THE currents of opinion which we have been studying converge in John Bellers. We have seen how the struggle between two sections of the ruling classes for political dominion, in its sequel, brought upon the political stage the most advanced sections of the working classes of the period, and thus led to the formulation of demands which anticipate the programme of modern political democracy. We have also seen how a still lower stratum of the working class produced champions, who, adopting political shibboleths and utilizing religious communistic doctrines imported from other countries, elaborated a system of communism which was more advanced than any similar previous doctrines. We have further seen how the increasing distress of the poorer classes, side by side with the increasing prosperity of the comfortable classes, gave rise to a middle-class school of philanthropism, full of projects of all kinds for providing a remedy by special institutions – suggestions that what was formerly the task of the Church should be performed by the State, by private parishes, or by organized voluntary effort. We have seen too how a new conception of the State gained ground, according to which the State, instead of being an organ of a dominant aristocracy or the tool of a dynasty, should become an instrument for promoting the welfare of all; and we further saw how there developed from the embittered strife of religious parties an advanced anti-clerical, anti-dogmatic school of thought, which led to atheism or deism in one direction, and to the founding of a religion without ritual, viz., Quakerism, in another.
Quakerism is related to atheism as the school of social reform philanthropy is related to communism. Bellers, both as Quaker and social reformer, is an outstanding figure, and in both respects he represents the best tendencies of the movement. In his writings we find reproduced the baldest and clearest ideas of the advanced religious and social reformers of the seventeenth century. Did he receive these ideas from them, or was he acquainted with their writings? It is possible, for it was not then customary to quote references, except when appealing to acknowledged authorities. He may, on the other hand, have received these ideas indirectly through the channels of authors inspired by them, or from his surroundings – we might say they were in the air. He wrote under conditions similar to theirs: at a time of distress, after a political revolution. In 1648 and 1649 it was possible to believe in the feasibility of a democratic revolution, inasmuch as the democratic sections of the nation were then under arms; but in 1688 or 1695 such an expectation was clearly an illusion. On the other hand, it was then possible to launch a sharper criticism of society and its tendencies, not only a moral condemnation of the inequalities pervading society, but also a denunciation of the economic powers that were in the ascendancy and of society’s own inability to direct its productive forces in the interests of the whole.
It is the great merit of John Bellers to have perceived at so early a date this aspect of the modern social order, and if it is justifiable to suggest that his schemes and proposals bear the same relation to the Utopia of Winstanley as the Revolution of 1688 did to the Great Rebellion of 1648, we must also admit that his greater insight into the economic structure of society corresponds with the growth in wealth during the intervening fifty years, and that his writings are a refreshing contrast to the eulogies of the contemporary apologists for the middle classes, and constitute the most enlightened plea for the cause of the working classes on the eve of the eighteenth century.
Last updated on 21.11.2002