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

Who were the Levellers?

Since I am re-launching this blog, I might as well explain its title. During the English Civil War of the 1640s, a number of movements arose that were more radical than the debate over the supremacy of Parliament or the Monarch. One of those was a religiously-inspired movement for democracy and human rights called “the Levellers.” The majority of the Levellers were Baptists and Quakers and Congregationalists, with a few Presbyterians. They produced several good leaders like John Lilburne (Congregationalist).

Their best writer, however, was a General Baptist named Richard Overton, who maintained a long correspondence with Roger Williams that may have influenced some of Williams’ writings and the shape of the Rhode Island Charter. There are gaps in what we know of Overton’s life. We do not know when he was born, but he lived in Germany during part of the Forty Year’s War. This experience gave (or reinforced) Overton a strong antipathy toward violence and war, especially religiously inspired violence and war. In 1615, Overton came to Amsterdam and joined John Smyth’s congregation of proto-Baptists just after they merged with Amsterdam’s Waterlander Mennonites. Since he was just learning Dutch (Overton was a polyglot), he wrote out his personal confession of faith in Latin–arguing for liberty of conscience, believer’s baptism, and nonviolence. Then we lose track of Overton until 1638 when we find that he is back in England and a member of a General Baptist congregation. (Even though Helwys and 10 others split from Smyth to return to England and form the first General Baptist congregation, the General Baptists kept in touch with the Dutch Mennonites for 50 years, exchanging members without further baptism–meaning that they considered each other to be “of like faith and order.”) Overton remained a General Baptist the rest of his life.

He became a pamphleteer for the Leveller cause. He wrote The Arraignment of Mr. Persecution in 1640 to put religious persecution on trial. It was in this pamphlet that Overton coined the term “human rights” half a century before John Locke or the Enlightenment. Overton was arrested for publishing without checking with the censor and went limp in classic nonviolent resistance, clutching his copy of the Magna Carta all the way to jail. Next the police arrested his wife (name unknown now) for continuing to publish his writings. She had a newborn child and the police refused to arrest her. So, the guard captain came back with new guards and they too would not touch an unarmed woman. Finally, a third set dragged her and her babe through the streets. Overton later wrote about this in terms that derided the manhood of the guard captain.

In jail, food had to be smuggled in for the Overtons and they shared with other prisoners. They discovered many thrown in prison for debt, so Overton began to argue for economic rights along with civil liberties, and the right to political participation. He argued for universal adult suffrage, for “free trade” (not as a slogan for international companies repressing unions and local peasants, but as an alternative to the inherited monopolies of the aristocracy), for a free press, for complete freedom of religion. Overton hated religious wars and one of the reasons he believed in religious liberty and liberty of conscience was as a peacemaking initiative. He argued against the death penalty, for laws to be written in the language of the people (vs. the practice of writing laws in French or Latin so that only the nobility would understand the laws), against torture.

The Leveller movement as a whole was not pacifist. They envisioned a small militia, but were against heavy arms buildups and the military adventurism of kings. Overton may have been a pacifist (he had been a member of a merged Baptist/Mennonite congregation in Holland) as all of the writings in which he is SOLE author indicate. He never argues that Christians should join the militia. Pacifism as a government policy was beyond what he could envision. But he wanted the rights of conscientious objectors protected–no more press gangs, or drafts, etc.

At any rate, I try to stand for the kind of radical democracy, defense of the poor, nonviolence and human rights in a contemporary context as Richard Overton did in the 1640s. Hence the title of this blog. This is an ongoing Leveller manifesto in the midst of an American empire. A call to return to a democratic republic and to live out justice for the poor and powerless. It is a call for radical baptistic faith in an era when most Baptists in the U.S. South have become willing pawns and mouthpieces for the voices of empire–and theocrats who must make their radical ancestors’ blood boil. Radical Leveller faith lives on–here on this blog if nowhere else.

June 24, 2006 Posted by | Baptists, church history, heroes, human rights., progressive faith, Religious Social Criticism, social history | Comments Off on Who were the Levellers?