The Diggers

Southwest of London, where the road to Guilford winds its way through Kingston upon Thames, up to the Surrey downs, Gerard Winstanley walked, looking for a job.

Gerard was not happy, and to find a job in the 1640s, was not easy.

Tradesmen and innkeepers turned him down. His experience in making clothes, out in the country, did not help much. So when a farmer told him he could tend his cows, Gerard (even though he had owned a business himself) gladly accepted the offer. Out on the fields, under the spring sun and with the dandelions, Gerard had time to look and think. Both what he saw and thought made him unhappier still.

As far as one could see from the Surrey downs, the English landscape was a mosaic of variegated green—green hedges surrounding green pastures, contrasting only with the deeper green of wooded corners and great trees shading the lawns of stately manors and churchyards. One might have thought it paradise, had not one’s stomach been growling with hunger, and had no wretched crowded villages of those who worked the estates, marred the scene.

Gerard had not grown up in rags, but to rags he had come in the difficult 1640s. Years of fighting (first between Parliament and the King, then between Scottish Covenanters and the Commonwealth) had plunged England into chaos. Wages were low, food prices higher than ever, and taxes heavy. On top of that, cold, wet summers had caused harvests to fail, businesses had folded up, and ragged children everywhere had taken to the streets looking for food. 

As Gerard observed and thought about what he saw, his eyes began to open.

Gerard believed in Christ. He knew the Gospel and believed in what Christ taught the people in his day. But the more he thought about it, the more convinced he became that “Christian England” did not know Christ at all.

A handful of rich families owned England. Even though they made an ado of going to church they fought like cats and dogs, oppressed the poor, murdered the innocent, and lived in sickening luxury while thousands starved. Using the Scriptures they upheld unjust titles to claim their rank and abuse the land. All acted alike. Regardless of creed—Anglicans, Puritans, Catholics, Baptists—all struggled either to have or to keep what Gerard came to believe was the gift of God to all.

Gerard had help along his line of thought. During England’s struggles a group of people known as the “Levellers” had appeared. They taught that all men stood on the same level before God and all should have equal rights. But the Levellers still believed in the use of force to bring about a just society. They still promoted unlimited property rights, and in the English Civil War they fought like all the rest.

Out herding the cows, Gerard came to feel there must be a higher way. He felt that all the more clearly after a strange man came to England. The people said he was an Anabaptist, a “dangerous radical.” He came from the Netherlands and with the help of English friends published two books: The Way to the Peace and Settlement of these Nations, and A Way Propounded to Make the Poor in these and other Nations Happy.

In his books the Anabaptist, Pieter Cornelisz Plockhoy, described how Christ wanted people to live. With great hope and joy he wrote of the day when religious denominations would end, all followers of Christ would meet in free assemblies, and like brothers and sisters share their earthly goods. 

The more Gerard learned of this truly Christian way, the more he longed to see it in reality on English soil. Then, in a dream (or was it a vision from heaven?) he sensed the Lord telling him, “The earth shall be the common treasury of all, without respect of persons.” Soon after this he heard a message three times: “Work together. Eat bread together. Declare this all abroad.”

Gerard could no longer stand still. Now he knew he had to act as well as think. The only question was where and how.

Gerard began by telling others what he had seen and heard. His message caught like fire. Soon dozens of impoverished men and women, utterly disenchanted with society as they knew it, began to meet with him in village homes by night. Gerard wrote straight-forward articles and those who agreed with him passed copies of them around. Then, after a particularly bad harvest in 1648—followed by a long winter when multitudes went hungry and mobs of men and women fell on loads of grain on the highways—Gerard and his friends began to dig up Saint George’s hill.

Just out of Cobham in Surrey (now a fashionable London suburb) they began to dig up unused “common” land, in April 1649. For hundreds of years such “commons” had surrounded English villages. But now, for generations, they had been “common” only in name. Wealthy landowners had fenced them in as pastures and forbade access to the poor.

To explain what was happening, Gerard wrote:

First, in obedience to the Spirit, we have declared this by word of mouth [“Work together, eat bread together, declare this all abroad.”] as occasion was offered. Second, we have declared it by writing. Third, we have now begun to declare it by action, in digging up the common land, and casting in seed that we may eat our bread together in righteousness. And every one that comes to work, shall eat the fruit of their own labours, one having as much freedom in the fruit of the earth as another.

We intend to dig up St. George’s Hill and the wasteland around it. We want to sow grain and eat our bread together by the sweat of our brows. We want to make the earth a common treasury for all, both rich and poor, so that everyone born in the land may be fed by the earth—his mother that brought him forth—according to the reason that rules in creation. No one shall enclose any land for himself, but all shall work together as one man, eating together as sons of one Father and members of one family. No one shall lord it over the other, but all shall look on one another as equals in the Creation. Then our Maker may be glorified in the work of his own hands, and every one may see that he is no respecter of persons. Everyone may see that our Maker loves his whole creation equally and hates nothing but the serpent (covetousness) from which comes selfish imagination, pride, envy, hypocrisy, uncleanness, and all seeking of ease and honour for the flesh. It is covetousness that fights against the Spirit and Reason that made all things. And covetousness is the corruption, the curse, the devil, the father of lies, the death and bondage, the serpent and dragon that creation is to be delivered from.[1]

With great enthusiasm around forty “Diggers” (the name by which they soon became known) joined Gerard Winstanley and William Everard to set an example for England’s people. Committed to stop fighting and to work for peace, they set up tents and planted parsnips, carrots and beans. In the meantime, their ideas spread.

Gerard and his friends wanted nothing more than to return to God’s original order. “In the beginning,” they believed, “God made all men were alike. There were no princes, and for that reason, no bonds or servants. Those evils came through the greed of proud lords and crafty lawyers—rich thieves who make laws and hang poor men for stealing, after first having robbed them of all their maintenance.”

Not only did Gerard feel the poor should work together and for one another’s good. He felt they should stop working for those who unlawfully claimed what God had not given them. He wrote:  

Poor people should not hire themselves out to landlords, or to any who are lifted up above others, for by doing so they lift up tyrants and Tyranny. Rather, by refusing to work for them, they may help to pull them down.

The one who works for another, either for wages, or to pay him rent, works unrighteously, and lifts up the curse. But those who work and eat together, making the earth a common treasury, join hands with Christ. They lift creation up from bondage, and restore all things.

Gerard and his friends read the Scriptures eagerly, not as they had been taught to read and interpret them, but simply to find out what they said. The more they read, the more the stories of the Bible filled them with amazement. Gerard wrote:

If you look through the earth you will see that landlords, teachers, and rulers, are oppressors, murderers, and thieves. But it was not so from the beginning. This is one reason for our digging and working the earth together. We want to work in righteousness and lift up creation out of its bondage. If we should still have landlords among us we could not work in righteousness for we would still lift up the curse and tread down creation, dishonour the Spirit of universal liberty, and hinder the work of restoration.

Second, it was shown to us by a vision that the place for us to begin digging was St. George’s hill, and that here we should eat our Bread together by righteous labour, and the sweat of our brows. Even though this piece of land, from a human point of view, is very barren, we trust the Spirit for a blessing. We trust that not only this common land or heath should be taken in and manured by the people, but that all the commons and wastelands in England and in the whole world shall be taken in by the people in righteousness—people who refuse to own propriety and who take the earth to be a common treasury for all, as originally intended.

Third, it has been shown to us that all prophecies concerning the calling of the Jews, the restoration of Israel, and the making of that people the heirs of the whole earth, point to this work of making the earth a common treasury. You may read them for yourself in Ezekiel 24: 26, 27, Jeremiah 33: 7-12, Isaiah 49: 17-18, Zechariah 8: 4-12, Daniel 2:44-45, and 7:27, Hosea 14:5, and 6:7, Joel 2: 26-27, Amos 9: 8-15, Obadiah 17-21, Micah 5: 7-15, Habakkuk 2:6-8, and 13-14, Genesis 18:18, Romans 11:15, Zephaniah 3, and Zechariah 14: 9.

We also see when the Son of Man departed and his Spirit fell on the Apostles and Brethren in Jerusalem, that rich men sold their possessions and gave to the poor and no one said anything he possessed was his own, for they had all things common (Acts 4: 32). This community was suppressed by covetous proud flesh, that is, by the powers that ruled the world. Then, for a time, times and dividing of time—or for 42 months, or three and a half days, all of which stand for the same period—the righteous Father suffered himself to be suppressed. But now we have come to the half day and the Spirit of Christ—that is, the Spirit of universal community and freedom—has risen, and is rising, and will rise higher and higher, until the pure waters of Siloam, the wellspring of life and liberty for all creation run over A-dam[2] and flood the banks of bondage, curse, and slavery.

Studying the Scriptures, the Diggers came to see much more in the story of Adam and Eve than a simple historical event. They saw that Adam’s sin, born into all generations after him, is the power of covetousness—the urge within us to claim things for our own. “You are the man and woman who have eaten the forbidden fruit,” Gerard wrote to the English people. “And the apple they ate is nothing other than the objects of creation.” Pointing to everyone’s greedy and fallen nature, Gerard wrote, “We may see Adam every day before our eyes, walking up and down the street.”

This understanding of the fall of man led the Diggers to a new appreciation of the earth and God’s laws to govern it. Gerard wrote:

The earth is the Lord’s. That is, it belongs to the human race that is lord of creation. . . . In the beginning the great Creator Reason [the Logos, or “Word of God”] made the earth to be a common treasury. He made it to preserve beasts, birds, and fishes. He made it for the human race that was to govern creation, having dominion over everything else that lived in it. But not one word was spoken, in the beginning, about one branch of mankind ruling over another.

Every individual, male or female, is a perfect creature in its own right. The same Spirit that made the earth dwells in every man to govern it, so that every one subject to Reason, his Maker, has him to be his teacher and ruler within himself. Therefore no one needs to run after outward teachers and rulers anymore, for he does not need any man to teach him. The same anointing that ruled the Son of man teaches him all things.

But since man (the king of beasts) began to delight himself in the objects of creation more then in the Spirit of Reason and Righteousness—that Spirit that speaks through the five senses of hearing, seeing, tasting, smelling, and feeling—he fell into blindness of mind and weakness of heart. Now he runs about looking for a teacher and a ruler. Selfish imaginations have taken hold of his senses, and rule them in place of Reason. Working through covetousness, men’s selfish imaginations set some up to teach and rule over others. Thereby the Spirit is killed and man is brought into bondage. Man has fallen into greater slavery to others of his kind than the beasts of the field ever were in slavery to him. 

As a result of this, the earth that was made to be the common treasury for all (both beasts and men) has been hedged into enclosures. Many have become servants and slaves, and the earth, the common storehouse of all, is bought and sold and kept in the hands of a few. Through this the Creator is mightily dishonoured. He is made to appear as if he were a respecter of persons, delighting in the comfortable livelihoods of some, while rejoicing in the miserable poverty and straits of others. From the beginning it was not so.

In the 1640s England still suffered under an extremely inequitable system of land ownership. A few families, because of their noble status, claimed everything. They worked little and spent their time in idle luxuries. Others, no matter how hard they worked, had no chance of getting ahead. The Diggers saw this system of private ownership (“civil propriety” they called it) as a great evil. Gerard wrote:

As long as we, or any others, hold to the belief that the earth belongs to lords and landlords, and that it is not common to others as well as to them, we hold to the curse and keep creation under bondage. And as long as we accept the system of landlords and tenants, where some call the land their own and others rent it from them, or work for them for hire, we dishonour the work of creation. We make it appear as if the righteous Creator had respect of persons, forming the earth for some but not for all.

As long as we, or any others, maintain civil propriety, we consent to hold creation down in the bondage it groans under. We hinder the work of restoration and sin against the light given to us. Through fear of men we lose our peace.

The curse of civil propriety becomes apparent in those who buy and sell land, and in those who are landlords. They get what they have through oppression, murder, or theft, and all landlords live in the breach of the seventh and eighth Commandments: “Thou shalt not steal, nor kill.”

Oppression:

Through subtle craftiness and covetous wit, those who own land get the simple-hearted poor and their younger brothers[3] to work for them at low wages. Through the work of these labourers they have grown rich, for the poor by their labour lift up tyrants to rule over them.

Others, through covetous wit, have out-smarted the simple in buying and selling, and thereby enriched themselves while bringing others into poverty. Through subtle craftiness they have induced people to pay money for public use, but much of it has gone into their private purses.

Murder:

Using subtle craftiness, some pretend to keep others in safety through the power of the sword. With large payments, much free-quartering, and other booties they become rich and buy land. They become landlords, and once landlords they rise to the office of justices, rulers, and state governors. But all this is bloody and subtle thievery, made possible through a law based on covetousness. It is a breach of the seventh commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” and of the eighth commandment, “Thou shalt not steal.”

Theft:

Those who own land have stolen the earth from their fellow creatures who are as entitled to it, by the law of reason and creation, as they.

No sooner did the Diggers begin to work on St. George’s hill than excited landowners raised a cry of insurrection against them. But the Diggers had no violent intentions. Their only desire was to see Christ’s Kingdom of Heaven once more visible on earth. Gerard, after asking the question, “What need have we of imprisonment, whipping or hanging laws to bring one another into bondage?” wrote to English authorities:

We have given you the reason for our digging on St. George’s Hill in Surrey. We have done so that the Great Council [Parliament] and the army of the land may take notice that we have no intention of creating a tumult or to fight but that we only want to earn our bread by the sweat of our brows, working together in righteousness and eating the blessings of the earth in peace.

If any of you that are the great ones of the earth have been raised so delicately that you cannot work, you may at least bring your wealth into this common treasury as an offering to the work of righteousness. Then we will work for you, and you will receive as we receive. But if you refuse to do this and cry like Pharaoh, “Who is the Lord that we should obey him?” and if you oppose us, then know that he who delivered Israel from Pharaoh of old is the same power still. We trust and serve him, and we shall conquer you “not by sword or weapon, but by my Spirit saith the Lord of Hosts.”

Your ancestors seized the power to enclose land and own property, by the sword. Using the sword they first murdered their fellow creatures, and after plundering or stealing away their land, they left it to you, their children. Therefore, even though you do not personally kill or steal, yet you hold that cursed thing in your hand by the power of the sword. You justify the wicked deeds of your fathers, and that sin of your fathers shall be visited upon your heads and the heads of your children to the third and fourth generation. It shall be visited upon you until your bloody and thieving power is rooted out of the land.

In place of violence or rebellion, the Diggers looked to Christ for their example in peacefully transforming society. To the English government, Gerard wrote:

Our bodies are still in your hands, yet our spirits wait in quietness and peace. We wait on our Father for deliverance, and if he gives our blood into your hands, for you to spill, then know this: Our Father is our Almighty Captain, and . . . we are not unwilling to deliver up our blood and life in meekness to maintain universal liberty so the curse may be taken off creation.

We will not do this by force of arms. We abhor it, for it is the work of the Midianites to kill one another. But by obeying the Lord of Hosts who has revealed himself to us, and by working the earth in righteousness together, we eat our bread with the sweat of our brow. We neither give nor take hire, but working and eating together as one man, or as one house of Israel restored from bondage . . . we endeavour to lift creation up from the bondage of civil propriety it groans under.

In the Scriptures, the Diggers found many parallels to England’s difficult situation. In Cain they saw their oppressive tyrants. In Abel they found an example of defenceless suffering. Esau looked to them like their landlords and nobility, and with Jacob, the oppressed one who overcame in the end, they discovered a bond of brotherhood. Gerard wrote:

Esau, the proud and covetous man of flesh, has killed Jacob, the Spirit of meekness and righteous government in the light of Reason. . . . And this oldest son, or man of bondage, has held the earth in bondage to himself, not by a meek law of righteousness, but by subtlety and selfishness, by violence and open force. Where do wars and rumours of wars come from? And why are men so mad to destroy one another? It all comes from the holding of civil propriety, and from seeking honour, dominion, and riches—the curse under which creation groans, waiting for deliverance.

But when the earth becomes a common treasury again—as it must, for all the prophesies of Scripture and Reason are focused here in this community—and once mankind has the law of righteousness written on his heart again, all will be united in heart and mind. All enmity will cease for none will dare to seek dominion over others anymore. Neither will any dare to kill another, or desire more of the earth then another, for he that rules over, imprisons, oppresses, or kills his fellow creatures for any reason whatsoever, is a destroyer of creation and a perpetrator of the curse, walking contrary to the rule of righteousness.

Therefore you powers of the earth, or Lord Esau, the elder brother, who has taken it upon himself to rule creation, take note that your motivation is selfish covetousness and pride. You want to live in glory and ease over Jacob the meek Spirit, that is, the seed that lies hidden in and among the poor common people, or younger brother, out of whom the blessing of deliverance is to rise and spring up to all nations.

Even though you count yourself an angel of light, you shall appear in the light of the Sun to be a devil, A-dam, and the curse that creation groans under. Now the time has come for your downfall and Jacob must rise—Jacob who is the universal Spirit of love and righteousness and who shall fill the whole earth.

Oh thou Adam, thou Esau, thou Cain, thou hypocritical man of flesh, when wilt thou cease to kill thy younger brother? Surely thou must not do this great work of advancing the creation out of bondage, for thou art lost extremely, and drowned in the sea of covetousness, pride, and hardness of heart. But the blessing shall rise out of the dust thou treadest under foot—even the poor despised people, and they shall hold up salvation to this land, and to all lands, and thou shalt be ashamed.

The Diggers’ desire to live out the Kingdom of Heaven on earth went much deeper than the issue of who should own the land. Seeking the peace of Christ in whom all things consist, they turned to living in peace with the soil, the plants, and the animals in their care. “If the waste land of England were manured by her children,” Gerard wrote, “it would become in a few years the richest, the strongest and most flourishing nation in the world.”

The Diggers believed if everyone in England would use their land right, the country would have enough to feed ten times the amount of its people. They studied the best methods of fertilisation, especially the ploughing under of leguminous crops, and planted tuberculars to feed their cattle over the winter. They saved the waste from their stables to enrich the land. Among themselves they practised total equality and refused to lift their hats to anyone (even to the English General Fairfax when he came to inspect their doings). They believed God spoke through common people and saw no need for institutional “churches” or salaried clergy. Christ’s church was to them nothing other than the community of those who lived like Christ had done. 

In part because of what appeared in print about the Diggers (both their own publications and reports about them) many came to see how they lived and what they did. Some felt convicted in their hearts. Others got very angry. No one got angrier than Parson Platt, the Anglican priest who owned much of the land around Cobham and who hated Gerard Winstanley and his “squatters” with a passion.

With Parson Platt’s encouragement, the Diggers’ enemies harassed them continually. They stole tools and other belongings from St. George’s hill. They waylaid the Diggers and fell upon them unawares, nearly killing one man by striking him over the head and viciously beating a boy after stealing his clothes. Some of the defenceless Diggers they led to the Walton church where, with the sheriff looking on, they beat them and threw them into the White Lion jail.

Disguised as women, some from the surrounding area entered the Digger’s community on St. George’s hill to attack those who lived there and tear down their houses. They cut spades and hoes to pieces and pulled the Diggers’ wagons apart. They stole food and livestock and drove even the aged from their homes. But the Diggers did not give up. After being driven from St. George’s hill they began a new settlement on common land closer to Cobham. At the same time, new communities took shape at Cox Hall in Kent, Iver in Buckinghamshire, Barnet in Hertfordshire, Enfield in Middlesex, Dunstable in Bedfordshire, Bosworth in Leicestershire, and a major settlement occurred at Wellingborough in Northamptonshire.

For some time the Diggers grew in numbers and their communities survived under great opposition. More tracts appeared—among them the statement of Richard Smith, John Avery, Joseph Hitchcock, and others from Wellingborough in 1650:

We find in the Word of God that he made the earth for the use and comfort of all mankind. He set man in the earth to till and dress it, and said, “In the sweat of your brow you shall eat your bread.” We also find that God never gave it to any sort of people that they should have it all to themselves and shut out the rest. Rather, he said, “The earth hath he given to the children of men.” That is, to every man.

We find that none of God’s creatures has ever been deprived of the benefit of the earth except man himself, and it is nothing but covetousness, pride, and hardness of heart, that has brought him to this degree of degeneration.

We find in the Scriptures, in the records left by the prophets and apostles, that in the last days the oppressor and proud man shall cease. God will restore the waste places of the earth to the use and comfort of man, and none shall hurt nor destroy in all his holy mountain.[4]

Fully convinced that worldly commerce had no part in Christ’s peaceful reign, the Diggers looked forward to the time when money would pass out of existence. Gerard wrote:

Money must no longer be the god that hedges some in and others out, for money is but part of the earth. After our work of earthly community is advanced, we must make use of gold or silver as we do of other metals but not to buy or sell.[5]

Not earthly wealth, but the joy of sharing their lives in the love of Christ, inspired the    Diggers to continue even though all odds were against them. In a tract written in 1649 Gerard wrote:

That which encourages us to go on in this work is this: We find the streaming out of love in our hearts toward all, to enemies as well as friends. We would have none live from begging, in poverty, or in sorrow. Rather, we want everyone to enjoy the benefit of his work.

We have peace in our hearts and quiet rejoicing in our work, and we are filled with sweet content even though we have but a dish of roots and bread for our food.

The Diggers’ settlement at Cobham in Surrey lasted until 1651, but in the end, Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan army prevailed. Gerard Winstanley and William Everard found themselves arrested, tried, and sentenced to pay large fines. Richard Goodgroome, John Palmer, Thomas Starre, John South, William Hoggrill, John Courton, Robert Sawyer, William Taylor, Thomas Eder, Christopher Clifford, Henry Bickerstaffe, John Barker. John Taylor, and the rest of the Diggers with their wives and children “disappeared” into the surrounding countryside.

That is, the Puritans hoped they had disappeared. . . .

In retrospect, some of the Diggers’ actions appear more visionary than practical. Their hopes for the transformation of England and the world did not take grim reality into account. But their prophetic voice lingered on, generations after the community on St. George’s hill had disappeared.

Throughout England and abroad, serious minded people remembered the Diggers and wondered whether their peaceful, down-to-earth, witness against the world had not been of God. Within ten years a much greater and long-lasting movement, embodying many of the Diggers’ ideas, swept the land. It was the Society of Friends (Quakers). Stirring meetings took place in the area of Cobham and Kingston where Edward Burrough lay in jail, and where George Fox lived his last years.

Through the Quakers, and all who have struggled with them for simplicity, unity, and peace in the body of Christ, the last words of one of Gerard Winstanley’s tracts still speaks:

And here I end, having put my arm as far as my strength will go to advance righteousness. I have written. I have acted. I have peace. And now I must wait to see the Spirit do his work in the hearts of others, and whether England shall be the first land, or some other, wherein Truth shall sit down in triumph.[6]

Will we see the triumph of Truth again? That will depend on how many “Diggers” (men of action as well as words) the Lord Christ finds among us today.


[1] Winstanley, Gerard, The True Levellers Standard Advanced, or The State of Community Opened and Presented to the Sons of Men, by Beginning to Plant and Manure the Wasteland upon George-Hill, in the parish of Walton, in the County of Surrey, Giles Calvert, London, 1649. All citations are from this work, unless stated otherwise, and have been reproduced in modern English.

[2] In a play on words, Gerard spoke of Adam’s sin as the building of “a dam” between one person’s property and another.

[3] As in Biblical times, first-born sons of English families inherited all property. This left the younger brothers at a material disadvantage. But it may have worked for their spiritual good. Virtually all “seekers” and those who found their way into the “Society of Friends” during the mid-17’th century, were the younger sons of English families.

[4] From A Declaration of the Grounds and Reasons why we the Poor Inhabitants of the Town of Wellingborrow, in the County of Northampton, have begun and give consent to dig up, manure and sow Corn upon the Common, and waste ground, called Bareshanke, 1650

[5] From A Declaration from the Poor Oppressed People of England Directed to all that Call Themselves or are Called Lords of Manors, 1649

[6] From A Bill of Account of the most Remarkable Sufferings that the Diggers have met with, 1649/50

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