Next weekend (12 September 2009) a plaque is being unveiled on the wall of St Andrew's Church in Cobham, Surrey, commemorating one of the most remarkable and radical theological writers these islands have ever produced.
Gerrard Winstanley (1609-76) came from Lancashire but ended up in London. He was inevitably caught up in the civil war and sensed that the end of monarchy opened up a new opportunity to fulfil the biblical promises for justice and peace in all the earth.
Like the contemporary Levellers, Winstanley - who described himself as a "true leveller" - wrote about the theological significance of the times and what he and his companions thought they were doing as they dug the common ground in what is now the heart of the most affluent part of Surrey.
On St George's Hill they acted out the biblical promise that the earth is a common treasury and the withholding of wealth from others by claim to property, especially when that meant the impoverishment of many, was neither morally nor theologically justified.
He was not an armchair radical, therefore. In one of the most telling sentences he stressed that "action is the life of all, and if thou dost not act, thou dost nothing". In his address to the citizens of London in August 1649 he wrote about the importance of the earth becoming "a common Treasury of livelihood to whole mankind, without respect of persons", and of the voice within him, which bade him write about his convictions.
But writing about them was not enough. "My mind was not at rest," he wrote, "because nothing was acted, and thoughts run in me, that words and writings were all nothing, and must die ... within a little time ... I took my spade and went and broke the ground upon George-hill in Surrey, thereby declaring freedom to the Creation, and that the earth must be set free from entanglements and Landlords, and that it shall become a common Treasury to all, as it was first made and given to the sons of men."
Winstanley interpreted the story of the Fall in Genesis as the acting out of that inclination in humanity which demands property at the expense of others and also cuts people off from each other. He also explicitly asserted his right and ability, as one touched by the divine spirit, to interpret the Bible without any university education.
In this respect, he anticipated William Blake's contrast between book-learning, based on memory and leading to imitation, with inspiration, which would enable any reader, however apparently humble, to interpret the Bible (or anything else) and to offer insights into it.
His writing also anticipates what the 20th century liberation theologians wrote about the centrality of acts of justice as the means whereby one understood theology.
Winstanley and his friends, met by hostility from local landlords and clergy, were driven from St George's Hill and ended up at Cobham. He was particularly impatient with clergy who lived off the tithes of the people and oppressed them with their doctrine.
His innovative approach to Christian doctrine may be seen in the way he interpreted the second coming of Christ: as the "rising up in sons and daughters", drawing them back into a spirit of true community.
As the Commonwealth asserted the traditional political arrangements, the hope of radical change passed, and Winstanley's final written words sound a note of failure, even despair.
But in the words on the plaque which commemorates him in St Andrew's, Cobham, we have a fitting epitaph to this remarkable man whose ideas echo down the centuries and remind us that what he stood for and how he acted were not in vain and beckon later generations to inherit the mantle of his struggle for a better world: "I have writ, I have acted, I have peace: and now I must wait to see the spirit do his own work in the hearts of others."
© Christopher Rowland is the Dean Ireland Professor of the Exegesis of Holy Scripture at the University of Oxford. His next book is on William Blake as interpreter of the Bible, and will be published by Yale University Press.
This article is adapted from one that has appeared in the Guardian newspaper, with grateful acknowledgments.