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January 1999

This was supposed to be an article on the social and political contexts and implications of religious dissent in the ‘radical reformation’. However, my research drew me towards the theory and practice of Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers. Here’s what I came up with…

Discuss the social and political contexts and implications of religious dissent in the ‘radical reformation’; give examples

The reformation of the sixteenth century is generally associated with the preachings and achievements of Luther and Calvin amongst many others. Although reluctant to leave the Catholic Church they questioned the religious authority of Rome, which had for sometime been seen to have fallen into disrepute. They promoted the idea of ‘salvation through faith’, rather than the orthodox ‘salvation through works’ and encouraged followers to read and understand the Bible, the scriptures and religious doctrines for themselves. Thereby encouraging the faithful to develop a direct knowledge of religion, rather than have the religious understandings of the church and the priesthood thrust upon them.

The reformation was radical, as the rise of Protestantism was a significant break from Catholicism and Rome within Christianity. However, the alternative churches formed by both Luther and Calvin were often reliant upon the approval and protection of those barons and princes who were both politically powerful and independent of Rome. It was, therefore, not beneficial for them to question the political hierarchy that was already in operation within society. This did not mean that they avoided politics altogether, for they supported their princely patrons and were thereby indirectly politicised and were viewed, by some, as yet another part of the establishment. Luther’s conservatism and belief in the ‘God-given’ social order, was clearly apparent, when he disapproved of the peasant uprisings in Germany. Within the strongly worded publication, Against the Thievish and Murderous Hordes of Peasants, he stated that "if the peasant is in open rebellion then he is outside the law of God." (1)

The reformation in England was somewhat different to the rest of Europe, with neither the church of Luther, nor that of Calvin, creating the type of mass euphoria seen across the Channel. Instead, the reformation was a long, slow process that began during the reign of Henry VIII, although "it was not until the close of the reign of Elizabeth I that England could be called a Protestant nation." (2) Largely orchestrated and maintained by the crown and nobility, the English reformation only really questioned the influence of Rome and, once again, sustained the established order.

Many of the ideas and arguments circulating during the reformation had been raised previous to the sixteenth century. However, the invention of printing in the previous century, and its later refinement, had made printing economically viable. The subsequent ‘printing revolution, allowed religious doctrines to be produced in bulk and, more importantly, in languages other than Latin. Self-interpretation of the Bible was a real possibility, as was the production of a flood of pamphlets containing, both old and new, interpretations of biblical text. The conservatively inclined churches of Luther and Calvin capitalised on this ‘revolution’ with overwhelming success. However, many of these new interpretations created a number of churches, sects and even autonomous individuals, whose unorthodox versions of Christianity questioned the status quo and in many cases, produced very radical political demands. This is what came to be called the radical reformation.

By the seventeenth century, the radical reformation was in its latter stages, although the intensity of new ideas and radical demands had not relented. Indeed, the seventeenth century proved to be the most traumatic and unpredictable period in English history. The established social order was in turmoil during the revolutionary decades, 1640-1660, in which the nation witnessed two civil wars, the execution of Charles I, the rise and fall of Oliver Cromwell and the restoration of the crown. A deluge of radical ideas and philosophies, that questioned the old order, accompanied these dramatic episodes. Political and religious groups such as the Fifth Monarchists, the Levellers, the Anabaptists, the Quakers and various millenarian sects, together with a number of individualist seekers and ranters, all emerged and produced pamphlets outlining their antagonisms and providing their considered solutions to the problems of the age.

One radical group that developed during this period was the Diggers, or True Levellers, whom under the guidance of Gerrard Winstanley, not only promoted their own political and economic solutions, but also embarked upon a venture of direct action. Very little is known of Winstanley before the revolutionary decades. Although originally from Wigan, by 1640 he was a thirty-one year old cloth-merchant, working in London. One of the consequences of the civil war had been an economic depression, bankrupting Winstanley and forcing him, in 1643, to move out to the country, where he lived with friends. He may have been a Baptist at some point during this period, (3) but he did not embark upon his brief literary career until 1648. The publication of The mysterie of God concerning the whole creation dealt purely with religion, providing little indication of the political radicalism that would soon develop in his writings and actions.

Winstanley’s writings reveal a mystical, pantheistic concept of religion, together with a strong anti-clerical feeling. He accused the clergy of "continually distilling their blind principles into the people, and do thereby nurse up ignorance in them." (4) Rejecting the orthodox view of God as some form of deity, that from the heavens above, that from the heavens above, looked down upon the earth, he insisted that God was to be found all around. "Know him to be the spirit and power that dwells in every man and woman; yea in every creature, according to his orbe, within the globe of creation." (5) Identifying God as the spirit of reason, he often used the term ‘reason’ as a substitute for the word God, which had too many connotations with the falsity of orthodox religion. "I have been held under darkness by that word, as I see many people are." (6) If God is reason, the father of creation, as Winstanley asserted, then to act in accordance to God is to act in a reasonable manner. To look up towards the skies or kneel down in front of various forms of iconography, such as a crucifix, in order to worship; he believed to be a futile gesture and therefore not a reasonable method of conversing with God. Winstanley insisted that to look into oneself was the only true way to find God.

One example of how the spirit of reason operates internally is through a person’s conscience. According to Winstanley, reason is the father of all creation, thereby implying that Satan is also part of reason. Our conscience is a continual battle between good and evil acted out within our own minds. It is reason that distinguishes the difference between good and evil, making us feel bad or guilty when evil is victorious. It is this pure reason "that shews thee thy wickedness…and fills thee with shame and torment." (7) These unorthodox ideas of God and Satan were accompanied by the dismissal of transcendental theories of heaven and hell. "If there be a local place of hell as the Preachers say there is…time will make it manifest, but as yet none ever came from the dead to tell men on earth, and till then, men ought to speak no more then what they know." (8) In contrast, heaven was achievable on earth, for it was a righteous society where all men consent to the law of reason. Winstanley’s writings, particularly from 1649, outline his vision of a utopian heaven on earth, its justifications and the method in which it was to be achieved.

It is very difficult to trace the source of his ideas, although various suggestions have been made. The early seventeenth century German mystic Jakob Boehme, the mystical preachers William Dell and John Saltmarsh, and the ideas of the Familists, have all been indicated as possible influences. However Perez Zagorin has not been able to find any direct evidence to prove this and believes it to be a mistake to overstate their possible similarities, "because Winstanley’s greatness lies in those ideas for which there was no contemporary parallel." (9) Winstanley insisted that all his ideas came not from reading or listening to others, particularly priests, but from an inner illumination, as the spirit of reason acted within him. Despite his claims, Winstanley incorporated biblical interpretations and mythical beliefs within his theory, albeit in a rather unorthodox, and arguably, unique manner. The myth of the Everlasting Gospel dates from at least the twelfth century and divides the history of mankind into three ages: The age of the father; the age of the son; and the age of the spirit. The idea was considered to be a heretical doctrine, although it was widely accepted at the time. Many believed that the turmoil of the civil war, and its aftermath, had proved the age of the spirit was coming, or already present. Winstanley believed that the third age had begun and enthusiastically expected "the world’s restoration through the spreading of the spirit of reason in every man." (10)

Winstanley’s religious dissent translated into a political manifesto that was, according to Christopher Hill, "much more drastic, surer and more systematic than that of any other writer during the Revolution." (11) He produced a critique of the corrupting nature, that not only rejected the ‘divine right of kings’, as many of his contemporaries had, but criticised all forms of authority: Political, economic and even the hierarchical power structure within the private household. "Every one who gets an authority into his hands tyrannizes over others…not knowing that…their fellow creatures hath an equal privilege to share them in the blessing of liberty." (12) Winstanley believed the basis of tyranny was primarily economic, for Reason had initially made the earth a common treasury for all. Land had been divided, plundered and stolen through the ‘power of the sword’ and the deceit of "selfish imaginations…(that) did set up one man to teach and rule over another. And thereby…man was brought into bondage." (13)

The righteous society took the form of a utopian communism (14) where man, directed, not by leaders, but only by the true power of pure reason, "dares not trespass against his fellow creatures, but will do as he would be done unto." (15) In effect, "Reason tells him is thy neighbour hungry and naked today, do thou feed him and clothe him, it may be thy case tomorrow and then he will be ready to help thee." (16) This charitable attitude is reinforced by a communal attitude to work, with neither man, nor woman claiming "This is my work that is yours, But every one shall put to their hands to till the earth and bring up cattle…when a man hath need for corn or cattle, take from the next store-house he meets with. There shall be no buying and selling, no fairs or markets, but the whole earth shall be a common treasury for every man." (17) Winstanley saw no need for punishment once private property had been abolished, for it was only necessary whilst the mentality that labelled property as either ‘Mine or Thine’ remained. This type of mentality had, he believed, caused nothing but misery, "For first, it hath occasioned people to steal one from another. Secondly, it hath made laws to hang those that did steal. It tempts people to do an evil action and then kills them for doing it." (18) His condemnation of capital punishment was universal, based on the purely ethical argument that "execution for murder would be murder." (19) Similarly, with the abolition of private property, there would be no need for agencies, whose only purpose, was to create and uphold laws intended to sustain the present property relations and keep the poor in subservience. These included magistrates and lawyers, the penal service and even government itself.

Winstanley claimed that he spoke "for and in behalf of all the poor oppressed people of England and the whole world", (20) but he was just as much a man of action, as of words. His blueprint of the ideal society was accompanied by the method in which it was to be achieved. He saw that the poor were kept in perpetual poverty, slaving themselves to enrich the wealthy, whilst at the same time, at least one third (21) of the land in England lay unused as common wasteland. His solution was for the poor to become self-sufficient, by digging and cultivating the wasteland, for all "men had an equal freedom to till the earth". (22) Thereby breaking their bondage, utilising the wasteland and ensuring that the earth really would become ‘a common treasury for all’. This was a revolutionary programme, although, Winstanley insisted, that the transformation towards the righteous society could be achieved peacefully. The occupation of the wastelands, adequately cultivated, would provide the poor with a sustainable livelihood, that meant they would no longer have to labour on the estates of the nobility. These large estates, without proper and regular maintenance, would eventually have to be given up by the lords of the manor, who could not possibly maintain such an excess of land alone, or fall into decay. Either way, there was no necessity for an uprising or the seizure of established estates. The poor, within whom the spirit was strongest, would begin the transformation and would eventually be joined by the rich when "the Spirit in you make you cast up your Lands and Goods." (23)

1649 was a momentous year in English history: January saw the trial and execution of Charles I; in March, kingship was abolished; and in May, the Commonwealth was established. The year also proved monumental for Gerrard Winstanley, who attempted to put the culmination of his radical views into practice. On the first Sunday in April of that year, he went to St. George’s Hill, near Walton-upon-Thames, with around forty others, to begin cultivating the wasteland. Earlier in January 1649, Winstanley had announced his intentions in The New Law of Righteousness and was waiting for "when the Lord doth shew unto me the place and manner, how He will have us what are called common people to manure and work upon the common lands". (24) One can assume that St. George’s Hill was chosen as the location from another illumination and there was probably some significance for the work to begin on a Sunday, the traditional Christian day of rest.

This small band of men, women and children lived a communal lifestyle, equally sharing in both the workload and the product of their labour. Winstanley prophesised, that although their community was initially very small, it’s number would rapidly expand to thousands and spread throughout England. In his more optimistic moments, he rather naively predicted that this form of lifestyle would encompass the globe. Although Winstanley must have been dismayed when the local labourers declined his invitations to join the community, he must have been shocked by the amount of opposition that his actions would evoke. Hostility from the local clergy and landlords was somewhat predictable, although not to the degree in which it took shape. The campaign against the Diggers was relentless, with their crops being trodden under foot, their seedlings uprooted and their cattle driven away. Legal action was taken with fines inflicted by the magistrates, despite the fact that the Diggers were evidently poor and attempting to be self-sufficient. The worse hostility was, however, the violence inflicted upon them by hired thugs, who mercilessly beat them and burnt, or tore down, their huts and dwellings.

Throughout this period, the Diggers refused to be provoked into violence and endured their consistent persecution, remaining true to their non-violent beliefs. At one point General Fairfax, Commander-in-Chief of the New Model Army, was sent to investigate, and possibly break up, the Digger commune. This may have been to appease the local landlords, but Fairfax failed to intimidate Winstanley and actually had a number of amicable conversations with him, despite Winstanley’s refusal to remove his hat in his presence. (25) However, Fairfax soon felt it necessary to withdraw the army "when a number of them (soldiers) showed evident interest in the Digger doctrine." (26)

Apart from cultivating the earth, the Diggers composed and produced a steady stream of pamphlets, explaining their actions and encouraging others to follow their example. It is not known exactly how many Digger communities were set up throughout England during this period, although none survived any longer than the one on St. George’s Hill. After nearly a full year of persecution and harassment, the Diggers "abandoned their attempt to win England to agrarian communism by the power of example." (27) Despite this major setback, Winstanley continued to issue pamphlets, although his enthusiasm and libertarian outlook had waned considerably. In 1652, he issued his last, and longest, work, The Law of Freedom in a Platform, or True Magistracy Restored. Disillusioned from his experience on St. George’s Hill and in, what can only, be described as an act of true desperation, or profound naivety, Winstanley addressed this work directly to Cromwell. The future Lord Protector appeared to be Winstanley’s final hope for the implementation of his political radicalism.

The Law of Freedom was a well-written, but moderate, account of Winstanley’s ideals, including a revised plan for their execution. There were, however, a number of declarations that directly conflicted with his previous writings. Government was now seen as "a wise and free ordering of the earth…by observation of particular laws and rules, so that all the inhabitants may live peacefully in plenty and in freedom." (28) Criminals were to be reformed by ‘taskmasters’ and have sanctions imposed upon them, however, Winstanley had changed his view on the death penalty. He now suggested its use "for murder, buying and selling, rape or following the trade of lawyer or parson." (29) He also proposed the need for a popular militia and annually elected magistrates, in order to enforce the law. With so many of his, previously fundamental, beliefs seemingly reversed, Winstanley was, according to Peter Marshall, at his lowest ebb. (30) Unsurprisingly, Cromwell ignored Winstanley’s suggestions and after 1652, Winstanley slipped away into obscurity, so much so, that the date and place of his death still remain a mystery.

Winstanley’s political thought largely fell on deaf ears during his lifetime and was continually overlooked until the end of the nineteenth century. At that point, his communist ideals attracted the attention of various Marxists, who tried to claim him as an ideological ancestor. However, if parallels are to be made between Winstanley’s thought and modern ideologies, I believe he is part of the long line of anarchist thinkers, particularly those of the nineteenth century. The idea that heaven is achievable on earth through following the internal dictates of God, or reason, is not too dissimilar to the ideas expressed in Leo Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God is within You (1894). Winstanley’s hostility towards private property, the corrupting nature of authority and his explanation of how these two concepts interconnect, appear to anticipate the writings of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the first self-proclaimed anarchist. Winstanley’s vision of the future righteous society had no need for government or rulers; commerce was to be abolished, with work and the resulting products to be shared equally. This appears almost identical to the anarchist-communist society envisioned by Peter Kropotkin in Mutual Aid (1902). Although possibly the clearest indication of Winstanley’s anarchism lies in his declaration for, and participation in, direct action. Anarchists have traditionally favoured this individual, and collective, form of protest. Allowing them to avoid the corruptive nature of more conventional political practice, whilst simultaneously forwarding their libertarian principles. The action on St. George’s Hill, must be seen as an archetypal example of this political tactic.

 

 

  1. Martin Luther – Against the Thievish and Murderous Hordes of Peasants quoted in Vivian Green – THE EUROPEAN REFORMATION p.23
  2. Vivian Green – op. cit. p.46
  3. See Perez Zagorin – A HISTORY OF POLITICAL THOUGHT IN THE ENGLISH REVOLUTION p.43
  4. Gerrard Winstanley quoted in Christopher Hill – THE WORLD TURNED UPSIDE DOWN p. 140
  5. Gerrard Winstanley – The saints paradise (1648) quoted in Perez Zagorin – op. cit. p. 45
  6. Christopher Hill – op. cit. p.141
  7. Gerrard Winstanley – The saints paradise (1648) quoted in Perez Zagorin – op. cit. p. 45
  8. Gerrard Winstanley – The New Law of Righteousness (1649) quoted in Perez Zagorin – op. cit. p. 49
  9. Perez Zagorin – op. cit. p.46
  10. Gerrard Winstanley – The saints paradise (1648) quoted in Perez Zagorin – op. cit. p. 45
  11. Christopher Hill – op. cit. p.140
  12. Gerrard Winstanley – The New Law of Righteousness (1649) quoted in George Woodcock – ANARCHISM p.43
  13. Gerrard Winstanley quoted in Christopher Hill – op. cit. p.132
  14. Utopian Communism is Perez Zagorin’s terminology.
  15. Quoted in George Woodcock – ANARCHISM p.43 Woodcock does not give the title of Winstanley’s work from which this is taken, but the subject matter indicates either The New Law of Righteousness (1649) or more probably, The saints paradise (1648).
  16. George Woodcock – op. cit. p.43
  17. George Woodcock – op. cit. p.44
  18. George Woodcock – op. cit. p.44
  19. Peter Marshall – DEMANDING THE IMPOSSIBLE: A HISTORY OF ANARCHISM p.99
  20. Gerrard Winstanley – A watch-word to the city of London and the armie (1649) quoted in Peter Marshall – op. cit. p.98
  21. This figure differs from book to book; George Woodcock suggests two thirds.
  22. Gerrard Winstanley – The New Law of Righteousness (1649) quoted in Perez Zagorin – op. cit. p. 48
  23. Gerrard Winstanley – A watch-word to the city of London and the armie (1649) quoted in Perez Zagorin – op. cit. p. 50
  24. Gerrard Winstanley – The New Law of Righteousness (1649) quoted in George Woodcock – ANARCHISM p.45
  25. This was a common form of social protest. See Christopher Hill – THE WORLD TURNED UPSIDE DOWN pp.246-7
  26. George Woodcock – op. cit. p.45
  27. George Woodcock – op. cit. p.45
  28. Gerrard Winstanley – The Law of Freedom in a Platform, or True Magistracy Restored (1652) quoted in Peter Marshall – op. cit. p.100
  29. Peter Marshall - op. cit. p.101
  30. Peter Marshall - op. cit. p.101

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

Vivian Green

THE EUROPEAN REFORMATION

(Sutton Publishing, 1998)

Christopher Hill

THE WORLD TURNED UPSIDE DOWN

(Penguin Books, 1991)

THE ENGLISH BIBLE AND THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY REVOLUTION

(Penguin Books, 1994)

LIBERTY AGAINST THE LAW

(Penguin Books, 1996)

Peter Marshall

DEMANDING THE IMPOSSIBLE: A HISTORY OF ANARCHISM

(Fontana Press, 1993)

George Woodcock

ANARCHISM

(Pelican Books, 1963)

Perez Zagorin

A HISTORY OF POLITICAL THOUGHT IN THE ENGLISH REVOLUTION

(Thoemmes Press, 1997)

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