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Gerrard Winstanley (1609 - September 10, 1676) was an English Protestant religious reformer and political activist during the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell. Winstanley was aligned with the group known as the True Levellers for their beliefs based upon Christian communism, and by their actions as Diggers because they took over public lands and dug them up to plant crops.
Gerrard Winstanley was born in Wigan, Lancashire and the son of a grocer. He moved to London as a youth where he became an apprentice and ultimately a member of the tailors' guild. The English Civil Wars, however, disrupted his business, and Winstanley was compelled to move back to his native district.
English Civil Wars
There were many factions at work during the period of the three related English civil wars. They included the Royalists who supported King Charles I; the Parliamentary forces called "Roundheads" who later emerged under the name of the New Model Army led by Oliver Cromwell; the Fifth Monarchy Men who believed in the establishment of a heavenly theocracy on earth to be led by a returning Jesus as king of kings and lord of lords; the Agitators for political egalitarian reform of government who were branded "Levellers" by their foes and who were led by Freeborn John Lilburne, and the Christian communists who called themselves the True Levellers for their beliefs, but who were branded "Diggers" because of their actions. They were led by Gerrard Winstanley. Whereas Lilburne sought to level the laws and maintain the right to the ownership of real property; Winstanley sought to level the ownership of real property itself which is why Winstanley's followers called themselves "True Levellers".
The New Law of Righteousness
Gerrard Winstanley published a tract called The New Law of Righteousness which advocated a form of Christian communism. The basis of this communistic belief came from the Book of Acts, chapter two and verses 44 and 45 which speaks of common property. Winstanley argued that "in the beginning of time God made the earth. Not one word was spoken at the beginning that one branch of mankind should rule over another, but selfish imaginations did set up one man to teach and rule over another."
Winstanley took as his basic texts the Biblical sacred history , with its affirmation that all men were descended from a common stock; the scepticism about the rulership of kings voiced in the Books of Samuel, and the New Testament's affirmations that God was no respecter of persons, and there were no masters nor slaves, Jews or Gentiles, male nor female under the New Covenant; from these and similar texts he reinterpreted Christian teaching as calling for what would later be called communism, and the abolition of property and aristocracy.
Winstanley wrote: "Seeing the common people of England by joynt consent of person and purse have caste out Charles our Norman oppressour, wee have by this victory recovered ourselves from under his Norman yoake."
His theme was rooted in ancient English radical thought. It went back at least to the days of the Peasants' Revolt (1381) led by Wat Tyler, because that is when a verse of the Lollard priest John Ball was circulated: "When Adam dolve and Evë span,
Who was then the gentleman?"
Aligning himself with a group of similarly disaffected veterans from the New Model Army, in 1649 Winstanley and his followers took over vacant or common lands in Surrey, Buckinghamshire, Kent, and Northamptonshire, and began cultivating the land and distributing the crops without charge to their followers. Local landowners took fright from the Diggers' activities and in 1650 Oliver Cromwell ordered that the Diggers be beaten and that their crops and tools be destroyed. The Digger experiment ended when these orders were carried out.
Winstanley continued to advocate the redistribution of land; and in 1652 he published another tract called The New Law of Freedom, In it he argued that the Christian basis for society is where property and wages are abolished.
In 1660 Gerrard Winstanley moved to Cobham and that is where he joined the Society of Friends, better known as the Quakers. John Lilburne who had been both exiled and then imprisoned for life also became a Quaker while in custody.
It is believed that Gerrard Winstanley later worked as a cloth merchant in London.
- The power of enclosing land and owning property was brought into the creation by your ancestors by the sword; which first did murder their fellow creatures, men, and after plunder or steal away their land, and left this land successively to you, their children. And therefore, though you did not kill or thieve, yet you hold that cursed thing in your hand by the power of the sword; and so you justify the wicked deeds of your fathers, and that sin of your fathers shall be visited upon the head of you and your children to the third and fourth generation, and longer too, till your bloody and thieving power be rooted out of the land.
- A DECLARATION FROM THE Poor oppressed People OF ENGLAND Wistanley & 44 others (1649) backup
- The True Levellers' Standard Advanced by Winstanley & 14 others (April 1649) backup
- The New Law of Freedom by Gerrard Winstanley
- The Religion of Gerrard Winstanley and Digger Communism by Donald R. Sutherland
- Gerrard Winstanley index page at the University of Montpellier
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