The Ranters were a sect in the time of the English Commonwealth (1649–1660) who were regarded as heretical by the established Church of that period. Their central idea was pantheistic, that God is essentially in every creature; this led them to deny the authority of the Church, of scripture, of the current ministry and of services, instead calling on men to hearken to Jesus within them. Many Ranters seem to have rejected a belief in immortality and in a personal God, and in many ways they resemble the Brethren of the Free Spirit in the 14th century. The Ranters revived the Brethren of the Free Spirit's beliefs of amoralism and followed the Brethren's ideals which “stressed the desire to surpass the human condition and become godlike.” Further drawing from the Brethren of the Free Spirit, the Ranter embraced antinomianism and believed that Christians are freed by grace from the necessity of obeying Mosaic Law. Because they believed that God was present in all living creatures, the Ranters' adherence to antinomianism allowed them to reject the very notion of obedience, thus making them a great threat to the stability of the government.
Though they were not particularly organized and had no leader, their most infamous member was Laurence Clarkson, or Claxton, who joined the Ranters after encountering them in 1649. Claxton quickly adopted Ranter beliefs "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." Under the influence of the Ranters, Claxton published his 1650 tract called A Single Eye. In the tract, Claxton espoused the dissenting group's ideals. They were one of a number of nonconformist dissenting groups that emerged around this time.
They seem to have been regarded by the government of the time as a genuine threat to social order. 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 put in prison until they recanted.
The Ranters were largely recruited from the common people, and there is plenty of evidence that the movement was widespread throughout England. John Bunyan, author of Pilgrim's Progress, claimed in his autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, to have 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.
In the mid-19th century, the name was often applied to the Primitive Methodists, with reference to their crude and often noisy preaching. Even Gerrard Winstanley, the 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."
More recently, the historian J. C. Davis has suggested that the Ranters did not exist at all. According to Davis, the Ranters were a myth created by conservatives in order to endorse traditional values by comparison with an unimaginably radical other. Though other historians have expressed doubts, Davis has been at least partially persuasive: Richard L. Greaves, in a review of Davis's book, suggests that though a very radical fringe existed, it was probably never as organized as conservatives of the time suggested.
- Jacob Bauthumley
- Abiezer Coppe
- John Robins
- 17th-century denominations in England
- Christian anarchism
- Nudity in religion
- Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Ranters". 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).
- Encyclopædia Britannica editors, ed. (2012). "Laurence Claxton". Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Retrieved July 2012.
- Bunyan, John. Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners. par. 44–45
- ExLibris staff (1January 2008). "Ranters". ExLibris. Retrieved July 2012. [self-published source?]
- J.C. Davis, Fear, Myth and History: The Ranters and Their Historians.
- Church History, Cambridge Univ. Press, 1986, Vol. 57, No. 3. (Sep., 1988), pp. 376–378.
- Grant, Linda. (1994). Sexing the Millennium: Women and the Sexual Revolution. Grove Press. pp. 19–25. ISBN 0-8021-3349-5