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

Richard Overton Pt. 2: Baptist, Leveller, Radical Democrat

We don’t know how long Overton spent with the Dutch Mennonites. We next catch sight of him back in England sometime prior to 1640. At this point Overton is married and a member of a General Baptist congregation near London. (For about 50 years, c. 1609-1660, the General Baptists and the Dutch Waterlander Mennonites considered one another either “of like faith and order” or, at least, close enough that they regularly exchanged not only letters but members without requiring further baptism.) Despite some claims that Overton was a religious skeptic, he remained a faithful General Baptist for the rest of his life. At this point, the English Civil War (1625-1649) was raging and a movement arises to use this time of chaos to press for radical reform in England, laying out a vision of radical democracy, social equality, and religious freedom. That movement was known as “the Levellers,” and Overton was soon to become its most gifted pamphleteer and partisan leader. The name “Levellers “was either a slur by enemies among the landed gentry who charged that they would “level men’s estates,” or it was a declaration of their convictions against classism, that all people were on the same level in God’s view and that society should be organized accordingly.

Overton wrote a series of tracts and pamphlets, both under his own name, and as joint efforts with other Leveller leaders like the Congregationalists John Lilburne and Richard Walwyn. His pamphlets argued for universal male (Oh well, he could only be so far ahead of his time!) suffrage, for free trade (vs. inherited monopolies), the abolition of the aristocracy, complete religious liberty and liberty of conscience (Overton’s writings appear to have influenced Roger Williams in America and the two corresponded), that all English laws be written in English rather than Latin or French so that all people could know the law, open trials by jury (no secret trials), etc. Overton worked for prison reform and the abolition of capital punishment except for murder. (Was this a modification of his dedication to nonviolence or, like his joint Leveller proposal for the abolition of a standing army to be replaced by a lightly-armed citizen militia, simply a realism about how much reform was possible at that point in history?). In 1642, in a tract called The Arraignment of Mr. Persecution, an allegory in which the personification of “persecution for the cause of conscience” is tried and convicted of thousands of deaths, wars, and other evils, Overton first used the term “rights of man.” This is the first defence of what we call today “universal human rights” in the English language–and it was articulated over 50 years before John Locke and the English Enlightenment proposed more narrow versions.

Overton spent time in prison for his views, as did his wife (name unknown), arrested for publishing Overton’s tracts while he was imprisoned. She committed passive resistance, going limp when the soldiers arrested her, dragging her through London with babe in arms! In prison, the Overtons experienced hunger since food had to be smuggled in and they encountered people in prison for debt. So, Overton broadened his defense of human rights to include not only civil liberties (religious liberty, free speech, freedom of the press), but economic rights (including the abolition of debtors’ prison).

A note on Overton’s religion. Many have considered him a skeptic because in Man’s Mortalitie (1644), he argued for body-soul unity and against an “immortality of the soul” apart from the body. The Christian hope, said Overton, was not for Platonic immortal souls, but for the resurrection of the body. Now, this view was considered radically heretical in the 17th C., but ever since the publication of Oscar Cullman’s 1955 lectures at Basel, Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection from the Dead? (1st English ed., 1958), a large plurality of biblical scholars and theologians have recognized this as the biblical perspective with “soul immortality” seen as imported to Christianity from Greek philosophy. Some theologians and biblical scholars today are challenging this, which had, since Cullman’s day become the reigning orthodoxy. But no matter who is right about the biblical witness, it is far easier to see today than in Overton’s day that disbelief in “immortal souls,” is not an expression of skepticism, rationalism, or denial of God–all things Overton has been regularly charged with because of this one pamphlet. I have held the same view for over 2 decades. Although my conservative friends are critical of this view, I point out to them that because of it I, more than most so-called “liberal” theologians insist strongly on the BODILY resurrection of both Christ and believers. (Of course, I have no idea what Paul meant in 1 Cor. 15 by a “spiritual body” or what that would look like and how it fits with the Gospel narratives. Nor am I sure how many of the Gospel resurrection accounts have mythical or legendary features mixed with historical narrative. But, I digress.)

Below are some of Overton’s best known writings. Notice that for a man dedicated to nonviolence, he was quite free with violent imagery.

The Arraignment of Mr. Persecution (1642);New Lambeth Fayre (1642);Articles of High Treason Against Cheapside Cross (1642);Man’s Mortalitie (1644);An Arrow Against All Tyrants (1646);An Alarum to the House of Lords(1646);A Remonstrance of Many Thousand Citizens (1646);The Just Man in Bonds (1646);An Arrow Shot from Newgate Prison (1647)Hunting the Foxes(1649).

Most of the collections of Overtons and other Leveller writings are long out of print. If I am spared, I would like to edit an Overton Reader and get it published among Baptists. Baptists don’t talk about Overton, mostly because we don’t like to admit that our early ranks contained people so radical.

For the life of Richard Overton, O God, we give thanks. Raise up, we pray, his like for our time.

August 2, 2006 - Posted by | Baptists, heroes

1 Comment

  1. Great stuff, Michael. Given their current state, who’da thunk that Universal Human Rights originated with a Baptist?

    My, how we’ve fallen…

    Comment by Dan Trabue | August 2, 2006

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