not only to read one’s work, but offer a detailed and informed critique of it. I don’t believe that Scott and I have ever met, but I would certainly be interested in discussing further with him our shared interests should the opportunity ever arise.

Scott has been kind enough to offer praise where he felt it due, and quite robust criticism where he felt that was due; and I take no issue with him where he engages in the latter. In any case, the purpose of this response is not to indulge in a self-justifying ordinance, but seek to build upon what has been offered in the hope of moving the debate even further on.

Scott’s main concern is that I have written about ‘radicals’ without adequately defining the term: and that is indeed a serious business. As he acknowledges, I do mention my awareness of the current and quite lively debate among historians concerning the usage of this term, but miss an opportunity to add to that debate by, perhaps, offering my own new definition taking into account my interest in ‘religion’ as a factor motivating the praxis of my subjects, alongside ‘economics’ and ‘politics’.

I do, of course, make it clear (p. xxiv) that it is not my intention in the book to engage in this debate, though I’m afraid my main reason for adopting this policy is rather tame and un-academic. Early in the piece I did inform my publishers that I was rethinking the appropriateness of the term ‘radical’, and might wish to adopt some other term in the text, but was duly advised that the title of the book was already fixed, and that retaining the word ‘radical’ in it was important as a ‘selling point’. I must admit I did entirely see their point – and their concern that the book serve primarily to introduce new readers to the movements it discusses, not specific scholarly debates – and so decided simply to flag up the debate and stick with the term (though careful readers will notice that it actually appears very infrequently in the text, and then almost always in inverted commas). It seemed to me that, even if I were to go into the issue in some depth, I would have to come down on the side of retaining the term in order to make the text match the title, and so I simply indicated my general ‘relaxedness’ regarding the term, echoing Christopher Hill’s exasperation with those calling for a new one (p. xxv).

And to be honest I would still want to stand by the defence I offered for using the term (and my citation from Edward Vallance), namely that it still has value as a ‘catch-all’ label for individuals and groups wanting to challenge received wisdom and practice, imagine a different world, and engage in action to bring it about. It is, of course, the looseness and imprecision of this ‘definition’ that makes Scott’s argument that it could just as readily embrace Independents, Congregationalists and even Presbyterians prima facie compelling – but of course it is the particular meaning that I would want to invest in that language – a meaning I suspect is shared by Vallance and was definitely held by Hill – that create for me problems with including the somewhat more ‘conservative’ (and there’s another hugely problematic term!) groupings and denominations Scott suggests. But here’s an area for further debate, and I think it is important that this conversation continues to develop. The work by scholars – including my colleague at Otago, Tim Cooper – on this has been fascinating, and if Scott Spurlock’s contribution to the debate here can give it further energy, that is all for the good.

A second issue Scott raises is the extent to which I am influenced in my interpretation of this period by Christopher Hill. Never having been taught by Hill, and in fact only having met him once, his impact on me has been entirely through his writings, which I confess both to having enjoyed and allowed to shape my thinking. But as Scott perceptively notes, the relationship is complex, for while I palpably share Hill’s general ‘sympathy’ for the groups under consideration, his commitment to take them seriously, and his concern to give considerable weight to the economic factors which gave rise to their concerns, I do differ markedly from him in terms of the interpretation I put on the religious language they use in their writings. In fact, for the last 20 years I have gone into print arguing that Hill (and other left-wing historians, particularly those with an interest in Winstanley) have simply got it wrong regarding the significance of the biblical and theological terminology in the Digger, Leveller and other tracts, and I make the point again in this work. I really don’t think Hill quite understood ‘religion’, and that was my main frustration with his work.

Hill seemed to suggest that a distinction could be drawn between the language used to express political ideas and those ideas themselves, that only by penetrating through the religious verbiage in, for example, Winstanley’s many tracts, could one fully appreciate the political core of his argument. Had Winstanley written 50 years later than he did, Hill famously argued, he would not have needed to use biblical idiom and religious jargon but could have employed the language of ‘rational deism’. Such thinking is now rightly seen as both flawed and passé, which is why the recent publication of Winstanley’s complete writings (that is, including the first five tracts in full) (1) is so significant (and there’s also an exciting new scholarly book in the pipeline arguing for a much more ‘positive’ approach to the theological language and concepts contained in Leveller writings). Perhaps what I would have liked Scott Spurlock to have considered a little more in his review is the connection I make in my final chapter between Christian belief and an active commitment to social, economic and political change: it was there among groups like the Digger and Levellers, and continues to manifest itself today, and to highlight this was one of the reasons I went into print.

Having said what I have about the drawbacks of Hill’s approach, I was flattered by John Morrill’s remark (in his review in The Tablet) (2) that my book was ‘very much Hill redivivus’, and by another reviewer’s suggestion that I had been a shade brave to write a book such as this in today’s academic climate. So, to the extent that I sought to put down a marker for taking the ‘radicals’ seriously, in the face of persistent requests by revisionist historians that they ‘lie down to help us see the seventeenth century more clearly’, then I unapologetically (and with all due humility) place myself alongside Hill. (And perhaps here I can offer an apology for the insult to his own work implicit in the claim on the back cover that my book is ‘the first genuinely concise and accessible’ study of its topic. Classic publishers’ hyperbole, but grossly (and ridiculously) unfair to The World Turned Upside Down!)

I am interested in Scott’s assertion that the Ranters are the ‘odd ones out’ in my book, on the grounds that they had the ‘smallest impact on the political and social life of England’. I guess we can argue ‘oddness’ according to all sorts of criteria, but I would have thought that the Ranters did make their presence felt to some extent socially, including among MPs, while the Muggletonians’ impact on society around them (apart from those individuals they cursed who took them seriously!) was largely inconsequential. I was also not consciously arguing (as Scott implies) that the Quakers were the ‘greatest success story of the radical religious movements’ I discussed. True, I was impressed by their rapid numerical gains in the early days, and by the fact that they alone of the groups formed in the period under discussion still survive today; but in terms of the impact of their ideas I would have said that the Levellers top the league, on the simple ground that virtually all of the (profoundly far-sighted) platforms they argued are accepted today without demur. In the light of this ‘success’, and the arguments and examples I offer in my final chapter, I’m also not sure I concur with Scott’s claim that the ‘vitality and continued existence’ of the Friends represents the strongest case for my ‘thesis that religious belief is socially and politically transformative’. But, as Scott rightly observes, I certainly do want to demonstrate, in the face of claims that ‘religion’ tends naturally to be ‘socially destructive, stifling or merely a tool for state building’, that it can be profoundly socially transformative: it was in the 17th century, is now, and ever shall be – and that’s an important point to make in the context of the ongoing current debate about the appropriateness of allowing religious voices to be heard in today’s ‘secular public square’.

Finally, Scott rightly takes me to task for not footnoting my sources: I claim to want to make the writings I am discussing available to the reader, he says, but then offer them no clue as to where they may find the actual texts from which I quote. That is indeed true. The decision to leave out all ‘scholarly apparatus’ with respect to the primary sources was a difficult one – and the point made by Scott was also raised both by my commissioning editor at I B Tauris and the copy-editors – but I took the line I did because the book was intended for ‘general readers’ rather than ‘scholars’, whom I imagined would be primarily interested in getting a ‘general picture’ of the movements described rather than following up the citations, and because I felt that the text might be more attractive and accessible unencumbered by heavy footnoting. Some pages contain quite a large number of quotes, in some cases just a few words woven into the text, and imagining what those pages might look like with numbering every few lines, and piles of references at the foot of the page or back of the book, made me decide to limit footnoting only to contemporary writers. I fully accept and understand the drawbacks with this approach, but still like the cleaner look of the finished product.

So, again, my gratitude to Scott for his generous, constructive and insightful review, and I hope it will inspire further debate about the important wider issues he raises.

Notes

  1. The Complete Works of Gerrard Winstanley. Volume II, ed. Thomas N. Corns, Ann Hughes, and David Loewenstein (Oxford, 2009).Back to (1)
  2. John Morrill, ‘Ranting, quaking and digging’, The Tablet, 31 March 2011.Back to (2)