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Quakers, Ranters, and the present

Historian Christopher Hill's The World Turned Upside Down looks at the chaos - political, economic, and religious - of the English Civil War, the period when Quakerism started in fiery proclamations. It's hard to imagine, in today's relatively settled yet relatively mobile society, how so much could explode so rapidly. It seems a time when the end of the world really did seem near. In talking about the peril of applying modern frameworks to the time, Hill writes:

From, say, 1645 to 1653, there was a great overturning, questioning, revaluing, of everything in England. Old institutions, old beliefs, old values came in question. Men moved easily from one critical group to another, and a Quaker of the early 1650s had far more in common with a Leveller, a Digger, or a Ranter than with a modern member of the Society of Friends. (14)

Ranters were both Fox's blessing, a ready source of converts, and his curse, as Quakers were often labeled Ranters by their opponents while their own meetings were disrupted by Ranters. The history of the movement from about 1660 (or even 1656) to 1690 is largely the effort to move away from these groups' influence.

Quakerism emerged in a period of utter tumult - as Hill suggests, The World Turned Upside Down. As Hill notes later, "there is [not] any great theological novelty in Fox's works of the 1650s, any more than in the Journal" (232). Quakerism's success - with ideas that had often previously been suppressed - was in finding strong leaders in a time of chaos, people who could both communicate their ideals and exemplify them. "Christ has come to teach his people himself" was an incredibly powerful message and a difficult one to deliver to an audience often seeking stability in Scripture during a period of chaos.

Quakerism in 1652 is a tremendous flame, burning across the countryside. 1659 is probably the peak of political radicalism for Quakerism as a movement. By 1690, those flames are cooling to embers, embers which have sustained Quakerism to the present, through a long list of additional shifts. (There was an amazing message at Bridge City Friends Meeting Sunday about flames and embers that I keep hearing repeat in my mind.)

In my own obsession with history, I'm amazed by those early flames. It's hard not to be mesmerized by the incredible talent and perseverance of the early Quakers. It's also hard not to notice how quickly Quakerism had to change, and how the talent and perserverance applied in those new contexts as well. It has continued to change for 350 years - and perhaps some modern Friends aren't as far from 1650s Ranterism as Christopher Hill suggests.

How would Quakers deal with another period like the one that formed it?


Thank you for asking your closing query.
I was raised in the Orange Grove Friends Meeting in Pasadena California. I was a small boy of 7 when I began attending in 1965. I Was a student at John Woolman School in 1971-2. I was "not invited back" to continue there, I was too much of a... Ranter I guess. I stopped attending Meeting a long time ago now, and have always since been torn, because I consider myself more Quaker than anything else, but I know that my path has taken me far from where "real Friends" would want to think of me as "one of their own." The truth is also that I do not have half the discipline or integrity that a dedicated Friend has in their little finger. That being said, I still feel that the Friend today bears so little resemblence to those who gave the Society birth as to make the two seem... well, they are not the same.

I read Christopher Hill's book The World Turned Upside Down many years ago, and return to it today... and to Gerrard Winstanley... looking for, what? Not answers, but clues, and examples, and you might say, ingredients with which to cook a new and more nutritious social stew.

When I think about returning to the Friends, your query here rises immediately to my mind.

I was a member of Meeting (or whatever the child of Members is called before he reaches maturity) during the time when the Meeting became the center of the Resistance movement in Los Angeles California in 1968. Three AWOL members of the Army, Marines and Air Force requested to the Meeting that they be given "Sanctuary" and allowed to stay within the Meeting's premises until they were arrested. The Meeting agreed. I am sure that all can find references to this historic event, so I wont go into detail. But suffice to say that the original 3 AWOLs were not in fact soon arrested. That resulted in the arrival, over the next 12 months, of maybe 60 or 70 more AWOLS to the Meeting. All were given shelter there. The Meeting House was transformed into a little village of radical counter-culture effervescence, a tumult of resistance, a beacon and a real challenge to the moral authority of the mainstream society and its culture of war and exploitation.

After a year or so, the situation became untenable. There were just too many people living in a space that was not meant for such a purpose, and in fact, the sensibilities of the middle-class Friends were upset by the often rude and wild behavior of the assorted hippies and druggies and etc. who were attracted to the scene.

It really is a classic situation analogous to what Winstanley's followers encountered, with the reaction to the anarchist culture ranging from whole-hearted embrace to outright disgust among "the good town folk."

In the end, the Resistance rented a large three-story house nearby, painted a flag with a red Omega on a black background which hung from the widow's peak in front above the walk and continued to Resist. The AWOLs were all eventually arrested, the anarchy gradually transformed into a form of communistic authoritarianism, and.. the war ended... and...

Now. Here we are.

It is, quite likely, possibly, the End of the World. The consequences of partial solutions, of brave and thwarted attempts at changing the course of history, of compromises and pragmatic "dives" taken to accomplish "the possible" so as not to lose it all... all of this has brought us here.

It is as if there have been two trajectories, one toward Oblivion and the other toward the Peaceable Kingdom, and the momentum has always been skewed just enough toward oblivion to bring us here, to 2011; gasping for air, choking on toxins and stumbling through the piles of dying brothers and sisters, bombs exploding everwhere...

Here is a quote from Christopher Hill. I think this is instructive and insightful, and disappointing. I hope to find that it is a critique whose shelf-life has expired. I hope that we are now all ready to join hands and take the first steps into the unknown, risk our comforts and lives, and live in the joy of standing up.

"In time of defeat, when the wave of revolution was ebbing, the inner voice became quietist, pacifist. This voice only was recognized by others as God's. God was no longer served by the extravagant gesture, whether Nayler's entry into Bristol or the blasphemy of the Ranters. Once the group decided this way, all the pressures were in the direction of accepting modes of expression not too shocking to the society in which men had to live and earn their living. The radicals were so effectively silenced that we do not know whether many held out in isolation with Milton. We do not even know about Winstanley. But what looked in the Ranter heyday as though it might become a counter-culture became a corner of the bourgeois culture whose occupants asked only to be left alone."

I hope that we are now all ready to join hands and take the first steps into the unknown, risk our comforts and lves, and live in the joy of standing up.

Here is Winstanley:

"..yet my mind was not at rest, because nothing was acted, and thoughts run in me that words and writings were all nothing, and must die, for action is the life of all, and if thou dost not act, thou dost nothing,"

in the light,
Terrence Finnerty Burke Willard
San José, Costa Rica