ON THE MORNING of April 1, 1649, Gerrard Winstanley arose to obey a direct command from the Holy Spirit. He traveled the Surrey countryside in England until he reached St. George’s Hill, a heath that had been Crown property for centuries. Summoning the full extent of his courage, he plunged a spade into the ground and began digging.
But Winstanley wasn’t the only man in England who heard the Lord. William Everard experienced God in a vision, and there in the shrubground he joined Winstanley. Yet still the operation grew. In defiance of all likelihood or explanation, nearby men and women soon came out from their lodgings and joined the program. They cleared the shrubbery, its leathery yellows, pinks, and purples, to expose a modest expanse of ground on which they tilled, dug rows, sowed seed, and placed manure. The swiftness and spontaneity of their communion was as dumbstriking as it was perilous, but in their favor was King Charles I’s head having just been chopped off.
Before there was an American Revolution or French Revolution or Russian Revolution, there was the English Civil War of the 1640s. Charles I had been the most recent stubborn personality to test the Crown against the convulsing powers of Heaven and Earth. For Charles I and his Stuart predecessor, King James I, the divine right of kings was as clear as any doctrine provided within the elegant certainty of the four corners of Holy Scripture. In the books of the kings of Israel, God had always personally chosen its kings. The psalmist referred to kings as gods. Peter the apostle, writing his first epistle from Jerusalem, commanded all Christians to honor the king. His companion, the apostle to the gentiles, went even further. Paul, writing from house arrest in Nero’s shadow, not only echoed Peter but also placed the sword of God’s wrath in the king’s sovereign hand and commanded Christians to obey his every form of levy — taxes, duties, customs, and tributes. So absolute was his authority that even Jesus admitted to Pilate’s power over him having been granted from God.
To question the king, let alone to defy or fix any obstacle before his unchecked power as God’s vessel of righteousness — be it the law, the courts, the Church, the Magna Carta, or the petulant Members of Parliament — was to elevate one’s station above that of Christ the crucified Lord. It was blasphemy. So determined was Charles I to prove his divine sovereignty over Parliament that for nearly a decade he fought an all-out civil war against them at a cost of nearly two hundred thousand lives and hundreds of thousands more livelihoods, including that of Winstanley.
But it was no matter now. With the death of the king at the hands of Oliver Cromwell, radical reformers grew wild through the permafrost of the Norman conquest. None of them, though, were as radical as Winstanley. The fury and glory of God were rattling the ground anew as in the presence of Moses at Sinai, but this new law of freedom was written on the heart. By the power of the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, the Guide of All Truth, a new perspective, one in opposition to the prerogative of kings, descended like tongues of fire on him and his fellow Diggers. “Many things were revealed to me which I never read in any books, nor heard from the mouth of any flesh,” Winstanley wrote.
Anticipating opposition, Winstanley published multiple works, one directed to Oliver Cromwell and another directed to Parliament. “In the beginning of time, God made the Earth,” he wrote. “Not one word was spoken at the beginning that one branch of mankind should rule over another.” Before there were kings, “the Earth was a common treasury for all.”
That the earth was a common treasury for all was incompatible with the class distinctions inherent in the divine right of kings. Yet it too found support in Scripture, provided one was brave enough to find it. The same Bible that at times seemed to sanction the sovereign place of the king at other times spoke to the contrary. Did not the first king of Israel obtain his station only because the people disobeyed God? Did Christ not teach that it was not the righteous but the pagans who would lord it over one another? Did Christ not teach that the first shall be last and the last shall be first? Was not the example from the Acts of the Apostles that the believers hold all things in common? Did not all people in the beginning descend from a common source? From these points, Winstanley and Everard argued that humanity needed to return to this divine state of equality. Or, as Mary the mother of Jesus broke out in song:
“My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant. . . .
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
and has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.”
Winstanley took his doctrine to St. George’s Hill with same confidence that Charles I took the divine right of kings to his execution. The Diggers, as their detractors called them, prepared the ground for an abundant harvest of righteousness, corn, beans, and carrots. And word of the enterprise spread. Before long, other Digger colonies rose up throughout the English countryside. In Cobham, for example, eleven acres were cleared out and six common houses were constructed.
Unfortunately for the Diggers, neighboring landlords wanted the land too, but even more important than the land was that their tenants not have it or even think about having it. Oliver Cromwell, victor of the English Civil War, understood the stakes: “What is the purport of [the Diggers] but to make the tenant as liberal a fortune as the landlord. I was by birth a gentleman. You must cut these people in pieces or they will cut you in pieces.” Cut them to pieces they did. Armed men were dispatched to quickly end them. They were beaten and their lodgings, rows, crops, tools, and books were destroyed. Within a year, all Digger communities in England had been wiped out. A number of Diggers were indicted at the Surrey quarter sessions and imprisoned.
William Everard was arrested for his blasphemous opinions “as to deny God, and Christ, and Scriptures.” Of course, by “Scriptures” what was really meant was one particular reading of them. Everard’s arrest prompted Gerrard Winstanley to publish Truth Lifting up the Head above Scandals, in which he argued that Scripture, on which traditionally authority rested, was unsafe because there were no undisputed texts, translations, or interpretations. Winstanley concluded that authority should be based in the Spirit. “All people carried the spirit, and thus their own authority, within them,” he wrote.
In September 1650, Winstanley was arrested and charged on suspicion of being a “Sorcerer or Witch.” He was sentenced to insanity and was sent to Bethel Hospital, where it is believed he died in March 1659. However, prior to his death, he had become involved in a burgeoning movement of friends who were said to quake and tremble at the Word of the Lord.
THE RELIGIOUS SOCIETY OF FRIENDS permit no formal clergy, and congregants sit in silence until the the Spirit moves them to speak. The Quakers, as they are more commonly known, assent to the priesthood of all believers — or, as they say, obedience to one’s “inner light.” In 1676, Alice Curwen obeyed her inner light after hearing God tell her to leave her meetings in Baycliff, England and travel to the New World. Conditions for the Quakers there were as perilous as on St. George’s Hill. Four members of the Society of Friends in Boston had been just been condemned to lynching. Quakers were imprisoned, beaten, and had their property confiscated. So great was the danger that her husband disputed that the voice she heard was God’s. Nevertheless, she obeyed her inner light rather than her husband and became a Quaker preacher in Barbados, which King James I had made part of the British Empire just decades prior.
Barbados was a titanic exporter of sugar and importer of slave labor. For the benefit of properly sweetened cakes and pastries in London, the bodies of men, women, and children from Africa were seized and shackled by the tens of thousands for months’ long journeys across the Atlantic to plantations where any lingering trace of humanity that — against all odds — may have endured the dark and sickening hull of the vessel would fully and finally be stripped away by the Barbados Slave Code of 1661. A white slave master could punish his slave however he saw fit if doing so seemed beneficial to the operation. That was the law.
By the time Curwen arrived on the island, there were between fifteen and twenty enslaved persons for each free person. Upon seeing the cruelty, she came to understand the purpose of her sojourn more clearly. The first words of Jesus’s first sermon came to her: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Curwen preached that it was intolerable that her fellow Quakers permit these words to be read aloud in the presence of slave masters, but forbid their hearing among those whom they had enslaved. Even as the Quakers preached for simplicity and against all sorts of hierarchies, they had their blind spots. And so, she demanded of her Friends that they live up to their own ideals — that they permit all persons to the table of the Lord. As she preached in 1677: “I am persuaded, that if they whom thou call’st thy Slaves, be Upright-hearted to God, the Lord God Almighty will set them Free in a way that thou knowest not.”
For Curwen, fidelity to the light within her meant advocating a universal message of freedom. To that end, she spent her time on the island advocating against the Slave Code, which came at the eventual cost of imprisonment. Like Winstanley, she never lived to see the fruits of her labor, but her words and passion continued on.
BENJAMIN LAY stood barely above four feet, though his severely hunched back rendered him even shorter. He likened himself to “little David,” the shepherd boy who slew Goliath. Like Curwen, Lay was a Quaker who had moved from England to Barbados and obeyed the light within him at great personal cost.
In the years that ensued after Curwen preached against Barbados’s taskmasters, the island became even more impossibly cruel. Lay was working there as a shopkeeper when he witnessed an enslaved man kill himself rather than submit to another round of whipping under the Barbados Slave Code, a sight that haunted him for the rest of his life. Though not formally educated, Lay was a student of the previous century’s resistance movements, including the Diggers.
In several written works, which Benjamin Franklin helped him publish, Lay lamented how enslaved people would “plow, sow, thresh, winnow, split Rails, cut Wood, clear Land, make Ditches and Fences, fodder Cattle, run and fetch up the Horses,” for the “lazy Ungodly bellies” of their masters — his fellow Friends. Even worse, when their owners would pass away, they would be left to “proud, Dainty, Lazy, Scornful, Tyrannical and often beggarly Children for them to Domineer.” Such persons he called “the spawn of Satan.”
“‘Every good tree bringeth good fruit, but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit.’ Is there any eviler fruit in the world than slave-keeping — anything more devilish? It is of the very nature of hell itself, and is the belly of hell. A good tree cannot bring forth such curse evil fruit as slave-trading.”
And he took these words with him on the sojourner’s road; Benjamin Lay would not permit any meetinghouse in America to enjoy peace. As his fellow congregants sat in their contemplative silence, Lay stood up and cast blistering judgments on them for their indifference to or even participation in the abominable slave trade. He conjured up images of the dark abyss, the lake of fire, and the teeth of the dragon that would feed on the unrighteous who were cast down there. After he was kicked out of every meetinghouse in Barbados, he moved to New Jersey. After he was kicked out of every meetinghouse in New Jersey, he moved to Pennsylvania. Each time, of course, shaking the dust off himself as a testimony against them.
Benjamin Lay soon came to realize that one of the chief obstacles to abolition was in fact Holy Scripture. Any time he engaged in one of his imprecatory theatrics, it wouldn’t be long before someone in the congregation would point out its failure to cast damnation on the slave trade and the notable instances in which it even seemed to condone it.
Lay had none of it. On one occasion, he entered a meetinghouse in New Jersey dressed in a large coat. Before the meeting began, he had placed an animal bladder full of red fruit juice within a hidden compartment he had cut out within his large Bible. When his turn came to speak, the four-foot man raised the Bible above his head, pulled out a sword from inside his coat, and stabbed the Bible. The congregation went into shock as what appeared to be blood shot out and splattered everyone nearby. As the chaos continued around him, Lay sat back down in calm, contemplative Quaker silence and waited to be expelled once again.
The point, which he inherited from Winstanley and Curwen, was clear. As the prophet Jeremiah had spoken to the remnant of Israel thousands of years before, the only reliable doctrine was that which the Holy Spirit had written directly on the hearts of humanity. During his ministry, Jesus placed only one limit on the authority and regulation of the Holy Spirit — like the wind, “it blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it is going.” Of course, that is no limit at all. The very scriptures upon which his opponents relied to justify the status quo themselves declared the Holy Spirit to be a wild thing, and above the Spirit, there was no authority on Earth or in Heaven.
On one occasion, after another of his eccentric displays of guerrilla theater in a Quaker meeting, he was picked up and tossed outside to a thundering rainstorm. Undaunted, he lay down in the mud directly in front of the door, thus requiring that each person who wished to leave step over his body. On the occasion, he stood in the freezing cold without a coat outside the gateway to the meetinghouse. He took one of his shoes off, placed it directly in the snow, and stood there in definance. When the exasperated congregants urged him to take his foot out of the snow, he replied, “Ah, you pretend compassion for me but you do not feel for the poor slaves in your ﬁelds, who go all winter half clad.” Lay was a wild man possessed by a wild Spirit that, like the wind, blew wherever it would.
But, like Winstanley and Curwen, he too was an exile. After finally being absolutely renounced by the Religious Society of Friends, he retired to the Pennsylvania countryside where he lived the rest of his days in a cave. He became a vegetarian and ate only that which he personally grew from his own labor. He also made his own clothes. Because he believed that the divine presence of God was in all living creatures, he determined to avoid anything that depended on exploiting others.
By 1757, Lay had reached the age of 75, and his health began to decline. He had witnessed no progress in the cause for which he had dedicated nearly the entirety of his adult life.
Nearly two thousand years before the thought of forming a commune on St. George’s Hill had occurred in the wildest imaginations of anyone, an anonymous writer told of a group of forty-eight Christians who were condemned to torture and death at the beginning of games in the Roman amphitheater of Lyon in what is today France. Among their number was a slave girl named Blandina. When the ancient writer, Eusebius, used this letter to write about this event in his own history of the church, he wrote about her more than anyone else who was tortured that day.
Rome’s cruel society stratified itself sharply and explicitly by classes of persons, and its economy was completely dependent on slave labor. Roman slavery consisted of all races, genders, and ages. A judge could order a person into slavery to satisfy an unpaid debt or as punishment for a crime. Slavery was also a product of Rome’s war economy. Slave dealers would follow the army, and soldiers would sell enemy combatants to them, who would then sell them in one of Rome’s astoundingly large slave markets.
In contrast, the early Christian movement, which Nero had outlawed during his reign, was a radically egalitarian and anti-killing movement. As Paul wrote to the Galatians, within the church “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, nor male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” As such, the early church consisted in large part of enslaved persons, and the upper classes of Roman society viewed them with intense derision. The Roman philosopher, Celsus, wrote that their number consisted primarily of “foolish and low individuals, persons devoid of perception, slaves, and women.”
Rome delegated to local governors the task of punishing those who had been found guilty of the crime of acknowledging Christ as lord rather than acknowledging the emperor as such. During the reign of Trajan, Governor Pliny asked Trajan to instruct him how to conduct the trial of a Christian slave woman who was a deaconess in a local church. Trajan instructed Pliny to have her tortured and, unless she cursed Christ and made an incense offering before a bust of the emperor, condemned to death.
Such was the fate of many early Christians, each of whom lived their days trapped beneath the weight of the Roman superstate. As a tiny group of outlaws that possessed no political power within the totalizing authority of Roman civilization, the debates they considered most relevant were different than the ones we might wish they had had. Instead of debating the morality of slavery, an institution over which they had no power, their earliest debates centered on the nature of Christ—specifically whether he really had a body or whether he just appeared to have one. To some, the idea that the God who created all the cosmos could come to Earth and suffer at the hands of the Romans and their gods was embarrassing.
Nevertheless, the orthodox view that developed over the course of three centuries was that Christ their lord had a real body and in it suffered real pain on a Roman cross and in his resurrection continued to suffer with them in the Roman arena. In their baptism and in their communion, they joined the body of the church and the body of Christ, a body in which the suffering of one would be felt by all. Christ was not above suffering, but went down with them into the depths of it. From this lens, it should not be surprising that they took Jesus’s teaching quite literally about the judgment of the righteous and the unrighteous: Whatever you did unto the least of these, you did unto me.
And so, when the body of Blandina was seared in a fiery hot cage, all for the entertainment of a cheering crowd, the anonymous individual from Lyon wrote that her fellow martyrs in the arena observed her face transfigure until she took on that of the crucified Christ.
Benjamin Lay was in what would ultimately be his deathbed, when a visitor brought him news. Having long been permanently expelled from Quaker meetinghouses, he had been living a life of solitude. Unbeknownst to him, however, the Spirit that decades prior had inspired him to stab a Bible continued to blow in the Quaker communities, inspiring the children of the men and women who had rejected him. And children, by default, are wiser than their parents.
While he was in solitude, a new generation had risen up to carry on his work. Notably among them were John Woolman, Anthony Benezet, and John Cooper. These new reformers successfully convinced the Society of Friends to undertake an internal purification in order to appease the wrath of God. Specifically, what they committed themselves to was the abolition of slavery. Upon hearing the news, Lay remained silent for a while. He had not run his life aimlessly, nor fought like a boxer beating the air. He had run the race for an eternal prize, beaten his body and made it a slave for an eternal crown. But his efforts had been frustrated at every turn and left him all alone. “I can now die in peace,” he whispered. His death came just months later.
In subsequent decades, the Quakers outlawed slavery within the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Their work was instrumental to Parliament’s abolishing slavery within the British Empire. They petitioned George Washington and Thomas Jefferson to outlaw slavery within the United States. While they did not succeed with them, they were some of the most active participants in the Underground Railroad, much to the displeasure of Washington and Jefferson.
We take for granted the categorical immorality of slavery, but for thousands of years almost no one took this for granted. People understood slavery to be a natural and unavoidable thing like an illness or bad weather. Students of the Bible were as blind to its immorality as anyone else. To my mind, this is why the radical work of Winstanley, Curwen, and Lay must continue — even as an act of religious faith. As previous generations struggled with old conceptions and categories of freedom and unfreedom, new generations will need to struggle with new ones. In the absence of that struggle, we will confuse immoral causes of unfreedom with nature. Even worse, we will use the Bible, even in good faith, as cover for our actions.
In particular, if the Church — particularly the white church of America — wants to be serious about the gospel that sets the oppressed free, it will require more rigorous thinking on issues of power dynamics. In other words, what is freedom without the power to exercise it? Are you free when a major health event plunges you and your family into financial insolvency? Are people of all races free to obtain employment without the power of anti-discrimination laws? They certainly weren’t for a century. Are you free when a disability prevents you from entering most buildings? What about children whose cognitive developments have been stunted by industrial chemicals that contaminate their drinking water? The polluters enjoy great freedom, but do the children who live downstream from the polluters? Are you free to demand fair compensation from a large employer in the absence of the power of workers to collectively bargain? Are you free to eat healthier food when doing so means you will miss a utility bill? Is that a real choice? Are you free to start a business when leaving your employment will discontinue the health insurance upon which you rely? Is that a real choice? Are we free when Wall Street is free? Are you free when the education on which your profession depends requires that you go hundreds of thousands of dollars into debt? When you finish school, do you really have the power to chart your own course? Does the freedom to vote carry real power when politicians choose their voters? Is the freedom to vote meaningful to a single parent who cannot wait in line at the polling station for six hours? Freedom and power are not different things.
In the absence of a new generation of Diggers, our descendants will look back on us and wonder how we could be so immoral.