Wednesday 5 August 2009

Gerrard Winstanley-a Very English Radical

Gerrard Winstanley was a man of his time, one who gave shape to the radical hopes and expectations of the day, but there are also aspects to his work that go beyond the 'primitive communism' so beloved by Christopher Hill and others, ideas that could easily find a place in the modern green and environmental movement. His concept of God, for instance, comes close to pantheism, a belief that the divine was not remote and unknowable, but imminent and immediate, within nature itself:

The whole creation is the clothing of God. The Father is the universal power that hath spread himself in the whole globe; the Son is the same power drawn into and appearing in one single person, making that person subject to one spirit and to know him that dwells everywhere.

To know the secrets of nature was to know the works of God, who is also to be found in each and every individual. For Winstanley nature, the bounty of nature, was corrupted by greed and selfishness, by private property and covetousness, all of which entered the earth as a consequence of the Fall. Greed, as he saw it, had adversely affected the natural environment. The earth was being exploited not for a common good but for ruthless forms of private gain, which enriched the few only to enslave the many. The artificial divisions placed on the land, by expropriation and enclosure, had to be ended by everyone "coming to live in community with the globe and in the spirit of the globe." This was also a spiritual and mystical as well as a practical vision, for Christ himself was present in nature;

The body of Christ is where the Father is, in the earth, purifying the earth; and his spirit is entered into the whole creation, which is the heavenly glory where the Father dwells.

Winstanley shared the view of other Puritan thinkers that the second coming was immanent, but it was not of a figure emerging from the skies to sit in judgment, but the liberation of a force already latent within the hearts of people, a concept that anticipates later Quaker thought. The restoration of the earth as a bounty and treasury for all was, as he saw it, already in the process of coming true, as new forms of consciousness, new ideas of freedom, acted as a signal to the reappearance of Christ-"The Spirit of Christ, which is the spirit of universal community and freedom, is rising and rising."

Fully consistent with his belief in universal liberation, of people and the land on which they lived, Winstanley rejected many of the theological ideas so beloved by his fellow Puritans, particularly the excluding concepts of election and predestination, yet another sign of his originality. Salvation, like liberation, had to be universal, and all men and women would be gathered up in Christ. Just as the many were chosen, not the few, so there was no original sin and no Hell.
Yes, an original thinker, too radical for his own day or, for that matter, any day after.

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