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A Review Essay RANTERS, DIGGERS AND QUAKERS REBORN By Hugh Barbour* The seventeenth century rebels against the ethic of Puritanism are becoming heroes to the "liberated" of our day. These "Antinomians," particularly the Ranters and Diggers of the English Commonwealth around 1650, had links with early Friends, both by personal contacts, and by sharing parallel inner experiences of crisis and deliverance. Several recent books about them are best reviewed together, against that common background. Midway in the two obscure decades between his graduation from Cambridge and his turning Quaker, Isaac Penington went through a dark period when, "tossed and tumbled about, melted and new-molded," he was "altogether unable to resist" the experience which was "destroying and blotting out in me whatever I have been or have desired to be." As he began "to yield up . . . into the hands of this unknown potter, . . . weary and much weaned from my own will and desires," a sense of release came. Penington 's phrases about becoming "at peace with, if not in love with folly," and about the possibility for God himself of a "pure sporting with sin" suggest a mystical experience of a God beyond good and evil, as well as a Calvinist submission to the mysterious will of God.1 Penington's pre-Quaker phase can also be called Quietism, or Ranterism, or a mental breakdown. It shows the complexity of the experiences we call Antinomian. Equally in need of study are the phrases which suggest that George Fox also went through a period of Ranter contacts or experiences in his younger years: Oh, the everlasting love of God to my soul when I was in great distress; thou, Lord, makest a fruitful field a barren wilderness and a barren wilderness a fruitful field; thou bringest down and settest up; thou killest and makest alive; all honour and glory be to thee, O Lord of glory. [Somewhat later]: Now was I come up in spirit through the flaming sword into the paradise of God. All things were new; ... I knew nothing but pureness and innocency and righteousness, . . . the state of Adam which he was in before he fell. (Journal ( 1952) pp. 10, 27) . Any material which casts new light on the Ranters and the related Familists and Boehmenists is important for Friends. The Familist communes were accused of practicing free love and did claim moral purity. The Ranters, *Professor Hugh Barbour of Earlham College is the author of The Quakers in Puritan England, and co-editor of Early Quaker Writings. During the year 1974-75 he holds the T. Wistar Brown Fellowship at Haverford College, and is working on the religious writings of William Penn. 1. Cf. Penington: Light or Darkness (1650) and the discussion of it in Andrew Brink: "The Quietism of Isaac Penington" in JFHS, LI (1965), pp. 30-56, and Hugh Barbour & Arthur Roberts: Early Quaker Writings (1973) pp. 224-6. 60 REVIEW ESSAY61 though they included communes like Coppe's "My One Flesh," were mainly individualists whose intense experience of guilt and breakthrough left them free to act as they felt led by the divine Spirit within them. Their rather unstable doctrines might include rejection of the Bible, heaven and hell, and even God; their conduct was Antinomian; profanity, drunkenness, adultery and nudity. Some were ecstatic, others depressed, sometimes suicidal; often blended or alternating: "confounded into the abyss of eternities, nonentitized into the being of beings; my soule split and emptied into the fountain and ocean of divine fulness, . . . sunk into the abyss of silence.2" Behind their teaching that "none can be free from sin till in purity it be acted as no sin" was often a desperate, unplanned response to pressures such as a disastrous marriage. Mary Gadbury, left by a runaway husband, lived with William Franklin and keenly encouraged his claims to be Christ re-incarnate; she was shattered when in prison he recanted his claims. I have known a similar case in my own town. The Puritan ethic probably intensified such cases, but folk close to similar psychotic breaks can be found in any time or culture. This side of Ranterism is sensitively presented in G. F. S. Ellens' article "The Ranters Ranting...


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