By Dr Andrew Bradstock
Among the people who have inspired this project are the Diggers. In fact, we see ourselves in some ways as ‘New Diggers’.
But who were the original Diggers, and what have they got to say to us today on the Isle of Wight?
The Diggers were one of several movements which formed during the English civil war of the 1640s. The best-known of these was probably the Levellers, who wanted to see more people get the vote.
Diggers, however, thought that voting would not improve people’s lives unless they also had access to the land. Thousands of families were in poverty, and unemployment and hunger stalked the land. As Parliament emerged victorious from the war, Diggers encouraged its members to remove the system of land ownership over which the king had presided, restoring the land to the people.
What makes the Diggers interesting is that, not only did they campaign for change, they acted themselves to help bring it about. Moving on to some common land in Surrey in 1649, they began to plant crops and erect simple dwellings. Everyone worked as they were able, and the fruits of their labours were shared. This action of cultivating the land earned them the name ‘Diggers’. They were opposed to violence, and did not occupy land which was privately owned.
Diggers had a strong spiritual impulse for their actions. They believed that the land was created for all to share, not for just a few people to fence off for their own use and profit. ‘In the beginning of time the great creator Reason made the earth to be a common treasury’, one of their early documents asserts. The Creator gave humankind dominion over the beasts, birds and fishes, ‘but not one word was spoken in the beginning, that one branch of mankind should rule over another.’ Individual ownership of the land was not part of the Creator’s original plan. The earth and its fruits were for all to benefit from, and now was the time to make that the case again.
There was also a rational element to the Diggers’ vision. They worked out that only a third of potentially fertile land in England was being used to grow food, ‘so that here is land enough to maintain all her children.’ The Diggers used the latest agricultural techniques to turn hitherto unpromising land into ground suitable for growing corn and other staples.
Opponents argued that living communally could not possibly work because of the ‘Fall’. Having lost their innocence, men and women were now so subject to impulses of greed, fear and envy that, for society to exist in any organised form, accommodation had to be made to the need to own and protect private property. Diggers said that the system under which people lived shaped these impulses: ‘the inward bondages of the mind’ – by which they meant ‘covetousness’, ‘envy’, ‘sorrow’ ‘fears’ and so on – ‘are all occasioned by the outward bondage, that one sort of people lay upon another’, they wrote.
The Surrey Diggers encouraged others to join them, and communes arose elsewhere in the country. They wanted people to see the benefits of living communally and pursue that way of life instead of ‘working for hire’. Had this caught on, it might have brought about the social and economic transformation they envisaged, regardless of Parliament’s view. In the end, however, opposition to their project, especially from people who felt threatened by it, led to their commune being violently destroyed. The experiment lasted barely a year, and the Diggers are little more than a footnote in history.
Yet their influence lives on, as do the questions they raised about the land and its use.
One of the reasons we still know about the Diggers is because the writings of their leader and main theorist, Gerrard Winstanley, survive and continue to be published (most recently as a two-volume set by Oxford University Press). Winstanley’s style can be a bit flowery and long-winded for the modern reader – though he also has some passages of quite sublime prose – but his ideas still speak across the centuries.
Fundamental to Winstanley’s view of the world was a belief that God could be known by all people directly, without the aid of a priest. The Church liked to keep God ‘at a distance’, Winstanley thought, so that people would be dependent on its ministers for their spiritual needs. Winstanley also claimed that the God whom the clergy preached supported the status quo, an impression reinforced when the attack on the Surrey Diggers was instigated by the local parson! Winstanley chose the term ‘Reason’ to stress the difference between his conception of God, one who could indwell people, and the clergy’s more alienating version.
God still spoke directly to people through ‘visions and revelations’, Winstanley thought. People do not need others to instruct them in the faith – the Spirit teaches them ‘all things’, including how to interpret the Bible. The original writers of the Scripture wrote ‘from experience, and teachings of the Father’, not what they imagined or were told by others. Everybody was equally important to God, and God was just as likely to reveal profound insights to ‘ordinary’ women or men as to people who thought themselves special in God’s eyes.
Winstanley lived by this himself. He claimed no source for his ideas other than what had been revealed to him, and acted upon the Bible as he understood it. This is clear from his beliefs about who should have access to the land, and from the way he saw biblical narratives about the tension between elder and younger brothers playing out around him. The elder brother represents the rich and powerful, the younger brother the poor and the weak, Winstanley wrote. So Cain is still murdering Abel, Esau still hankering after Jacob’s birthright, Ishmael still at odds with Isaac.
Winstanley and the Diggers challenge us in many ways.
Reading the Bible afresh, as they did, without some of the assumptions we have inherited about what it ‘really’ means, can be liberating and life-transforming. Passages to do with how we act – about ‘turning the other cheek’, for example, or ‘loving our enemies’ – are simple and uncompromising but so difficult to put into practice.
The Bible says much about the need for individuals and societies to practise justice, to see all people as equal in the sight of God, to side with those who are in need or whose voices are never heard. Again, these are not easy teachings to put into practice. The Diggers tried.
Diggers’ rejected many of the ‘norms’ of their day and paid a price for it. What does it mean to live in a different way to the ‘mainstream’, when being true to one’s beliefs appears to call for that? Christians and other people of faith have tried doing that throughout history.
And most important of all is the Diggers’ emphasis on action, without which nothing will be achieved: ‘words and writing [are] all nothing and must die’, Winstanley once wrote, ‘for action is the life of all, and if thou dost not act, thou dost nothing.’
Our situation today is very different from that of the original Diggers, but the principles which they held and acted upon continue to challenge us today.