“Abiezer Coppe… did away with sin…” (Leon Rosselson)
On 14th January, either in 1649 or more likely, 1650, Abiezer Coppe delivered a blasphemous sermon in St Helen’s Church , Bishopsgate. He seems to have used the tactic of just pushing his way to the lectern and speaking whether the congregation wanted to listen or not…
A former Baptist army preacher, Abiezer Coppe became one of the most notorious of the so-called Ranters; mystical anarchists would maybe the best way to describe them. Coppe was imprisoned without trial for his blasphemous opinions….
“Shameless in his pleasures, drank and smoke and swore,
Embracing as his fellow creatures beggar, thief and whore”
Coppe was born in Warwickshire and in 1636 went to Oxford, first to All Souls College and then to Merton. Here “all lectures or examples could not reform, or make, him live like a Christian: And it was then notoriously known that he would several times entertain for one night or more a wanton huswife in his Chamber… in the little or old quadrangle, to whom carrying several times meat, at the hour of refection, he would make answer, when being asked by the way, what he would do with it, that it was a bit for his cat.”
After leaving Oxford he turned Presbyterian, then Anabaptist, preaching widely in Warwickshire. He was in prison in Coventry in 1646. Finally after a prolonged spiritual convulsion he became a Ranter. This crisis he has described more vividly and in greater detail than any other Ranter writer:
“First, all my strength, my forces were utterly routed, my house I dwelt in fired; my father and mother forsook me, the wife of my bosome loathed me, mine old name was rotted, perished; and I was utterly plagued, consumed, damned, rammed and sunk into nothing, into the bowels of the still Eternity (my mothers wombe) out of which 1 came naked, and whereto I returned again naked. And lying a while there, rapt up in silence, at length (the bodys outward forme being awake an this while) I heard with my outward eare (to my apprehension) a most terrible thunder-clap. and after that a second. And upon the second thunder-clap, which was exceeding terrible, I saw a great body of light, like the light of the Sun, and red as fire, in the forme of a drum (as it were), whereupon with exceeding trembling and amazement on the flesh, and with joy unspeakable in the Spirit, I clapt my hands, and cryed out, Amen, Halelujah, Halelujah, Amen. And so lay trembling, sweating and smoking (for the space of half an houre) at length with a loud voice (I inwardly) cryed Out, Lord what wilt thou do with me; my most excellent majesty and eternall glory (in me) answered and sayd, Fear not. I will take thee up into my everlasting Kingdom. But thou shalt (first) drink a bitter cup, a bitter cup, a bitter cup; whereupon (being filled with exceeding amazement) I was throwne into the belly of hell (and take what you can of it in these expressions, though the matter is beyond expression) I was among all the Devils in hell, even in their most hideous crew.
And under all this terrour and amazement, there was a little spark of transcendent, unspeakable glory, which survived, and sustained itself, triumphing, exulting and exalting itself above all the Fiends.”
“Through the streets of London, Abiezer came,
heard the hungry cries for bread, he was a soul in pain.
When the nobles in their coaches passed, he charged with wild eyes
And gnashed his teeth in anger and then roared up to the skies”
This conversion seems to have taken place in Warwickshire about the middle of 1649 and to have included a command, “Go up to London, to London, that great City”. There Coppe, who emphasised the social aspect of his teaching more, perhaps, than any other Ranter, began in the autumn of that year an appeal to the London poor, in a series of sermons in the streets in which the rich were denounced. The substance of these outbursts was probably incorporated in A Fiery Flying Roll, where he speaks of himself as, “charging so many Coaches, so many hundreds of men and women of the greater rank, in the open streets, with my hand stretched out, My hat cock’t up, staring on them as if I would look thorough them, gnashing with my teeth at some of them, and day and night with a huge loud voice proclaiming the day of the Lord throughout London and Southwark.”
[NB: dating here may be inaccurate; Coppe may have been active as a Ranter before mid-1649. Either that or reports of his giving a blasphemous sermon in St Helen’s Church, Bishopsgate, London, on January 14th 1649, may in fact refer to January 14th 1650. Which given that he had just published his manifesto, A Fiery Flying Roll, on January 1st 1650, may make more sense.]
No doubt this is the episode referred to by later Ranter Lawrence Clarkson in The Lost Sheep, which states that shortly before his own conversion Coppe “had lately appeared in a most dreadful manner”. Coppe’s campaign in the streets, soon to be followed by the publication of A Fiery Flying Roll (January 1st, 1650) marked the beginning of the period of maximum Ranter activity and was followed almost at once by a campaign of persecution and abuse directed against them.
A Fiery Flying Roll described itself as “A Word from the Lord to the Great ones of the Earth”. With it was bound A Second Fiery Flying Roll, addressed “To all the Inhabitants of the Earth.”.
The violent and provocative tone of the Roll, together with Coppe’s unconventional behaviour, attracted a great deal of attention and led to an immediate reaction. The Ranters, hitherto almost ignored, began to be written and talked about.
“I’d rather hear a Tinker curse than hear a vicar preach”
It was said of Coppe after he turned Ranter that “twas usual with him to preach stark-naked many blasphemies and unheard of villanies in the day-time, and in the night to be drunk and lye with a wench that had been also his hearer stark naked.” Such accusations are typical of many that were made against him and which he repudiated with what seems genuine indignation. Pamphlets written against the Ranters, he writes, are scandalous and “bespattered with Lyes and Forgeries, in setting me in front of such actions which I never did, which my soul abhors; such things which mine eyes never beheld, such words which my tongue never spake, and mine cars never heard.
All like that false aspersion – Viz, that I was accompanied to Coventry with two she-disciples, and that 1 lay there with two women at once. Which two she-disciples were Captain Blak, and other Souldiers, who have hurried me from Gaol to Gaol; where I sing Hallelujahs to the Righteous judge, and lie in his bosome, who is everlasting loving kindness.”
Coppe, who had either left London after the publication of A Roll or been taken from it under arrest, was soon in prison in Coventry. On February 1st Parliament issued an Order declaring that passages from A Roll had been read before it and contained “many horrid Blasphemies, and damnable and detestable opinions, to be abhorred by all good and godly people”. It was ordered that copies be publicly burnt “by the hand of the Hangman, at New-Pallace-Yard at Westminster, the Exchange, in Cheapside and at the Market-place in Southwark”. Search was to be made and all copies that could be found were to be destroyed.
“A pox upon the pious, and on what the Scriptures teach…”
In June Parliament set up a Committee to enquire into the Ranters and other heretical groups. On June 21st it reported “on the several abominable Practices of a Sect called Ranters”, and a Bill was prepared which was debated on several days during June and July. On August 9th Parliament passed its Act for the Punishment of Atheistical, Blasphemous and Execrable Opinions. This Act declared a number of heresies to be punishable by six months’ imprisonment, with banishment for a second offence. These included maintaining that God “dwells in the creature and nowhere else”, that “the acts of uncleannes, Prophane Swearing, Drunkenness, and the like Filthiness and Brutishness, are not unholy and forbidden in the Word of God”, that such actions and “the like open wickedness, are in their nature as Holy and Righteous as the Duties of Prayer, Preaching or giving of Thanks to God”, “that such men and women are most perfect, or like to God or Eternity, which do commit the greatest Sins with least remorse or sense”, and that “there is no such thing really and truly as Unrighteousness, Unholiness or Sin, but as a man or woman judgeth thereof; or that there is neither Heaven nor Hell, neither Salvation nor Damnation, or that those are one and the same thing”.
This Act was the signal for organised police action. Some Ranters, like Coppe and Joseph Salmon, had already been imprisoned. Now began systematic police raids, often made on evidence provided by informers. The Ranters, however, were by no means silenced or quickly defeated. A Single Eye by Clarkson appeared in September 1650 and Bauthumley’s The Light and Dark sides of God in November. Opposition to the Act was also shown by William Larner’s publication in 1651 of The Petition of Divers gathered Churches, and others wel affected, in and about London, for declaring the Ordinance of the Lords and Commons for punishing Blasphemies and Heresies, null and void. This Petition was reprinted in 1655.
“The magistrates condemned him, for vile Blasphemy
He pelted them with nutshells, cried “will you my judges be?”
Soon after the passing of the Act Coppe was brought from Coventry to London and examined by a Parliamentary Committee, as was Clarkson and William Rainborough soon after. Both Clarkson and Coppe proved difficult subjects. Clarkson, like Lilburne and Overton before him, stood on his rights as a free
citizen, refusing to answer any questions that might incriminate him. Coppe adopted different tactics. The Weekly Intelligencer for October 1st-8th mentioned “the arrogant and wild deportment of Mr Copp the great Ranter, who made the Fiery Roll, who being brought before the Committee of Examinations, refused to be uncovered, and disguised himself into a madness, flinging Apples and Pears about the roome, whereupon the Committee returned him to Newgate whence he came”.
Coppe remained in prison, and in January 1651 issued a partial recantation – A Remonstrance of the sincere and zealous Protestations of Abiezer Coppe Against the Blasphemous and Execrable Opinions recited in the Act of Aug to 1650. Apart from complaints that he had been slandered, this consisted mainly of denials that he had ever held the views attributed to him. This evidently did not satisfy the authorities and he was kept in prison for another five months till he wrote a second and fuller recantation.
How far Coppe’s enforced recantation was sincere it is difficult to say. He did not convince everyone. In September he preached a recantation sermon at Burford which was attacked by John Tickell in an appendix to The Bottomles Pit Smoking in Familisme. Tickell accused Coppe of deceit and equivocation. The Ranters “use to speak one thing and mean another…. Before the late Act they spake boldly, now they dare not.”
But Coppe seems, as far as possible, to have held to the essence of his beliefs. Thus, in his recantation, while denying that there was no sin, he expressed the view that all men are equally sinful in the eyes of God:
“Thieves, little thieves, and great thieves, drunkards, adulterers, and adultresses. Murtherers, little murtherers, and great murtherers. All are sinners. Sinners All. What then? Are we better than they? No, in no wise.”
“Community in all things, Abiezer said,
The naked shall have clothing, the hungry must have bread.”
Most significant of all, far from denying any of the social views advanced in A Fiery Flying Roll he reaffirmed them almost defiantly:
“As for community, I own none but that Apostolical, saint-like Community, spoken of in the Scriptures.
So far as I either do, or should own community, that if flesh of my flesh, be ready to perish; I either will, or should call nothing that I have, mine own.
If I have bread it shall, or should be his, else all my religion is in vain. I am for dealing bread to the hungry, for cloathing the naked, for the breaking of every yoak, for the letting of the oppressed go free….
Know all men by these presents, that
I am utterly against the community which is sinful, or destructive to soul or body, or the well being of a Common-wealth….
I own none other, long for none other, but that glorious (Rom. 8) liberty of the sons of God.
Which God will hasten in its time.”
The sting of his recantation was certainly in its tail.
“Gave his loving freely, a Ranter ’til he died…”
After his release Coppe remained in London, but it is uncertain how far he resumed his Ranting activities, since little is heard of him after this. Fox reports a meeting with him in 1655 which suggests that there had been no great change, provided that his date is correct:
“During the time I was prisoner at Charing Cross abundance of professors, priests, and officers, and all sorts of people came to see me … and there came one Cobbe, and a great company of Ranters came in that time also, and they began to call for drink and tobacco…”
Following the restoration of the monarchy Coppe tried to keep his head down: “the name of Coppe odious, he did at the Kings restauration change it to Higham, and practising Physick at Barnelms in Surrey, and sometimes preaching, went for divers years under the name of Dr Higham”. He died in August 1672 and was buried “on the south side of the church there, under the seats”.
“Hark, ye rich, ye nobles, ye shall reap soon what ye sow
For the day of doom is coming that will lay the mighty low.
And your property will canker, and your houses will decay
And the rust upon your silver will burn your flesh away…
So drink a loving cup, to Abiezer, Abiezer,
He’s a drinking dancing roaring Ranter…
Some quotes stolen from Leon Rosselson’s fine song, ‘Abiezer Coppe’.
A chapter on Coppe and other ranters, from A.L. Morton’s ‘The World of the Ranters, can be found online at:
Coppe’s A Fiery Flying Roll can be read at: https://archive.org/details/fieryflyingroll00coppuoft
An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out: