(A Manifestation from Lt. Col. John Lilburn, Mr. William Walwyn, Mr. Thomas Price, and Mr. Richard Overton (now prisoners in the Tower) and others, commonly (though unjustly) styled Levelers

The Leveller movement reached its height in the middle of the seventeenth century. Levellers wanted political democracy and the abolition of the English class system. Their enemies included the wealthy classes, of course, but also the leaders of the army. In 1649, Oliver Cromwell imprisoned several Levellers in the Tower of London. These radicals defended their program in the following pamphlet, arguing that their ideas were not as extreme as they had been portrayed.

What do the Levellers say they stand for? What are the Levellers against? How do they plan to reform English society? What role does God play in the Leveller program?

The community amongst the primitive (1) Christians was voluntary, not coactive; they brought their goods and laid them at the Apostles’ feet; they were not enjoined to bring them; it was the effect of their charity and heavenly mindedness which the blessed Apostles begat in them, and not the injunctions of any constitution. . . . It was not esteemed a duty but reckoned a voluntary act occasioned by the abundant measure of faith that was in these Christians and Apostles. (2)

We profess that we never had it in our thoughts to level men’s estates, (3) it being the utmost of our aims that the commonwealth be reduced to such pass that every man may with as much security as may be enjoy his property.

We know very well that in all ages those men that engage themselves against tyranny, unjust and arbitrary proceedings in magistrates, have suffered under such appellations, the People being purposely frighted from that which is good by insinuation of imaginary evil.

But be it so: we must notwithstanding discharge our duties which being performed the success is in God’s hands to whose pleasure we must leave the clearing of men’s spirits, our only certainty being tranquillity of mind and peace of conscience.

For distinction of orders and dignities, we think them so far needful as they are animosities (4) of virtue or requisite for the maintenance of the magistracy and government; we think they were never intended for the nourishment of ambition or subjugation of the People, but only to preserve the due respect and obedience in the People which is necessary for the better execution of the laws.

That we are for government and against popular confusion we conceive all our actions declare when rightly considered, our aim having been all along to reduce it as near as might be to perfection; and certainly we know very well the pravity (5) and corruption of man’s heart is such that there could be no living without it; and that though tyranny is so excessively bad, yet of the two extremes confusion is the worst. ‘Tis somewhat strange consequence to infer that because we have labored so earnestly for a good government, therefore we would have none at all: because we would have the dead and exorbitant (6) branches pruned and better scions grafted, therefore we would pluck the tree up by the roots.

Yet thus have we been misconceived and misrepresented to the world, under which we must suffer till God sees it fitting in his good time to clear such harsh mistakes, by which many, even good, men keep a distance from us. . . .

Whereas it is said, we are atheists and antiscripturalists, we profess that we believe there is one eternal and omnipotent God, the author and preserver of all things in the world. To whose will and directions, written first in our hearts and afterwards in his blessed Word, we ought to square our actions and conversations. And though we are not so strict upon the formal and ceremonial part of his service, the method, manner and personal injunction being not so clearly made out unto us, nor the necessary requisites which his officers and ministers ought to be furnished withal as yet appearing to us in any that pretend thereunto; yet for the manifestation of God’s love in Christ, it is clearly assented unto by us as being, in our apprehensions, the most eminent and the most excellent in the world and as proceeding from no other but that God who is goodness itself: and we humbly desire his Majesty daily more and more to conform our hearts to a willing and sincere obedience thereunto. . . .

We aim not at power in ourselves, our principles and desires being in no measure of self-concernment: nor do we rely for obtaining the same upon strength, or a forcible obstruction; but solely upon that inbred and persuasive power that is in all good and just things, to make their own way in the hearts of men, and so to procure their own Establishment.

(1) Earliest.

(2) This refers to the so-called “primitive Christian communism” described in Acts 4:32-35, though the next chapter implies that while the sharing may not have been mandatory, it was highly recommended.

(3) Equalize people’s wealth.

(4) Causes.

(5) Depravity, wickedness.

(6) Superfluous.

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This is an excerpt from Reading About the World, Volume 2, edited by Paul Brians, Mary Gallwey, Douglas Hughes, Azfar Hussain, Richard Law, Michael Myers, Michael Neville, Roger Schlesinger, Alice Spitzer, and Susan Swan and published by Harcourt Brace Custom Books.The reader was created for use in the World Civilization course at Washington State University, but material on this page may be used for educational purposes by permission of the editor-in-chief:

Paul Brians
Department of English
Washington State University
Pullman 99164-5020

This is just a sample of Reading About the World, Volume 2.

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