Cromwell and his proxies urge unity of purpose, unity of action, and constant movement forward. Conspiracies flourish in streams of constant activity.

"Let Us Be Doing"

Editor’s Note

Anthony Comegna, PhD

Assistant Editor for Intellectual History

On the second day of debates at Putney, the gathering opened with a prayer. Participants joined one another to discuss the radical and inflammatory ideas recently presented by the New Model Army. This populist declaration of sentiments was also the common soldier’s list of demands from their Parliament. The Army existed to serve Parliament’s purposes against King Charles I and his Cavalier supporters, but during the English Civil Wars the common soldier and sailor realized uncommon opportunities for advancement. As of October, 1647, the king was captive and the Cromwellians controlled both Parliament and military leadership. Addressing this incipient Commonwealth elite, the Army publicized its demands and elected representatives to debate the grandees. In our previous number, the Putney debaters outlined their arguments and retired to study the Army’s pamphlet. In our current selection, the new ruling class is noticeably shaken by the radicalism they’ve encountered.

The debate’s second day was characterized by widespread calls for unity of purpose, unity of action, and action without further delay. The Cromwellians are led, unsurprisingly, by Oliver Cromwell and his son‐​in‐​law, General Ireton, though they are joined by a chorus of landowning lords. Cromwell is careful to tread the line between the radicals from the army–full of egalitarian demands, but without much real political power–and the great and middling lords supporting his cause. Give too much ground to the Army and the lords would fear having supported a levelling revolution. Ignoring the radicals’ populist impulse which so greatly aided Parliament’s war against the king could just as easily sway the people in Charles’ favor. The future Lord Protector’s chosen tactic, therefore, was to entertain a full debate with the Army’s representatives while personally urging: “Let us be doing, but let us be united in our doing.”

Cromwell’s most important proxy (and his son‐​in‐​law), General Ireton, concludes our selection with a plea that participants refrain from implicating the particular interests of particular persons. Rather than impugn each other’s characters, agitate the flames of internal class dissention, and further delay united action against the king’s remaining supporters, Ireton urges a full debate about mere ideas. As the Levellers note, Ireton would have them (and us) ignore the very real aristocratic conspiracies to aggrandize their own unjust powers and privileges. Pay no attention to those of us with powerful, concentrated interests and legally‐​created privileges–we have a king to deal with still! Cromwell and Ireton granted an airing of grievances, but their management of the debate, the Parliament, and the overall war effort ensured that the Putney Debates would be a series of relatively exceptional moments when history could have taken a very different path.

Putney, 29th October 1647


That which I must now desire to express to you was partly occasioned by the thoughts that I had the last night, as being indeed kept awake with them a good while; and, hearing something that did concur with it from one that spake since we came together, I feel some weight upon my spirit to express it to you. That which was spoken enow [was] concerning the conjunction that is between Antichrist, or that mystery of iniquity in the world carried on by men that call themselves the church, that certainly it is with the conjunction of men in places of power or authority in the world, with kings and great men. And truly my thoughts were much upon it this night, and it appears to me very clearly from that which God hath set down in his word in the Book of the Revelations—which is that word that we are bid and commanded to study and to look into, being the word which God sent by his angel to John, to declare as things shortly to be done. Now certainly this work of Antichrist hath been a work of great standing, and, as it was well observed, it hath been mixed with the church, and men that call themselves the church, the clergy, mixed with men of authority. It is said in the Revelation, that the kings of the earth should give up their power unto the Beast, and the kings of the earth have given up their power to the Pope. But some places that have seemed to deny the Pope’s supremacy, yet they have taken upon them that which hath been equivalent to that which the Pope himself holds forth. Truly I could bring it to this present kingdom wherein we are. ’Tis true the kings have been instruments to cast off the Pope’s supremacy, but we may see if they have not put themselves into the same state. We may see it in that title which the King hath; ‘Defender of the Faith,’ but more especially in that canonical prayer which the clergy used, ‘In all causes, and over all persons, as well ecclesiastical as civil, [supreme].’ Certainly, this is a mystery of iniquity. Now Jesus Christ his work in the last days is to destroy this mystery of iniquity; and because it is so interwoven and entwisted in the interest of states, certainly in that overthrow of the mystery of iniquity by Jesus Christ, there must be great alterations of states. Now the word doth hold out in the Revelation, that in this work of Jesus Christ he shall have a company of Saints to follow him, such as are chosen and called and faithful. Now it is a scruple among the Saints, how far they should use the sword; yet God hath made use of them in that work. Many of them have been employed these five or six years. Yet whatsoever God shall employ us in, I could wish this were laid to heart by us: whereas we would be called the chosen and faithful that will follow Christ wheresoever he goes, let us tremble at the thought that we should be standing in a direct opposition against Jesus Christ in the work that he is about. Let us not be twisted amongst such kind of compartings where there shall be a mystery of iniquity set up by outward power, lest we should be the instruments of giving any life or strength to that power. And I wish [we may lay this to heart]—and I believe it may somewhat tend to the work by the way—because we are to hold out the will of God for the time to come, and to be humbled for what we have done against it. Let us inquire whether some of the actions that we have done of late, some of the things that we have propounded of late, do not cross the work of God in these particulars; because in our proposing things we do endeavour to set up that power which God would not set up again—it hath been hinted already—I mean in our compliance with that party which God hath engaged us to destroy. We intended nothing but civility, but I wish they were not in some measure compliances; and, if I mistake not, there are ways which God hath laid open to us, whereby we may lay aside that compliance.

But this is not all that I would speak, because God hath called forth my spirit to unity. What we do according to the will of God will not tend to division. This I speak concerning compliance; and [since] this may be thought to reflect upon some particular persons more than other some, so on the other hand I desire to speak something that may concern some persons that may stand, or at least may seem to stand, in direct opposition to us. And truly I wish we may be very wary what we do; and let us take heed of rejecting any of the Saints of God before God rejects them. If God be pleased to show any of his servants that he hath made use of [them] as great instruments in his hand, [and to show them], as [also] those that God hath blessed in them, that God hath blessed them, and [that] this hath been the greatest instrument of the ruin of sin and corruption in this Army, let us be wary and consider what we have to do in that kind. And I spake this the rather because I was sensible of some personal reflections that did not argue the workings of God [so much] as the workings of passions in us. Now the work of the Spirit is, that we do pull down all works [that are not] of the Spirit whatsoever; and therefore I desire that, as in the presence of God, we may take heed of all things which may tend to disunion, and that we may not despise those who may have some things in their hands to contribute for the work of God.

And there is another thing. If we have lost the opportunity of appearing against [God’s] enemies, let us take heed, when we be sensible of God’s displeasure, that we do not run before he bids us go a second time…I think we have sinned in that we did not show our courage and faithfulness to God. Let us not now in a kind of heat run up and say, ‘We will go now’; because it may be there is a better opportunity that God will give us…


It is not [fit], as I conceive, to dispute anything touching particular [persons], for all, as I conceive, do seek the kingdom’s good. Much business will beg if we stand disputing the work! I desire this honourable Council—[if it] will pardon me—to make out some speedy way for the easing of us. Let us go about the work; no question but we shall go together. I beseech you that you will consider upon that. I believe we shall jump all in one with it, if we do not fall upon some extraordinary ways between. Some laws with us that will prick us to the heart, we must wink at them; [but] let us now [seek to reform such of them as we may], not that I desire that we should seek to ruinate any wholesome laws, but [only] such as will not stand with the wholesome peace of the kingdom.


I shall desire to second that gentleman’s motion. While we debate we do nothing. I am confident that whilst you are doing you will all agree together, for it is idleness that hath begot this rust and this gangrene amongst us.


I think it is true. Let us be doing, but let us be united in our doing. If there remain nothing else [needful] but present action, [let us be doing]—I mean, doing in that kind, doing in that sort. I think we need not be in council here [if] such kind of action, action of that nature, [will serve]. But if we do not rightly and clearly understand one another before we come to act, if we do not lay a foundation of action before we do act, I doubt whether we shall act unanimously or no. And seriously, as before the Lord, I knew no such end of our speech the last night, and [our] appointing another meeting, but in order to a more perfect understanding of one another, what we should do, and that we might be agreed upon some principles of action. And truly if I remember rightly, upon the delivery of the paper that was yesterday, this was offered, that the things [that] are now upon us are things of difficulty, the things are things that do deserve therefore consideration, because there might be great weight in the consequences; and it was then offered, and I hope is still so in all our hearts, that we are not troubled with the consideration of the difficulty, nor with the consideration of anything but this: that if we do difficult things, we may see that the things we do, have the will of God in them, that they are not only plausible and good things, but seasonable and honest things, fit for us to do. And therefore it was desired that we might consider, [before] we could come to these papers, in what condition we stood in respect of former engagements, however some may be satisfied that there lie none upon us, or none but such as it’s duty to break, it’s sin to keep. Therefore that was yesterday premised, [that] there may be a consideration had of them—and I may speak it as in the presence of God, that I know nothing of any engagements, but I would see liberty in any man as I would be free from bondage to anything that should hinder me from doing my duty—and therefore that was first in consideration. If our obligation be nothing, or if it be weak, I hoped we shalle receive satisfaction why it should be laid aside, [and be convinced] that the things that we speak of are not obliged. And therefore, if it please you, I think it will be good for us to frame our discourse to what we were, where we are, what we are bound to, what we are free to; and then I make no question but that this may conclude what is between [us and] these gentlemen, in one afternoon. I do not speak this to make obligations more than what they were before, but as before the Lord. You see what they are ([producing the printed volume of Army Declarations]); and when we look upon them we shall see whether we have been in a wrong way, and I hope it will call upon us for the more double diligence.


…For my part, I profess first, I desire no [particular] engagements [may be considered]. If there were particular engagements of any particular man whatsoever, I desire they may not be considered [so] as to [influence] the leading of the Army one way or other, but let that man look to himself for what justice lies upon him, and what justice will follow him. Neither do I care for the engagements of the Army so much for the engagements’ sake, but I look upon this Army as having carried with it hitherto the name of God, and having carried with it hitherto the interest of the people of God, and the interest which is God’s interest, the honour of his name, the good and freedom and safety and happiness of his people. And for my part I think that it is that that is the only thing for which God hath appeared with us, and led us, and gone before us, and honoured us, and taken delight to work by us. I say, that very thing: that we have carried the name of God (and I hope not in show, but in reality), professing to act, and to work, as we have thought, in our judgments and consciences, God to lead us; professing to act to those ends that we have thought to be answerable and suitable to the mind of God, so far as it hath been known to us. We have professed to endeavour to follow the counsels of God, and to have him president in our councils; and I hope it hath been so in our hearts. [We have professed] that we have been ready to follow his guidance; and I know it hath been so in many things against our own reasons, where we have seen evidently God calling us. And [I know] that we have been carried on with a confidence in him: we have made him our trust, and we have held forth his name, and we have owned his hand towards us. These are the things, I say, which God hath in some degree and measure wrought his people in this Army up to, in some degree of sincerity. And this it is (as I said before) that I account hath been [the thing] that God hath taken delight in, amongst us, to dwell with us, to be with us, and to appear with us, and [the reason why he] will manifest his presence to us. And therefore by this means, and by that appearance of God amongst us, the name and honour of God, the name and reputation of the people of God, and of that Gospel that they profess, is deeply and dearly and nearly concerned in the good or ill manage of this Army, in their good or ill carriage; and therefore, for my part I profess it, that’s the only thing to me. [It is] not to me so much as the vainest or lightest thing you can imagine, whether there be a king in England or no, whether there be lords in England or no. For whatever I find the work of God tending to, I should desire quietly to submit to. If God saw it good to destroy, not only King and Lords, but all distinctions of degrees—nay if it go further, to destroy all property, that there’s no such thing left, that there be nothing at all of civil constitution left in the kingdom—if I see the hand of God in it I hope I shall with quietness acquiesce, and submit to it, and not resist it. But still I think that God certainly will so lead those that are his, and I hope too he will so lead this Army, that they may not incur sin, or bring scandal upon the name of God, and the name of the people of God, that are both so nearly concerned in what this Army does. And [therefore] it is my wish, upon those grounds that I before declared, which made the consideration of this Army dear and tender to me, [that] we may take heed, [that] we may consider first engagements, so far as they are engagements publicly of the Army. I do not speak of particular [engagements]; I would not have them considered, if there be any. And secondly, I would have us consider of this: that our ways and workings and actings, and the actings of the Army, so far as the counsels of those prevail in it who have anything of the spirit of Jesus Christ, may appear suitable to that spirit. And [as] I would [not] have this Army in relation to those great concernments (as I said before: the honour of God, and the honour and good name of his people and of religion), as I would not have it to incur the scandal of neglecting engagements, and laying aside all consideration of engagements, and [the scandal] of juggling, and deceiving, and deluding the world, making them believe things in times of extremity which they never meant; so I would [not] have us give the world occasion to think that we are the disturbers of the peace of mankind. I say, I would not give them just occasion to think so; nay, I would have them have just cause to think that we seek peace with all men, and the good of all men, and [that] we seek the destruction of none—that we can say…

To the method of our proceeding. Having expressed what I desire may be all our cares, I cannot but think that this will be clearest, because I see it is so much pressed and insisted upon: not to read what our engagements are, but [to] read the paper that is presented here, and consider upon it, what good and what matter of justice and righteousness there is in it, and whether there be anything of injustice or unrighteousness, either in itself or in reference to our engagements. And so far, I think our engagements ought to be taken into consideration: that so far as we are engaged to a thing that was not unlawful to engage to (and I should be sad to think them so), we should think ourselves bound not to act contrary to those engagements. And first that we may consider of the particulars of this paper, whether they be good and just (that is [not ill], not unjust); and then further to consider whether they be so essentially due and right as that they should be contended for, for then that is some kind of check to less engagements, and for such things, if we find any, light engagements [may] be cast off and not considered. But if we find any matter in them that, though it be just, though it be good (that is not ill, not unjust), is not probable to be so beneficial and advantageous (not to few, but to many), that withal we may consider whether it be so much a duty, and we be so much bound to it by the thing itself, as that no engagement can take us from it. And if we find any thing[s] that, if they be just or good, [are] yet not so obligatory or of [such] necessity to the kingdom [but that] the kingdom may stand without them, then I think, it being [so, it is] not absolutely lawful [for us] to act for them.