« Present parousia | Main | Quaker Ranters and QuakerQuaker »

It's the end of the world as we know it

After the introduction, the first 'real' chapter in Apocalypse of the Word is a 20-page introduction to the strange world of England in the 1640s and 1650s. It relies fairly heavily on historian Christopher Hill's many works, which I enjoy tremendously, but it's hard to capture just how wrenching those decades were.


  • Years of bad harvests, with famine throughout the land.

  • Eleven years when the king refused to call Parliament into session, bottling up frustrations ever more powerful.

  • Continuous religious conflict and persecution between the state church and its many opponents.

  • A constant trickle of radical (often Anabaptist) religious ideas coming in from the continent.

  • An emerging but hardly stable middle(ish) class that didn't fit well into a world of nobles and not-nobles.

  • Troubles in Ireland and Scotland, with their own religious and social issues.

  • Enclosures and drainage programs that threw poor people off the land, leaving them to survive as well as they could.

That's just the buildup - the explosions of the 1640s were devastating:

  • Open warfare between Parliament (finally called into session) and the King's forces, with armies moving across the country.

  • The sudden development of a new kind of army (the New Model Army), with ranks assigned by performance rather than social status.

  • Freedom of the press that let radical ideas accumulated for years reach much larger audiences.

  • An agreement with the Scots that might have turned all of England Presbyterian - except that there was enough resistance to halt it.

  • Ministers travelling with and generally radicalizing the Army.

  • A Parliament that doesn't really want to pay the Army, leading to all kinds of standoffs and uncertainty.

  • The creation of "agitators" representing the military ranks promoting a "Leveller" agenda.

  • Ever-shifting alliances between Parliamentary factions, the generals, the lower ranks of the Army, and sometimes the King.

  • The execution of the King.

The regicide, the execution of Charles I on authority given by the House of Commons, was a moment in history whose importance is hard to explain many revolutions later. The social, military, and religious powers that had held England together were destroyed or in flight; anything could happen next.

In this swirling chaos, people lost their familiar moorings. Reading Christopher Hill's The World Turned Upside Down or Gwyn's Seekers Found, it's clear that people had good reason for thinking the world was coming to an end: the recognizable world was indeed coming to an end.

While the King's Cavaliers despaired, much of England hoped for a Parliament of Saints, a hope that took a long time to go away. The late 1640s saw a huge buildup of milennial hopes - that King Charles would be replaced by King Jesus - that weren't fulfilled. Instead, Protestants spent years tearing each other apart, while some Protestants moved ever further into doubt. Anglicans became Presbyterians, then joined Independent churches, then became Baptists, and some of those churches 'shattered' to leave their members looking, searching, waiting:

The state of radical Puritanism by 1652 is best defined by a group known as the Seekers. The Seeker phenomenon was not a sect - in fact, it defined itself in opposition to sects by stressing more what it had not found than what it had found. It was made up of thousands who had fitfully passed from one movement to another, finding a fleeting satisfaction, but no lasting peace or unity.

Unlike the Ranters, the Seekers still diligently searched for the path of true righteousness. They denied not only the state church in its episcopal and Presybterian orders, but also the hireling ministry and its sacraments. They began to meet in silence, praying aloud or witnessing as moved by the Spirit.

Though the spiritual life of the Seekers was rich, and many of their leaders were extremely gifted, they felt that they had come to the end of a long and painful road of false gatherings. Together they would wait in patience, "Expecting a further Manifestation." (19-20, paragraph breaks added)

Those Seekers, were, of course, the audience readiest to receive George Fox's message.

Before looking at how Gwyn sees Fox himself catalyzing those Seekers to create Quakers, I'd like to pause for a moment to consider the phenomenon of "Seeking" today. I visited San Francisco Friends' Meeting this morning, which has explicit "Seeker's Packets" in its library for prospective Quakers. I think it's a good idea, but it left me thinking about a fundamental change in our religious outlook.

It's hard to imagine groups of Seekers gathering in America today, to "wait in patience" while supporting each other. Instead, we seem to have shifted to an approach where those not bonded to a particular church either worship (or don't) privately, or attend a church but stay on its edges without diving into religious commitments. I wonder if this is different because current Seekers seem produced by slow erosion rather than radical shifts across the entire culture.

The more I think about it, the more I am impressed by (if not personally interested in) Zach's call to create a place where spiritual practice is taken seriously but without boundaries. I feel that my own seeking is becoming arriving, but looking back I wonder how different it could have been working in community.


There were such groups of seekers gathered in various parts of the U.S. and U.K. in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Some of them became visible when they embraced one or another of the new religious movements (NRMs) arriving (or arising) in the U.S. at that time -- like those that joined ISKCON ("Hare Krishna"), Divine Light Mission, etc.

Others became NRMs in their own right, like John Franklin's Saturday Night Class, which evolved into the Dawn Horse Collective as Franklin evolved into Da Free John.

And still others became visible simply as communes, coƶps, or collective projects, as their members moved into closer and closer relationship with each other, like Stephen Gaskin's The Farm.

I believe Kirk Wattles shares my sense that the 1960s and 1970s were in some senses a replay of the 1640s and 1650s.

What could happen in the U.S. and U.K. in the 1960s and 1970s could certainly happen again.

I've seen the 1960s-1640s comparison in Gwyn and on Kirk's site, but I don't think it works.


As traumatic as the 1960s were, they weren't nearly as crazy as the 1640s, with a huge buildup to a civil war whose insurgency succeeded and then started fighting amongst itself.

For a lot of individuals, yes, the 1960s (and 1970s) were incredibly wild. For society as a whole, I don't think it was remotely close. Population levels were much higher, of course, so maybe it still achieved the same critical mass of seeking people finding each other... but again, I don't see the same kind of lasting bonding together.

It's not that hard for me to imagine the situation of the 1640s returning today - though I hope it doesn't.

(I was born in 1970, so doubtless could be wrong about this.)