The 370th anniversary of a battle you may never have heard took place on Friday, Sept. 20, which offered me a good excuse to write about a group you may never have heard of.
There is some value in knowing about the First Battle of Newbury (fought on Sept. 20, 1643) and, especially, about the group known as the Levellers.
While most U.S. Americans know quite a bit about the Civil War in the U.S., most don’t know much about the English Civil War, which was fought in the 1640s. One of the major battles of that war was fought at Newbury, about 60 miles west of London.
That First Battle of Newbury was led by King Charles I, who ended up losing his head – literally, in Jan. 1649 – in the civil war. He was the leader of the Royalist forces, but the Parliamentarian forces won the battle.
Thomas Prince was on the side of the Parliamentarians in the English Civil War, and he was badly wounded at the Battle of Newbury. In the late 1640s, Prince, along with John Lilburne and Richard Overton, became a leader of a political movement that came to be known as the Levellers.
If you have read “A Thicker Jesus: Incarnational Discipleship in a Secular Age,” Glen Stassen’s 2012 book, you know something about these matters, for he narrates how Overton and the other Levellers were “pioneers of democracy.”
Stassen also explains that the Levellers group was one of the “free-church sects,” along with the Anabaptists, Baptists and Quakers, which had considerable influence on the development of democracy in England and then in New England and the other colonies.
While there is some confusion about the origin of their name, it is clear that the Levellers believed all people should be equal before the law; that is, the law should equally protect the poor and the wealthy. They were also advocates of the complete freedom of religion.
Overton (1599-1664) was a Baptist during the “contentious days” of the English Civil War. “He strongly advocated the human right of religious liberty on the biblical basis of following Jesus,” Stassen said. In 1647, Overton published the first comprehensive doctrine of human rights.
Overton first made a confession of faith and was baptized at the Waterlander Mennonite Church in Holland in 1615. The Waterlanders had broken off from the main Mennonite branch in 1555. By 1615, they comprised about 1,000 baptized believers in Amsterdam.
Back in England, Overton became a Baptist and also became friends with Roger Williams, who left England for Boston in 1630 and founded the first Baptist church in North America later that decade.
In the 1640s, Williams wrote treatises about religious liberty in New England quite similar to what Overton and the other Levellers wrote in England during that same decade.
Stassen links the central emphases of Overton to the American Pledge of Allegiance, saying that the words about “liberty and justice for all” were central in Overton’s writings. It is estimated that Overton wrote about 50 pamphlets arguing for political and religious liberty.
Thinking about the Levellers and their emphasis on equality and justice reminded me of the cartoon meme about these topics, which I first saw on Facebook. The image depicted a scene similar to this:
Perhaps the witness of the Levellers reveals that there is not as much difference between equality and justice as the image first suggests if you are talking about eye level rather than where one’s feet are.
Leroy Seat was a missionary to Japan from 1966-2004 and is both professor emeritus of Seinan Gakuin University and pastor emeritus of Fukuoka International Church. A version of this column also appeared on his blog, The View from this Seat, and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @LKSeat.
A missionary to Japan from 1966-2004, he is both professor emeritus of Seinan Gakuin University and pastor emeritus of Fukuoka International Church.