The Ranters were one of a number of dissenting groups that emerged around the time of the English Commonwealth (1649–1660). They were largely common people and there is plenty of evidence that the movement was widespread throughout England, though they were not organised and had no leader.
Ranters were regarded as heretical by the established Church and seem to have been regarded by the government as a threat to social order. They denied the authority of churches, of scripture, of the current ministry and of services, instead calling on men to listen to the divine within them. In many ways they resemble the 14th century Brethren of the Free Spirit.
Their central idea was pantheistic, that God is essentially in every creature. Many Ranters seem to have rejected a belief in individual immortality and in a personal God. They embraced antinomianism and believed that Christians are freed by grace from the necessity of obeying Mosaic Law, rejecting the very notion of obedience, thus making the government view them as a great threat. The Ranters revived the Brethren of the Free Spirit's amoralism and "stressed the desire to surpass the human condition and become godlike". They held "that a believer is free from all traditional restraints, that sin is a product only of the imagination, and that private ownership of property is wrong".
Their most famous member, Laurence Clarkson or Claxton, joined the Ranters after encountering them in 1649. Under the influence of the Ranters, Claxton published his 1650 tract called A Single Eye in which he espoused the dissenting group's ideals.
Ranters were often associated with nudity, which they may have used as a manner of social protest as well as religious expression as a symbol of abandoning earthly goods. Ranters were accused of antinomianism, fanaticism and sexual immorality, and imprisoned until they recanted.
Gerrard Winstanley, a leader of another English dissenting group called the Diggers, commented on Ranter principles by denoting them as "a general lack of moral values or restraint in worldly pleasures". However another prominent Digger, William Everard was, some time after the failure of the Digger communes, imprisoned as a ranter, and later confined to Bethlem Hospital.
John Bunyan, author of Pilgrim's Progress, wrote in his autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, that he had encountered Ranters prior to his Baptist conversion. They came into contact and even rivalry with the early Quakers, who were often falsely accused of direct association with them. George Fox stated that most of the Ranters were converted to Quakerism at the time of the Restoration.
The historian J. C. Davis has suggested that the Ranters were a myth created by conservatives in order to endorse traditional values by comparison with an unimaginably radical other. Richard L. Greaves, in a review of Davis' book, suggests that though a very radical fringe existed, it was probably never as organized as conservatives of the time suggested.
- Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica. 22 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 895. .
- Chiara Ombretta Tommasi, "Orgy: Orgy in Medieval and Modern Europe", Encyclopedia of Religion, no. 10 (2005).
- "Laurence Claxton". Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 1998. Retrieved 13 May 2019.
- ExLibris staff (1 January 2008). "Ranters". ExLibris. Archived from the original on 1 September 2012. Retrieved 1 July 2012.[self-published source?]
- Hessayon, Ariel (October 2009). "Everard, William (bap. 1602?, d. in or after 1651)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/40436. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
- Bunyan, John, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners. par. 44–45
- J.C. Davis, Fear, Myth and History: The Ranters and The Historians, Cambridge University Press, 1986/Revised edition, 2010
- Greaves, R. L, (1988). "Review: Fear, Myth and History: The Ranters and Their Historians by J. C. Davis", Church History, 57(3), pp. 376–378. JSTOR 3166599. doi:10.2307/3166599.