Also known as Lawrence Clarkson, Laurence Claxton was a Ranter 'leader', if a group as vague as the Ranters can be said to have a leader.
He was born in Preston, Lancashire and served in the New Model Army until 1649. Despite being raised by Puritans (who were, ten years earlier, religious radicals themselves), he belonged to various radical groups such as the Baptists, Seekers, Ranters and Muggletonians. He also published a pamphlet in 1647 which was very Leveller-esque: 'A Generall Charge or Impeachment of High Treason, in the name of Justice Equity, against the Communality of England. However, he is best known in his capacity as Captain of the Rant.
Clarkson was one of the more infamous Ranters, and one of the best known; in 1650, Ranters were also known as Coppinites (after Abiezer Coppe) and Claxtonians. While a Ranter, he was pantheistic, claiming that God existed in all living things and matter. He did not believe in an external heaven or hell, or in a physical resurrection of humans after death. This was a fairly common Ranter belief, and one which led to them being labelled atheists.
It is Clarkson's antinomianism for which he is most infamous: unlike Abiezer Coppe, who is also known for ideas of millenarianism and equality, and Joseph Salmon who was best known for pantheism, Claxton was best known for his sexual activities. He claims to move from "one maid of pretty knowledge, who with my doctrine was affected"1 to another. To his credit, he claims to have been "careful for moneys for my wife"1 and resisted when "Dr. Paget's maid stripped herself naked"1.
Clarkson, like other Ranters, claimed a theological basis for this behaviour:
"None can be free from sin till in purity it be acted as no sin, for I judged that pure to me which to a dark understanding was impure: for to the pure all things, yea all acts were pure."1
Clarkson's testimony of his behaviour (rather than earlier published pamphlets of his ideas) should be taken with a pinch of salt, however. Much of it comes from his autobiography, The Lost Sheep Found. This was published after he had been arrested under the Blasphemy Act in 1650; while sentenced to banishment, this sentence was never carried out, suggesting that Clarkson recanted rather quickly. As with Abiezer Coppe's recantation (the name of which escapes me at present), it is likely that Clarkson exaggerated his exploits as a Ranter, in order to be seen to abandon something terribly sinful and cultish, rather than the ramshackle and disparate movement other sources suggest the Ranters to be. This tallies with the fact that most of the sources suggesting that the Ranters were either terribly libertine or terribly organised were published by their enemies. We do know, however, that he believed in pantheism and antinomianisn, and had Leveller ideas about equality.
Following his arrest and release, Clarkson was converted to Muggletonianism by John Reeve, also a former Ranter. He continued to recant his Ranterism, complaining in 1659 about 'ranting devils' who thought that, for them, 'sin is no sin'1. A little pointless, since the Ranter movement was essentially broken by 1651, but at least he stuck to his story.
'The World Turned Upside Down
' by Christopher Hill