By Ed Simon
“Thus saith the Lord, I inform you, that I overturn, overturn, overturn.”
– Abiezer Coppe (1649)
“I am an antichrist/I am an anarchist…”
– Johnny Rotten (1977)
On June 7th 1977 the recently signed Sex Pistols chartered a boat to cruise down the Thames past the Houses of Parliament, planning to play their single “God Save the Queen.” Cynics have long pointed out that the band was more media creation of producer Malcolm McClaren than they were a spontaneous outcry of disaffected youth. Yet the Debordian spectacle of Johnny Rotten snarling out “God save the Queen/She ain’t no human being” across the placid summer Thames only two days before Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee river procession would traverse the same waters was undeniably anarchic. Whether or not the Sex Pistols were more commercialism than revolutionary is of secondary importance to how shocking the planned (and failed) event was. It’s been noted that the week the song hit number one the BBC left the title blank. Even if more media event than anything, one must admit that McClaren had absorbed whatever influences – performance art, American rock and roll, anti-establishment fashion and attitude – to generate a potent combination.
Readers who are familiar with Greil Marcus’ magisterial rock music critique Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century may have heard of another group that were, if not an influence, at least a spiritual ancestor to the group. Always idiosyncratic and expansive in his interests, Marcus fingered an obscure seventeenth-century religious group with the descriptive name of the “Ranters” as being a type of early modern punk movement. Much as the punks refused to see anything as off limits – spewing obscenity, blasphemy, and political incorrectness all in the interest of challenging the mores of a suffocating and corrupt society – the Ranters paradoxically saw the road to salvation as being paved with the actions of sin. Much as Rotten and Sid Vicious would offend the middle-class sensibilities of a British public on the verge of Thatcherism, the Ranters addressed a public who had survived multiple civil wars and the execution of their King only to find themselves ruled under the increasingly conformist Commonwealth government of Puritan Oliver Cromwell.
Now lay-readers have a new resource for reading the Ranters directly in Nigel Smith’s fascinating anthology A Collection of Ranter Writings: Spiritual Liberty and Sexual Freedom in the English Revolution. A Princeton professor of English Smith has long elucidated the politics, culture, religion and literature of the seventeenth-century, writing foundational works on Andrew Marvell, John Milton, and the explosion of print at the end of the civil wars. This is Smith’s second edition of this anthology, the first appearing in 1983 when he was, amazingly, still just a graduate student. Following the advice of the great Marxist historian Christopher Hill, Smith edited the works of Abiezer Coppe, Laurence Clarkson and others into the first popular anthology of radical non-conformist religious writings from the English civil war. It is an important contribution not just for scholars, but for the general public as well. Smith has provided an invaluable servxice, a collection of fascinating religious writings that most people are scarcely familiar with, yet whose study can provide important elucidation not only on a particular time period, but also wider contemporary issues of religion and politics.
As Smith writes “The literature that is still read today from the seventeenth century is incredibly rich in its originality and its enriching value: the later Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Donne, Descartes, Thomas Hobbes, Milton, Marvell, Margaret Cavendish to name a few. The Ranter writings, in their outrageous way, are right up there with them.” In reading through Smith’s anthology all of the authors are fascinating, but Coppe stands above the rest as the true prophetic genius of the group. In the tradition of all great prophets from Elijah and Ezekiel to Muhammad and Joseph Smith, Coppe found his initial theophanic experience to be terrifying. Journeying to hell, beset on all sides by demons, forced by the Godhead into painful bibliophagy, Coppe subverted and altered the expectations of the English language to convey an experience of the ineffable.
In his works we see an attempt to push English to its limits. If as Ludwig Wittgenstein says “Whereof we cannot speak thereof one must be silent” Coppe attempted to bring voice to a quite chamber. Coppe writes “If I here speake in an unknown tongue, I pray that I may interpret when I may.” He distinguished between the literal and the allegorical in scripture, the physically resurrected Christ is less important that the internally resurrected Christ of the human heart. He performed seemingly satirical and extreme pastiches of the scriptural idiom of the King James Bible, but like poet-prophets after him such as William Blake, Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg he attempted to take mere language to its very limits, to apply signifiers to signifieds that exist in a transcendent realm. In his mimesis of scriptural language we see chiasmus, tricolons, and repetitions. And always he writes with a relentless logorrhea. As an angel tells him “Go up to London, to London, that great city, write, write, write.” At some points Coppe alters the very structures of syntax and grammar, words run backwards, and sideways, English letters transform into Hebrew, a sentence alters into an Aleph and then the Latin letter “O,” while Cope provides gloss on his mystical etymology explaining it represents the divine. At one point Coppe gives us dueling concurrent panels of passages, with paratextual glossing that challenges readers to construct their own official textual certainty. In brilliantly executed writings that would be easy to boringly dismiss as mere products of a diseased intelligence we see experiments with language that we wouldn’t see again till the avant-gardes of the twentieth century with the decadents, the symbolists, the surrealists, and the Dadaists.
The anarchism on the page reflects the anarchism of the era. This period saw a veritable Cambrian Explosion of unique religious sects and denominations, and I would argue that alongside the dozens of gnostic groups which flourished in the first centuries of Christianity as well as the American Second Great Awakening of the early nineteenth-century, this period is one of the most creative in Christianity. It’s a matter of historical debate if the incredible flowering of unique religious groups with names like the Seekers, Brownists, Grindletonians, the Familists, the Muggletonians, the Levellers, the Diggers, the Fifth Monarchy Men and of course the Ranters merely used the disorder of the English Revolution to emerge from the depths where they had already existed, if the chaos of the civil wars generated these movements, or as is most likely some combination of the two.
The two classic works of history that reinforce the idea that apocalypticism is merely the working-man’s utopianism are Norman Cohn’s 1957 The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages and Christopher Hill’s 1972 The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution. It is these two seminal academic works that reintroduced the Ranters, and though the Ranters’ reputation was so notorious that some conservative historians argued that Hill was misreading the record to invent the group, an honest reading of the record shows the Ranters were very much real (if small). Cohn argued (as indeed Marcus did) that the Ranters were representative of a certain chthonic force that operates within the oppressed human soul and that must burst forth every so often to challenge the hegemonic structures that control and order our lives. The Russian formalist critic Mikhail Bakhtin called this phenomenon the “carnivalesque,” and while identifying it in history and literature he was agnostic as to whether it represented a legitimate means of rebellion or whether it was simply a pressure valve utilized by the ruling classes and then appropriated into a means of oppression (as every Sex Pistols t-shirt sold at Hot Topic evidences). If the Ranters are part of a chain of the carnivalesque it is one that goes back to the medieval Brethern of the Free Spirit and which looks forward to the anarchists of the nineteenth and twentieth-century. For them the central commandment is that which Rabelais carved above his antinomian abbey at Thelema (and which the Satanist Aleister Crowley coopted as his personal motto): “Do what thou wilt.”
The Ranters taught, believed, preached and supposedly lived an antinomian – that is, in complete rejection of the Law – gospel. As their greatest proponent Abiezer Coppe wrote in 1649, the year of regicide, “And all man’s preachings, hearing, teachings, learnings, holinesses, righteousnesses religions, is as Theft, Murder, and Adultry.” Their hermeneutic may have been one of rejecting literalism and embracing allegory, or casting off the chaff for the kernel as one of their favorite images had it, but if anything they took Christ’s radical words not just literally but to their logical conclusion. Not only that, but they fully embraced Luther’s doctrine of sole FIde and sole Gratia to the most radical possible understanding. Catholic polemicists had long accused Protestants inaccurately of antinomianism but Coppe, Laurence Clarkson, Joseph Salmon, Joseph Bauthumely and other Ranters embraced the radical implications of faith alone. If we are to believe their critics like Thomas Edwards in his massive 1646 Gangraena, the Ranters’ antinomianism was a type of sacred libertinism which embraced ranting (surely), blasphemy, fornication, perversion, drunkenness, and whore-mongering as sacraments in a world were sacraments did not exist. Not only that, they were politically radical as well. If, as Christ taught, “the last shall be first” than the Ranters fully embraced a radically egalitarian if not communistic prophetic vision that warns the entrenched 1% of the mid-sixteenth-century that a reckoning shall soon be upon them. “Behold, behold, behold, I the eternall God, the Lord of Hosts, who am that mighty Leveller, am coming (yea even at the doors) to Levell in good earnest, to Levell to some purpose, to Levell with a witnesses, to Levell the Hills with the Valleyes, and to lay the Mountaines low” as Coppe writes in his prose masterpiece A Fiery Flying Roll.
Coppe’s reference to that “mighty Leveller” would not have been lost on his audience. In 1649, the year of A Fiery Flying Roll’s publication, a group calling itself the True Levellers (or Diggers) led by Gerard Winstanley occupied a plot of land outside London named St. George’s Hill which would be used for collective farming, producing free produce to be shared by the common people. In a series of brilliant pamphlet’s Winstanley argued a radical economic policy using the rhetoric of scripture – a theology that had at its core the idea that the Fall occurred with the invention of private property. Reacting to the enclosure of common lands which had been increasing at a rapid pace since the late fifteenth century, the Levellers took their name not just from the Coppeian image of God making all inequities level, but from literally levelling the hedges which separated private estates. And while the Levellers have not unjustly been compared to the Occupy movement of the modern day, they operated much closer to the sources of power with several prominent officers in Cromwell’s New Model Army having Leveller sympathies and with their revolutionary politics playing a central role in the Putney Debates that tried to establish the parrameters of an English Republic. The Ranters arguably emerged in reaction to the violent suppression of the Levellers; when seemingly possible political reform was eliminated Ranters like Coppe forged an even more radical ideology. While Ranters used the occasion of the collapse of licensing laws in the English Republic to embrace a type of free speech which had been unknown in the Western world, they still had to battle official censure and punishment from an unsympathetic Parliament.
Marcus’ comparison to the punks of the 1970’s is interesting, but perhaps not as revelatory as it seemed when Lipstick Traces was first published. Indeed reading Smith’s anthology with its prophetic, incantatory, mystical language bolsters the arguments that the Ranters were far more radical than a few rock bands signed to a major record label more than thirty years ago. Rather the Ranters held a truly emancipatory theology and politics that were able to take biblical rhetoric and language (the “Great Code” of Western civilization as critic Northrop Frye had it) and to use these traditional tools of oppression in a subversive way.
The Ranters were not just political or social revolutionaries, they were religious ones as well, and they intuited a fundamental critique that radical politics has forgotten and traded in for an insipid materialism. This insight that the Ranters naturally understood was that the only means of resistance is at its heart religious, but the paradox is that the only systems ever worth resisting are, in themselves, also religious. That is to say that the mark of God and the mark of Cain are everywhere, even if they’re secretly hidden behind a faux-secularism. For the Ranters the oppressive systems of government, the market, and organized religion weren’t profane, they were their own types of sacred system, albeit one that is corrupt and that must be abolished – Mammon is a god after all.
And this is the same as it ever was – in a country and a world that sees the increasingly obscene concentration of fabulous wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer oligarchs, where the gulf between the mass number of people and these benknighted few becomes more and more extreme, where wooly-minded Libertarian utopians project their nightmares onto legislators’ paper, the insight of the Ranters that the very thing we’re resisting is somehow “religious” is more important than ever. Our system of oppression wants us to see it as rational, objective, material, scientific, but of course it is anything but. As Charles Baudelaire (that later “Ranter”) said “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world that he didn’t exist,” and so it is with the Cult of the Market. The Invisible Hand is a pagan idol as any other, and Coppe, Clarkson and the rest would have understood that the means to resisting corrupt religion is through reformed ritual.
Much as some critics from a few years ago saw Winstanley in the Occupy movement, we should see Coppe in the possibilities of a new antinomian politics. There must be a call for a “Blakean Left,” for if there is any true inheritor to the ethos of the Ranters it is not commercialized rock music but William Blake. Indeed in Coppe, Clarkson and Salmon’s prose one sees the raw material that Blake would fashion into his own system (so as to avoid being enslaved by another man’s) slightly more than a century later. Historical contingency has had Blake categorized along with the Romantic poets, but where they saw an aestheticized art for art’s sake Blake made no such distinctions between poetry, art, life, and religion. Blake more properly belongs to Coppe and the Ranters than he does to Wordsworth, Coleridge and the Romantics. As an inheritor of the great non-conformist dissenting traditions of the seventeenth century Blake absorbed and encapsulated their teachings into his own heterodox bible. And like the Ranters he understood that the manipulation of religious language, texts, images, and ideas was the greatest means of resistance to Moloch’s armies, against the “dark satanic mills” of today’s modern day all-encompassing pagan religious, capitalism.
But as Coppe, and Blake understood, to rebel against these systems one must be honest enough to be a subversive. Like Abraham in his father’s workshop we must smash all idols of the mind. To rant, curse, swear, and blaspheme one declares independence from social tyrants and obedience to the higher God. It is to reject the Demiurge that is the Market, the Church, and the State and to return to a God who lives not within heaven but as allegory within every human’s heart. It’s a perilous and dangerous journey, especially for the individual. But as Blake said, “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” Smith has assembled for us the minutes of some of those meetings in the many mansions of our Father’s palace, it behooves us to read them and reapply their wisdom anew.
Ed Simon is a PhD Candidate in the English department of Lehigh University. His research focuses on religion and literature in the seventeenth and eighteenth-century Atlantic world. He has been previously published in Salon, Religion Dispatches, the Revealer, the Journal of the Northern Renaissance, and the Public Domain Review among others. Currently he is the assistant editor of the Journal of Heresy Studies, and one of the founding members of the International Society for the Study of Heresy.