Abiezer Coppe, 1619-72
Baptist army preacher who became one of the most notorious of the Ranters and was imprisoned without trial for his blasphemous opinions.
Abiezer Coppe was born at Warwick on 30 May 1619, the eldest son of an artisan. He attended the grammar school at Warwick and was admitted to All Souls College, Oxford, in 1636 and then to Merton College, but left university without a degree. By 1641, he was preaching in Warwick. In June 1644 Coppe was appointed chaplain to the Parliamentarian garrison that occupied Compton Wynyates in Warwickshire after its capture by Colonel Purefoy. He remained at Compton until the garrison was disbanded in June 1646 at the end of the First Civil War.
Coppe gained a reputation as a fiery Baptist preacher and boasted that he re-baptized seven thousand people in the Midlands. He was persecuted by the authorities at Coventry who imprisoned him for fourteen weeks without charge and complained about his activities to Parliament. However, Coppe's standing in the Baptist church was high: in the autumn of 1646, he acted as scribe to the influential Particular Baptist pastors William Kiffin and Hanserd Knollys when they travelled from London to Coventry to debate with local ministers.
During 1647, Coppe underwent a spiritual experience which he regarded as a divine revelation. Emerging from a four-day trance, Coppe believed himself to be transformed into "a child of God" to whom the restrictions of conventional society no longer applied. Convinced that the Apocalypse was imminent and that old conceptions of sinfulness and evil were irrelevant, he became one of the most notorious of the Ranters. Coppe and his followers alarmed the clergyman Richard Baxter and other Puritans with "filthy lascivious practices" such as "roaring, drinking, whoring, open full-mouthed swearing". Coppe was also denounced for preaching in the nude and for committing adultery.
Towards the end of 1648, Coppe believed that God commanded him to go to London where he arrived early in January 1649. According to his own account, he spent nearly two weeks going about the streets abasing himself at the feet of beggars and cripples then haranguing gentlemen with proclamations that the day of the Lord was at hand. Around 14 January, he preached at St Helen's, Bishopsgate, where he caused uproar by cursing and blaspheming from the pulpit for an hour, after which he left London.
Early in 1649, Coppe's Some Sweet Sips of Some Sprituall Wine was printed by the radical publisher Giles Calvert. Coppe also wrote a preface to Richard Coppin's Divine Teachings, a book later denounced as blasphemous. His most notorious work was A Fiery Flying Roll, written in two parts and published towards the end of 1649. Taking its theme from a divine message that appeared to the prophet Ezekiel as the roll of a book, Coppe's Fiery Flying Roll is a powerful piece of writing in a style unlike anything else written in the 17th century. Rejoicing in the overthrow of the bishops, the King and the House of Lords, Coppe warned the remaining "Great Ones of the Earth" that the coming of God, "the mighty Leveller", was imminent. The blood of the Leveller martyrs shot at Burford would be avenged, wealth and property would be overthrown and all things would be held in common.
Coppe's writing alarmed the Council of State and in December 1649 a warrant was issued for his arrest and for the seizure of his books. He was arrested in January 1650 and the House of Commons ordered all copies of A Fiery Flying Roll to be burned by the public hangman. In March 1650, Coppe was brought to London from Warwickshire and imprisoned in Newgate gaol. During the summer of 1650, Parliament passed a series of laws aimed at the suppression of adultery, profane swearing and blasphemy; Coppe claimed that these laws were passed as a direct result of his activities. On 1 October 1650, he was brought for questioning before a parliamentary committee. During his examination, Coppe apparently feigned madness: he mumbled and talked to himself when questioned and is said to have flung nutshells and fruit about the room. The committee sent him back to Newgate and he was never brought to trial.
In May 1651, Coppe petitioned Parliament and the Council of State with a recantation of his blasphemous opinions and an appeal for clemency on behalf of his wife and small children. After further examination, he was released from Newgate at the end of June 1651.
After preaching a recantation sermon, nothing more is heard of Coppe until after the Restoration. In February 1667, having changed his name to Hiam (or Higham) and become reconciled with the Baptists, he was granted a license to practise as a physician. He died at Barnes in Surrey in August 1672.
Alexander Gordon, Abiezer Coppe, DNB 1887
Ariel Hessayon, Abiezer Coppe, Oxford DNB, 2004
Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down (London 1972)
Discussion of Coppe's religious and social beliefs by Darryl Ogier