During the English Civil Wars, it seemed to many that the Earth’s “Great Ones” were busily destroying themselves–so the Diggers seized their moment.
"Let Israel Go Free"
Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History
Gerrard Winstanley was born on 19 October, 1609 somewhere in Wigan parish, near Manchester. His family was not exactly wealthy, but neither was he a truly poor or marginal person in his era. His father was a craftsman and Winstanley ‘prenticed his way through the ranks of the Merchant Tailor’s Company to eventually gain freeman status in the guild. He went bankrupt in 1643 during the early days of civil war, and for the next decade he worked as a manual laborer in the Surrey countryside. During the years of Leveller ascendancy, Winstanley emerged as a leader among the movement’s communistic wing. None of the Levellers fetishized property—they all recognized that power could be purchased. Mixed with the power of an absolute modern state (like that which had been in development in England for centuries and was now fully militarized under Cromwell), private wealth could become a wellspring for the accumulation of public power. While Rainsborough’s moderate Levellers believed individual property was not necessarily an evil, Winstanley’s True Levellers saw personal ownership as a pollutant for the soul. Wherever one enshrined their own interests in material existence, there was a property fetishist placing a different God before the true one. Moderates thought that people and societies should interact peacefully to establish widely accepted rules for differentiating mine and thine, but the True Levellers saw this, too, as an undue imposition on one’s fellow beings. They replied that God did not establish the rules of property and they were, therefore, not binding on individuals. The products of man—whether kingly edicts or cultural mores—need not be followed if they conflict with an individual’s interpretation of God’s word. A more personally free society would be one that levelled all artificial, man‐made distinctions between God’s children.
Our first selection declares to the great ones of the world—those lordly few—that they would not outlast the cry raised up against them. The path of power was a life lived in Antichrist, and the True Leveller message was the truly Christian message that would upturn the world. As the Diggers plunged their spades into the wastes of George’s Hill, they hoped the overturn all worldly inequalities along with it. They dug down as far as they could go, lifting up the deepest, darkest muck in the earth, pulling it up to the airy surface, allowing the proud topsoil to return once again to the bottom of the heap. Properly aerated and mixed, the soil would turn from a waste into a productive commons. So, too, our Diggers thought, must society itself be turned upside down and inside out. The top made—for a chastening amount of time at least—to occupy the bottom and the bottom allowed to breathe freely at the top. In the end, of course, all things must be levelled, made equal and productive for God’s purposes; but in the short term the earth’s great ones must either shed themselves of power and privilege or have it shorn from them. The selection ended by recognizing that virtually all valuable property (that is, land) was acquired by its current owners through histories of violence and depredation. Our second selection, therefore, opens with a more detailed account of the lordly class’ ungodly misdeeds. The “Standard” concludes with a call for all the earth’s new pharaohs to free their modern Israelites.
…First by their Oppression. They have by their subtle imaginary and covetous wit, got the plain‐hearted poor, or yonger Brethren to work for them, for small wages, and by their work have got a great increase; for the poor by their labour lifts up Tyrants to rule over them; or else by their covetous wit, they have out‐reached the plain‐hearted in Buying and Selling, and thereby inriched themselves, but impoverished others: or else by their subtile wit, having been a lifter up into places of Trust, have inforced people to pay Money for a Publick use, but have divided much of it into their private purses; and so have got it by Oppression.
The True Levellers Standard Advanced (1649)
Then Secondly for Murther; They have by subtile wit and power, pretended to preserve a people in safety by the power of the Sword; and what by large Pay, much Free‐quarter, and other Booties, which they call their own, they get much Monies, and with this they buy Land, and become landlords; and if once Landlords, then they rise to be Justices, Rulers and State Governours, as experience shewes: But all this is but a bloudy and subtile Theevery, countenanced by a Law that Covetousness made; and is a breach of the Seventh Commandement, Thou shalt not kill.
And likewise Thirdly a breach of the Eighth Commandment, Thou shalt not steal; but these landlords have thus stoln the Earth from their fellow Creatures, that have an equal share with them, by the Law of Reason and Creation, as well as they.
And such as there rise up to be rich in the objects of the Earth; then by their plausible words of flattery to the plain‐hearted people, whom they deceive, and that lies under confusion and blindness: They are lifted up to be Teachers, Rulers and Law makers over them that lifted them up; as if the Earth were made peculiarly for them, and not for others weal: If you cast your eye a little backward, you shall see, That this outward Teaching and Ruling power, is the Babylonish yoke laid upon Israel of old, under Nebuchadnezzar; and so Successively from that time, the Conquering Enemy, have still laid these yokes upon Israel to keep Jacob down: And the last enslaving Conquest which the Enemy got over Israel, was the Norman over England; and from that time, Kings, Lords, Judges, Justices, Bayliffs, and the violent bitter people that are Free‐holders, are and have been Successively. The Norman Bastard William himself, his Colonels, Captains, inferiour Officers, and Common Souldiers, who still are from that time to this day in pursuite of that victory, Imprisoning, Robbing, and killing the poor enslaved English Israelites.
And this appears cleer, For when any Trustee or State Officer is to be Chosen, The Free‐holders or Landlords must be the Chusers, who are the Norman Common Souldiers, spred abroad in the Land; And who must be Chosen? but some very rich man, who is the Successor of the Norman Colonels or high Officers. And to what end have they been thus Chosen? but to Establish that Norman power the more forcibly over the enslaved English, and to beat them down again, when as they gather heart to seek for Liberty.
For what are all those Binding and Restraining Laws that have been made from one Age to another since that Conquest, and are still upheld by Furie over the People? I say, What are they? but the Cords, Bands, Manacles, and Yokes that the enslaved English, like Newgate Prisoners, wears upon their hands and legs as they walk the streets; by which those Norman Oppressors, and these their Successors from Age to Age have enslaved the poor People by, killed their yonger Brother, and would not suffer Jacob to arise.
O what mighty Delusion, do you, who are the powers of England live in! That while you pretend to throw down that Norman yoke, and Babylonish power, and have promised to make the groaning people of England a Free People; yet you still lift up that Norman yoke, and slavish Tyranny, and holds the People as much in Bondage, as the Bastard Conquerour himself, and his Councel of War.
Take notice, That England is not a Free People, till the Poor that have no land, have a free allowance to dig and labour the Commons, and so live as Comfortably as the Landlords that live in their Inclosures. For the People have not laid out their Monies, and shed their Bloud, that their Landlords, the Norman power, should still have its liberty and freedom to rule in Tyranny in his Lords, landlords, Judges, Justices, Bayliffs, and State Servants; but that the Oppressed might be set Free, Prison doors opened, and the Poor peoples hearts comforted by an universal Consent of making the Earth a Common Treasury, that they may live together as one House of Israel, united in brotherly love into one Spirit; and having a comfortable livelihood in the Community of one Earth their Mother.
If you look through the Earth, you shall see, That the landlords, Teachers and Rulers, are Oppressors, Murtherers, and Theeves in this manner; But it was not thus from the Beginning. And this is one Reason of our digging and labouring the Earth one with another, That we might work in righteousness and lift up the Creation from bondage: For so long as we own Landlords in this Corrupt Settlement, we cannot work in righteousness; for we should still lift up the Curse, and tread down the Creation, dishonour the Spirit of universal Liberty, and hinder the work of Restauration.
Secondly, In that we begin to Digge upon George‐Hill, to eate our Bread together by righteous labour, and sweat of our browes; It was shewed us by Vision in Dreams, and out of Dreams, That that should be the Place we should begin upon. And though that Earth in view of Flesh, be very barren, yet we should trust the Spirit for a blessing. And that not only this Common, or Heath should be taken in and Manured by the People, but all the Commons and waste Ground in England and in the whole World, shall be taken in by the People in righteousness, not owning any Propriety; but taking the Earth to be a Common Treasury, as it was first made for all.
Thirdly, It is shewed us, That all the Prophecies, Visions and Revelations of Scriptures, of Prophets, and Apostles, concerning the calling of the Jews, the Restauration of Israel and making of that People, the Inheritors of the whole Earth doth all seat themselves in this Work of making the Earth Common Treasury; as you may read Ezek.24.26,27& Jer.33.7. to 12. Esay. 49.17,18, &c. Zach. 8. from 9 to 12. Dan.2.44,45. Dan. 7.27. Hos.14.5,6,7. Joel 2.26,27. Amos 9. from 8 to the end, Obad.17.18.21. Mic.5. from 7 to the end, Hab. 2.6,7,8.13,14. Gen.18.18. Rom.11.15. Zeph. 3. & Zach.14.9.
And when the Son of man, was gone from the Apostles, his Spirit descended upon the Apostles and Brethren, as they were waiting at Jerusalem; and the Rich men sold their Possessions and gave part to the Poor; and no man said, That ought that he possessed was his own, for they had all things Common, Act. 4. 32. Now this Community was supprest by covetous proud flesh, which was the powers that ruled the world; and the righteous Father suffered himself thus to be suppressed for a time, times and dividing of time, or for 42 months, or for three dayes and half, which are all but one and the same term of time: And the world is now come to the half day; and the Spirit of Christ, which is the Spirit of universal Community and Freedom is risen, and is rising, and will rise higher and higher, till those pure waters of Shiloe, the Well Springs of Life and Liberty to the whole Creation, do over‐run A‐dam, and crown those banks of Bondage, Curse, and Slavery.
Fourthly, This work to make the Earth a Common Treasury, was shewed us by Voice in Trance, and out of Trance, which words were these,
Work together, Eate Bread together, Declare this all abroad.
Which Voice, was heard Three times: And in Obedience to the Spirit, Wee have Declared this by Word of mouth, as occasion was offered. Secondly, We have declared it by writing, which others may reade. Thirdly, We have now begun to declare it by Action, in Diging up the Common Land, and casting in Seed, that we may eat our Bread together in righteousness. Anbd every one that comes to work, shall eate the Fruit of their own labours, one having as much Freedom in the Fruit of the Earth as another. Another Voice that was heard was this,
Israel shall neither take Hire, not give Hire.
And if so, the certainly none shall say, This is my Land, work for me, and I’le give you Wages: For The Earth is the Lords, that is, Mans, who is Lord of the Creation, in every branch of mankind; for as divers members of our human bodies, make but one body perfect; so every particular man is but a member or branch of mankind; and mankind living in the light and obedience to Reason, the King of righteousness, is thereby made a fit and compleat Lord of the Creation. And the whole Earth is this Lords Man, subject to the Spirit. And not the Inheritance of covetous proud [Flesh], that is selfish, and enmity to the Spirit.
And if the Earth be not peculiar to any one branch, or branches of mankind, but the Inheritance of all; Then is it Free and Common for all, to work together, and eate together. And truly, you Counsellors and Powers of the Earth, know this, That wheresoever there is a People, thus united by Common Community of livelihood into Oneness, it will become the strongest Land in the World, for then they will be as one man to defend their Inheritance; and Salvation (which is Liberty and Peace) is the Walls and Bulwarks of that Land or City.
Wheras on the otherside, pleading for Propriety and single Interest, divides the People of a land, and the whole world into Parties, and is the cause of all Wars, and Bloud‐shed, and Contention everywhere.
Another Voice that was heard in a Trance, was this,
Whosoever labours the Earth for any Person or Persons, that are lifted up to rule over others, and doth not look upon themselves, as Equal to others in the Creation: The hand of the Lord shall be upon that Labourer: I the Lord have spoke it, and I will do it.
This Declares likewise to all Laborers, or such as are called Poor people, that they shall not dare to work for Hire, for any Landlord, or for any that is lifted up above others; for by their labours, they have lifted up Tyrants and Tyranny; and by denying to labor for Hire, they shall pull them down again. He that works for another, either for Wages, or to pay him Rent, works unrighteously, and still lifts up the Curse; but they that are resolved to work and eat together, making the Earth a Common Treasury, doth joyn hands with Christ, to lift up the Creation from Bondage, and restores all things from the Curse.
Fiftly, That which does incourage us to go on in this work, is this; We find the streaming out of Love in our hearts towards all; to enemies as well as friends; we would have none live in Beggery, Poverty, or Sorrow, but that every one might enjoy the benefit of his creation: we have peace in our hearts, and quiet rejoycing in our work, and filled with sweet content, though we have but a dish of roots and bread for our food.
And we are assured, that in the strength of this Spirit that hath manifested himself to us, we shall not be startled, neither at Prison nor Death, while we are about his work; and we have bin made to sit down and count what it may cost us in undertaking such a work, and we know the full sum, and are resolved to give all that we have to buy this Pearl which we see in the Field.
For by this work we are assured, and Reason makes it appear to others, that Bondage shall be removed, Tears wiped away, and all Poor people by their righteous Labours shall be relieved, and freed from Poverty and Straits; For in this work of Restoration, there will be no beggar in Israel: For surely, if there was no Beggar in literal Israel, there shall be no Beggar in Spiritual Israel the Anti‐ type, much more.
Sixtly, We have another encouragement that this work shall prosper, Because we see it to be the fulness of Time: For whereas the Son of Man, the Lamb, came in the Fulness of Time, that is, when the Powers of the World made the Earth stink every where, by oppressing others, under pretence of worshiping the Spirit rightly, by the Types and Sacrifices of Moses law; the Priests were grown so abominably Covetous and Proud, that they made the People to loath the Sacrifices, and to groan under the Burden of their Oppressing Pride.
Even so now in this Age of the World, that the Spirit is upon his Resurrection, it is likewise the Fulness of Time in a higher measure. For whereas the People generally in former times did rest upon the very observation of the Sacrifices and Types, but persecuted the very name of the Spirit; Even so now, Professors do rest upon the bare observation of Forms and Customs, and pretend to the Spirit; and as it was then, so it is now: All places stink with the abomination of Self‐seeking Teachers and Rulers: For do not I see that every one Preacheth for money, Counsels for money, and fights for money to maintain particular Interests? And none of these three that pretend to give liberty to the Creation, do give liberty to the Creation; neither can they, for they are enemies to universal liberty; So that the earth stinks with their Hypocrisie, Covetousness, Envie, sottish Ignorance, and Pride.
The common People are filled with good words from Pulpits and Councel Tables, but no good Deeds; For they wait and wait for good, and for deliverances, but none comes; While they wait for liberty, behold greater bondage comes insteed of it, and burdens, oppressions, taskmasters, from Sessions, Lawyers, Bayliffs of Hundreds, Committees, Impropriators, Clerks of Peace, and Courts of Justice, so called, does whip the People by old Popish weather‐ beaten Laws, that were excommunicate long ago by Covenants, Oaths, and Ordinances; but as yet are not cast out, but rather taken in again, to be standing pricks in our eys, and thorns in our side; Beside Free‐quartering, Plundering by some rude Souldiers, and the abounding of Taxes; which if they were equally divided among the Souldiery, and not too much bagd up in the hands of particular Officers and Trustees, there would be less complaining: Besides the horrible cheating that is in Buying and Selling, and the cruel Oppression of Landlords, and lords of Mannours, and quarter Sessions; Many that have bin good House‐keepers (as we say) cannot live, but are forced to turn Souldiers, and so to fight to uphold the Curse, or else live in great straits and beggery : O you Adams of the Earth, you have rich clothing, full Bellies, have your Honors and Ease, and you puffe at this; But know thou stout‐ hearted Pharoah, that the day of Judgement is begun, and it will reach to thee ere long; Jacob hath bin very low, but he is rising, and will rise, do the worst thou canst; and the poor people whom thou oppresses, shall be the Saviours of the land; For the blessing is rising up in them, and thou shalt be ashamed.
And thus you Powers of England, and of the whole World, we have declared our Reasons, why we have begun to dig upon George hill in Surrey. One thing I must tell you more, in the close, which I received in voce likewise at another time; and when I received it, my ey was set towards you. The words were these:
Let Israel go free.
Surely, as Israel lay 430. yeers under Pharaohs bondage, before Moses was sent to fetch them out: Even so Israel (the Elect Spirit spread in Sons and Daughters) hath lain three times so long already, which is the Anti‐type, under your Bondage, and cruel Task‐masters: But now the time of Deliverance is come, and thou proud Esau, and stout‐hearted Covetousness, thou must come down, and be lord of the Creation no longer: For now the King of Righteousness is rising to Rule In, and Over the Earth.
Therefore, if thou wilt find Mercy, Let Israel go Free; break in pieces quickly the Band of particular Propriety, dis‐own this oppressing Murder, Oppression and Thievery of Buying and Selling of Land, owning of landlords, and paying of Rents, and give thy Free Consent to make the Earth a Common Treasury, without grumbling; That the yonger Brethren may live comfortably upon Earth, as well as the Elder: That all may enjoy the benefit of their Creation.
And hereby thou wilt Honour thy Father, and thy Mother: Thy Father, which is the Spirit of Community, that made all, and that dwels in all. Thy Mother, which is the Earth, that brought us all forth: That as a true Mother, loves all her Children. Therefore, do not thou hinder the Mother Earth, from giving all her Children suck, by thy Inclosing it into particular hands, and holding up that cursed Bondage of Inclosure by thy Power. And then thou wilt repent of thy Theft, in maintaining the breach of the eighth Commandment, by Stealing the Land as I say from thy fellow‐creatures, or yonger Brothers: which thou and all thy landlords have, and do live in the breach of that Commandment. Then thou wilt Own no other God, or Ruling Power, but One, which is the King of Righteousness, ruling and dwelling in everyone, and in the whole; whereas now thou hast many gods: For Covetousness is thy God, Pride, and an Envious murdering Humor (to kill one by Prison or Gallows, that crosses thee, though their cause be pure, sound and good reason) is thy God, Self‐love and slavish Fear (lest others serve thee as thou hast served them) is thy god Hypocrisie, Fleshly Imagination, that keeps no Promise, Covenant, nor Protestation, is thy God: love of Money, Honor and Ease, is thy God : And all these, and the like Ruling Powers, makes thee Blind, and hard‐hearted, that thou does not, nor cannot lay to heart the affliction of others, though they dy for want of bread, in that rich City, undone under your eys.
Therefore once more, Let Israel go Free, that the poor may labour the Waste land, and suck the Brests of their mother Earth, that they starve not: And in so doing, thou wilt keep the Sabbath day, which is a day of Rest; sweetly enjoying the Peace of the Spirit of Righteousness; and find Peace, by living among a people that live in peace; this will be a day of Rest which thou never knew yet.
But I do not entreat thee, for thou art not to be intreated, but in the Name of the Lord, that hath drawn me forth to speak to thee; I, yea I say, I Command thee, To let Israel go Free, and quietly to gather together into the place where I shall appoint; and hold them no longer in bondage.
And thou A‐dam that holds the Earth in slavery under the Curse: If thou wilt not let Israel go Free; for thou being the Antitype, will be more stout and lusty then the Egyptian Pharoah of old, who was thy Type; Then know, That whereas I brought Ten Plagues upon him, I will Multiply my Plagues upon thee, till I make thee weary, and miserably ashamed: And I will bring out my People with a strong hand, and stretched out arme.
Thus we have discharged our Souls in declaring the Cause of our Digging upon George‐Hill in Surrey, that the Great Councel and Army of the Land may take notice of it, That there is no intent of Tumult or Fighting, but only to get Bread to eat, with the sweat of our brows; working together in righteousness, and eating the blessings of the Earth in peace.
And if any of you that are the great Ones of the Earth, that have been bred tenderly, and cannot work, do bring in your Stock into this Common Treasury, as an Offering to the work of Righteousness; we will work for you, and you shall receive as we receive. But if you will not, but Pharoah like, cry, Who is the Lord that we should obey him? and endeavour to Oppose, then know, That he that delivered Israel from Pharoah of old, is the same Power still, in whom we trust, and whom we serve; for this Conquest over thee shall be got, not by Sword or Weapon, but by my Spirit saith the Lord of Hosts.