Thanks to the graphic novel and movie V for Vendetta, many members of the Occupy movement sport Guy Fawkes masks. However, while the often-repeated line about Fawkes being the only person to enter Parliament with honorable intentions is good for a laugh, Fawkes is a poor symbol for the movement. In fact, with his plans to restore a Catholic monarchy, Fawkes was a reactionary, and would probably disapprove of the movement if he were alive to see it. Instead, I wonder why no one has looked deeper into some of Fawke’s contemporaries – specifically, the Puritans.
At first, the suggestion sounds ridiculous. Puritans have been the object of ridicule for centuries, from Shakespeare’s Malvolio in Twelfth Night to H. L. Mencken’s definition of Puritanism as “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” Moreover, at least since the 1960s, to describe some as “Puritanical” has been one of the deepest insults possible. The adjective suggests someone who is humorless and repressed to the point of obsession.
Remember, however, that history is written by the victors – and that, with Charles II’s restoration of the monarchy, the Puritans became the losers. The truth is, our view of the Puritans is about as accurate as an investment banker’s view of the counter-culture of four decades ago.
Yes, many Puritans fit the modern stereotype. But many others did not. Historically, all “Puritan” meant was an extreme form of Protestantism. During the seventeenth century, there were dozens of different schools of Puritanism. The Diggers, Ranters, Levellers, Muggeltonians, the early Quakers – these are only some of the different sects of Puritanism you could find in the early to mid 1600s, and many of them disagreed strongly with each other.
What all Puritans had in common was a deep belief in the essentials of Protestantism: the idea that each person had to work out their own salvation for themselves. This belief led them to question the authorities of their day, both the religious and the secular ones. In fact, since in Anglicanism, the monarch is the head of the church, at the time, there was no real distinction between the religious and the secular (which was one of the circumstances to which many Puritans objected).
The result of much of their questioning sounds very familiar today. Universal suffrage? Votes for women? Communal responsibility for the sick, poor, and the elderly? All these ideas were first raised in the English-speaking world by the Puritans. Some sects went even further, experimenting with communal living and denouncing the evils of property and hierarchy, becoming so much of a threat that less radical Puritans like Oliver Cromwell suppressed them, and called in the troops to disperse some of their experiments with communes.
Admittedly, to the modern mind, their ideas had some strange twists. Living in a religious age in which most people believed that the civic order was ordained by heaven, they did not reject religion so much as reinterpret it. Some Puritans, like the Diggers, recast the Biblical Fall, not as the literal disobedience of Adam and Even to God’s commandment, but as a metaphor for the rise of social hierarchy. Others, like the Ranters, went even further, declaring that all humans were naturally innocent, and that sin was merely the corrupting result of conforming to the social order, which could be removed by everyone giving in to their natural inclinations. The idea that society could do without Christianity seems to have occurred to very few of them.
This religious orientation aside, most of the radical Puritan’s beliefs would sound instantly familiar to most moderns, especially the activists. You could even say with some justification that the shaping of our modern world and its values and aspirations began with movements like The Diggers and The Levellers.
Instead of choosing a figure like Guy Fawkes for a hero, today’s activists might try taking a look at people like Gerrard Winstanley, the intellectual leader of the Diggers, or Abezier Coppe, the prominent Ranter. If their original works are hard to find, you can at least read about them in the works of historians like Christopher Hill, or hear them summarized in some of the songs of English folksinger Leon Rosselson, such as “The World Turned Upside Down” or “Abezier Coppe.” In doing so, you will regain part of the English-speaking world’s heritage that anyone interested in improving society should know about — because, believe it or not, we’ve been here before.