Levellers

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

Random Chapters in the History of Nonviolence#1 “Mrs. Overton”

This is a new series that will eventually become a booklet.  I began writing these essays in 2004 when working for Every Church a Peace Church.  Women have been the backbone of most movements for peace, justice, and human rights–but usually they have not been as visible to historians.  As one example of this notice that out of over 100 years of the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize (since 1901) only 12 women have been awarded the Nobel–despite the huge leadership of women in creating the modern peace movement that led Alfred  Nobel to create the prize!  So, I will lead off these “random chapters” by profiling several women peacemakers before profiling any male leaders. 

This blog is dedicated to Richard Overton, General Baptist leader of the 17th C. Levellers. So I begin with the story of his life partner. Ironically, Mrs. Overton’s name is lost to us!  But her story is not –even though it needs to be more widely known.

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We know little about “Mrs. Overton.” We do not know when or where she was born or to whom.  We do not know when she met and married Richard Overton.  Was she with him in his youth when he travelled from England to Germany and witnessed the beginnings of the Thirty Years’ War? (Was this the origin of the Overtons’ deep conviction that wars over religion were evil incarnate?  Was it the origin of Richard’s defense of liberty of conscience?  Of conscientious objection to war? Of his convictions about nonviolence?) Was she with Richard when he left Germany and moved to Amsterdam in 1615 to join John Smyth’s “se-Baptist” congregation just after it merged with  the Amsterdam Waterlander Mennonites? Or did Richard only meet his life partner after he returned to England (sometime between 1615 and 1642) ? Was she already a member of the General Baptist congregation that Richard joined? (For the first 50 years of their existence the English General Baptists were in frequent communication with the Amsterdam Mennonites. The two groups considered themselves “of like faith and order” and exchanged members without either group requiring rebaptism of the other.  Mennonite-style pacifism was widespread, though not universal, among General Baptists at this time.)   We simply do not know.

What we do know is this:  Mrs. Overton apparently shared her husband’s faith convictions, including his commitments to liberty of conscience and pacifism.  In 1647, Overton, as leader of the Levellers (a Christian-motivated political movement for political and economic equality at the time of the English Civil War), was arrested and thrown into the Tower of London for printing pamphlets without submitting them to the censor for approval.  He was dragged to jail clutching a copy of the Magna Carta to his breast. (Remember that the 13th C. Magna Carta was the first English document that limited the rights of monarchs in English common law.  It began the tradition of limited government with checks and balances–though initially limited to the aristocracy–a tradition that would lead inevitably to democratic rule.) On 10 February 1647,  in The Commoner’s Complaint, which he wrote from prison, Overton described not only his arrest, but the even more dramatic arrest of his wife that followed.

Mrs. Overton demonstrated her own commitment to human rights (a term coined by Richard), rooted, like his, in her deep Christian faith, by continuing to print and publish his pamphlets after his arrest when  it would have been safer to lay low.  So, the authorities came to arrest her as well. Mrs. Overton’s conscience would not allow her to cooperate with the arresting authorities.  So, she practiced nonviolent resistance, going limp, and refusing to walk to jail.  The arresting marshall threatened to drag her by the axle of a cart.  She replied that he must “do as it seemed good to him for she was resolved on her course.” (Overton, The Commoner’s Complaint.) Her husband, Richard, describes the scene with great sarcasm and ridicule of the arresting authorities.  Contemporary feminists might complain that he reinforces the view of women as “the weaker sex,” but he uses these prejudices subversively to undermine the authority of the arresting marshall and all governments that would so treat their citizens. 

The marshall, says Richard, “strutted in fury, as if he would have forthwith levied whole armies and droves of porters and cartmen to advance this poor little innocent woman and her tender babe” to Bridewell prison.  The marshall orders his deputies to drag her from the room, but they refuse.  When the marshall is defeated, the authorities have to draft soldiers from the wars from the frontlines to come and arrest Mrs. Overton.  She goes limp and they drag her “babe at the breast” according to Overton, down the road while she denounces them to the crowd and they jeer the soldiers and throw rotten fruit at them!

In prison, the Overtons have to be smuggled food by friends. They began by being concerned with the rights of conscience for religious minorities and political rights–but in prison they meet the poor and their concept of human rights broadens to include economic rights.

Neither Mrs. Overton nor the Levellers were successful in the short run.  But her witness lives on.  Whenever any nonviolent witness for truth practices nonviolent resistance, they expose the injustice of the Powers and Authorities.  And the Thrones and Kingdoms tremble.  The walls begin to shake.

For all the Mrs. Overtons, named and unnamed, I pray, O Lord, knowing that Your Spirit works through them to topple injustice and sow the seeds of your justice,  your peace, your Rule.  Amen.

February 8, 2009 - Posted by | anabaptists, Baptists, church history, discipleship, heroes, human rights., nonviolence

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