Abiezer Coppe, the son of Walter Coppe, was born in Warwick on 30th May 1619. According to Ariel Hessayon: "Abiezer Coppe's youth was marked by a godly litany of zealous devotion: fervent prayer ‘by heart’, memorizing ‘much of the Scripture’; frequent and ‘most secret’ fasting; and abasement before God. (1) At thirteen he began to "take and keep" a daily register of his sins, setting them down in a book. To prevent his tongue from speaking sinful words he bridled his mouth, writing on parchment, which he "sewed about" his wrists (2)
Coppe was taught by Thomas Dugard of King Henry VIII’s School before attending All Souls College. However, he left Oxford University without a degree. He returned to Warwick and with the support of Dugard began to prepare for the ministry. In 1641 Dugard recorded that Coppe had been permitted to preach on Palm Sunday. (3)
On the outbreak of the the English Civil War Coppe joined the Parliamentary Army (Roundheads) as a preacher. He served as a chaplain under the command of Major George Purefoy, receiving an initial payment of £35 for thirty-five weeks' service in February 1645. However, the following year, he was imprisoned in Coventry gaol for upsetting the authorities with his preaching. (4)
During this period he came under the influence of radical political activists, John Lilburne and Gerrard Winstanley and became associated with the Levellers and the Diggers. Coppe recounted how "God in his infinite wisdom" had laid low his vanity and levelled his pride - which is the "true and pure levelling." He claimed he spent four days and nights with God and he emerged from these experiences a resurrected man. (5)
Coppe asserted that property was theft and pride worse than adultery: "I can kiss and hug ladies and love my neighbour's wife as myself without sin." (6) His views on "free love" were shared by Laurence Clarkson and both men became leaders of the Ranters movement. (7) Peter Ackroyd claimed that Coppe and Clarkson professed that "sin had its conception only in imagination" and told their followers that they "might swear, drink, smoke and have sex with impunity". (8)
Clarkson later suggested that it was Coppe who was really the leader of this group: "Abiezer Coppe was by himself with a company ranting and swearing, which I was seldom addicted to... Now I being as they said, Captain of the Rant, I had most of the principal women came to my lodging for knowledge... Now in the height of this ranting, I was made still careful for moneys for my wife, only my body was given to other women: so our company increasing, I wanted for nothing that heart could desire, but at last it became a trade so common, that all the froth and scum broke forth into the height of this wickedness, yea began to be a public reproach, that I broke up my quarters, and went into the country to my wife, where I had by the way disciples plenty." (9)
In January 1649, Coppe arrived in London. He made a tour of the poor areas of the city and later remembered how at the prison in Southwark he sat, ate, and drank with gypsies, hugging and kissing them, putting his hand "in their bosoms, loving the she Gipsies dearly". (10) He also preached an inflammatory sermon in the church at St Helen, Bishopsgate. Before a large assembled congregation he caused an uproar by blaspheming and cursing for an hour. Told he was in danger of being arrested he fled the city. (11)
It was claimed that Coppe used to preach "stark naked" and to sleep with women at night. His biographer, Ariel Hessayon, points out: "This association of nudity with sexual licence, though itself familiar from hostile accounts of adult baptism rituals." He also stated his support for the Levellers and that God himself was the "mighty Leveller" but disavowed what he described as "sword levelling". (12)
Coppe and his fellow Ranter, Laurence Clarkson, attacked Gerrard Winstanley and the Digger movement. Winstanley strongly disapproved of the Ranter's sexual ideas and condemned the "Ranting crew" and he warned fellow Diggers to steer clear of "lust of the flesh" and "the practise of Ranting". (13)
In 1649 Coppe published A Second Fiery Flying Roule: to All the Inhabitants of the Earth; Specially to the Rich Ones. It has been argued that whereas John Lilburne and Gerrard Winstanley were concerned with social humanitarianism, Coppe shared the views of William Walwyn who urged "extreme solicitousness towards the poor" and whose writings are "charged with violence and menace." (14)
The following year came A Fiery Flying Roll: A Word from the Lord to all the great ones of the Earth. In this pamphlet he claimed that "the Levellers (men-levellers) which is and who indeed are but shadows of most terrible, yet great and glorious good things to come". People who did not own property would have "treasure in heaven". His main message was that God, the "mighty leveller" would return to earth and punish those who did not share their wealth. Coppe argued for freedom, equality, community and universal peace. He told the wealthy that they would be punished for their lack of charity towards the poor: "The rust of your silver, I say, shall eat your flesh as it were fire... have... Howl, howl, ye nobles, howl honourable, howl ye rich men for the miseries that are coming upon you." (15) The historian, Alfred Leslie Rowse, claims that Coppe's "egalitarian Communism" was "300 years" before its time. (16)
Coppe was arrested on 8th January 1650 and orders were given to seize his "mad and blasphemous" pamphlets. On 1st February, the House of Commons ordered that all copies were to "be burnt by the Hand of the Hangman, at the New Palace Yard, at Westminster; the Exchange, in Cheapside; and at the Market Place, in Southwark". In March he was transferred to Newgate Prison on suspicion of blasphemy and treason against the state. (17)
Oliver Cromwell and his supporters in Parliament attempted to deal with preachers such as Coppe. It passed the Adultery Act (May 1650) that imposed the death penalty for adultery and fornication. This was followed by the Blasphemy Act (August 1650). Coppe claimed he had been informed that the acts against adultery and blasphemy "were put out because of me; thereby secretly intimating that I was guilty of the breach of them". (18) Christopher Hill, the author of The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution (1991), agrees that this legislation was an attempt to deal with the development of religious groups such as the Ranters. (19)
In September 1650, Abiezer Coppe and Laurence Clarkson, were brought before a parliamentary committee. Clarkson admitting knowing Coppe but claimed "that is all, for I have not seen him above two or three times" (20) It was said that when Coppe appeared he refused to remove his hat in deference. It is claimed he "feigned madness before the investigators" by talking to himself. (21) At other times he flung apples, pears, and nutshells about the room. The committee sent him back to Newgate and decided that there was to be no public trial. (22)
Abiezer Coppe was released from prison in July, 1651. On 23rd September he stopped from giving a sermon at Burford Church. This was probably a gesture of support for the Leveller inspired mutiny that broke out at Salisbury in May 1649. Led by Captain William Thompson, they were defeated by a large army at Burford. Thompson escaped only to be killed a few days later near the Diggers community at Wellingborough. After being imprisoned in Burford Church with the other mutineers, three other leaders, "Private Church, Corporal Perkins and Cornett Thompson", were executed by Cromwell's forces in the churchyard. (23)
Coppe appeared to be an active preacher and George Fox commented in his journal that he saw him in "a great company of ranters", at a tavern in Charing Cross in 1555. Fox, who disapproved of Coppe's sexual ideas, described him as ordering drink and tobacco. He also claimed that he was in the company of William Packer, an army officer and preacher. As Packer was serving in the government at that time and was described by Fox as one of Cromwell's most severe Major-Generals, it seems he had ceased to be a Ranter. (24)
At about this time he recanted and became a Baptist. In later life he changed his name to Abiezer Hiam and was granted an licence to practise medicine and surgery. (25)
Abiezer Coppe died on 23rd August 1672.
And now (my dear ones!) every one under the Sun, I will only point at the gate; through which I was led into that new City, new Jerusalem, and to the spirits of just men, made perfect, and to God the Judge of all. First, all my strength, my forces were utterly routed, my house I dwelt in fired; my father and mother forsook me, the wife of my bosom loathed me; mine old name was rotted, perished; and I was utterly plagued, consumed, damned, rammed, and sunk into nothing, into the bowels of the still eternity (my mother's womb) out of which I came naked, and where hereto I returned again naked. And lying a while there, rapt up in silence, at length (the body or outward form being awake all this while) I heard with my outward ear (to my apprehension) a most terrible thunderclap, and after that a second. And upon the second thunderclap, which was exceeding terrible, I saw a great body of light, like the light of the Sun, and red as fire, in the form of a drum (as it were) whereupon with exceeding trembling and amazement on the flesh, and with joy unspeakable in the spirit, I clapped my hands, and cried out, Amen, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Amen. And so lay trembling, sweating, and smoking (for the space of half an hour) at length with a loud voice (I inwardly) cried out, Lord, what wilt thou do with me? My most excellent majesty and eternal glory (in me) answered & said, Fear Not, I will take thee up into mine everlasting Kingdom. But thou shalt (first) drink a bitter cup, a bitter cup, a bitter cup. Whereupon (being filled with exceeding amazement) I was thrown into the belly of hell (and take what you can of it in these expressions, though the matter is beyond expression) I was among all the devils in hell, even in their most hideous hue.
And under all this terror, and amazement, there was a little spark of transcendent, transplendent, unspeakable glory, which survived, and sustained itself, triumphing, exulting, and exalting it self above all the fiends. And, confounding all the blackness of darkness (you must take it in these terms, for it is infinitely beyond expression.) Upon this the life was taken out of the body (for a season) and it was thus resembled, as if a man with a great brush dipped in whiting, should with one stroke wipe out, or sweep off a picture upon a wall, &c. After a while, breath and life was returned into the form again. Whereupon I saw various streams of light (in the night) which appeared to the outward eye, and immediately I saw three hearts (or three appearances) in the form of hearts, of exceeding brightness; and immediately an innumerable company of hearts, filling each corner of the room where I was. And methoughts there was variety and distinction, as if there had been several hearts, and yet most strangely unexpressably complicated or folded up in unity. I clearly saw distinction, diversity, variety, and as clearly saw all swallowed up into unity. And it hath been my song many times since, within and without, unity, universality, universality, unity, Eternal Majesty, &c. And at this vision, a most strong, glorious voice uttered these words: The spirits of just men made perfect. The spirits, &c. with whom I had as absolute, clear, full communion, and in a twofold more familiar way, than ever I had outwardly with my dearest friends and nearest relations. The visions and revelations of God and the strong hand of eternal invisible almightiness was stretched out upon me, within me, for the space of four days and nights without intermission...
But afore I proceed any further, be it known unto you, that although that excellent majesty which dwells in the writer of this Roll hath reconciled all things to himself, yet this hand which now writes never drew sword or shed one drop of any man's blood. I am free from the blood of all men, though (I say) all things are reconciled to me, the eternal God (in Him) yet sword-levelling or digging-levelling are neither of them his principle.
Both are as far from his principle as the East is from the West or the Heavens from the Earth (though, I say, reconciled to both as to all things else). And though he hath more justice, righteousness, truth and sincerity shining in those low dung holes (as they are esteemed) than in the Sun, Moon and all the stars.
3. I come not forth (in him) either with material sword or mattock, but now (in this my day) I make him my sword bearer, to brandish the sword of the Spirit, as he hath done several days and nights together through the streets of the great City.
4. And now thus saith the Lord: Though you as little endure the word levelling as you could the late slain or dead Charles (your forerunner, who is gone before you - ) and had as lief hear the devil named as hear of the Levellers (men-levellers) which is and who indeed are but shadows of most terrible, yet great and glorious good things to come.
5. Behold, behold, behold, I the eternal God, the Lord of Hosts who am that mighty leveller and coming (yea, even at the doors) to level in good earnest, to level to some purpose, to level with a witness, to level the hills with the valleys and to lay the mountains low.
Now after I had continued half a year, more or less (as a preacher in Norfolk) the Ministers began to envy me for my doctrine, it being free grace, so contrary to theirs, and that the more as their people came from their own parish to hear me... I continued preaching the Gospel and very zealous I was for obedience to the commands of Christ Jesus; which doctrine of mine converted many of my former friends and others to be baptized, and so into a Church fellowship was gathered to officiate the order of the Apostles, so that really I thought if ever I was in a true happy condition...
I took my journey into the society of those people called Seekers, who worshipped God only by prayer and preaching... As all along in this my travel I was subject to that sin, and yet as saint like, as though sin were a burden to me . . . I concluded there was none could live without sin in this world; for notwithstanding I had great knowledge in the things of God, yet I found my heart was not right to what I pretended, but full of lust and vainglory of this world...
Now after this I returned to my wife in Suffolk, and wholly bent my mind to travel up and down the country, preaching for moneys.... There was few of the clergy able to reach me in doctrine or prayer; yet notwithstanding, not being a University man, I was very often turned out of employment, that truly I speak it, I think there was not any poor soul so tossed in judgement, and for a poor livelihood, as then I was...
I took my progress into the wilderness... with many more words I affirmed that there was no sin, but as man esteemed it sin, and therefore none can be free from sin, till in purity it can be acted as no sin, for I judged that pure to me, which to dark understandings was impure, for to the pure all things, yea all acts were pure...
Abiezer Coppe was by himself with a company ranting and swearing, which I was seldom addicted to, only provine by Scripture the truth of what I acted; and indeed Solomon's writings was the original of my filthy lust, supposing I might take the same liberty as he did, not then understanding his writings was no Scripture, that I was moved to write to the world what my principle was, so brought to public view a book called The Single Eye (October 1650)... men and women came from many parts to see my face, and hear my knowledge in these things, being restless till they were made free, as then we called it. Now I being as they said, Captain of the Rant, I had most of the principal women came to my lodging for knowledge... Now in the height of this ranting, I was made still careful for moneys for my wife, only my body was given to other women: so our company increasing, I wanted for nothing that heart could desire, but at last it became a trade so common, that all the froth and scum broke forth into the height of this wickedness, yea began to be a public reproach, that I broke up my quarters, and went into the country to my wife, where I had by the way disciples plenty...
The ground of this my judgement was, God had made all things good, so nothing evil but as man judged it; for I apprehended there was no such thing as theft, cheat, or a lie, but as man made it so: for if the creature had brought this world into no propriety, as Mine and Thine, there had been no such title as theft, cheat, or a lie; for the prevention hereof Everard and Gerrard Winstanley did dig up the commons, that so all might have to live of themselves, then there had been no need of defrauding, but unity one with another.
Ranters like the former Oxford undergraduate Abiezer Coppe bristled with bitterness and sarcasm as they flailed with the upper classes. Coppe's Fiery, Flying Roll, condemned by Parliament in 1650 and burned, demanded instant parity, equality, community, universal love, universal peace, and perfect freedom. He threatened those in possession of honor, nobility, gentility, property, superfluity...
Coppe's intemperate language and reports of his scandalous conduct led to his arrest, and won him the unwelcome attentions of a parliamentary committee. In the manner of some of his utopian predecessors, he feigned madness before the investigators, muttering to himself and throwing nutshells around the room. In the course of his subsequent imprisonment he recanted, at least overtly, and ended his life in Surrey practicing medicine under the alias "Dr Higham".