Friday, September 20, 2013

The Levellers

This article is being posted on the 370th anniversary of a battle you may never have heard of as an excuse to write about a group you may never have heard of. But there is some value in knowing about First Battle of Newbury (fought on Sept. 20, 1643) and especially about the group known as the Levellers.
(The group I am writing about, though, is not to be confused with the English rock band founded in 1988 and named the Levellers.)
While most USAmericans know quite a bit about the Civil War in the U.S., most of us don’t know much about the English Civil War, which was fought in the 1640s. One of the major battles of that war was fought at Newbury, about 60 miles west of London.
That First Battle of Newbury was led by King Charles I, who ended up losing his head (literally, in Jan. 1649) in the civil war. He was the leader of the Royalist forces, but the Parliamentarian forces won the battle.
Thomas Prince was on the side of the Parliamentarians in the English Civil War, and he was badly wounded at the Battle of Newbury. In the late 1640s, Prince, along with John Lilburne and Richard Overton, became a leader of a political movement that came to be known the Levellers.
If you have read “A Thicker Jesus: Incarnational Discipleship in a Secular Age,” Glen Harold Stassen’s 2012 book, you know something about these matters, for he narrates how Overton and the other Levellers were “pioneers of democracy.”
Stassen also explains that the Levellers group was one of the “free-church sects,” along with the Anabaptists, Baptists and Quakers, which had considerable influence on the development of democracy in England and then in New England and the other Colonies.
While there is some confusion about the origin of their name, it is clear that the Levellers believed all people should be equal before the law; that is, the law should equally protect the poor and the wealthy. They were also advocates of the complete freedom of religion.
Overton (1599-1664) was a Baptist during the “contentious days” of the English Civil War. According to Stassen, “He strongly advocated the human right of religious liberty on the biblical basis of following Jesus” (67-68). In 1647 Overton published the first comprehensive doctrine of human rights.
Overton first made a confession of faith and was baptized at the Waterlander Mennonite Church in Holland in 1615. (The Waterlanders had broken off from the main Mennonite branch in 1555, and by 1615 they were comprised of about 1,000 baptized believers in Amsterdam.)
But back in England he became a Baptist, and also became friends with Roger Williams, it seems. Williams left England for Boston in 1630 and founded the first Baptist church in North America later that decade. In the 1640s he was writing the same sort of thing about religious liberty in New England that Overton and the other Levelers were writing in England during that same decade.
Stassen links the central emphases of Overton to the American Pledge of Allegiance, saying that the words about “liberty and justice for all” were central in Overton’s writings. (It is estimated that Overton wrote about fifty pamphlets arguing for political and religious liberty.)
Thinking about the Levellers and their emphasis on equality and justice reminded me of this cartoon, which you may have seen on Facebook where I found it.
Or maybe there is not much difference between equality and justice, if you are talking about eye level rather than where one’s feet are.


  1. Great column, Leroy. Thanks. The ongoing issue regarding Christianity's contribution to progressive political developments needs this additional light.

    I like your "USAmericans." You probably know that some Canadians are unhappy with our use of "Americans" to refer only to U.S. citizens. I think the latter practice is too entrenched for us to be able to accommodate the Canadians, but your USAmericans works well, it seems to me.

  2. A good lesson for all of us. I wonder if Overton knew John Smyth when the Baptist group was in Holland and Smyth broke of to go with the Mennonites (1611).

    Love the cartoon. It's a great illustration.


  3. Sadly, the lesson of religious liberty has always been a hard sell. Christians spent centuries slaughtering each other before finally, and reluctantly, beginning to understand the principle. Even today we see recurring examples of this religious bloodshed, such as the assassination of Dr. George Tiller during Sunday morning worship because Scott Roeder disagreed with Tiller's profession as an abortion provider. Today, Roeder is serving a life sentence without parole for first degree murder. Yet I have heard the excuse made for him, "At least no more babies are being killed."

    Islamic countries are dealing with this problem today. Countries such as Iraq, Syria and Egypt are running with blood because key parties do not understand and accept religious liberty. Not only are minorities such as Christians and Baha'i being killed, but Sunni and Shia are on the verge of full regional conflict with each other. Outside groups have certainly been stirring the pot, but outside groups are always there.

    To be fair to religion, I just read an article about the history of violence generated by reactions to the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. The article was stimulated by the recent shooting in Russia involving two men who started out discussing Kant. Apparently some people get very excited about the Critique of Pure Reason! For the curious, the article is here:

  4. A Thinking Friend in Japan (but who is not Japanese) sent the following email message:

    "The Levellers! Great post!

    "Haven’t heard anybody talking about them much lately!

    "Have you looked into Gerrard Winstanley and the True Levellers, otherwise known as the Diggers?"

    1. I didn't know anything about, but was glad to learn about, Winstanley and the Diggers. Here is the first part of the Wikipedia article:

      "Gerrard Winstanley (19 October 1609 – 10 September 1676) was an English Protestant religious reformer and political activist during The Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell. Winstanley was one of the founders of the English group known as the 'True Levellers' or Diggers for their beliefs, based upon Christian communism and for their actions because they took over public lands that had been privatized by enclosures and dug them over, pulling down hedges and filling in ditches, to plant crops. They called themselves True Levellers, whereas the Diggers name was coined by their contemporaries."

      Winstanley became a Quaker in latter years.

    2. This piece may be a bit arcane in places for non-Quakers, but here is an excellent historical look at the Winstanley-Quaker connection, and an insightful analysis of convergent views.