The Seekers, or Legatine-Arians as they were sometimes known, were a Protestant dissenting group that emerged around the 1620s, probably inspired by the preaching of three brothers – Walter, Thomas, and Bartholomew Legate. Arguably, they are best thought of as forerunners of the Quakers, with whom many of them subsequently merged. Seekers considered all organised churches of their day to be corrupt, and preferred to wait for God's revelation.
British historian Christopher Hill explains that, long before the English Revolution, there already existed a "lower-class heretical culture" in England. The cornerstones of this culture were anti-clericalism and a strong emphasis on Biblical study, but there were specific heretical doctrines that had “an uncanny persistence.” There was a rejection of Predestination, and an embrace of Millenarianism, mortalism, anti-Trinitarianism, and Hermeticism. Such ideas became "commonplace to seventeenth century Baptists, Levellers, Diggers, Seekers, early Quakers and other radical groupings which took part in the free-for-all discussions of the English Revolution."
Beliefs and practices
The anti-clericalism of Seekers' pioneers the Legatts was far from unique. However, historically, when 'heretics' were faced with being burnt at the stake they retracted, retaining their beliefs in a less public way. The Legatts were exceptional. Thomas died in Newgate Prison after being arrested for his preaching and Bartholomew was burnt for heresy in 1612.
Seekers after the Legatts were Puritan, although not Calvinist. Whilst accepting their zeal in desiring a ‘godly society’, some contemporary historians doubt whether the English Puritans during the English Revolution were as committed to religious liberty and pluralism as traditional histories have suggested. However, historian John Coffey’s recent work has emphasised the contribution of a minority of radical Protestants who steadfastly sought toleration for so called Heresy, Blasphemy, Catholicism, non-Christian religions, and even Atheism. This minority included the Seekers, as well as the General Baptists and the Levellers. Their collective witness demanded the church to be an entirely voluntary, non-coercive community able to evangelise in a pluralistic society governed by a purely civil state. Such a demand was in sharp contrast to the ambitions of the magisterial Protestantism of the Calvinist majority.
The Seekers were not an organised religious group in any way that would be recognised today (i.e. not like a religious Cult or Denomination). They were shambolic (by modern standards), informal and localised. 'Membership' in a local Seekers assembly did not preclude membership in another sect. Indeed, Seekers shunned creeds (see Free Christianity) and each assembly tended to embrace a broad spectrum of ideas. That said, there were a number of beliefs and practices that made the Seekers distinctive from the large number of nonconformist dissenting groups that emerged around the time of the Commonwealth of England. Most significant was their form of collective worship.
In common with other Dissenters, the Seekers believed that the Roman Church corrupted itself and, through its common heritage, the Church of England as well. Only Christ himself could establish the "true" Church. Distinctively, in eager anticipation of his second-coming, and mindful of his direct inspiration and guidance in the meantime, the Seekers held meetings (free of all Church ritual) in silence.
Clearly, Seekers anticipated aspects of Quakerism. Unsurprisingly, a significant number of Seekers became Quakers and many remaining Seekers attended the funeral of George Fox, the founder of Quakerism.
- Roger Williams (theologian) (speculated)
- William Erbery (or 'Erbury') (1604–1654) is credited with convincing Oliver Cromwell's daughter to become a Seeker.
- John Saltmarsh's The Smoke in the Temple (1646) is an important statement of the Seekers' beliefs.
- William Walwyn (see the Levellers).
- Hill, Christopher (1977) Milton and the English Revolution. London: Faber & Faber, pp. 71–76.
- Hill, Christopher (1977) Milton and the English Revolution, Faber & Faber, London, pp. 70–71.
- Coffey, John (1998) "Puritanism & Liberty Revisited: The Case for Toleration in the English Revolution," The Historical Journal, Cambridge University Press.
- See Watts, M. The Dissenters Vol 1. Oxford 1978. Ch ll:section 15, and specifically p.196.See also Hatton, J. George Fox(Oxford 2007) ch 5.
- "Seekers". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913.
- Hill, Christopher (1972). "Seekers and Ranters". The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution. 148-175. London: Temple Smith. ISBN 0-85117-025-0.