Christopher Hill’s Bible (Part 2): The Radical Bible


February 4, 2016 by Harnessing Chaos

[Part 1 available here. Part 3 available here. Part 4 available here. All Hill posts based on the chapter, ‘Christopher Hill’s World Turned Upside Down’, in Crossley, Harnessing Chaos: The Bible in English Political Discourse since 1968 (2014, new edition coming soon)]

Hill’s Nonconformist background remained present in his publications, from the significance of Puritanism in the development of bourgeois thought to his interest in seventeenth-century radicals. 2954372._uy200_.jpgWhat typically gets overlooked in studies of Hill (though there are exceptions like Penelope Corfield), is his constant interest in the role of the Bible. Hill’s interest is typically in what we might call the Radical Bible (the Bible roughly equated with socialism).

While ostensibly about the seventeenth century, it is fair to say that The World Turned Upside Down (1972) was a significant work in the perpetuation of contemporary understandings of the Radical Bible which typically trace their lineage through Winstanley and groups like the Diggers. Hill would also pick up on work which foregrounded the use of Numbers 35.33 (cf. Judges 9.24) in the regicide (‘So ye shall not pollute the land wherein ye are: for blood it defileth the land: and the land cannot be cleansed of the blood that is shed therein, but by the blood of him that shed it’).

Hill would also write The English Bible and the Seventeenth-Century Revolution (1993). This book is particularly striking because of its focus is on the Radical Bible, despite showing awareness of other uses of the Bible. 51jpt5_sczl._sy445_ql70_.jpgThe opening of the book explains that it will be an assessment of ‘the part played by the Bible in the lives of Englishmen and women during England’s revolutionary seventeenth century’. He is, of course, aware of different sides using the Bible, though ‘the more traditional views of Catholics and high Anglicans seemed less relevant’ (p. vii). Similarly towards the end of the book, he added: ‘So far I have been discussing mainly radical uses of the Bible during the revolutionary decades. But there had always been more conservative readings’ (p. 397). The book also has two telling appendices: ‘God the Highwayman’ and ‘A Note on Liberation Theology’. The endorsement, ‘Hill misses nothing’ (Guardian), may or may not be fair but it is certainly clear which kind of Bible Hill wanted to emphasise.

The World Turned Upside Down likewise foregrounds the Radical Bible and has all the expected themes (e.g. prophets versus kings, egalitarianism, land redistribution, freedom of conscience). If this were in any doubt, the epigraph contains three biblical quotations (King James Version) concerning the world turned upside down (Psalm 146.9; Isaiah 24.1-2, 20-21), including Acts 17.1-6, which was a personal favourite of Hill and which he read as a subversive truth claim and a message of egalitarianism (so Corfield). The regular treatment of the Bible in The World Turned Upside Down typically goes something like this: an introduction to some general issue relating to the use of the Bible before a conclusion (often at the end of a paragraph) about how politically radical this would have been in a seventeenth-century context. So, for instance (among many), compare this paragraph-concluding sentence: ‘The Bible should be used to illustrate truths of which one was already convinced: Winstanley was prepared to use Acts 4.32 to justify community of property’ (144).

There are no doubt plenty of uses of the Bible that would be deemed unusual to some, whether to the modern liberal, the modern conservative, or the modern radical. But, claimed Hill, the Millenarian Bible ought to be seen as politically radical opposition to the elites and (establishment) intellectuals. Hill also argued that radical and progressive ideas underpinned strange things like prophecy:

The idea that there was a secret traditional wisdom, Egyptian or Hermetic, to be wrung from nature, died very hard…Ordinary Bible-readers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries wanted to democratize these mysteries; to abolish mumbo-jumbo men, whether priests, lawyers or scholars. They believed, on good protestant authority, that anyone could understand God’s Word if he studied carefully enough, and if God’s grace was in him. And then the Bible could be made to reveal the key to events in his own time. (World Turned Upside Down, p. 93)

Themes relating to the Bible and radicalism are developed in his treatment of Antichrist (no definite article for Hill), a theme he was developing around the same time in Antichrist in Seventeenth-Century England (1971). Hill’s Antichrist myth was traced through medieval Europe and the Reformation but was given an anti-Anglican and anti-Royalist spin in mid-seventeenth-century England. Hill even argued that there was a kind of millenarian consensus around the fall of Antichrist and which some also though might be the beginning of the Second Coming, though soon downplayed by Hill’s emerging bourgeois Puritans. Hill’s reading of Winstanley pushed this radicalism further still, ‘seeing property itself as antichristian, embodied in covetousness or self-love’ (World Turned Upside Down, pp. 148-49).

But there were problems for Hill-the-Marxist and former Communist Party member. The democratization of the Bible, pocketable editions of English Bibles (especially the Geneva Bible and its notes), private Bible study, and the guidance of the inner light could lead to demands for salvation of the individual and individualism more generally. This ‘tension’ is reflective of Hill’s reading of the English revolution as both radical and bourgeois. It notable that when discussing potential individualism in relation to his radicals, he was keen to qualify anything that smacked of potential individualist-capitalist readings. Radical Quakers may have stressed the spirit of God as a guide to understand the Bible seriously and understand its ‘immediate personal message’ but this, Hill qualified, was a ‘radical reply’ to ‘priests and scholars’ who wanted to monopolise the Bible for the educated elite (World Turned Upside Down, p. 95). For Hill, private readings of the Bible could lead to what he called ‘mere absolute individualism’. As a (former Party) Marxist embracing seventeenth-century radicalism, he made sure that individualism was kept in check by stressing the importance of the congregation. The congregation could test and approve interpretations and so guarantee ‘the validity of the interpretation for the given social unit’ as a check on what he telling labelled ‘individualist absurdities’ (World Turned Upside Down, ibid.).

With 1968 as a haunting presence throughout the book, capitalist ramifications is not the only issue Hill wanted to tackle in relation to radical individualism. The potential individualist threat to the Marxist establishment was, as we saw in the previous post, anarchism. In his uses of ‘anarchism’ is not always explicitly referencing the present, though the language is striking given how much anarchism was spooking figures like Hobsbawm and Adorno around the same time. The group or congregation is also functions as check against ‘mere anarchist individualism’ (World Turned Upside Down, p. 372). Recall Hill’s pejorative phrase, ‘mere absolute individualism’. Moreover, Hill immediately provided a contemporary comparison: ‘Today, in our atomized society, the appeal to the individual conscience, to the integrity of the isolated artists, is ultimately anarchistic, the extreme of illusory withdrawal from society’ (p. 372). Does this not reveal that the ghost of anarchism was lurking?

Some of the Marxist ambivalence towards 1968 and perceptions of the (re-)emergence of anarchism are found in Hill’s corrective that the ‘lunatic fringe’ of his English revolution were in fact serious thinkers and their use of the Bible was serious work of scholarship. Here the Cultural Bible became important for Hill in protecting his radicalism from such allegations.

Here we should not forget that Hill was also a major figure in Milton scholarship (more on that next time) and, along with Marvel, Milton provided points of comparison for understanding Winstanley, e.g. in his garden symbolism. images.jpegHill also argued that the use of the Bible by radicals had classical antecedents, particularly the use of stories as ‘myths’ (as understood in the ‘classical’ sense). Hill placed most emphasis on the radical interpreter as rational and scholarly. Such radicals could deny biblical infallibility and focus on close textual analysis which, Hill suggested, anticipated the later rise of critical, academic biblical scholarship. Winstanley appears to be in such a tradition for Hill but the (ultimately) Quaker interpreter, Samuel Fisher (‘a precursor of the English enlightenment’), gets a whole chapter in World Turned Upside Down (chapter 11) where we are reminded that his work was biblical criticism, ‘real scholarship’, and used ‘renaissance scholarly standards of textual criticism applied to the Bible’. And it was the serious and democratizing use of ‘the apparatus of scholarship’ by Hill’s Fisher which would challenge the establishment scholars.

The argument might be made that Hill’s reading of radical scholarly biblical interpretation in the seventeenth century was like his radical revolution in terms of long term historical development: bourgeois biblical interpretation may have become dominant in the long run but not without the help of popular radical interpretation from below. What we are also seeing happening here is that Hill’s Cultural Bible is part of Hill’s re-reading of 1968. The Cultural Bible provides the necessary protection from anything too anarchistic or too playful or too wild. Hill’s revolution from below must be radical, scholarly, and fairly serious.

Next time(s): the end of Hill’s optimism in the face of emerging Thatcherism and the English Radical Bible


5 thoughts on “Christopher Hill’s Bible (Part 2): The Radical Bible

  1. […] 1 available here, Part 2 available here. All Hill posts based on the chapter, ‘Christopher Hill’s World Turned Upside Down’, in […]


  2. […] to underestimate’ (p. 11). The English Bible and the Seventeenth-Century Revolution was, as we saw, dedicated to the Bible and radical politics but it is telling (and here it unsurprisingly echoes […]


  3. […] Christopher Hill’s Bible (Part 2): The Radical Bible […]


  4. Neo-Pelagius says:

    ‘Hill’s revolution from below must be radical, scholarly, and fairly serious.’

    Sounds good to me! Could he have conceived of the extent of atomisation that we are currently experiencing though?

    I often feel that 17th Century history and the biblically informed activism and ideas that arose during that time have been obscured, denounced, assimilated and at least temporarily neutralised. I was really annoyed when I read Hannah Arendt’s ‘On Revolution’ and she dismissed that of 17th C. Britain as being of the old order as in the fact that things revolved all the way back around to the pre-existing status quo and therefore chose to focus on France and America.

    As for George’s Hill in Surrey:

    I blame William of Orange … ?


    • Good points, NP. I don’t know how well Hill might have predicted the present but he was pretty strong on individualism in relation to capitalist development in the 1960s.

      I agree with you. While not unprecedented (and which were never always about the old status quo), it seems like the seventeenth-century civil wars produced something pretty distinct and there were clearly some radical ideas coming from below about land use. It is pretty remarkable that what is broadly remembered about the mid-seventeenth century is not only Cromwell but Cromwell the killjoy.

      It’ll be interesting to see if Corbyn or his allies refer back to Winstanley and co., including the Bible. Tony Benn certainly did and Orwell did, and Billy Bragg has, so it’s not beyond the realm of possibility…

      As for the fate of St George’s Hill, I can only repeat YouTube comments

      Liked by 1 person

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