Redemption and 'The Single Eye'.
One of the most amusing religious charlatans in East Anglia during the Interregnum in the mid-seventeenth century was Lawrence Clarkson. Fortunately, we know a great deal of his exploits because he eventually repented and wrote a most entertaining book about his former sinful exploits under the title of ‘The Lost Sheep found’ (1660)
During his adolescence in Norfolk, Clarkson was attracted to religious non-conformism and, during his adolescence sampled several religious sects. He had a natural talent as a preacher ‘I had great power in the things of God’, and soon obtained a position as a preacher in Pulham Market for a large salary. ‘so that I thought I was in heaven’.
He became involved in a number of scandals, including his proclivities for baptising ladies in the nude, and having sex there in the water with the prettiest ones. He was eventually arrested and jailed in Bury Jail, where he ruefully concluded that ‘there was none who could live without sin in this world’.
On getting out of Bury Jail, he became an Antinomian Itinerant preacher. Because he was intelligent, flamboyant and charismatic, he soon had a following that included several young ladies. He preached the philosophy that ‘there was no sin but as man esteemed it sin, and therefore none can be freed from sin till in purity it be acted as no sin’. He settled eventually in London, where several ladies took such a practical interpretation of his theology that Clarkson was exhausted from the effort of ‘redeeming’ them, and had to return back to Suffolk to his wife who accepted his excuse that ‘only my body was given to other women’, He left just in time, as the scandal of his bedroom antics led to an attempted arrest by the Lord Mayor of London.
The lure of the ladies proved too strong for him and he was soon in Chelmsford ‘feasting and drinking’ and enjoying the sexual favours of a Mary Middleton and Mrs Star. He then took over a Ranter Community in London. This community, like other Ranters, were given to free love, smoking ‘Spanish tobacco’ (probably cannabis) and nude dancing by ladies; ‘Doctor Paget’s maid stripped herself naked and skipped among them’. He wrote a radical tract, suggestively called ‘The Single Eye’, which was banned by Parliament. Eventually he was arrested and banished, but the sentence was never put into effect.
Clarkson’s life became yet more scandalous. He preached throughout East Anglia on redemption through sin and sexual libertinism. He added fortune-telling, magic shows, and Physic to his travelling show, assisted by a lady from Sudbury who ‘assisted me pretending she could do by witchcraft whatever she pleased’.
In the course of his life as a lecherous irresponsible fraud, he often wondered if he really had some sort of gift, and found he was able to cure sickness. He was unlike the worst of the preachers who exploited the religious turmoil of the time in that he had a wide knowledge of the scriptures and of religious thought.
Eventually, having drifted from Sect to sect, he settled down in East Anglia, decided that there was more to life than redeeming young ladies, and wrote up the story of his rather startling life.