17th September- Diggers and Bunyan
We looked at the contrast between Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress” and the ideas of Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers- and their influence on theology since the 17th century.
There can be no doubt, I think, that one of the most popular and influential religious books in English history has been John Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress”. It describes the Christian’s pilgrimage from this world of sin and destruction to the Eternal City of heaven. Bunyan wrote it during his imprisonment in Bedford gaol, which lasted for 12 years, for illegal preaching, though it was published in 1678, six years after his release. We’re going to hear some extracts, first from the early part of the story.
THE PILGRIM’S PROGRESS
“As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place where was a den, and I laid me down in that place to sleep: and as I slept, I dreamed a dream. I dreamed; and behold, I saw a man clothed with rags standing in a certain place, with his face from his own house, a book in his hand, and a great burden upon his back. I looked, and saw him open the book, and read therein; and as he read, he wept and trembled; and, not being able longer to contain, he brake out with a lamentable cry, saying, “What shall I do?”
In this plight, therefore, he went home, and refrained himself as long as he could, that his wife and children should not perceive his distress; but he could not be silent long, because that his trouble increased: wherefore at length he brake his mind to his wife and children; and thus he began to talk to them: “O my dear wife,” said he, “and you the children of my bowels, I, your dear friend, am in myself undone, by reason of a burden that lies hard upon me; moreover, I am for certain informed, that this our city will be burned with fire from heaven; in which fearful overthrow, both myself, with thee, my wife, and you my sweet babes, shall miserably come to ruin; except (the which yet I see not) some way of escape can be found, whereby we may be delivered.”
At this his relations were sore amazed; not for that they believed that what he had said to them was true, but because they thought that some frenzy distemper had got into his head; therefore, it drawing towards night, and they hoping that sleep might settle his brains, with all haste they got him to bed: but the night was as troublesome to him as the day; wherefore, instead of sleeping, he spent it in sighs and tears. So, when the morning was come, they would know how he did: he told them, “Worse and worse.” He also set to talking to them again; but they began to be hardened. They also thought to drive away his distemper by harsh and surly conduct to him: sometimes they would deride; sometimes they would chide; and sometimes they would quite neglect him. Wherefore he began to retire himself to his chamber, to pray for and pity them, and also to condole his own misery. He would also walk solitarily in the fields, sometimes reading and sometimes praying; and thus for some days he spent his time.
Evangelist Provides Direction
Now I saw, upon a time when he was walking in the fields, that he was (as he was wont) reading in his book, and greatly distressed in his mind; and, as he read, he burst out, as he had done before, crying, “What must I do to be saved?”
I saw also that he looked this way and that way, as if he would run; yet he stood still, because (as I perceived) he could not tell which way to go. I looked then, and saw a man named EVANGELIST coming to him, and asked, “Wherefore dost thou cry?” He answered, “Sir, I perceive by the book in my hand that I am condemned to die, and after that to come to Judgment; and I find that I am not willing to do the first, nor able to do the second.”
Then said EVANGELIST, “Why not willing to die, since this life is attended with so many evils?” The man answered, “Because I fear that this burden that is upon my back will sink me lower than the grave, and I shall fall into Tophet.
And, sir, if I be not fit to go to prison, I am not fit, I am sure, to go to Judgment, and from thence to execution; and the thoughts of these things make me cry.”
Then said EVANGELIST, “If this be thy condition, why standest thou still?” He answered, “Because I know not where to go.” Then he gave him a parchment roll; and there was written within, “Flee from the wrath to come!”
The man, therefore, read it; and looking upon EVANGELIST very carefully, said, “Whither must I fly?” Then said EVANGELIST, pointing with his finger over a very wide field, “Do you see yonder wicket gate?” The man said, “No.” Then said the other, “Do you see yonder shining light?” He said, “I think I do.” Then said EVANGELIST, “Keep that light in your eye, and go up directly thereto; so shalt thou see the gate; at which, when thou knockest, it shall be told thee what thou shall do.”
So I saw in my dream that the man began to run. Now he had not run far from his own door, but his wife and children perceiving it, began to cry after him to return; but the man put his fingers in his ears, and ran on, crying, “Life! life! Eternal life!” So he looked not behind him, but fled towards the middle of the plain.
Now I saw in my dream, that the highway up which CHRISTIAN was to go was fenced on either side with a wall; and that wall was called “Salvation”. Up this way, therefore, did burdened CHRISTIAN run; but not without great difficulty, because of the load on his back.
He ran thus till he came at a place somewhat ascending; and upon that place stood a Cross, and a little below, in the bottom, a sepulchre. So I saw in my dream, that just as CHRISTIAN came up to the cross, his burden loosed from off his shoulders, and fell from off his back, and began to tumble; and so continued to do till it came to the mouth of the sepulchre, where it fell in, and I saw it no more.
Then was CHRISTIAN glad and lightsome, and said, with a merry heart,
“He hath given me rest by his sorrow, And life by his death.”
Then he stood still awhile to look and wonder; for it was very surprising to him, that the sight of the cross should thus ease him of his burden. He looked therefore, and looked again, even till the springs that were in his head sent the waters down his cheeks.
Now, as he stood looking and weeping, behold three shining ones came to him, and saluted him with, “Peace be to thee!” so the first said to him, “Thy sins be forgiven thee”; the second stripped him of his rags, and clothed him with change of raiment; the third also set a mark in his forehead, and gave him a roll with a seal upon it, which he bade him look on as he ran, and that he should give it in at the Celestial Gate: so they went their way. Then CHRISTIAN gave three leaps for joy, and went on singing.”
After his encounter with the Cross, Christian goes on to have many adventures, but comes at last to the climax and goal of the story.
The Country of Beulah
“Now I saw in my dream, that, by this time, the pilgrims were got over the Enchanted Ground, and entering in the country of Beulah, whose air was very sweet and pleasant; the way lying directly through it, they solaced themselves there for a season. Yea, here they heard continually the singing of birds and saw every day the flowers appear in the earth, and heard the voice of the turtle in the land.
In this country the sun shines night and day: wherefore this was beyond the Valley of the Shadow of Death; and also out of the reach of Giant Despair; neither could they from this place so much as see Doubting Castle. Here they were within sight of the City they were going to, also here met them some of the inhabitants thereof; for in this land the Shining Ones commonly walked, because it was upon the borders of heaven.
The Last Difficulties
These men asked the pilgrims whence they came, and they told them; they also asked them where they had lodged, what difficulties and dangers, what comforts and pleasures they had met in the way; and they told them. Then said the men that met them, “You have but two difficulties more to meet with, and then you are in the City.” CHRISTIAN then, and his companion, asked the men to go along with them; so they told them they would. “But,” said they, “you must obtain it by your own faith.” So I saw in my dream that they went on together till they came in sight of the gate.
Now I further saw that betwixt them and the gate was a river; but there was no bridge to go over: the river was very deep. At the sight, therefore, of this river, the pilgrims were much astounded; but the men that went with them said, “You must go through, or you cannot come at the gate.” They then addressed themselves to the water; and entering, CHRISTIAN began to sink. And crying out to his good friend, HOPEFUL, he said, “I sink in deep waters, the billows go over my head; all his waves go over me.” Then said the other, “Be of good cheer, my brother; I feel the bottom, and it is good.” Then they both took courage. CHRISTIAN therefore presently found ground to stand upon; and so it followed that the rest of the river was but shallow. Thus they got over.
Now when they were come up to the gate, there was written over it, in letters of gold, “Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life and may enter in through the gates into the City”.
Now I saw in my dream, that these two men went in at the gate; and lo, as they entered, they were transfigured; and they had raiment put on that shone like gold. There were also those that met them with harps and crowns, and gave them to them; the harps to praise withal, and the crowns in token of honour. Then I heard in my dream, that all the bells in the City rang again for joy; and that it was said unto them, “Enter ye into the joy of your Lord.”
Now, just as the gates were opened to let in the men, I looked in after them: and behold, the City shone like the sun: the streets also were paved with gold; and in them walked many men, with crowns on their heads, palms in their hands, and golden harps to sing praises withal. And after that they shut up the gates, which when I had seen, I wished myself among them.”
As you probably know well, Bunyan had not always been of this mind, with his eyes set on God’s eternal city. He was born the son of a tinker in Elstow, between Elstow and Harrowden, in 1628. When he was aged only 16, in 1644, he was caught up in the violent events of the English Civil War. He became one of the 225 recruits demanded of Bedford for the Parliamentary Army and was part of the garrison of Newport Pagnell. He later tells the story of how he had what we might call a lucky escape, but which Bunyan felt showed the hand of God on his life. He was due to take part in an attack, but one of his fellow soldiers stood in for him and was killed. Perhaps this affected Bunyan deeply, but before we take up the story of his later life, we need to talk about someone who was twenty years older than John Bunyan, Gerrard Winstanley, born at Wigan in Lancashire in 1609. Probably from a fairly well-off family, because he went to London aged 21 to become an apprentice of the Merchant Taylor’s Company, and a Freeman of the Company seven years later in 1638.
But the outbreak of the Civil War in 1640 put an end to his business hopes- by 1643 he was bankrupt, working as a cowherd in Cobham in Surrey. Whether it was this bitter experience that turned his mind in a different direction I don’t know, but within a few years he was talking about putting into practice what he had read in the Book of Acts- how the early Christians had owned all things in common, so that no-one was in want. He was also impressed by doubts about kingship clearly expressed in the First Book of Samuel in the Old Testament: “Seeing the common people of England by joint consent of person and purse have caste out Charles our Norman oppressour, wee have by this victory recovered ourselves from under his Norman yoake.” He wrote in a pamphlet “The New Law of Righteousness”. It was a common idea in England at the time that the monarchy established in 1066 was a Norman imposition which had taken away traditional English freedoms- no doubt a romantic view of Anglo-Saxon England. The pamphlet was published in January 1649, only four days before Charles was executed at Whitehall.
By April the same year the Diggers led by Winstanley had established themselves on St George’s Hill, near Weybridge in Surrey. Then common land, it is now one of the most exclusive private estates- Cliff Richard was one of the residents- I’m not sure if he still is. Winstanley and 14 others published “The True Levellers’ Standard Advanced” and we are to hear extracts from it:
The True Levellers Standard Advanced: Or, The State of Community Opened, and Presented to the Sons of Men. Source: http://www.kingston.ac.uk/cusp/Lectures/Hill.htm.
“A Declaration to the Powers of England, and to all the powers of the World, shewing the Cause why the Common People of England have begun, and gives Consent to Digge up, Manure, and Sow Corn upon George-Hill in Surrey; by those that have Subscribed, and thousands more that gives Consent.
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.
But since human flesh (that king of Beasts) began to delight himself in the objects of the Creation, more then in the Spirit Reason and Righteosness; then he fell into blindness of mind and weakness of heart, and runs abroad for a Teacher and Ruler: And so selfish imaginations taking possession of the Five Sences, and ruling as King in the room of Reason therein, and working with Covetousnesse, did set up one man to teach and rule over another; and thereby the Spirit was killed, and man was brought into bondage, and became a greater Slave to such of his own kind, then the Beasts of the field were to him.
And hereupon, The Earth (which was made to be a Common Treasury of relief for all, both Beasts and Men) was hedged in to In-closures by the teachers and rulers, and the others were made Servants and Slaves: And that Earth that is within this Creation made a Common Store-house for all, is bought and sold, and kept in the hands of a few, whereby the great Creator is mightily dishonoured, as if he were a respector of persons, delighting int he comfortable Livelihoods of some, and rejoycing in the miserable povertie and straits of others. From the beginning it was not so.
But this coming in of Bondage, is called “A-dam”, because this ruling and teaching power without, doth “dam” up the Spirit of Peace and Liberty; First within the heart, by filling it with slavish fears of others. Secondly without, by giving the bodies of one to be imprisoned, punished and oppressed by the outward power of another.
Now the great Creator, who is the Spirit Reason, suffered himself thus to be rejected, and troden underfoot by the covetous proud flesh, for a certain time limited; therefore saith he, The Seed out of whom the Creation did proceed, which is my Self, shall bruise this Serpents head, and restore my Creation again from this curse and bondage; and when I the King of Righteousnesse raigns in every man, I will be the blessing of the Earth and the joy of all Nations.
But when once the Earth becomes a Common Treasury again, as it must, for all the Prophesies of Scriptures and Reason are Circled here in this Community, and mankind must have the Law of Righteousness once more writ in his heart, and all must be made of one heart, and one mind.
Then this Enmity in all Lands will cease, for none shall dare to seek a Dominion over others, neither shall any dare to kill another, nor desire more of the Earth then another; for he that will rule over, imprison, oppresse, and kill his fellow Creatures, under what pretence soever, is a destroyer of the Creation, and an actor of the Curse, and walks contrary to the rule of righteousnesse: (Do, as you would have others do to you; and love your Enemies, not in words, but in actions).
The Work we are going about is this, To dig up Georges-Hill and the waste Ground thereabouts, and to Sow Corn, and to eat our bread together by the sweat of our brows.
And we have moved hereunto for that Reason, and other which hath been shewed us, both by Vision, Voyce, and Revelation.
For it is shewed us, That so long as we, That so long as we, or any other, doth own the Earth to be the peculier Interest of Lords and Landlords, and not common to others as well as them, we own the Curse, and holds the Creation under bondage; and so long as we or any other doth own Landlords and Tennants, for one to call the Land his, or another to hire it of him, or for one to give hire, and for another to work for hire; this is to dishonour the work of Creation; as if the righteous Creator should have respect to persons, and therefore made the Earth for some, and not for all: And that this Civil Propriety is the Curse, is manifest thus, Those that Buy and Sell Land, and are landlords, have got it either by Oppression, or Murther, or Theft; and all landlords lives in the breach of the Seventh and Eighth Commandements, Thous shalt not steal, nor kill.
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.
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 Commond 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 Paroah 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.”
The local landowners didn’t take kindly to what the Diggers were doing on St George’s Hill. Although the commander of the New Model Army, Thomas Fairfax, concluded that the Diggers were doing no harm, the landowners sent in gangs to disrupt their work, and in a court case where they were not allowed to speak in their defence, they were convicted of being Ranters, a much more extreme group who believed that there was no such thing as sin, and everything you wanted to do was OK. So the Diggers abandoned St George’s Hill and moved to Little Heath, where they cultivated 11 acres, built six houses, and harvested winter crops. But the local reaction was much the same, and by April 1650 the experiment was at an end.
Similar groups of Diggers sprang up in other places, in Iver, Buckinghamshire, Barnet, Enfield, Dunstable, Bosworth in Gloucestershire, and, of course, Wellingborough. This is the Wellingborough Diggers’ Manifesto:
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 Bareshank, belonging to the Inhabitants of Wellingborrow, by those that have subscribed, and hundreds more that give Consent.
We find in the Word of God, that God made the Earth for the use and comfort of all Mankind, and set him in it to till and dress it, and said that in the Sweat of his brows he should eat his bread; and also we find, that God never gave it to any sort of people, that they should have it all to themselves, and shut out all the rest, but he says, “The Earth hath he given to the children of men”, which is every man.
2. We find, that no creature that ever God made was ever deprived of the benefit of the Earth, but Mankind; and that it is nothing but covetousness, pride, and hardness of heart, that hath caused man so far to degenerate.
3. We find in the Scriptures, that the Prophets and Apostles have left it upon Record, That in the last days the oppressor and proud man shall cease, and God will restore the waste places of the Earth to the use and comfort of Man, and that none shall hurt or destroy in all his holy Mountain.
4. We have great Encouragement from these two righteous Acts, which the Parliament of England have set forth, the one against Kingly Power, the other to make England a Free Common-wealth.
5. We are necessitated from our present necessity to do this, and we hope that our Actions will justify us in the gate, when all men shall know the truth of our necessity: We are in Wellingborrow in one parish 1169 persons that receive Alms, as the Officers have made it appear at the Quarter Sessions last: we have made our Case known to the Justices, the Justices have given Order that the Town should raise a Stock to set us on work, and that the Hundred should be enjoined to assist them; but as yet we see nothing is done, nor any man that goes about it; we have spent all we have, our trading is decayed, our wives and children cry for bread, our lives are a burden to us, divers of us having 5,6,7,8,9 in Family, and we cannot get bread for one of them by our labour; rich men’s hearts are hardened, they will not give us if we beg at their doors; if we steal, the Law will end our lives, divers of the poor are starved to death already, and it were better for us that are living to die by the Sword than by the Famine: And now we consider that the Earth is our Mother, and that God has given it to the children of men, and that common and waste Grounds belong to the poor, and that we have a right to the common ground both from the Law of the Land, Reason and Scriptures; and therefore we have begun to bestow our righteous labour upon it, and we shall trust the Spirit for a blessing upon our labour, resolving not to dig up any man’s propriety until they freely give us it; and truly we find great comfort already, through the goodness of our God that some of those rich men amongst us, that have had the greatest profit upon the Common, have freely given us their share in it, as one Mr John Freeman, Thomas Nottingam and John Clendon, and divers others; and the Country Farmers have proffered divers of them to give us Seed to sow it, and so we find that God is persuading Japheth to dwell in the tents of Shem: and truly those that we find most against us are such as have become constant enemies to the Parliament’s Cause from first to last.
Now at last our desire is, That some that approve of this work of Righteousness, would but spread this our Declaration before the great Council of the Land, that so they may be pleased to give us more encouragement to go on, that so they may be found among the small number of those that considers the poor and needy, that so the Lord may deliver them in the time of their troubles, and then they will not be found amongst those that Solomon speaks of, which withhold the Corn (or the Land) from the Poor, which the people shall curse, but blessing shall be upon the heads of those rulers that sell Corn, and that will let the poor labour upon the Earth to get them Corn, and our lines shall bless them, so shall good men stand by them, and evil men shall be afraid of them, and they shall be counted the Repairers of our Breaches, and the Restorers of our Paths to dwell in. And thus we have declared the truth of our necessity; and whosoever will come in to us to labour with us, shall have part with us, and we with them, and we shall all of us endeavour to walk righteously and peaceably in the Land of our Nativity.
Richard Smith John Avery Thomas Fardin Richard Pendred James Pitman Roger Tuis Joseph Hitchcock John Pye Edward Turner – London, printed for Giles Calvert 1650 (1649 added later) Mar. 12″
On April 15th, 1650, the Council of State ordered Mr Pentlow, a JP for Northamptonshire, to proceed against the local Diggers. Nine were arrested and imprisoned in Northampton Gaol , and the justices refused to release them even though charges could not be brought against them.
What was happening in England, however, was that many people who fought to get rid of the tyranny of Charles I hated the idea of more radical religious, political and economic groups finding freedom to operate. In 1653 Oliver Cromwell became Lord Protector to stem this tide. King in all but name, many said. One Baptist minister, Vavasour Powell, told his congregation to go home and pray “Lord, wilt thou have Jesus Christ or Oliver Cromwell to rule over us”. I guess the congregation were left in no doubt what was the right answer. At Shepherds Bush, west of London- in fact right outside the place where I was minister of the Baptist Church there in the 1980s- a group of people led by one Miles Sindercombe, set up a primitive machine gun to try to assassinate Cromwell as his coach passed on the way from Hampton Court, where he had taken up residence, to Parliament in London. The gun misfired and the conspirators- they would be called terrorists today- were captured and executed.
Cromwell died in 1658 and was succeeded by his incompetent son “Tumbledown” Dick. Within two years Charles II was back on the throne, the monarchy was restored, and soon any clergy who held different ideas were booted out of the Church of England and nonconformity was made illegal.
By this time John Bunyan had joined the Independent Church in Bedford, and was imprisoned for 12 years for illegal preaching. Winstanley’s father-in-law gave him some land at Ham Manor and he took up a number of parish offices, overseer for the poor, church warden and chief constable for Elmbridge. He returned to business in London and traded as a corn chandler. He died aged 66 in 1676, and his death is recorded in Quaker records as a member of the Society of Friends.
Bunyan, as we know, worked on his Pilgrim’s Progress in prison, was released under the Declaration of Indulgence of 1672, though imprisoned again a few years later. He died in 1688, just before William of Orange and Mary became King and Queen, invited by Parliament to ensure a Protestant rather than a Catholic succession to the throne. Power was firmly in the hands of the wealthy families of the country, who were able to build an Agricultural and an Industrial Revolution, and turn Britain into the heart of the biggest Empire in the world, at least for a couple of hundred years.
So the question remains for us today, I think- who was right? Winstanley or Bunyan. Was Winstanley right to think that when Jesus asks us to pray “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” he meant us to take it literally? Or was this foolish idealism, bound to lead to collapse and disaster? So was Bunyan right, in that later time of reaction against radical earthly hopes, the restoration of the monarchy and central authority in the hands of those who have money and power, that we cannot hope for justice here on earth, and our hopes must be fixed not on this life, but on the next?