essays

Jun 1, 1982

Religious, Social, and Political Democracy

“The 1640s free religious discussion…led to a social, political democratic revolution.”

Christopher Hill
Oxford University

“Religion and Democracy in the Puritan Revolution.” Democracy 2 (April 1982): 39–45.

The author, an expert on the seventeenth-century English Revolution, whose works include Milton and the English Revolution and Century of Revolution, distills his researches to summarize the interconnections of religion and social-political beliefs during the “Puritan Revolution” of 1640–1660. The political implication of much of religious dissent of the common people during the Revolution was radical egalitarian democracy.

During the English Revolution, for the first time in history, an organized political party—the Levellers—put forward fully articulated theories of political democracy. It is crucially important to understand that this period expressed all politics in religious terms whether in support or attack of the constituted political authority. The seventeenth-century Church of England was the chief prop of the social and political hierarchy. Through it, political socialization and obedience was inculcated. Before 1640, James I well formulated the nexus binding together religion and social order: “No bishop, no King, no nobility.”

By challenging the status of bishops, the Puritans unwittingly but logically endorsed not only religious equality but also political equality. “Puritanism then was mainly a political movement with a revolutionary ideology, though its ideas were expressed in religious idiom.” For at least two and a half centuries before the Revolution of 1640, underground heretical movements had preached that God could speak democratically to the lower classes as well as to the privileged classes. 1640 eliminated censorship and gave voice to the pent-up insubordinate and democratic feelings of the common people. Among those dissenters, the Levellers between 1645–1647 drew the democratic and secular conclusion from this religious-political popular ferment. Gerard Winstanley, leader of the smaller group of “Diggers” or “True Levellers” likewise secularized religious liberty and equality to take on the form of proto-communism.

The 1640s free religious discussion, thus, led to a social, political democratic revolution. Rejecting the elitist anti-democratic notion of man’s depravity and predestination Winstanley asserted that all men would be saved. “The possibility of a sinless society had been the dream of the heady 1640s, but the Quakers survived to bear witness to the divine spark in all men and women” after the Restoration of 1660 attempted to abolish such dangerous democratic tendencies as the denial of King, bishops, and sin.