The “Occupy Wall Street” movement has all but faded in the public’s eye, and many of us are left scratching our heads as to why the movement failed to bring about lasting change. The media touted the Occupy Wall Street as if there had never been something like this before.
But there has.
The was a movement almost exactly like the Occupy Wall Street movement, and they were called the “Diggers,” and “Levellers.”
The Occupy Movement could learn a lot from them.
The “Diggers” are an often forgotten sect of Protestantism, and are commonly known as some of the first Christian communists. They were more than simply communists. They possessed a vision for an Christian, egalitarian community years ahead of the modern Church, or the modern Occupy movement.
The Roots Of The Diggers
To understand the Diggers’ theology and praxis, one must first understand the social unrest surrounding them. Karl Marx understood this when he wrote,
“It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.”1
The theology that the Diggers circumstances inspired did not only impact their ideals, but also their day-to-day lives as a community. The community, lead by their leader’s radical and engaging ideas, still have a voice that is still important. Secular communism has been vilified in the American psyche, and because the Diggers have been marked as such, their incredible contributions to the new and emerging church are often, but should not be, ignored.
In order to understand who the Diggers were, and why they tried to form their own utopian community lies in the group of Protestants they originally branched from. That group is the “Levellers.” The Levellers were not just a product of a leader’s theology, but also the political and social climate of the post-civil war England this burgeoning community was created during.
The English civil war was a series of three short wars from 1642 to 1651. During these years, Parliamentarians and the Royalists battled for control of the country. After many bloody battles as well as the final execution of Charles I and the exile of his son, the rule of England ended up as a protectorate under the rule of Oliver Cromwell.2
After the war, the fighting moved from the battlefield to the lecture hall, where great minds of the day debated the future of the social structures war-torn England would look forward to. Oliver Cromwell’s parliament took control, and the right to vote was granted to every male with land ownership.
One group, led by John Lilburne (1614-1657), took acceptation to this inequality. The “Levellers”, as they had become known, argued that
“wealth is not the requirement for suffrage; God’s laws and the possession of human reason give all Englishmen the right to vote.Every man born in England cannot, ought not, neither by the Law of God nor the Law of Nature, to be exempted from the choice of those who are to make laws for him to live under…God and nature hath given him this right to suffrage. He does not forfeit this right by being poor.”3
Because it was both God and nature that gave men the right to suffrage, they also argued that Englishmen “…must do away with all institutions that cannot be directly justified by divine law, then [they] must deny that common law can give a man rightful title to any parcel of English land.”4
The Levellers believed that through economic and political change, a better society could be formed, but while doing so the Levellers had only “leveled” the economic field partially. Under the leadership of John Lilburne, “…they had separated economics from politics, demanding equality only in the former…”5
The Levellers were religious sectarians, and some believed that the Levellers had bifurcated their economic beliefs from their theological beliefs. Many dissenters began to believe that political change was not enough. One of those dissenters was a man was named Gerrard Winstanley.
Gerrard Winstanley split off from the Levellers with his own group, soon named “The Diggers.” They believed that a better and more equal society could not be created within a secular framework. The truly equal society would have equality in both the political and economical lives of the state, and that state would be comprised of small theocracies. In essence, the Diggers wanted to create theocratic utopias at a community level, believing “…that when man is in the presence of God, all distinctions of a socio-economic nature lose their force, and men stand before their Creator propertyless as well as shorn of their rank.”6
Despite the masculine-dominated language of the day, the Diggers also took exception to the fact that there was a population majority of the day had been left out of the Levellers’ vision for the future. “Those who had a dependent status– laborers, servants, apprentices, beggars, and all women- were pointedly excluded from the Leveller franchise. Levellers held back from interfering with the rights attached to private property. It was the Diggers, not the Levellers, who were the proto-communists of mid-seventeenth-century England.7
The Diggers made their presence known in a dramatic way, in both word and deed. The latter was not only how the Diggers received their name, it was the praxis of their ideals. In 1648, the war-torn England farmlands provided an abysmal harvest. Because of this, food prices rose dramatically, sufficiently starving the lower classes.8
Winstanley had become dissatisfied with the mere talk of other puritan preachers, and how this talk was doing nothing for the starving poor. “It was no use, Winstanley came to decide, repeating conventional cliches, new remedies were called for.”9
The systematic starvation of the lower classes required more than words. Action needed to be taken. On April 1st, 1649, that action was taken not with a pen or sword, but with a plow. A group of men began planting crops and building homes on the public lands of St. George’s Hill. “The Diggers,” as they were quickly nicknamed, “…employed the latest agricultural techniques (planting fallow crops such as parsnips, carrots, and beans and applying manure liberally), thereby enabling them to reclaim wasteland.”10
As they were planting the crops they intended to share, they were uprooting not only their former connections with the Levellers, but the inequality England had known for as long as they could remember. These crops were not owned by anyone- they gave the fruits of the land to anyone who was in need. As it is today, planting and harvesting crops on public lands is illegal. Winstanley’s men suffered abuses at the hands of local landowners to the extent that he wrote a song about it in 1649:
Your houses they pull down, stand up now, stand up now,
Your houses they pull down, stand up now.
Your houses they pull down to fright your men in town
But the gentry must come down, and the poor shall wear the crown.
Stand up now, Diggers all.
With spades and hoes and plows, stand up now, stand up now
With spades and hoes and plows stand up now,
Your freedom to uphold, seeing Cavaliers are bold
To kill you if they could, and rights from you to hold.
Stand up now, Diggers all.11
Much in the same way Occupy-ers were thrown out of the parks, the Diggers were beaten, and had their structures burned or otherwise torn down.
The Diggers’ actions on St. George’s hill was underpinned by their theology, which is known today by a series of pamphlets written by Winstanley and others. The first pamphlet, called “The True Levellers Standard Advanced: Or, The State of Community Opened, and Presented to the Sons of Men,”12 written by Winstanley and over a dozen other contributing authors, accomplished several things. First, they successfully introduced themselves as the “True Levellers,” and second, they laid out a theological framework of how they were going to accomplish their version of utopia. It begins with a theological statement that echoed their Leveller roots:
“In the beginning of Time, the great Creator Reason, made the Earth to be a Common Treasury, to preserve Beasts, Birds, Fishes, and Man, the lord that was to govern this Creation; for Man had Domination given to him, over the Beasts, Birds, and Fishes; but not one word was spoken in the beginning, That one branch of mankind should rule over another.”
The Diggers began their existence by basically stating that the original pre-fall condition of humanity was one where no human was above another. Winstanley then wrote in another pamphlet named The New Law of Righteousness, “Therefore certainly this Adam, or first man that is spoke of, he that is within, as I have spoke of, which kills or suppresses Abel, who is the anointing.”13
From that point on, Winstanley refers to property owners as “elder brothers,” writing that “elder brother moves him to set about, to inclose parcels of the Earth into several (sic) divisions, and calls those enclosures proper or peculiar to himself.”14
Winstanley effectively rewrote the Genesis account of the fall of humanity to not be the introduction of sin, but of private property.15
In a later pamphlet, he writes …”buying and selling of Land, and the Fruits of it, one to another, is The cursed thing.”16
Even if you were not a landowner, but simply an employee of one, you shared in the hereditary sin of Adam; “The hand of the Lord shall break out upon every such hireling (sic) labourer, and you shall perish with the covetous rich men.” When sinful people die, they decay into the earth, which is where the thorns and thistles mentioned in Genesis 3:18 have come from. The battle for the souls of men was not about salvation, but about property rights. Humanity’s sin is when they seek power over others, as Winstanley writes, “…but the most conspicuous form of power over others lay in property rights, since by this means I may say to my neighbor ‘This is mine and not thine.’” The Digger theology is summarized well in an original hymn:
“The sin of property We do disdain
No one has any right to buy and sell
The earth for private gain
By theft and murder
They took the land
Now everywhere the walls
Rise up at their command.”
What, then, is the remedy for the malady of private property? The remedy was simply to dig the commons lands on St. George’s Hill.17
As stated before, the cultivation of common lands was, and still is, illegal. As should be expected, they faced great opposition from landowners and nearby residents who had them successfully brought to trial; effectively running them off of St. George’s Hill.
They then moved to nearby Cobham Manor, where they again cultivated the common lands. “For a time they prospered, but in April, 1650, a riot inspired by the neighbors destroyed their crops and houses, and the movement then appears to have collapsed.”18
Because of a faulty theology that was rejected by the puritan church and intense external pressure, the Digger movement was birthed and laid to rest before its second birthday. What, if any, eschatological impact do Winstanly and the Diggers have four centuries later? The Diggers’ community was short-lived, but their theology has longevity thanks to Winstanley’s writings. “His writings insured for him a niche in history which his actions could not achieve.”19 Theological difficulties aside, another problem with Winstanley’s work is that his ideas are not unique for their time.20 The idea of communal society was drawn from Acts, and his denial of an established church with no professional clergy was already practiced by the Quakers.21 His rewriting of the Genesis account, Winstanley’s writings were also not specific in how this ideal community should function on the ground level. Winstanly’s writings were mainly persuasive, and “…even when for persuasive purposes the premises are only implied.”22 In all of his writings, he “evidenced no clearly conceived political ideas.”((Welborn 202))
Although Winstanley and the Diggers did indeed form an early communism, they should not be considered “proto-Marxist.” Marxist communism favors a strong, centralized government, while “…he favored highly decentralized government, never really thinking in terms of anything beyond the local community.”23 Marxist communism is secular in its beliefs, but the “True Levellers” had a theological and natural order motive behind all of their praxis. Unfortunately, Winstandly eventually “…abandoned his original, mystical, Quakerish views for a magnificently expressed materialism.”24
The immediate effect of the Digger experiment was not important; in fact, Winstanley “…disappeared, [his] followers were dispersed, and the enclosures continued without pause.”25
It has later been accused that Winstanley’s writings were “revolutionary designs” cloaked in a thin veneer of theology.26
Initially Winstanley could deny this, but as the Digger community began to crumble, its weak theological and political foundations were exposed, and the designs could not hold the community together.
Although the sociological impact of the Diggers was short lived, the Church can learn from the Winstanley and his followers. Many churches claim to be a church that mirrors the first church, as written about in Acts. The Diggers tried to do the same, but built their utopian society on a half-baked theology. There are also ideals that Diggers realized long before their time. Also, much of the modern Quaker’s mystical Christianity, sympathy for the oppressed, and care for the earth, can be traced to the hillside of St. George’s. Levellers and the Diggers both fought for equality for all people, centuries before it would be realized. When the modern Church also sees the intrinsic value in humans, simply because they were human, Winstanley’s achievements will reverberate for generations to come.
- Karl Marx, the prephace to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy [↩]
- Hillerbrand, Hans J., ed. 2003. Encyclopedia of Protestantism, London:: Routledge [↩]
- Leites, Edmund. “Conscience, leisure, and learning : Locke and the Levellers.” SA. Sociological Analysis 39, no. 1 (March 1, 1978), 39} [↩]
- Ibid., 43 [↩]
- Elmen, Paul. “The Theological Basis of Digger Communism.” Church History 23, no. 3 (September 1, 1954): 217 [↩]
- Ibid., 217 [↩]
- Hillerbrand, Hans J., ed. 2003. Encyclopedia of Protestantism, s.v. “Levellers” London:: Routledge [↩]
- Elmen, 207 Called the harvest of 1648 “disastrous.” [↩]
- Lecture by Christopher Hill 24 January 1996 Kingston University http://www.kingston.ac.uk/cusp/Lectures/Hill [↩]
- Mulder, David. “The Alchemy of Revolution: Gerrard Winstanley’s Occultism and Seventeenth- Century English Communism.” American University Studies, 9, no 77 (1990) 6 [↩]
- The Digger Archives: Digger Songs http://www.diggers.org/english_diggers.htm#leve (accessed April 24, 2011) [↩]
- Gutenberg Consortia Center. http://ebooks.gutenberg.us/Renascence_Editions/digger.html (accessed April 24, 2011) [↩]
- Sabine, George ed.,The New Law of Righteousness  in The Works of Gerrard Winstanley, Ithaca, New York, 1941) 177, 182 [↩]
- Winstanley, New Law [↩]
- Elmen, 4 [↩]
- The first paragraph of his pamphlet entitled, “A Declaration from the Poor Oppressed People of England, Directed To all that call themselves, or are called, Lords of Manors, through this NATION; That have begun to cut, or that through fear and covetousness, do intend to cut down the Woods and Trees that grow upon the Commons and Waste Land.” Brevity was clearly not Winstanley’s strong suit. [↩]
- Elmen, 6 [↩]
- Welborn, 201 [↩]
- Welborn 201 [↩]
- Ibid., 202 Stating “Winstanley’s specific plans for his ideal society showed little originality.” [↩]
- Elmen, 208 [↩]
- Ibid., 208 [↩]
- Ibid., 202 [↩]
- Elmen 208 [↩]
- Elmen, 217 [↩]
- Ibid., 217 quoting Eduard Bernstein’s Cromwell and Communism [↩]