Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Richard Overton: A Legacy for Today

I trace my spiritual roots to 17th C. England, where the Puritan ferment had turned in radical directions. One of those directions impelled a group of Separatists from Gainsborough led by John Smyth and Thomas Helwys to sojourn in Amsterdam (where there was more religious tolerance) where they came under the influence of Waterlander Mennonites. Smyth and most of the congregation merged with the Dutch Mennonites, but Helwys took a handful back to Spitalfields near London to found the first Baptist church on English soil in 1611. That part of the heritage I claim is well-known. Less well known is Richard Overton, one of my heroes whom I feel speaks as loudly today as in the 17th C.

Overton came out of the same Puritan ferment which produced Smyth, the Cambridge-trained pastor, and Helwys, the attorney and lay-pastor. We don’t know much about Overton’s early life, but his writings seem to indicate that he also attended Puritan-dominated Cambridge and studied theology. Unlike Smyth, he probably never accepted any ordained ministerial position. When Smyth & Helwys were gathering followers in Gainsborough, Overton, for reasons no longer known, was in Germany. He experience Germany’s Wars of Religion which gave him a huge distaste for violence, war, and for religious persecution as a major cause of war.

In 1615 Overton came to Amsterdam. After learning Dutch (he was a quick student of languages), he joined the Waterlander Mennonite congregation just after Smyth died. He was asked to write out a personal confession of faith as the basis for his baptism. It committed him strongly to religious liberty, equality of all persons, and nonviolence. By 1620, Overton had returned to England and joined one of the growing number of General Baptist churches that was the legacy of Thomas Helwys–now dead in the Tower of London. He retained his nonviolence.

Overton led a group of religiously-motivated political radicals known as the Levellers because they wanted everyone on the same “level.” This wasn’t an aversion to achievement, it was an attack against monarchy, aristocracy, classes, inherited wealth, and discrimination on the basis of family, race, or religion. Most of the Levellers were radical Puritans (Congregationalists, Baptists, Quakers, and a few Presbyterians), but they defended the religious liberty and citizenship rights of Catholics and Jews–a radical position in the 17th C.

It was Overton who, in 1640, first coined the term “rights of man” or “human rights.” He argued against secret trials and for trial by jury and for having all laws in English (not Latin or French, spoken by the nobility) so that people could understand the laws. He argued for universal suffrage. Against inherited monopolies, he argued for free trade–not in the context of globalized capitalism. He worked to get the death penalty abolished for the numerous crimes it then applied to, and reserved for murder. (Overton was against all violence, but knew that social reforms come in stages.) He wanted an end to conscript labor, especially for military service. In fact, his vision for society included the abolition of standing armies and their replacement with only a light militia.

The weapon that he used most to advance his views was the printing press. His tracts, The Arraignment of Mr. Persecution, An Arrow Against All Tyrants, and others were read widely. (For an advocate of nonviolence, Overton’s speeches and tracts could use very violent images!) He was repeatedly arrested for violating censorship laws with his writings. He committed nonviolent civil disobedience in resisting these arrests, once brandishing a copy of The Magna Carta as he was hauled through the streets. Imagine today, as some goon from the Orwellian-named “Homeland Security” breaks up a peace protest and hauls off the leader–if that leader was brandishing a copy of the Bill of Rights or the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights!

Overton’s wife, whose name we’ve lost, would print his tracts while he was in prison. Once, she was also arrested. She shamed the first two set of guards into leaving since she was nursing an infant. But a third set of goons took her AND the baby to prison. Mrs. Overton went limp, forcing the guards to drag her, still carrying her infant child, off to the prison. She embarrassed them with the crowds by praying loudly for her captors while denouncing their actions! In his next tract, Overton described this scene in lurid detail, but he kept his wife’s name anonymous so that she and the baby, released before he was, could have some privacy.

Today, when the U.S. has become an empire and human rights are regularly trashed; when religion is put in service to that empire, it is time to recover the legacy of folks like Richard Overton. It is in Overton’s honor that I have taken to calling myself a Leveller.

April 21, 2005 Posted by | Baptists, church history, heroes | 1 Comment