The religious and political upheaval of the 1640s created a ferment of radical ideas, many were assured they and their time was a unique period. This was expressed by a widespread belief in Providence - e.g. 'The Lord hath done things amongst us as have not been known these thousand years' (Oliver Cromwell). The collapse of censorship in 1640 allowed an explosion of radical ideas in print and from the pulpit. For the most radical of Protestants belief in a Providential scheme of events easily led to a millenarian outlook that perceived England and the English people as chosen by God, as the account of the Israelites in the Bible. Millenarianism itself refers to the belief in the Second Coming of Christ and the thousand- years' reign of King Jesus over a kingdom of the saints.
The authorities and the political nation regarded these radical sectaries as a threat to established order. Sects such as the Fifth Monarchists, who were gaining political power through Parliament, believed that in order to prepare for the Second Coming of Christ existing laws and practices had to be abolished and supplement these man-made laws with those of God. The Ranters belived as they were among God's elect or chosen people, they were impervious to sin - i.e. that they could be as licentious and as promiscuous as they so willed, without any consequence for their place in heaven. Such ideas provoked great fear in the traditional governing classes - even 'radicals' of the Parliamentary cause such as Cromwell. The principal sects are outlined below:
Baptists - from its beginnings early in the seventeenth century, the Baptist movement grew rapidly during the 1640s. Central to Baptists was the idea that faith could not be taught, that the individual had to foster a relationship with God through experience and acceptance of divine will. Baptists placed huge religious value on adult baptism - this was an expression of an individual's choice to become at one with Christ. Baptists denied the organised church with clergy who taught and administered the sacraments. The Baptist movement split into General Baptists and Particular Baptists. The former wanted to co-operate with other sects, while the latter favoured remaining exclusive. The Baptists were detested by religious and political conservatives because of the unfortunate connotations with the sixteenth century Munster Anabaptists - notorious throughout Christendom for their licentiousness. Beyond he similarity of name there were minimal links between German and English Baptists. They were persecuted during the 1650s and had to look to the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell, for protection.
Seekers & Ranters - both of these movements are examples of radical sects that approached religion through emotive rather than theological channels. The fundamental belief was that God manifests himself as a spiritual force on the individual. Thus the individual must 'seek' God in themselves, rather than through the Bible or an organised church. Hence the term Seekers. The term Ranter derived from their impromptu habit of expressively declaring their thoughts. These sects were detested, loathed and feared by contemporaries because their lives went against social conventions - e.g. Ranters lived communally, with both wives and property held in common ownership, this exposed them to charges of sexual depravity and a danger to protection of private property, a fundamental concern of the governing and landed classes. The Rump Parliament passed the Blasphemy Act in 1650 largely to curb the Ranters and Seekers. The most important aspect of these sectarian movements is their concept of the 'inner light' of the believer became a central tenet of the Quakers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Fifth Monarchists - see 'Disputes Over Church Government'.
Quakers ('The Society of Friends') - it is with the Quaker movement that we find the most articulated repudiation of the authority of a central church and the state in confessional matters. The movement originated in the 1650s with George Fox and James Nayler, at the turn of the 1660s the movement had expanded to over 50,000 followers. Fundamental was the belief in the inner light - that the revelation of God came to the believer from within. Such a belief attacked the very essence (and indeed existence of) organised religion, with its bishops and ministers, its churches and services of worship. To contemporaries such a belief was wholly unacceptable and many advocated destroying the movement. Quakers would often verbally abuse preachers and ministers and disrupt church services to articulate their ideas.