After the Battle of Langport on 10th July 1645, the defeated Royalist army burned the small Somerset town, ostensibly to delay the advance of the Parliamentarian army, among which were some of my forebears. Yet when the Restoration of the Monarchy came in 1660, my forebears were firmly loyal to the new king. What happened to the idealism of so many of the Parliamentarian army?
Read Geoffrey Robertson’s “The Levellers: The Putney Debates,” and it is hard to realize that these radical soldiers were evangelical Christians, men who believed their daily lives were shaped by reasing the Bible and saying prayers, they believed very firmly 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, two years after that final defeat of a Royalist army in the field, 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 occupies 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.
Yet once in power, Cromwell and the Puritans suppressed the Levellers and their aspirations. People became resentful of a Christianity that was against every enjoyment, that destroyed beauty and hated celebration, that violently reacted against everyone who did not conform. Once the monarchy was restored, English people decided overt Christianity was not a good idea, by the time of the Methodists in the Eighteenth Century, most people In English parishes rarely attended church and by the Twentieth Century the minority who attended was declining rapidly.
It’s hard to imagine that Jesus would have recognized the religion of the Puritans, but then he wasn’t opposed to people enjoying themselves, nor did he kill those with whom he disagreed.