The Ranters were not an organised group or sect. The name is used as a generic term for various maverick self-proclaimed messiahs, prophets and preachers who emerged in England from the late 1640s until the mid-1650s as the turmoil of the civil wars subsided. The excesses of the Ranters became the subject of many prurient pamphlets and newsbook reports from 1649 onwards, prompting a wave of moral panic amongst clergymen, magistrates and MPs. Ranters were frequently accused of sexual immorality, drunkenness and blasphemy.
Most of those usually identified as Ranters, such as Abiezer Coppe, Laurence Clarkson, Joseph Salmon and Jacob Bauthumley, had served with the Parliamentarian armies of the civil wars, either as soldiers or preachers. They all shared a sense of disillusionment at the betrayal of the Levellers' political and social aims. In general, they accepted the concept that God is in everyone and in every living thing, thus rejecting the othodox dualism which separated God in heaven from sinful men on earth. A group associated with Clarkson in London called itself "My one flesh" to emphasise the unity of mankind and the whole of creation.
Like the Quakers, the Ranters embraced the concept of the Indwelling Spirit, but went further by claiming that anyone who had made a personal relationship with God was no longer bound by conventional society and that whatever was done in the Spirit was justifiable. This encouraged a sense of liberation from all legal and moral restraint. Organised forms of religion could be rejected, the concept of sinfulness dismissed and the Bible itself disregarded. Free love, drinking, smoking and swearing were regarded as viable routes to spiritual liberation.
The Adultery Act, passed by the Rump Parliament in May 1650 and the Blasphemy Act of August 1650 were directly aimed at curbing the excesses of the Ranters and their followers. The most notorious Ranters were arrested and brought to trial. Jacob Bauthumley was bored through the tongue as punishment for writing a blasphemous book; Clarkson, Salmon and Coppe wrote recantations and were released after short spells in prison. Activity faded during the late 1650s and many former Ranters turned to Quakerism after the Restoration.
Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down (London 1972)
English Dissenters: Ranters, www.exlibris.org