Gerrard Winstanley

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Winstanley, Gerrard (b. 1609). Digger leader. Born in Wigan and apprenticed in London, he failed in trade, and from 1643 worked as a cowhand in Surrey. His twenty tracts (twelve being of substantial length) were all written between 1648 and 1651, and included manifestos for the Digger movement. Before that they were strongly millenarian, but the Digger writings give a boldly secular twist to familiar texts and tenets. God is ‘the great creator Reason’; the Fall begat property and subjection, when men's covetousness overcame the law of righteousness in their hearts; the millennium will come when they restore the land to common ownership and live as equals. But Winstanley's thought never lost its scriptural roots, and he never advocated defying the state or dispossessing landlords by force. His final work, The Law of Freedom, proposed a polity for those who voluntarily embrace a communistic commonwealth. It is highly authoritarian, and its penalties for breaches of its code make chilling reading. Little is known of his subsequent life.

Austin Woolrych

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