When one sees the brand of politics that enlists religious endorsement and brands itself as “evangelical”, it is hard to remember the radical roots of evangelical Christianity. The Sixteenth Century Reformation often brought the replacement of one religious tyranny by another, both sides willing to burn those deemed “heretical”, yet among the warring powers there were small groups committed to a church and a society they believed more closely resembled the Christian community of New Testament times. In Britain the Congregationalists and the Independents never had the capacity to gain power: Anglicans and Presbyterians were more organized, more reflective of the views of the powerful elites, possessing a better eye to their own interests. Conservative evangelicals now, with their uncritical acceptance of the social and political establishment are much closer to the brand of Christianity they would purport to have rejected than to some of their forebears.
Reading Geoffrey Robertson’s “The Levellers: The Putney Debates,” it is hard to realize that these radical soldiers were evangelical Christians, men whose daily lives were shaped by Scripture and prayer, they believed everyone should pursue their own conscience, that no government had a right to impose religion. In “An Agreement of the People” issued on 28th October 1647, they declared:
That matters of religion and the ways of God’s worship are not at all entrusted by us to any human power, because therein we cannot remit or exceed a tittle of what our consciences dictate to be the mind of God, without wilful sin.
The Levellers had no place for an established church, no place for secular powers being used to dictate people’s religious beliefs or their practices, they would be disappointed that almost four centuries later the Church of England still occupied a privileged position.
The Levellers’ vision extended much further than matters of religious belief, there was a belief in universal suffrage, an idea that their opponents claimed could only lead to anarchy and an end to private property. On 29th October 1647, after a morning prayer meeting, the soldiers had resumed their debates. Colonel Thomas Rainsborough, who became a heroic figure for the Levellers, declared during the debate:
For really I think that the poorest hee that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest hee; and therefore truly, Sr, I think itt clear, that every Man that is to live under a Government ought first by his own Consent to put himself under that Government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that Government that he hath not had a voice to put Himself under.
The poorest man has as much a life to live as the richest man: a declaration of the dignity and rights of every person, rights that were about more than a matter of words or principles, right that had direct political implications.
Where now are the evangelicals in the tradition of the Levellers? In the United States, they rally around Jim Wallis and the Sojourners movement, where are they in these islands?