The Evangelical Universalist Forum

Gerrard Winstanley

Memories of a universalist radical for ya :slight_smile:

Gerrard Winstanley was a religious thinker/writer and political activist during English Civil War. Winstanley’s book The Mysterie of God (1649) is probably the first theological work in the English language to argue openly for universalism - “in the end every man shall be saved, though some at the last hour.” There are many hints that others had believed it before in privately circulated writings; especially during the fourteenth century in England . However, in the sixteenth century two ideas were looked upon as wicked madness of the most deplorable sort by mainstreams reformers; religious toleration and universal salvation. By the middle of the seventeenth century both of these ideas no longer seemed so crazy to many.

Winstanley risked imprisonment for publishing his defence of unversalsim since the Calvinist Parliament of 1649 had just passed a law making belief in this a criminal offence punishable by life imprisonment. They also had the public hangman burn Roger William’s ‘The Bloody Tenant of Persecution’ which argued the case for relgious toeration and stated that the wrath of God as kindled against persecutors . But the laws of this Parliamnet were never enacted because they were thrown out as a Parliament of Tyrants’ by Cromwell soon after Winstanley had published. What is even more interesting about Winstanley’s universalism is that he drew radical conclusions from this on how we must live now.

Like other radicals of the English Revolution Winstanley turned the mainstream Augustinian tradition upside down and inside out (Aungustinans tended to argue that the inequalities of this life and the suffering produced by these are part of God’s just punishment of sinful humanity). He embraced a very different moral vision more akin to the early Church Fathers such as Gregory Nyssa who argued that our moral compass should not be the Fall and the guilt of all in Adam, but the ‘telos’ of all – that is the equal dignity of all people in their restoration in Christ.

Winstanley acted on these theological and political principles as the chief founder of the True Levellers, a Christian Anarchist group also nicknamed ‘Diggers’. Like other Christian radicals back to the Middle Ages he viewed the Normal Conquest as a sort of Fall in the Sacred History of England when Tyrants stole the common Land belonging to the people by ancient rights. And the corollary of his universalism was his passionate belief that the Earth must be a Common Treasury for rich and poor, for friend and foe alike.

Winstanley and the Diggers – who were mainly drawn from the poor and the landless - were convinced that the acceptable time of the Lord had come in April of 1649. They occupied St George’s Hill near Cobham and began to cultivate the Common Land together. In doing this they viewed the restoration of the earth as inseparable from the spiritual restoration of humanity - as ‘Christ rising up in sons and daughters’, and as ‘Glory Now!’. Indeed, Winstanley addressed his low born followers as ‘noble Diggers’ – as royal persons restored in Christ.

I should let them speak for themselves I think -

“O thou City, thou Hypocriticall City! thou blindfold drowsie England, that sleeps and snorts in the bed of covetousnesse, awake, awake!”

‘’…all the commons and waste ground of England, and in the whole world, shall be taken in by the people in righteousness, not owning any property; but taking the earth to be a common treasury, as it was first made for all’’

‘’When this universal law of equity rises up in every man and woman, then none shall lay claim to any creature and say, ‘This is mine. And that is yours, This is my work, that is yours’; but everyone shall put their hands to till the earth, and bring up cattle, and the blessing of the earth shall be common to all’’

‘When Christ hath spread himself aboard amongst his sons and daughters, the members of his mystical body, then this community of love and righteousness, making all to use the blessings of the earth as a common treasury amongst them, shall break forth again in his glory, and fill the earth, and shall be no more suppressed…’’

When this restoration breaks forth in righteous action, the curse shall be removed from the creation, fire, water and earth … there shall be no more barrenness in the earth or cattle, for they shall bring forth abundantly. Unseasonable storms of weather shall cease, for all the curse shall be removed from all, and every creature shall rejoice in righteousness one in another throughout the whole creation

‘We abhor fighting for freedom…it is acting of the curse and lifting him higher; and do thou uphold it by the sword, we will not; we will conquer by love and patience, or else we count it no freedom: freedom gotten by the sword is an established bondage to some part of other of creation … victory gotten by the sword is a victory that slaves get one over another

(from Andrew Bradstock’s ‘Radical Religion in Cromwell’s England’)

Of course the Digger’s utopian experiment was short lived. The local landowners backed by the lawyers and the clergy soon put the crops and their cottages to the fire, and dispersed them with blows from rifle butts.

But the Digger’s live on in the folk memory of English radicalism and of radical Christianity.

We are also fortunate that Winstanley actually wrote his own Diggers Song. So I can end by letting you hear them sing again if you wish (Lady Maisery do an excellent job)


William Langland wrote his dream vision poem ‘Piers Plowman’ in the second half of the calamitous fourteenth century - but his work was passed on in different traditions among religious radicals in England. Indeed he may have influenced Gerard Winstanley three centuries later.

Langland - a contemporary of Julian of Norwich - lived in a time of the black death, famine, foreign wars and social breakdown at home. It was also a time when there were two rival Popes – at one point three. Many people, including Langland, thought the Last Days were upon them. Yet in Langland’s vision of the Last Judgement Christ speaks thus -

Then I shall come as a king, crowned with angels
And have all men’s souls out of hell
Demons great and small shall stand before me
And be at my bidding where I will
My kinship demands that I have mercy
On man , for we are all brethren
In blood, if not in baptism

My righteousness and right shall rule
In hell, and mercy over all mankind before
In heaven. I were an unkind king
If I did not help my kin.

(Piers Plowman, Passus 18.399)

I love this section of Langland’s Dream Allegory. The work as a whole is so chaotic that it actually seems to suggest someone going through a nervous breakdown reflecting the tribulation of the times. But here we have a welcome vision of peace and restoration

Christ, through his incarnation, is seen as having ‘kinship’ with all human beings; and because of this kinship he will not leave anyone to perish. This bond extends both to those who are kin through baptism (Christians) and to those who are kin through blood (pagans). To relinquish this universal bond would be ‘unkind’. And ‘unkind’ here means against human and divine nature.

Langland seems to be conversant with the thoughts of the Church Fathers about the Incarnation. However, his immediate inspiration was certainly the memory of the popular memory of the Old Saxon Kings of England. These Kings saw themselves as having obligations of kinship with their people. ‘Feudalism’ in Saxon England was far less oppressive than its shape under the Norman conquerors.

For example, the Saxon Kings provided common lands for the poor to cultivate but the Normans took these ancient rights away thinking they had a divine mandate. Indeed the inventory of public wealth and assets to be seized by the Normans taken by William the Conqueror – the father of Rufus – sounds an eschatological note with its title ‘The Doomsday Book’.

This reminds me of the vision of God in Anselm’s ‘Cur Deus Homo’. Anselm was Archbishop of Canterbury under the brutal Norman tyrant William Rufus - and while he criticised the warrior homo-eroticism and cross dressing at Rufus’s court, he was no real critic of Norman power. A wrong set of priorities I think.

Anslem’s idea of God as an ‘infinite being who takes infinite offence at our sins’ is clearly modelled on the idea of the Norman Kings who had absolute power over their subject people. The King has no kinship with the subject – the vast difference in degree makes for a real difference in kind.

When we are dealing with analogies between Kingship and God in the Bible we obviously have to take care at what kind of Kingship is being signified. The same is true of analogies of Kingship in theological tradition. Langland’s King who would not be ‘unkind’ is food for thought here.