Richard Overton Pt. 1: Baptist, Leveller, Radical Democrat
I’ve noticed some other cool blogs include series of posts on saints and heroes, uploaded on saint days, birthdays, or anniversaries of said cool person’s death. I thought to myself, “Cool. I should do that.” Myself replied, “You have trouble remembering birthdays of extended family members. Do the series, but coordinating the entries to particular birthdays or ‘death-days’? Fuhgettaboutit!” So, my posts will celebrate folk at random, mixing “old dead guys and gals” with the living and famous saints and heroes with “ordinary saints” such as I’ve been doing with people from the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America and from my church, Jeff Street Baptist Community @ Liberty.
Of course, I had to begin with Richard Overton, the Levellers greatest leader. But many details of Overton’s life are sketchy. The above sketch could be of Overton, for instance, or could of John Lilburne or Richard Walwyn, other Leveller leaders. The collection of documents in which this sketch is found does not make that clear.
We don’t know for certain when Overton was born, although most scholars think it was sometime between 1597 and 1600, but one source places his birth as late as 1625. He was a commoner, but his family was successful enough that he attended university, possibly Queens College, Cambridge (matriculating in 1631?), apparently getting caught up in the Puritan ferment that pervaded Cambridge in the 17th C. He may have become an Anglican priest (of the Puritan party) for a time, but this is not certain. We do know that Overton, for some reason, Overton was in Germany during or just before the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) which pitted Catholic against Protestant and that this experience forever left Overton with a passionate hatred for violence, especially religiously-inspired violence.
We catch a glimpse of Overton in Amsterdam in 1615. The chronology is uncertain. Overton writes as if he saw the beginning of the Thirty Years’ War, but if his time in Germany was prior to his time in Holland, then he could only have seen the build-up to that war, but if he was in Germany during the war itself, then this must have been after his time in Amsterdam and not before as his writings seem to imply. I think the latter is the case, but, at any rate in 1615 Overton joined John Smyth (c. 1554-1612)’s “proto-Baptist” congregation just after it had merged with the Waterlander Mennonites at Smyth’s death. Since Overton was just learning Dutch, his application for baptism and membership included a personal confession of faith written in Latin, a document expressing standard General (Arminian) Baptist themes such as found in the writings of Smyth and of Thomas Helwys (c. 1550-1616), but including a commitment to absolute nonviolence.
To be continued.
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