Milton and the English Revolution
By Christopher Hill
“The civil war of the seventeenth century, in which Milton is a symbolic figure, has never been concluded. . . . Of no other poet is it so difficult to consider the poetry simply as poetry, without our theological and political dispositions, conscious and unconscious, inherited or acquired, making an unlawful entry.”
–T.S. Eliot, Milton (1947)
Page 1: “Milton is a more controversial figure than any other English poet. Many of the controversies relate to Milton’s participation in the seventeenth-century English Revolution, yet Milton is more controversial even than that Revolution itself. Those who dislike Milton dislike him very much indeed, on personal as well as political grounds. How could the American who proclaimed himself Royalist, Anglo-Catholic and classicist have any use for England’s republican anti-Catholic? Blake, Shelley and Herzen were more attuned to Milton: so were Jefferson, Mirabeau and the Chartists.
“Yet the controversies around Milton are not simple. He was, for instance, a propagandist of revolution, a defender of regicide* [killing of the king] and of the English republic. Dr. Johnson and many since have found it hard to forgive him for this, or to be fair to him. Yet Milton frequently expressed great contempt for the common people, and so cannot be whole-heartedly admired by modern democrats. He was a passionate anti-clerical, and in theology a very radical heretic. Since he was also a great Christian poet, ‘orthodox’ critics have frequently tried to explain away, or to deny, his heresies. We may feel that these attempts tell us more about the commentators than about Milton, but they have not been uninfluential. On the other hand, Milton’s radical theology is far from conforming to the sensibility of twentieth-century liberal Christians.”
Page 3: “It is, in my view, quite wrong to see Milton in relation to anything so vague and generalized as ‘the Christian tradition’. He was a radical Protestant heretic. He rejected Catholicism as anti-Christian: the papist was the only heretic excluded from his wide tolerance. Milton shed far more of mediaeval Catholicism than did the Church of England. His great theological system, the De Doctrina Christiana, arose by a divorcing command from the ambiguous chaos of traditional Christianity. Milton rejected the Trinity, infant baptism and most of the traditional ceremonies, including church marriage; he queried monogamy and believed that the soul died with the body. He cannot reasonably be claimed as ‘orthodox’.”
Page 4: “Milton was not just a fine writer. He is the greatest English revolutionary who is also a poet, the greatest English poet who is also a revolutionary.”
Pages 105 and 106: “Milton rejected not only ‘the corrupt and venal discipline of clergy courts’, but all ‘coercive jurisdiction in the church’. He thought not only that the Pope was Antichrist, but that bishops were more antichristian than the Pope. Like John Saltmarsh, he thought that any state church was necessarily antichristian. When he made Antichrist Mammon’s son Milton may even have hinted at social interpretations akin to those of Gerrard Winstanley. Milton pointed out that Christ used force only once—to drive money-changers out of the Temple. The coercive power of the secular magistrate in religious matters Milton similarly denied. ‘Since God became flesh’, John Reeve told the Lord Mayor of London in 1653, ‘no civil magistrate hath any authority from above to be judge of any man’s faith, because it is a spiritual invisible gift from God.’ Milton would have agreed with the conclusion. Repudiation of a state church divided sectaries from Episcopalians and Presbyterians; denial of the authority of the magistrate brought about a division somewhere farther to the left. In each case Milton came to be with the more radical party.
“If there is no distinction between clergy and laity, ordinary people have the right to interpret the Bible for themselves. This led to what Edwards called anti-Scripturism—criticism of the contradictions of the Bible, denial that it was the Word of God. Milton did not go so far as Clement Writer, Walwyn, some Ranters and the Quaker Samuel Fisher. But—unlike Edwards—he would have insisted on the principle that the individual had a right and indeed a duty to study the Bible for himself, not taking his religion at second hand from Pope, church or priest. He likewise insisted that ‘the spirit of God, promised alike and given / To all believers’ was the test for interpreting the letter of the Bible. Such ‘spiritual illumination . . . is common to all men.’ The distinction is a narrow one between his position and the Ranter and Quaker view that the spirit within believers was superior to the letter of Scripture, overriding it.
“Milton’s belief that worship is discussion, that the spirit in man is more important than any ecclesiastical authority, that each of us must interpret the Bible for himself, thus aligns him with Ranters, Quakers, antinomians: so does his conviction that men and women should strive to attain perfection on earth, even though Milton did not think they could ever succeed. His ultimate belief in the necessity of good works for salvation, the consequence of his emphasis on human freedom, aligns him with Arminians of the left like John Goodwin, General Baptists and Quakers, whilst his total rejection of sacramentalism and a state church puts him at the opposite pole to the Laudian ‘Arminians’ of the right. Milton accepted the heresy of adult baptism, at a time when the medical reformer William Rand thought that Henry Lawrence’s publication of his Treatise of Baptism was a more courageous act than risking his life on the field of battle. This links Milton with Socinians and Anabaptists, though he seems to have joined no Baptist congregation. His decisive rejection of sabbatarianism also puts him beyond the pale of ‘respectable’ Puritanism.
“Milton was a radical millenarian long before Fifth Monarchism was thought of: he equated monarchy with Antichrist. In 1641, he associated his belief that Christ’s kingdom ‘is now at hand’ with his confidence in the potentialities of free and democratic discussion. He had a vision of England as leader of an international revolution, which links him both with the Fifth Monarchists and with the pre-pacifist George Fox, who in 1657 rebuked the English army for not yet having sacked Rome.”
Pages 299 and 300: “The doctrine of the sonship of all believers is of course Biblical. ‘As many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the Sons of God’, St. Paul said (Romans 8: 14). It is therefore accepted by all Protestants, and is mentioned in the Westminster Confession of Faith of 1647. But the emphasis I have been citing was especially characteristic of the radicals. In the early seventeenth century the covenant of John Smyth’s General Baptist church declared ‘We shall be his sons, calling him Father by the spirit whereby we are sealed.’ The church believed that ‘Christ’s redemption stretcheth to all men.’ This version of the doctrine, as Milton very well knew, trembled on the edge of antinomianism. ‘What have we, Sons of God, to do with Law?’ Many of his contemporaries were pushing it over the edge, as Thomas Munzer had done a century earlier when he said ‘We must all become gods.’
“Edwards quoted sectaries who said ‘Every creature is God. . . . A man baptized with the Holy Ghost knows all things even as God knows all things.’ Winstanley in 1648 believed that ‘God now appears in the flesh of the saints.’ Jesus Christ and his saints make one perfect man. He soon extended this from the saints to all mankind. ‘Every creature . . . is a Son to the Father.’ The same spirit that filled Christ ‘should in these last days be sent into whole mankind’. ‘Christ . . . is now beginning to fill every man and woman with himself.’ This Christ in everyone, ‘that perfect man, shall be no other but God manifest in the flesh’. ‘He will spread himself in sons and daughters . . . till this vine hath filled the earth.’ ‘Everyone that is subject to reason’s law’, Winstanley declared, ‘shall enjoy the benefit of sonship’—which for him meant participation in communal ownership and cultivation.
“George Fox criticized Ranters who claimed to be equal with God, but he himself was accused of affirming ‘that he had the divinity essentially in him’, ‘that he was equal with God, . . . that he was as upright as Christ’. Ranters and Quakers blended Familist and Hermeticist traditions in a very democratic mixture. The Hermetic texts described how man could discover the divine within himself, and through knowledge become like God. ‘A man on earth is a mortal God; . . . a God in heaven is an immortal man.’ In Paradise Lost the Father himself seems to recall some such idea when he tells the angels ironically
O Sons, like one of us man is become
To know both good and evil, since his taste
Of that defended fruit.
“The Hermeticist doctrine had been taken over by the Familists, who believed that every member of the Family of Love by obedience of love became a Son of God. Or, as Croll put it, man ‘riseth to such perfection that he is made the Son of God, transformed into the same image which is God and made one with him’. Robert Fludd taught that heaven was attainable on earth. ‘The Rosicrucians call one another brethren because they are the Sons of God’ in this sense. Christ dwells in man ‘and each man is a living stone of that spiritual rock’. Of these the true Temple will be constructed, of which the temples of Moses and of Solomon were only types. ‘When the Temple is consecrated, its dead stones will live . . . and man will recover his primitive state of innocence and perfection.’ This may perhaps enrich our sense of the scene in Paradise Regained when the Son of God miraculously stands on the pinnacle of the Temple. ‘The Son and the saints make one perfect man’, declared William Erbery; ‘the fullness of the godhead dwells in both in the same measure, though not in the same manifestation. . . . The fullness of the godhead shall be manifested in the flesh of the saints as in the flesh of the Son’—i.e. on earth.”
Page 307: “This is the basis for Milton’s theory of toleration: no Protestant ‘of what sect soever, following Scripture only, . . . ought, by the common doctrine of protestants, to be forced or molested for religion’. ‘No man in religion is properly a heretic at this day but he who maintains traditions or opinions not probable by Scripture (who, for aught I know, is the papist only’) (cf. Luther: ‘Neither pope nor bishop nor anyone else has the right to impose so much as a single syllable of obligation upon a Christian man without his own consent.’) ‘Chiefly for this cause do all true protestants account the Pope antichrist’, Milton continued; ‘for that he assumes to himself this infallibility over both the conscience and the Scripture.’ Hence the arguments for complete toleration for all Protestants do not apply to papists.
“A great many conclusions follow from this absolute emphasis on conscience, on sincerity. The efficacy of any sacrament depends on the proper attitude of the recipient, and therefore ‘Infants are not fit for baptism’, since ‘they cannot believe or undertake an obligation.’ Attendance at church is not necessary: ‘the worship of the heart is accepted by God even where external forms are not in all respects observed.’ But Samson Agonistes suggests that Milton agreed with Muggleton that we should abstain from attending the worship of the restored Church of England.”
Page 309: “Many radicals spoke in Joachite terms of three advents of Christ—first in the flesh in Palestine, finally in the Last Judgment, but in between there will be a ‘middle advent’ when Christ rises in believers. Or there are three resurrections of the dead—the first of Jesus in A.D. 33, the last at the general resurrection: in between comes the rule of the saints in the new dispensation. For Winstanley Christ’s resurrection is not in one single person. ‘Mankind is the earth that contains him buried, and out of this earth he is to rise’, within us. ‘The rising up of Christ in sons and daughters . . . is his second coming.’ Every saint is a true heaven, because God dwells in him and he in God, and the communion of saints is a true heaven. For Ranters too Christ’s coming meant ‘his coming into men by his spirit’. Fludd had believed that man could attain to heaven on earth. Seekers, Saltmarsh, Dell, Quakers and Muggletonians held similar views. Erbery, whose views are close to those of Milton on many points, believed that the Second Coming meant ‘the appearing of that great God and Saviour in the saints. . . .The saints shall judge the world, that is first destroy but afterwards save and govern the world.’”
Page 314: “On the dictionary definition it is difficult to say that Milton was not an antinomian. Like the Ranters he believed that ‘the entire Mosaic Law is abolished’—not just the ceremonial law but ‘the whole positive law of Moses’. Milton indeed wore his antinomianism with a difference, for he thought that ‘the law is now inscribed on believers’ hearts by the spirit’; but many whom we call antinomians would have said the same, and for Milton when the spirit is at variance with the letter ‘faith not law is our rule’.”
*In the spring semester of 1995, I took a class on John Milton (1608-1674) at Iowa State University. I wrote a ten-page paper on Milton for that class.
Because of Milton’s writings (his essays like Areopagitica, A Second Defense of the English People and On Christian Doctrine) and influence with the Puritans of the American colonies, I came to the conclusion that he was a father of the United States of America.
If there had never been an English Civil War (1642-1651) or a Glorious Revolution (1688) (and the English Bill of Rights in 1689), there might never have been an American Revolutionary War (1775-1783) or the U.S. Constitution (1787).
I believe that John Milton and George Fox were by far the most influential men in seventeenth-century England. Milton was a great Christian intellectual/writer; Fox was a great preacher/apostle of the Gospel; they both spent time in prison for their beliefs.
Antinomian—“One who holds that, under the gospel dispensation, the moral law is of no use or obligation, faith alone being necessary to salvation.”
Sabbatarian—“One who keeps the seventh day of the week as holy, in conformity with the letter of the fourth commandment.”
Arminian—“Of or pertaining to James Arminius (1560-1609), a Dutch protestant against the tenets of strict Calvinism. The theology of the Wesleyans of Great Britain and Methodists of America is Arminian.”
—Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary
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