The original Adamites were early Christian heretics (some accounts say from the 2nd century, others the 4th) who believed that to achieve holiness they should return to the state of Adam and Eve – specifically, naked, unmarried and heedless of laws.
The practice reappeared in the Middle Ages. The Catholic Encyclopedia says that a 14th century group, the Picards in Bohemia, lived on an island and led a life of ‘shameful communism’.
The English Adamites first appeared in the London area – in their birthday suits, presumably – in 1641 (the year when the English episcopal system collapsed), presumably hoping that the Civil War would distract people from their eager naturism and sexual freedom.
Some unconfirmed accounts suggest the group was dominated by women – rather the opposite of modern nudist beaches.
Historian of Tudor sects David Cressy writes that they had “no spokesmen, no martyrs” and have thus been invisible to history’s radar – the only accounts we have of them are from jocular or critical pamphlets of the time.
One such says of them: “they will not hear the word preached nor have the sacrament administered to them but naked, not so much as fig-leaf breeches upon them, thinking thereby to imitate our first parents in their innocency”.
A writer named Bray claimed to have been taken in secret to an Adamite meeting, and wrote that if any of the male, er, members got overexcited, a clerk would “strike down the presumptuous flesh” with a long stick – which perhaps would have enflamed them further.
Cressy, however, believes that Bray made the whole thing up to titillate. Another account purports to relate an Adamite meeting in a park in Marylebone, with a sermon given by one Obadiah Couchman.
With no references at all, other than passing historical jokes, to the Adamites after about 1650, it’s hard to know whether they were hounded out, quietly put their clothes back on, or even didn’t exist at all except as propaganda to discredit other sectarian groups.
See also: GYMNOSOPHISTS (to come later in the series)
Strictly speaking Anabaptists were a European phenomenon, forming small communities in the 16th century Reformation focused on brotherly love, the Word of God, adult rather than infant baptism, and civil disobedience – and opposed to Catholic theology and hierarchy, as well as Calvinistic predestination.
In Britain Anabaptism was often a term used loosely to cover any group adopting radical theology, and many were persecuted under Henry VIII – the Bible translator William Tyndale, burnt at the stake, was accused of Anabaptist sympathies, for example.
Many were weavers or other craftsmen. Prominent Anabaptists of the time included the Essex tanner and preacher Thomas Putto, and Henry Hart and Joan Butcher of Kent.
The latter was sentenced to death by Bishops Ridley and Latimer whose own burning at the stake five years later in 1555 is still commemorated in Oxford.
The last two heresy burnings in England were of Anabaptists Bartholomew Legatt and Edward Wightman in 1612.
Subsequently Anabaptism was known more for its influence on other groups, such as the Baptists, of course, who we’ll meet next time.
See also: FAMILISTS (to come later in the series)