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Contemporary Journals & Histories of The Great Plague of 1665-66.   1 comment

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Calamity hits the Kingdom:

In the Spring of 1665, Samuel Pepys made the following entry in his diary:

30 April. Lord’s Day … Great fears of the sickness here in the City, it being said that two or three houses are already shut up. God preserve us all.

The sickness he referred to was the bubonic plague, which Pepys had never known before, the last outbreak in London having occurred in 1625. The disease was not a new one but, like the more modern occurrence of influenza, it came at intervals, though not so often, and it was much more deadly, especially in the crowded parts of the cities. This was the worst attack in modern times, though not so widespread and catastrophic as the Black Death of 1348-49. In London, it lasted until the summer of 1666 and carried off some hundred thousand victims. In early 1666, it spread to other towns, mostly in southern England, but by the end of the year, it was over. We now know that the bacillus of the disease, which was endemic in the Near East and parts of North Africa was carried by fleas on the rats which infested the ships trading with those areas. No cure was known and the disease was almost always fatal. Pepys regularly reports the fatality statistics which were given in the weekly ‘bills of mortality’ published by the Parish Clerk’s Company of London. The Puritan minister, Richard Baxter, also kept a ‘Journal’ in which he reflected on the horror of that year:

It is scarce possible for people that live in a time of health and security to understand the dreadfulness of that “pestilence”. How fearful people were, thirty or forty, if not a hundred miles from London, of any goods that were brought to them from there, or of any person that came to their houses. How they would shut their door against their friends and if a man passed another in the field how one would avoid the other as we did in time of war; and how every man was a terror to another. Oh, how unthankful we are for our quiet societies, homes and health!

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When calamity hit the kingdom, as it did in a series of hammer-blows between 1665 and 1667, the instinctive response of both kings and subjects was not to invoke the illumination of science and rational argument but to call for divine intervention through penance, fasting and prayer. Daniel Defoe’s heart-rending account of the harvest of bodies in 1665, A Journey of the Plague Year, was written more than half a century after the event but was based on reliable memories of contemporaries, including one of Samuel Pepys’ amanuenses, Paul Lorrain.

What Defoe described was a culture divided into the mad and the methodical. The puritan ‘prophets’ seemed vindicated in their prophecies that God’s hand would be laid across the back of the ‘sin-steeped’ kingdom. Unhinged prophets walked naked in the streets roaring for repentance before the race was consumed altogether. In his ‘historical writings’, Edward Hyde, first Earl of Clarendon, described how the Plague followed the first ‘hammer-blow’ inflicted by the Dutch Navy in 1665:

There begun now to appear another enemy, much more formidable than the Dutch, and more difficult to be struggled with;

… which was the plague, that brake out in winter, and made such an early progress in the spring, that though the weekly numbers did not rise high, and it appeared to be only in the outskirts of the town (i.e. London), and in the most obscure alleys, amongst the poorest people; yet the ancient men, who well remembered in what manner the last great plague (which had been near forty years before) first brake out, and the progress it afterwards made, foretold a terrible summer. And many of them removed their families out of the city to country habitations; when their neighbours laughed at their providence, and thought they might have stayed without danger: but they found shortly that they had done wisely.

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Fleeing the Plague & ‘Fighting’ it:

But while the King, the Court, the professions (including physicians) and the Gentry all fled London as fast as they could, they left behind the common citizens to be locked up by the watch in their own houses, prisoners of the contagion, left to succumb, starve or survive. Doctors could not help much because they did not know how to cure the plague. Understanding of the generation and transmission of the disease was scarcely more advanced than when it first struck in 1348. Richard Baxter saw that one good thing came out of the plague, that the most useful people in these circumstances were the brave, unselfish men and women who stayed with the dying to give them courage and to help their families. Of course, it was the duty of the clergymen to do this, but many of them had also fled into the country so that for a time the silenced non-conforming ministers were needed too badly for anyone to try to stop them from helping the ill and the dying. They said that, …

… no obedience to any laws could justify them from neglecting men’s souls and bodies in such want and that it would be a poor excuse to say to God, ‘how I was forbidden by law’.

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In March, Clarendon wrote, the plague had spread so much that parliament was willingly dissolved, a necessary measure considering that so many of its members were the House of Commons were assigned to many offices relating to the Anglo-Dutch War which required their attendance at Westminster and in Whitehall. Meanwhile, platoons of watchmen patrolled the streets enforcing the requirement that households become hermetically sealed at the first sign of infection. The regulations may have been designed to seal off the country from the plague, but inevitably the infection always outran the ability to contain it, and in the meantime, they condemned Londoners to be deprived of any hope of work or sustenance except what came their way by charity. The desperate who attempted to escape the net risked arrest and prosecution. From Alderman Hooker, Pepys heard of …

 … a saddler who had buried all the rest of his children of the plague: and himself and wife now being shut up, and in despair of escaping, did desire only to save the life of this (their surviving) little child; and so prevailed to have it received stark-naked into the arms of a friend, who brought it (having put it into new fresh clothes) to Greenwich.  

For once, Pepys and his colleagues were moved enough to allow the child to stay there in safety. Because it was thought that cats and dogs spread the plague, the Lord Mayor of London ordered a general slaughter of them; by Pepys’ reckoning, forty thousand dogs and as many as two hundred thousand cats were duly massacred. That they were so swiftly rounded up and dispatched testified to the fact that what had modernised since the medieval epidemics was the policing of mortality. By the summer, the plague carts were carrying thousands to the burial pits every week. On a hot, sweaty day in early June, Pepys wrote:

This day, much against my will, I did in Drury Lane see two or three houses marked with a red cross upon the doors, and ‘Lord have mercy upon us’ writ there – which was a sad sight to me, being the first of that kind that to my remembrance I ever saw. It put me into an ill-conception of myself and my smell, so that I was forced to buy someroll-tobacco to smell and to chaw – which took away the apprehension.  

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Above: “Bring out your Dead” was the mournful cry heard at night as carts coursed their way through the city’s streets collecting corpses. As coffins could not be built fast enough, bodies were tossed into grisly pits on the outskirts.

Staying put & ‘socialising’:

Following that, Pepys ‘posted’ regular records and comments about the spread of the plague in his diary:

10 June: Lay long in bed; and then up and at the office all the morning. … In the evening home to supper, and there to my great trouble hear that the plague is come into the City (though it hath these three or four weeks since its beginning been wholly out of the City); but where should it begin but in my good friend and neighbour’s, Dr Burnett in Fanchurch Street – which in both points troubles me mightily. To the office to finish my letters, and then home to bed – being troubled at the sickness, … and particularly how to put my things and estate in order, in case it should please God to call me away – which God dispose of to his own glory. 

11 June. Lord’s Day: I out of doors a little to show forsooth my new suit, and back again; and in going, saw poor Dr Burnet’s door shut. But he hath, I hear, gained great goodwill among his neighbours; for he discovered itself first, and caused himself to be shut up of his own accord – which was very handsome. In the evening comes Mr Andrews and his wife and Mr Hill, and stayed and played and sung and supped -most excellent pretty company; … They gone, we to bed – my mind in great present ease.

In this comment, it’s interesting to note the willingness of some to ‘self-isolate’, despite the low survival rate which must have been apparent by this stage. Also noteworthy, from our current perspective, is how much (wealthy) people continued to socialise during the plague and the benefit it brought to their mental states. But less than a week later, Pepys was severely affected by what happened during his hackney-coach journey from the Lord Treasurer of the Navy’s house in Holborn. The coach gradually slowed down and the coachman climbed down, hardly able to stand, telling Pepys that he had been suddenly taken sick and was almost blind. Pepys alighted and went to another coach, saddened for the poor man but also troubled for himself since he had been picked up at the end of town where the plague was most concentrated. However, by the end of June, it seemed to some that the peak of infection had passed:

… I informed myself that there died four or five at Westminster of the plague, in one alley in several houses upon Sunday last – Bell Alley, over against the Palace Gate. Yet people do think that the number will be fewer in the town than it was last week. 

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A weekly ‘bill of mortality’ for the week of 15-22 August 1665.

It is obvious from his entries that, by this time Pepys was becoming increasingly anxious for his own health, trying to limit his visits to his workplace and to ‘isolate’ himself as much as possible. The plague was beginning to affect him more personally, as friends, as well as neighbours, were succumbing to it:

3 July: Late at the office about letters; and so home, resolving from this night forward to close all my letters if possible and end all my business at the office by daylight, and I shall go near to do it and put all my affairs in the world in good order, the season growing so sickly that it is much to be feared how a man can (e)scape having a share with others in it – for which the good Lord God bless me or to be fitted to receive it. So after supper to bed, and mightily troubled in my sleep all night with dreams of Jacke Cole my old schoolfellow, lately dead, who was born at the same time with me, and we reckoned our fortunes pretty equal. God fit me for his condition.

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Above: West side of the City

Below: East side of the City

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Yet he was still able to go out and about, ordering wine on 7 July, of which he was pleased to have an ample supply in his cellar. He sent some of this to his wife, who two days earlier had moved out of plague-stricken London to lodge with William Sheldon, Clerk of the Cheque at Woolwich yard. Pepys was also helping to arrange a ‘marriage alliance’ between the families of the Earl of Sandwich and Sir George Carteret. Pepys took Philip Carteret, due to marry Sandwich’s daughter, Jemima, to ‘Dagnams’, the Essex home of Lady Wright, the Earl’s sister-in-law, where the young people were due to meet for the first time. Both were said to be ‘excessively shy’. On their way from Greenwich to Dagenham on 15 July, which included two ferry crossings with their coach and horses, Carteret and Pepys had a silly discourse … as to … love matters, he being the most awkward man I ever met withal in my life as to that business. His awkwardness continued well into their evening visit to ‘Dagnams’ and during his ‘courtship’ of Lady ‘Jem’, which included an afternoon visit to church. She later agreed to ‘readily obey what her father and mother had done’ but the wedding ‘breakfast’ two weeks later, according to Pepys (who missed the service with the bridegroom’s parents due to the tide at Deptford), was very merry … but yet in such a sober way as never almost any wedding was in so great families. Pepys did not mention the plague in his entries for these four days, which suggests that he could still be ‘distracted’ by such amusing ‘episodes’ of a more ‘normal life’.

Fears, favours & funerals:

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As August began, however, Pepys found the Exchequer being moved out of the City to Nonsuch Palace near Cheam in Surrey by royal proclamation. He then returned home to his ‘papers’ and began putting his books into storage, ‘settling’ his ‘house … and all things in the best and speediest order’ he could, lest it should please God to take me away or force me to leave my house. That the number of deaths was still growing can be surmised from his entry for 12 August, in which he reported the imposition of a ‘curfew’ by the Lord Mayor:

The people die so, that now it seems they are fain to carry the dead to be buried by daylight, the nights not sufficing to do it in. And my Lord Mayor commands people to be within at 9 at night, all (as they say) that the sick may have liberty to go abroad for ayre.

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Having just visited his wife at Woolwich yard, on 15 August he got up at 4 a.m. and walked to Greenwich, where he called on Captain Cockes, who was still in bed. While there,

… something put my last night’s dream into my head, which I think is the best I ever was dreamed – which was, that I had my Lady Castlemayne in my armes and was admitted to use all the dalliance I desired with her, and then dreamed that this could not be awake but that it was only a dream. But that since it was a dream and that I took so much real pleasure in it, what a happy thing it would be, if when we are in our graves (as Shakespeare resembles it), we could dream, and dream but such dreams as this – that then we should not need to be fearful of death as we are in this plague-time. 

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Lady Castlemaine, studio of Lely: ‘But strange it is, how for her beauty I … pity her … though I know well enough she is a whore.’ (16 July 1662).

On 21 August, the Navy Office was moved to Greenwich Palace. For the rest of the year, Pepys moved into lodgings nearby, paying occasional visits to his wife at Woolwich and to his office building in London. The Principal Officers attended a Sunday service at St Alphege’s, the parish church on 3 September. Pepys felt inhibited from wearing his fine new periwig for fear that it was maid of hair cut from infected bodies:

Up, and put on my coloured silk suit, very fie, and my new periwig, bought a good while since, but darst not wear it, because the plague was in Westminster when I bought it. And it is a wonder what will be the fashion after the plague is done as to periwigs, for nobody will buy any haire for fear of the infection – that it had been cut off the heads of people dead of the plague. Church being done, my Lord Brouncker, Sir J. Mennes and I up to the vestry at the desire of the the Justices of the Peace, Sir Th. Bidolph and Sir W. Boreman and Alderman Hooker – in order to the doing something for the keeping of the plague from growing; but Lord, consider the madness of people of the town, who will (because they are forebid) come in crowds along with the dead corps to see them buried. But we agreed on some orders for the prevention thereof.

There was not much that science could do about the death rate, other than count London’s dead with ‘modern’ devotion to the seriousness of statistics and the mapping of the epidemic. In the first week of September, there were 8,252 deaths in the capital, of which 6,978 were from the plague. One in six Londoners died in the plague of the summer of 1665, and despite the onset of cooler weather as September went on, the trepidation hung around. On Sunday 24 September, Pepys caught up with his diary for the last seven days, he was contented that:

… it having pleased God that in this sad time of the plague everything else hath conspired to my happiness and pleasure, more for these last three months then in all my life before in so little time. God long preserve it, and make me thankful for it. 

But on 16 October, he returned to London, if only for a day. The scenes and sounds that greeted him immediately threw him back into a low mood:

But Lord, how empty the streets are, and melancholy, so many poor sick people in the streets, full of sores, and so many sad stories overheard as I walk, everybody talking of this dead, and that man sick, and so many in this place, and so many in that. And they tell me that in Westminster there is never a physician, and but one apothecary left, all being dead – but that there are great hopes of a great decrease this week: God send it.

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‘Home by water … the river beginning to be very fell of ice, so I was a little frightened.’      (18 December 1665). 

The Frozen Thames, by A. Hondius, 1667, detail. Before the river was embanked in the nineteenth century, it was liable to freeze in the most severe winters, especially to the near London Bridge (as shown). In 1676-77 and 1684 ice fairs were held on the Thames.

On 22 November, Pepys recorded that the plague had, that week, ‘come very low’, six hundred or so, the news bringing ‘great hopes’ of a further decrease. These were at least partly predicated on there being ‘a very exceeding hard frost’, continuing the next day, conditions which were apparently ‘a perfect cure of the plague’. It’s interesting to note how then, as now, people believed that the onset of colder or warmer weather could provide at least a partial ‘cure’, though there has never been any significant evidence for this. In fact, the persistence of the plague through the winter months throughout the winter of 1665-56 and its spread to other cities, towns and villages the next year is suggestive of nothing but the sense of desperation that Londoners must have felt as the year neared its close. However, by 24 November, when Pepys visited the City again, it remaining or returning citizens had begun to observe or enquire of each other as to who that they knew before the plague was still alive. There were other signs of life returning, and Pepys was ‘mightily glad to see the Change so full’. He had bought two barrels of oysters from his old shop in ‘Gracious Street’, so pleased was he to find ‘my fine woman of the shop’ still alive, but was then concerned to discover that they had come from Colchester ‘where the plague hath been so much’. On Christmas Day he attended church in the morning and then saw a wedding which he had not seen in many a day, presumably since the one he had helped to arrange in July. This time, the young people were ‘so merry with one another’.

Premature Predictions:

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Early in the New Year of 1666, on 5 January, Pepys went by coach with Lord Brouncker to ‘my Lord’s house in Covent Garden’. There was great interest in the arrival of a nobleman’s coach in town once again, and everywhere porters were bowing to them, and beggars were begging. Pepys went on to describe a much more lively scene than on his previous visits to the City:

… a delightful thing it is to see the town full of people again, as now it is, and shops begin to open, though in many places, seven or eight together, and more, all shut; but yet the town is full compared  with what it used to be – I mean the City end, for Covent Guarden and Westminster are yet very empty of people, no Court nor gentry being there.

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However, Pepys’ optimism proved premature for, in the week after Christmas, as Clarendon later wrote, although …

… the rage and fury of the pestilence began in some degree to be mitigated, but so little, that nobody who had left the town had yet the courage to return thither: nor had they reason; for though it was a considerable abatement from the height it had been at, yet there died still between three and four thousand in the week, and of those, some men of better condition than had fallen before.  

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Edward Hyde, First Earl of Clarendon, Lord High Chancellor, by Sir Peter Lely, c. 1662.

The Return of the King:

General Abermale, who was responsible for the conduct the Dutch War from London in the King’s absence, wrote to him in Oxford…

… that there still arose new difficulties in providing for the setting out of the fleet, and some of such a nature, that he could not easily remove them without communication with his majesty, and receiving his more positive directions; and how to bring that to pass he knew not, for as he could by no means advise his majesty to leave Oxford, so he found many objections against his own being absent from London.

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Charles II, as a patron of the Royal Society (of Sciences).

Windsor was thought to be a place where the King could reside safely since there had not yet been any infection there, but as the Court began to move there, taking up all the available accommodation, he became apprehensive about the outbreak of plague in one house in the town. In the end, towards the end of February, the king decided that the Queen, the Duchess of Richmond and all their families should remain in Oxford, while he and his brother, together with his cousin Prince Rupert, would meet the general at Hampton Court, staying there for two or three days a week, with the general returning to London down the Thames each night, 

… for no man did believe it counsellable that his majesty should reside longer there than the despatch of the most important business required.

Meanwhile, on 7 January, the Pepyses had returned to their home in Seething Lane, and on the 9th the Navy Board resumed its sittings there. But when he visited the ‘Change’ again on the 10th, they heard there, to their grief, how the plague had increased in the previous week from seventy to eighty-nine. Nevertheless, even some of the doctors and scientists began to return to the City as January went on and the number of deaths began to fall again. On 22 January, Pepys recorded details of his visit to the Crowne Tavern behind the Exchange, where the Gresham College met for the first time since the Plague:

Dr Goddard did fill us with talk in defence of his and his fellow physicians’ going out of town in the plague-time; saying that their particular patients were most gone out of town, and they left at liberty – and a great deal more, &c. But what, among other fine discourse, pleased me most, was Sir G. Ent about respiration; that is not to this day known or concluded on among physicians, nor to be done either, how that action is managed by nature or for what use it is.

The following day, the ‘good news, beyond all expectation’ was that the number of cases had dropped to seventy-nine. On the first Sunday of February, the Pepyses went to church together for the first time since the outbreak of the Plague. They only returned on this occasion …

… because of Mr Mills coming home to preach his first sermon, expecting a great excuse for his leaving the parish before anybody went, and now staying until all are come home; but he made a very poor excuse and a bad sermon. It was a frost, and had snowed last night, which covered the graves in the churchyard, so I was the less afeared for going through.

Three days later, 7 February, was a fast day for the Plague victims and Pepys spent it returning his chamber to the way it had been before the outbreak, taking all his books out of storage. This was the last direct, contemporary reference to the plague in London in Pepys’s ‘Journal’, so we might assume that by this date there were no more deaths in the capital. However, for at least a week at the end of February, Charles continued to keep his families in Oxford and to use Hampton Court for War meetings. The next week, Clarendon tells us, the number of those who had died from the plague in the City decreased by a thousand;

… and there was a strange universal joy there for the king’s being so near. The weather was as it could be wished, deep snow and terrible frost, which very probably stopped the spreading of the infection, though it might put an end to those who were already infected, as it did, for in a week or two the number of the dead was very little diminished. The general came and went as was intended: but the business every day increased; and his majesty’s remove to a further distance was thought inconvenient, since there appeared no danger in remaining where he was.

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In the third week, he decided to return to Whitehall and was preparing to do so when the news came through that there had been a further fifteen hundred deaths in that one week. As the King’s train rode into the City, the Courtiers found the streets otherwise empty of coaches;

… so much all men were terrified from returning to a place of so much mortality. Yet it can hardfly be imagined what nuimbers flocked hither and thither from all parts on the fame of the king’s being at Whitehall, all men being ashamed of their fears for their own safety, when the king ventured his person. The judges at Windsor adjourned the last return of the term to Westminster Hall, and the town every day filled marvellously; and which was more wonderful, the plague every day decreased. Upon which the king the king changed his purpose, and, instead of returning to Oxford, sent for the queen and all the family to come to Whitehall: so that before the end of March the streets were as full, the exchange as much crowded and the people in all places as numerous as they had ever been seen, few persons missing any of their acquaintance, though by the weekly bills there appeared to have died above one hundred and three score thousand persons: and many, who could compute very well, concluded that there were in truth double that number who died: and that in one week, when the bill mentioned only six thousand, there had in truth fourteen thousand died. 

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Above: A Plague Broadsheet, 1665.

Counting the Cost:

The frequent deaths of parish clerks and sections of parishes hindered the exact week-by-week counting of the dead, but what made it most difficult was the vast number of those who were buried in fields without any account being kept. Clarendon also claimed that many of ‘the anabaptists and sectaries who abounded in the city’, very few left their homes, ‘multitudes’ of them dying without the knowledge of the churchwardens or other parochial officers. They held their own burials in small gardens or neighbouring fields. The greatest number of deaths were of women and children, and also of ‘the lowest and poorest sort of people’, whereas few (rich) men missed their male acquaintances when they returned, ‘not many of wealth or quality or of much conversation being dead’. Due to the plague at Westminster, Parliament met at Oxford in 1666. It was prorogued to a day in April: but, as Clarendon recorded,

… the king had reason to believe that they would not so soon be in good humour enough to give more money, which was the principal end of calling them together. And the dregs of the plague still remaining and venting its malignity in many burials every week, his majesty thought fit to dispense with their attendance at that time by a proclamation: and he caused it at that day to be prorogued to the twentieth of September following. In the meantime, the court abounded in all its excesses. 

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Financially, the plague and the war had so ‘routed’ the revenues and receipts of the Exchequer, that those who collected these had not received enough to discharge the constant burden of their offices. Consequently, very little income was making its way into the national treasury, and neither was any interest being made on the ‘principal sums’. Moreover, as the great financial offices were located in the City of London, their destruction in the Great Fire in September meant that the very stocks which were consumed which would lead to a revival of trade.

The Spread of the Plague in the Country & the Clergy:

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Richard Baxter and his family all escaped the plague, probably because they were not living in London, having already been driven away by the Act of Uniformity which restored the old Anglican Church lock, stock and barrel, leading to the ejection of one in five of the clergy by 1662. Perhaps because of their popularity through their courage and devotion to duty during the plague, another law, the Five Mile Act, prevented them from coming within five miles of any important town or of any place at all where they had once been ministers. Some of these ministers went to small, out-of-the-way villages, while some went into hiding near their old homes and visited their wives and children secretly, on dark nights. They had to live in Acton, then six miles from the City; the Plague followed them there for seven months, but none of them caught it, although, at the end of their time there, the churchyard was like a ploughed field with graves. 

Rev William Mompesson (1639-1709) - Find A Grave Memorial

But it was not only the Puritans and their non-conforming clergy who were brave and charitable during the Plague, as the story of a young clergyman called William Mompesson (pictured above), who lived near Chatsworth in Derbyshire’s Peak District, reveals. After a period of service as chaplain to Sir George Saville, later Lord Halifax, he came as Rector to Eyam in 1664, with his wife Catherine accompanying him.

In 1665, the plague had reached his village through some cloth which had been sent north from London to the village tailor. The consignment of cloth bound brought with it the infectious fleas which spread the disease. After an initial flurry of deaths in the autumn of that year, it died down during the winter only to come back even more virulently in the spring of 1666. As its rector, Mompesson was determined not to let the plague spread, so that in conjunction with another clergyman, the ejected Puritan, Thomas Stanley, he took the courageous decision to isolate the village. He sent a letter to the (3rd) Earl of Devonshire at Chatsworth Hall to ask him to arrange for food and medicine to be placed at regular times on a great stone outside the village. This was done for seven weeks, during which time the Rector asked that no-one should leave the village and no-one did, though all were frightened that they might catch the plague by staying. The Rector made them see that it was their duty to other people not to risk spreading it around the country. All through the seven weeks of self-imposed quarantine until the plague died out, the Rector and his wife went about among the plague-stricken people, nursing them day and night. Mompesson did many other things to help the village during the plague including preventing the spread of it by filling a well full of vinegar for trading. This helped stop the spread of the plague by sterilising any coins that came in or out of Eyam.

In spite of these measures and the continuous care of the Mompessons, 259 of the parishioners died, including the Rector’s wife, but the infection did not spread to any other village in Derbyshire and the neighbouring counties. The plague claimed its last Eyam victim in December 1666. Mompesson became so associated with the plague that he was not universally welcomed at his next parish, Eakring, Nottinghamshire, where his memorial can be found. In 1670 he remarried, his second wife being a widow, Elizabeth Newby. She was a relative of his patron, Sir George Saville, and through his patronage, Mompesson eventually became Prebendary of Southwell, Nottinghamshire, although he declined the opportunity to be Dean of Lincoln Cathedral. He died in 1709.

This historic episode, commemorated each year in the village, has been the subject of many books and plays, notably The Roses of Eyam by Don Taylor (1970). Recently academics have begun to examine the factual basis of the story’s key ingredients: in particular, the extent to which wealthier residents were able to circumvent the ban. For example, despite insisting all villagers should remain in Eyam, Mompesson had his own children sent away to Sheffield in June 1666, just before the quarantine was agreed. At this time he also determined to send his wife Catherine with them but she refused to leave him, later succumbing to the plague.

The Comet, the Coronation & the Condition of the English People after the Fire:

The appearance of a comet in the summer of 1664 had been greeted with the same dismay that this phenomenon had always inspired as a presage of disaster. As Simon Schama has commented eloquently:

Following astrology, as the almanacs reminded their preternaturally anxious readers, was numerology; the tail of the comet heralded the sign of the Beast, his number being, as everyone knew: 666. Sure enough, in the first week of September 1666, up from the bituminous regions of hell, came the diabolical fire. Prophets had long been warning that the new Sodom, steeped in lechery and luxury, would be consumed by the fiery wrath of an indignant Jehovah.   

The longer-term significance of the events of the Great Plague and the Fire of London, forever linked in the psychology of the English people as coupled catastrophes, was that they revealed the 1660s as years of complacency and drift in which the early euphoria of the Restoration gave way to mild political depression. The ravages of the plague, the humiliating Dutch incursions up the Medway during the Second Dutch War (1665-7) and the Great Fire sapped the confidence of 1660-61 that God would bless a land that had come to its senses after the Civil Wars of the previous decades.

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Sources:

Robert Latham (ed.) (1978), The Illustrated Pepys: Extracts from the Diary. London: Bell & Hyman (Book Club Associates).

G. Huehns (ed.) (1953), Clarendon: Selections from ‘The History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars’ & ‘The Life by Himself’. London: Oxford University Press.

Simon Schama (2001), A History of Britain: The British Wars, 1603-1776. London: BBC Worldwide.

Katharine Moore (1961), Richard Baxter: Toleration and Tyranny (1615-1691). London: Longmans.

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The ‘Free Spirit’ in Revolutionary Britain: Part II – Ranters, Quakers & Dissenters, 1658-88.   Leave a comment

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Rival Visionaries – James Nayler and George Fox:

In 1659, the Quaker James Nayler, cruelly punished by parliament for leading a procession into Bristol which sought to emulate Christ’s entry into Jerusalem two years earlier, was released from prison and went to see George Fox, seen by many at the time and since as the ‘founding father’ of Quakerism. Fox was lying ill at Reading, in the grip of a mysterious illness caused by mental suffering. Though he took little or no interest in politics, he had shared the hopes of every Nonconformist in the coming of a Puritan government. The deposition of the Church of England and the abolition of the monarchy seemed to promise an era of religious liberty and equality of worship. But Cromwell’s Government had proved itself little by little to be as intolerant as its predecessor, and the internecine strife which had raged among the sects had only intensified since the common enemies, the Episcopalians and Presbyterians had been removed from the field.

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At the time of Cromwell’s death towards the end of 1658, 115 Quakers were in prison for expressing their beliefs in public, and nine had died in gaol. Added to this disappointment was a sense of impending disaster in store for the government and people of England and Wales which Fox and his followers had never ceased to warn them over the preceding months by letters, signs and messengers. But such was Fox’s condition that when Nayler, soon after his release from Bridewell, rode out to Reading to see him, he found the door to his room closed against him. It was clear that Fox had never forgiven Nayler both for his personal disloyalty in denouncing him and for the perceived injury which his followers had worked in Quaker ranks. Nayler now disclaimed the ‘Divine Leading’ which he had earlier justified himself by: I reasoned against God’s tender reproof … and he gave me up, and his Light he withdrew and his Judgement took away. This undermined any opposition which might be using his name within the Quaker movement, reaffirming the unity of the Spirit by which Quakers claimed to be guided. It also helped to answer the propaganda of their enemies, such as:

J.N. and G.F. at daggers drawn discover their cheat of both being led by an infallible Spirit.

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Fox (pictured in the 1650s above) was suffering from mental illness at the time of Nayler’s release, so Nayler was told that he could not see him, as he described in the letter he sent to Magaret Fell in the Summer of 1659. Yet whatever excuses might be made for his own disordered spirit, it is hard to fathom the unrelenting harshness Fox showed to Nayler in this crisis in his fortunes. Three years had passed since their last meeting, during which Nayler had suffered insult out of all proportion with his offences; whilst in his confession to Parliament and his penitent letters to Friends he had done all in his power to atone for his fault. Now that he was free to take up his broken life and move once more among his fellows, it was necessary above all things to be assured of Fox’s forgiveness. The continued refusal of Fox’s hand of fellowship placed him in the anomalous position of a ‘disowned’ Friend and discounted the welcome home given him by his brother ministers. Yet this rebuff only served to bring him back out most clearly the best in his nature in what he wrote to Margaret Fell:

But my spirit was quieted, in that simplicity in which I went, in that to return; and he gave me his peace therein as though I had had my desire … Still, his presence is with me in what he moves me to, which is my comfort and refreshment – and so his will is my peace.

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As Nayler had supposed, Margaret Fell had already heard of his abortive visit, from her daughter. In the same letter, she learnt that he had attended a meeting of Friends in London on the following day, a Sunday, but did not speak. This silence, however, was soon broken, even in the face of Fox’s discouragement. By the end of October, a month after his release from Bridewell, Nayler was addressing great meetings in London, and strangers who flocked to hear him went away convinced of the truth of his message. While still under the cloud of Fox’s censure, he seems to have recovered his position of the Friends’ spokesman, and through the autumn and winter, his pen was busy on public matters. Of the letters which he then wrote, perhaps the most important was an answer to two manifestos sent from New England in defence of the governers’ defence of the persecution of the Quakers. The following year, 1660, William Dewsbury succeeded in bringing the two men together, only a few months before Nayler’s death. Beside’s Dewsbury’s celebration of their reconciliation, it is notable how the vigour and power of Fox’s Journal revive after the date of his meeting with his old ‘comrade’, though it is disappointing that he gave no account of the reconciliation. It appears to have taken place at a public meeting at which Dewsbury recalled:

Mighty was the Lord’s Majesty amongst his people in the day he healed up the breach which had been for so long to the sadness of many. The Lord clothed my dear brethren G.F., E.B., F.H., with a precious wisdom. A healing spirit did abound within them with the rest of the Lord’s people there that day … and dear J.N., the Lord was with him.

‘J.N.’ wrote his own ‘song of joy’, a poetic piece which swept before it all the archaisms of his theology and the mannerisms of his usually more deliberate style:

It is in my heart to praise thee O God; let me never forget thee, what thou has been to me in the night … Then didst thou lift me out of the Pit, and set me forth in the Sight of mine enemies, thou proclaimd’st Liberty to the Captive, and called’st mine Acquaintance near me, they to whom I had been a Wonder, looked upon me, and in thy love I obtained favour in those who had forsook me, then did gladness swallow up sorrow and I forsook all my troubles; and I said, How good is it that Man be proved in the Night, that he may know his Folly, that every Mouth may become silent in thy Hand, until thou makest Man known to himself …

It was, no doubt, his general anxiety for the fragile community of Friends which led to Fox’s mental breakdown and precipitated his negative response to Nayler’s request to meet him, as well as his later rejection of John Perrot. Quaker scholars have concluded that in his anxiety for his ‘flock’, Fox did not trust enough in the power of the Spirit to preserve it, so that he unwittingly revealed a rejecting, authoritarian side to his personality. But some of the early editors of the letters and works of both Fox and Nayler sometimes felt obliged to suppress their accounts of miracles, denunciations, controversies, dreams and nightmares, thus contributing, from well-meaning motives to the provision of incomplete accounts of their experiences. This was an injustice to both men, who in their differing ways endured terrifying struggles with the evil in themselves and in the world; it also deprives historians and others of reaching a holistic view of their conflict and its resolution. From a practical point of view, Fox deserved the support which the great majority of Friends had offered him. But in condemning his friend for ‘running out into imaginations’. Fox may have allowed the authoritarian and practical side of his own natural instincts to suppress the more libertarian and visionary aspects which were so strong in Nayler.

But the whole episode deserves to be treated as representing an important transition from a serious breach in the movement to a way of resolving internal conflict. It also reveals that the movement was not as vulnerable as its enemies had hoped. Soon afterwards Nayler, who had already written a penitent letter to the Magistrates who had tried him, travelled to Bristol, where he made a public confession on the spot where his offence had first been committed. Those who had retained the clearest memory of his errors were melted into forgiveness. It is small wonder that Nayler’s popularity returned, but now no success could woo him from his attitude of willing submission to Fox’s leadership. He preached once more at the Meeting in the Strand in London. Then he set out on foot from London to see his wife and children in Wakefield in the summer of 1660. There was a prevalent ‘low fever’ in the city and the country, and it found easy prey in Nayler whose body had already been tried beyond endurance, and it succumbed very swiftly. He reached Huntingdonshire, where he was apparently attacked by robbers and left bound in a field, from where he was taken to a Friend’s house at Holm, near King’s Rippon, where he soon died. He was buried on 21 October, in the village of King’s Repton in the little graveyard of Thomas Parnell, his last friend and physician. His last words, which have come down to us preserved by friends who stood around his deathbed, seem to sum up the central message of the Inner Light at the end of the first ‘stage’ of Quakerism:

There is a Spirit which I feel that delights to do no evil, nor to revenge any wrong, but delights to endure all things, in hope to enjoy its own in the end: Its Hope is to outlive all Wrath and Contention, and to weary out all Exaltation and Cruelty or whatever is of a Nature contrary to itself. It sees to the End of all Temptations: As it bears no Evil in itself so it conceives none in Thoughts to any other: If it be betrayed it bears it; for its Ground and Spring is the Mercies and Forgiveness of God. Its Crown is Meekness, its Life is Everlasting Life unfeigned, and takes its Kingdom with Intreaty and not with Contention, and keeps it by Lowliness of Mind. … nor doth it murmur at Grief and Oppression. It never rejoyceth, except through Sufferings … I found it alone being forsaken; I have Fellowship therein, with them … who through Death obtained this Resurrection and Eternal Holy Life.

Fox and The Second Generation of Quaker ‘Leaders’:

It is from Thomas Ellwood, Milton’s Quaker friend and amanuensis, that we get the clearest picture of Nayler in his closing days. In December 1659 he was a lad of twenty, living at home with his father at Crowell in Oxfordshire, attracted to Quakerism through his admiration of Guli Springett, who later married William Penn. Her stepfather and mother, the Penningtons, were old friends of the Ellwood family, and it was in their company that he attended the Quaker meeting at Chalfont together with his family, held at a farmhouse called The Grove, close to the quiet haven of Jordans, which became a centre for Quaker pilgrims. James Nayler attended the meeting with his old friend and co-worker, Edward Burrough, who was the only Friend to speak at the meeting. We have no record of what he said, but we do have the following statement which he made in his Preface to The Cause of Stumbling Removed by Richard Hubberthorne in 1657 on the ‘contention surrounding James Nayler’:

And as concerning this thing, which was looked upon as a breech among us by many, yet it’s over, and Truth stands a-top of it, and the beauty of Truth appears through it all, and Truth is more lovely when it is proved and purged.

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We might assume that Burrough gave a similar message at the meeting he attended the following year at ‘Jordans’. Ellwood’s autobiography also contains the following sketch of their witness:

As for Edward Burrough, he was a brisk young man of a ready tongue (and might have been, for aught I then knew, a Scholar), which made me the less to admire his Way of Reasoning. But what drop’d from James Nayler had the greater Force upon me, because he look’d but like a plain, simple Country-man, having the appearance of a Husbandman or Shepherd.

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But though he died in early middle-life, those contemporary friends who were best able to secure his legacy survived him only by a few years. Hubberthorne, Nayler’s faithful friend, was one of the first to die, aged just thirty-four. Edward Burrough died in 1662, after eight months’ imprisonment in the Old Bailey, leaving behind him widespread consternation among Friends, together with a sense of irreparable bereavement. Francis Howgill died six years later in Appleby gaol, where he had shared Nayler’s first imprisonment. Farnsworth, who had been ‘convinced’ at the same time as Nayler, and had followed his fortunes with paternal interest ever since died in a London gaol in 1666. Only Dewsbury, who had brought about the reconciliation of Fox and Nayler, lived to any great age, dying in London in 1688, having spent nearly half a lifetime in gaol. Other close associates of Nayler went into self-imposed ‘exile’, like Robert Rich, the London merchant, who went to Barbados in 1659. He frequented Quaker meetings there and supported those in prison back in Britain. But his relations with the Society were anything but cordial, and he never forgave Fox for what he regarded as his persecution of an innocent man. The London Friends responded to his repeated attacks by disowning Rich, refusing even to accept his donation for the relief of the poor after the Great Fire. He returned to London in 1679 and became once more a familiar figure in Friends’ meetings before his death later that year.

Death of Cromwell & Commonwealth:

But this was twenty years after Nayler’s death, by which time his name had gone down in a sea of infamy with most Friends. His offence and punishment had been of so spectacular a nature that they threatened to survive in the collective memory of the Society long after the recollection had vanished of his repentance and recovery. Moreover, the whole episode of his breach with Fox had brought an atmosphere into it which was not easy to disperse. A church founded on democratic principles, which acknowledged no superiors in its ministry was hard to reconcile with Fox’s stiff and autocratic attitude. Many of Nayler’s followers never returned to their allegiance but remained a source of disorder in numerous districts of England and Wales.

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The Death-Mask of Oliver Cromwell, 1658.

In the year between Oliver Cromwell’s death and the restoration of Charles II, Quakers refused the positions they were offered by the Committee of Safety to help in ensuring public order, partly for political reasons, but also because violence might be involved. Friends’ attitude to the secular authority was that they should respect the law in so far as it did not conflict with their direct apprehension of the law of Christ, and if they had to break it, they willingly accepted the consequences, refusing to pay a fine or accept a pardon, in witness to the fact that they were doing what they knew to be right. They fearlessly sought out those in authority and spoke to them frankly, as equals. George Fox had met Cromwell several times before the Protector’s death and harangued him about the responsibilities of government as well as the sufferings of persecuted Friends. It is a tribute to Fox’s personality that both Cromwell and Charles II showed respect for him as well as curiosity. And when the opportunity arose in New Jersey and Pennsylvania to set up governments based on Quaker principles, the challenge was taken up and boldly carried through by William Penn and others.

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The Embleme of England’s Distractions, As also of her attained, and further expected Freedom & Happiness, 1658.

052The Rump of the Long Parliament was in charge after Richard Cromwell had been deposed by the Army in April 1659 and was responsible for Nayler’s release. Although it was sent packing by the army officers under Major-General Lambert (right) in October, as Lambert’s support melted away, it reassembled on Boxing Day. A Paper signed by 164 Friends offering to replace their fellows in gaol was sent to Parliament petitioning about the renewed persecution of their brethren that …

… lie in prisons and houses of correction and dungeons, and many in fetters and irons, and have been cruelly beat by the cruel gaolers, and many have been persecuted to death, and have died in prison, and many lie sick and weak in prison and on straw, so we, in love to our brethren, do offer up our bodies and selves to you, for to put us as lambs into the same dungeons … and nasty holes and prisons … that they may not die in prison … For we are willing to lay down our lives for our brethren, and to take their sufferings upon us that you would inflict upon them. … Christ saith it is he that suffereth and was not visited …

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In his General Epistle to them who are of the Royal Priesthood (1659), Fox also attacked those who wished to restore the Mass for the Papists, Common Prayer for the Episcopal men and the Directory for Presbyterians. He even attacked the Church-made and framed faith for the Independents and Mixed Baptists. He contrasted all these ‘Church-made faiths’ with the Quaker faith, the unity and fellowship of which would stand when all the others were ended. He also drew attention to the hypocrisy of churches which had once called for toleration of their practices, but were now persecuting others, including the Quakers, foreshadowing what was to come:

‘Forgive us, as we forgive them’, cry Papists, cry Episopals. These cry the Lord’s Prayer, and then like a company of senseless men fall a-fighting with one another about their trespasses and debts, and never mind what they prayed, as though they never looked for forgiveness, and to receive the things they prayed for, that fall a-persecuting and imprisoning  one another, and taking their brethren and fellow-servants by the throat about religion, (who) in their prayers said ‘Father, forgive us, as we forgive them’, and will not forgive.

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Return of the King – Restoring ‘Order’?:

As the year neared it end, Admiral Lawson, in command of the fleet anchored in the Thames, declared for Parliament, and General Monck (depicted in the contemporary porcelain figure, right) at the head of an army in Scotland, who had made it known for some months that he was in support of the civil authority, was about to march on London. He crossed the border on New Year’s Day, to be greeted with proclamations from all parts of the country in favour of a ‘free parliament’. Lambert offered no resistance and in early February, and backed by the civic authorities in London, Monck insisted that the Rump should admit the moderate members excluded in 1648 so that it could arrange for free elections. Everyone knew that this would mean the return of the King.

In his diary, Samuel Pepys (pictured below) describes how, on 6 February 1660, Monck entered the capital with his army to be warmly welcomed by Parliament, though the Common Council and the city apprentices hesitated to rally to his banner.

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George Fox came up from Reading in time to see the destruction of the city gates and portcullises by the troops, recommended by Parliament to Monck as the quickest means of bringing the City Council to heel. Fox saw this act of vandalism as a prophecy of the ruin which he had foretold would come upon the city. The following day, the Quakers were already suffering a foretaste of their treatment under a Royalist Government, and Pepys witnessed their rough handling by Monck’s soldiers at Whitehall.

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Above: Whitehall from St. James’ Park, by Peter Tillemans (detail). The Coldstream Guards drill in front of the Horse Guards building, while Charles II strolls through the park with members of his court.

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The accession of Charles II, in defiance of Fox’s prophecies, gave the signal for an orgy of persecution which lasted with a few short intermissions for the rest of his reign. The Quakers showed themselves the most uncompromising of all the sects, and upon them, the storm broke with peculiar violence. The authorities simply did not know what to do with them, they showed so little fear and so much firmness. They crammed them into prisons but they still held their meetings there. They told their gaolers that …

… they might as well think to stop the sun from shining, or the tide from flowing whilst but two of them were left together. 

Heterodoxy and schism became commonplace among Quakers during the rest of Fox’s lifetime and into the next century. The next serious breach was made by John Perrot, a returned missionary, whose sufferings at the hands of the Inquisition in Rome had turned a brain already weakened by hysterical mysticism. Perrot had attempted to preach in Rome and had suffered three years’ imprisonment in a madhouse by order of the Inquisition. On his return to Britain, he raised the question of whether ‘customary, traditional ways of worship’ were already creeping in among Friends. The practices complained of were slight: most prominent in the controversy was that of taking off one’s hat while praying in a Quaker meeting. At the time of Nayler’s release from Bridewell, Perrot was convulsing the Society with his campaign against ‘hat-honour’, which he argued should be refused to the Deity, no less than to earthly dignitaries. It was a mad effort for the glorification of the Divine in man, surely the most perverse offshoot of the doctrine of the Inner Light.

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To Fox, this was a matter of turning Friends from unity in the power of God into vain and useless disputes. Yet backed by the sympathy and respect aroused by Perrot’s sufferings for the Truth, the ‘heresy’ made great headway, the more that Fox, imprisoned in Scarborough Castle, was unable to oppose it in person with the weight of his influence and common sense. He wrote a letter of disownment and condemnation which was read to Perrot on board the ship which was about to set sail for Barbados. In this way, Fox exercised the authority which many friends expected of him; but feelings were running strongly enough on both sides for this to risk the danger of splitting the movement in two. It was not Fox, but Dewsbury who sent a letter to Perrot which he also published, of the need for reconciliation, and of God’s power to preserve his own truth:

And as to my particular self, it is not my nature to be found striving with thee or any upon the earth; but, having declared the Truth to thee, I will return to my rest in the Lord, and let every birth live the length of its day; and let the time manifest what is born of God, for that spirit that stands up in self-striving will weary and die, and end in the earth.

037During this potential schism, from 1664 to 1666, Fox was enduring harrowing imprisonment at Lancaster and Scarborough. His body was numbed with cold and his fingers swelled so that one was grown as big as two. During this time, the question of authority was still an urgent one; and in his absence, a specially convened meeting issued a letter committing a power of decision and judgement to such good ancient Friends as have been and are sound in the Faith, and agreeable to the witness of God in his people. The reaction to the dangers of individual guidance was creating the beginnings of a hierarchy, of which Fox could have expected to be at the pinnacle.

When he was released, he had a new vision, of a structure for Friends without human leadership, where balance could be achieved between the insight of the individual and the corporate wisdom of his own group of Friends. The step which Fox took to enforce discipline by the revival of ‘Monthly Meetings’, which had existed in some places during the Commonwealth but had often disappeared during the more recent persecutions. Ill as he was, he rode around the country establishing a complete system of these meetings.

Any or all of the members of ordinary local meetings which comprised it could attend these county-wide meetings. In its business affairs, as in all other matters, the decider was ‘the Spirit of God’, made known in the hearts of those present. No decision would be made until each and every one of them was convinced of this. Matters of concern were referred to Monthly Meeting from the constituent meetings, and each Monthly Meeting could refer them to the Yearly Meeting which could take action on behalf of the whole Society of Friends throughout Britain. Fox’s further travels were in support of this autonomous system which he felt justified in calling ‘gospel order’. His presence and his ‘epistles’ must have carried great weight, yet we sometimes read of him leaving most of the speaking to his companions in meetings and playing a minimal active part. He wrote that the least member in the Church hath an office and is serviceable, and every member hath need one of another. The extent to which he surrendered his leading position was one of the most remarkable things in his life. Though he was seldom explicit about the struggles with his own conscience, this may be seen as the outcome of a long process of self-examination and readjustment, in the light of the schisms, persecutions and spiritual promptings of the years between 1656 and 1666.

Yet while this was devised to heal one schism, it gave rise to another yet more dangerous and more widespread one, the ‘Wilkinson-Story Separation’. In the eyes of these two influential Quakers, this new departure in Church government was a betrayal of the Inner Light. Fox, they thought, had ‘delegated’ the task of ‘spiritual direction’, which was the prerogative of each member, to the ‘Meeting’. Henceforth, every individual member would have to bow to a corporate ruling rather than follow the leading of their own conscience. This controversy lasted over many years, with both parties being unwilling to give way to reach a compromise. Its consequences were lamentable not just within the Society but also outside since it revealed Quakerism as being a ‘unity rent by disunion’. The validity of its cardinal doctrine was called into question; for while the two opposing sides laid claim to the guidance of the Spirit, it was obvious to all that one side must be decided and therefore deceiving others. Fox’s natural authority, both by temperament and as founder, was liable to take the course already charted in the case of Perrot. This was probably reinforced by the anxieties and loyalties of a great many Quakers, and by the deaths, at about this time, of quite many ‘the first publishers of Truth’, Fox’s original co-workers. Even when the storm had subsided, it left its traces in a new diffidence in trusting to untested inspiration or striking out into fresh paths, and on the part of outsiders in a sceptical atmosphere which made doubly difficult their evangelistic work.

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Although Fox did not regard the Bible as the fountain of Truth, he believed that its writings flowed from this fountain, as did the inspired actions and words of Friends, so it was natural that they should draw from it. Charles II asked one of them, How did you come to believe the Scripture were true? The answer was:

I have believed the Scriptures from a child to be a declaration of truth, when I had but a literal knowledge, education and tradition; but now I know the Scriptures to be true by the manifestations and operation of God fulfilling them in me.

It was not only the grown-ups but the children who showed great courage in the face of persecution. At Bristol, Reading and Cambridge, when all the men and women were in prison, the children continued to meet. A letter to George Fox from Reading dated 15 November 1664 says:

Our little children kept the meeting up when we were all in prison, notwithstanding the wicked justice, when he came and found them there, beat them with a staff he had with a spear in it.

In Bristol, too, the children met and were savagely beaten for doing so but they bore it patiently and cheerfully. Boys and girls of ten and twelve years were threatened with prison and beaten unless they promised not to meet together for the worship of God any more but the children in that respect were unmoveable. By contrast, the Ranters were never ‘natural’ martyrs. Like Lollards and Familists before them, they usually recanted when called upon to do so. Since most of them did not believe in immortality, the satisfactions of martyrdom were less obvious: resistance to death would require a deeper and more worked out faith than that possessed by most of them but this was that the sort of faith that the Quakers had come to own. In 1672, Fox wrote, in his ‘Second Epistle’, of their ‘passive resistance’ in the following eloquent terms:

Friends never feared their Acts, nor prisons, nor gaols, nor houses of correction, nor banishments, nor spoilings of goods; nay, nor life itself. And there was never any persecution that came, but we saw it was for good; and we looked upon it to be good, as from God; and there never were any prisons that I was in, or sufferings, but still it was for the bringing multitudes more out of prison. For they that imprisoned the Truth and quenched the Sprit in themselves, would prison it and quench it without them. So that there was a time when there were so many in prison that it became a by-word, “Truth was scarcely to be found but in gaols.”

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Friends, unlike Ranters, often suffered at the hands of these same ‘magistrates’, and a number of them died in prison. These experiences brought them close to prisoners and outcasts, and also tested their Christian love and forbearance towards their judges, guards and gaolers. On many occasions, these people were won over from enmity and ridicule to respect and trust. For a belief of ‘that of God in everyone’ asserted that acting towards oppressors in the Spirit of Christ, believers would reach and awaken the same spirit within their ‘enemies’. Despite his doctrinal differences, Baxter admired the stoutness of the Quakers under persecution, one of the most important reasons for their survival into the eighteenth century and beyond:

… they were so resolute and gloried in their constancy and suffering, that they met openly and were dragged away to the common jail, and yet resisted not and the rest came the next day, so that the jail at Newgate was filled with them. Many of them died in prison, and yet they continued to meet.

Promptings of ‘the Spirit’, Prophesying & Persecution:

When James II succeeded his brother, there were 1,383 Friends in prison, of whom about two hundred were women. Though the records are imperfect, it has been estimated that at least four hundred and fifty Quakers had died in gaol since the Restoration, so terrible were the conditions of imprisonment. Bishop Barnet, who wrote a history of his own times, gave a description of the persecution of the Quakers:

When they were seized, none of them would get out of the way. They went all together to prison; they stayed there till they were dismissed, for they were dismissed, for they would not petition to be set at liberty, nor would they pay their fines … and as soon as they were let out, they went to their meeting-houses again; and when they found these were shut up by order, they held their meetings, in the streets, before the doors of those houses. They said they would not be ashamed of their meeting … but would do it the more publicly, because they were forbidden to do it.

Not just during persecutions, but at all times Quakers had to witness to the Spirit of God within them, knowing that their words and actions might be God’s means of awakening this Spirit in a fellow man or woman. If they kept shops, they knew they must shoe equal honesty to all; customers discovered that they could even send a child to buy from it without being cheated through the unfair adjustment of prices, weights and measures. If a craftsman, the Quaker’s work must be sound but simple, not encouraging worldly vanity. If he was a labourer, he must give his employer full and honest service, yet show him the respect due to an equal, not a superior. In some local registers of craftsmen, the term ‘Quaker’ was applied as if it were a ‘trade’.

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Like the ‘prophets of old’, the Quakers might be called to apparently irrational actions. They lived in an era when the traditional structures and beliefs in religion and politics (largely undifferentiated at the time) were being challenged by Levellers and Diggers, Familists and Ranters. Some of these groups developed an extreme emotional fervour and moral individualism which acknowledged no formal commandments. Many also anticipated the ending of the world throughout the period. Friends had to discover where they stood concerning these beliefs, all the more because they attracted adherents from these groups. In the 1670s, Fox responded to this influx and the criticism it led to by tightening the church government in the Society of Friends, and this, in turn, led to further splits in the movement. The ‘dissidents’ opposed subordination of the individual light within the ‘sense of the meeting’ and objected to the imposition of a more hierarchical structure in the form of a ‘national church’ with monthly, quarterly and annual meetings, as well as separate women’s meetings. They compared these structures with those of other churches, rejecting on principle the condemnation of individual Quakers by any church meeting. For them, the re-organisation was ‘an infringement upon individual liberty’, denying the continuing presence of Christ within all believers. Penn, on the other hand, argued that these were ‘libertine spirits’ who tread down your hedge under their specious pretence of being left to the light within.

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Two significant nonconformist figures among critics of the movement, John Bunyan and Richard Baxter both conflated and confused Quaker beliefs and practices with those of the Ranters, though Bunyan emphasised that only the Ranters had made the doctrines threadbare at the alehouse, and the Quakers have set a new gloss on them by … outward legal holiness. But Bunyan also lumped Ranters and Quakers together in condemnation because both permitted women ministers. The Ranter leader Lawrence Clarkson, looking back from 1660, had no doubt that the early Quakers shared his beliefs about God, the devil and the resurrection, only they had a righteousness of the law which I had not.  The same sense of God which had earlier led George Fox to walk barefoot through Lichfield crying ‘Woe to the bloody city!’ or to climb Pendle Hill to ‘sound the day of the Lord’ was present in more considered actions, such as Penn’s inner ‘calling’ to found the State of Pennsylvania and set up its constitution on principles which included no army or militia, no death penalty, and respect for the rights of Amerindians as equals.

The spread of Quakerism, emptying the ‘steeple-houses’ of Anabaptists and Dissenters, witnessed both to the defeat of the political Levellers and to the continued existence and even the extension of radical ideas. The multitude was still ‘much inclined’ to a ‘popular parity, a levelling anarchy’ in 1650. Even after the Restoration, Samuel Fisher was defending Quakerism against accusations of ‘this rude and levelling humour’. As late as 1678, Thomas Comber was suggesting that the Quakers derived from Gerrard Winstanley, the ‘True Leveller’.

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Heterodoxy & Nonconformity:

The enormous problem of disciplining this amorphous and heterodox movement fell principally to George Fox. For all independent protestant churches, the appeal to conscience, to the inner voice, conflicted with the necessity of organisation and discipline, if the church was to survive. If, as it seems, the early Quakers drew their support mainly from Ranter and Seeker groupings, then their serious challenge was to impose such a common order on the most individualist of all nonconformists. It cost Fox much heart-searching and enmity before he convinced the movement, as his pastoral letters reveal. But gradually, the need to draw lines between themselves and the Ranters, and to eliminate Ranters within their own ill-defined ranks, led Quakers to place more emphasis on human sinfulness, even among Friends. In 1659, Lawrence Clarkson, the Ranter ‘leader’ turned Quaker rebuked ‘ranting devils’ who continued to say that God was the author of evil and that ‘for them, sin was no sin’. The absolute individualism of the appeal to Christ within everyone had to be curbed. It seems to have been the approach of the restoration that decided Fox in favour of pacifism and non-participation in politics. He accepted as the reality that the Kingdom of God was not coming soon. So long as that had appeared to be on the agenda, political attitudes had necessarily to remain fluid. After its disappearance, the problem was one of the relationship of the Society of Friends as a sect to the world in which it had to continue to exist.

Speech, as well as action, had to be open to the Sprit’s inspiration. It was of paramount importance to say what one knew to be true. Friends refused to speak on oath because this would have implied that their everyday utterances were untrustworthy. Incidentally, this gave magistrates an almost certain way of committing them to prison, for if a Friend was asked to take ‘the Oath of Allegiance’, which could be administered to anyone to prove he was a true subject of the realm, the answer was ‘No’. As with so many of their insights, there were two paths to this conclusion: by following in action the logic of their principles; and by taking seriously the New Testament (‘Swear not at all’, and ‘Let your Yea be Yea and your Nay, Nay’). In one of his Journal entries for 1664, George Fox recorded one Courtroom exchange:

Judge:  Sirrah, will you take the oath?

G.F.:     I am none of thy sirrahs, I am no sirrah, I am a Christian.      Art thou a judge, and sits here and gives ill names to prisoners? It does not become either thy grey hairs or thy office. Thou ought not to give names to prisoners.

Judge:  I am a Christian too.

G.F.:     Then do Christian works.

Judge:  Sirrah, thou thinkest to frighten me with thy words …

G.F.:     I speak in love to thee. 

Judge:  George Fox, I speak in love to thee too.

G.F.:     Love gives no names.

Judge:  Wilt thou swear? Wilt thou take the oath.  Yeah or nay?

G.F.:     As I said before, whether must I obey God or man, judge thee. Christ commands not to swear; and if thee, or you, or any minister or priest here will prove that Christ or the apostles, after they had forbidden swearing, commanded that (we) should swear, then I will swear. (And several priests being there, never one appeared or offered to speak.)

Judge:  George Fox, will you swear or not?

G.F.:      It’s in obedience to Christ’s command I do not swear, and for his sake we suffer. And you are sensible enough of swearers how they first swear one way and then another. And if I could take any oath at all upon any occasion, I should take that; but it is not denying oaths upon occasions, but all oaths according to Christ’s doctrine.

Judge:  Then you will not swear. Take him away, gaoler.

G.F.:     It is for Christ’s sake I cannot swear, and in obedience to his commands I suffer, and so the Lord forgive you all. 

Anthony Pearson, a young judge whose conversion on the Bench was one of the most dramatic incidents in Nayler’s early ministry, had since the Restoration ceased to be numbered amongst the Quakers. For many years he had done fine service for Friends, pleading for them with the government and making his home a place of refuge and hospitality. His continued interest in politics, however, acted as a widening wedge between him and Friends, and his appearance at Nayler’s hearing before the Committee of Parliament seems to have been his last act of comradeship. In 1660, he made his peace with the Royalist authorities by abjuring the chimerical notions of those giddy times. He became Under Sheriff of Durham and died in ‘ecclesiastical sanctity’ in about 1665.

The leading Friends of the first generation were great pamphleteers, and when they died it was customary to publish a ‘Collected Works’. In James Nayler’s case, this did not appear until nearly fifty years after his death. In its pages, he qualified the Quaker doctrine of human perfectability in the Light by his sharp awareness of the ebb and flow of spiritual strength, the possibility of self-deception and the believers’ need to understand the ‘darker’ side of their personalities. He wrote of how he experienced judgement and mercy as one, how he was able to lay aside all resentments and find peace, love and strength in the utter loss of himself. It was not long before the sober, respectable Quaker image began to replace that of the wandering enthusiast with his revelations from God and revolutionary zeal. Men such as William Penn, son of an admiral and friend of James II, Isaac Penington, son of the Lord Mayor of London, and Robert Barclay, son of a Scottish laird and trained in theology, joined or came to prominence. Barclay wrote, in particular, about the importance of silent ministry in worship, as a form of ‘unspoken love’:

Such is the evident certainly of that divine strength that it is communicated by thus meeting together, and waiting in silence upon God, that sometimes when one hath come in, … this Power being in good measure raised in the whole meeting will suddenly lay hold upon his spirit, and wonderfully help to raise up the good in him and beget him into the sense of the same Power, to the melting and warming of his heart; even as the warmth would take hold upon a man that is cold coming to a stove, or as a flame will lay hold upon some little combustible matter being near unto it. 

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Above: ‘The valley thick with corn’  (1825) by Samuel Palmer, from the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. John Lampen writes: ‘the picture (while not a likeness of George Fox) expresses many things I feel about Fox: his early experiences in the countryside, his naive and visionary qualities, his insistence that the Garden of Eden can be recovered, and his imagery so often drawn from rural life.

‘True Light’ – Psychology & Theology in Early Quakerism:

For the early Friends, what John Lampen has defined, in psychological terms, as the ‘decisive impulse of the unconscious’ confirmed the ethical guidance of what they understood by Christ, the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world. This quotation from John’s gospel has sometimes been called the ‘Quaker’s text’ because they asserted more strongly than most other Christians that this illumination was a general and identifiable experience. By ‘general’, Lampen means that they believed it came to Muslims and Amerindians as well as to Christians, humanists and agnostics. By ‘identifiable’, he means that they gave definite criteria to distinguish it from ‘the disguised gratification of our unconscious will’.  Quakers saw  Christ in four aspects, he argues. He is the eternal Word of John’s gospel, preceding all history. Secondly, he gives substance and meaning to all the prophecies, symbols and leadings towards the ‘One God’ of the Jewish religion and other later religious traditions, such as Christianity and Islam. Thirdly, he is the historical Jesus who, Fox said, wholly embodied these ‘foreshadowings’. Fourthly, as James Nayler had set out, there was ‘the Christ I witness in me now’. This is the aspect of Christ which other early leaders witnessed to, Christ as the Light, Spirit or Seed within. Fox identified this Sprit in man with Jesus Christ, rather than just ‘God’ because of his initial revelation and Jesus’ own promise to be with his followers even to the end of the world. He had read in the Bible that Christ would be known to his people as king and lawgiver, prophet and teacher, shepherd and healer, priest and saviour – the ‘offices’ or functions of the Light which he too had personally experienced.

But this is not to claim that every believer has a total private illumination. Jesus set up a community and told them to love one another as they had loved him. Fox used the concept of the indwelling Christ not to make unique claims for himself or anyone else, but to emphasise that anyone in the worshipping group might be prompted to say the word which that group (or individual Friends within it) needed to hear. This was what he called the ‘prophetic’ word of Christ, a word which was an objective reality rather than a psychological one. George Fox’s sanity and humanity are as apparent as his mysticism and sense of mission, in his life and writings.  There is no doubt of his religious experience; not a sudden flash, but gradually evolving from his first insight as a troubled young man. He possessed from the beginning a keen sensitivity to the evil in the world, both in private lives and political circumstances; his spiritual participation in what early Friends suffered for their witness brought him at times to a state of collapse. John Lampen believes this awareness of external malice was coupled to a sense of danger from within, from the bad part of his nature which had led him to contemplate suicide and with which he had to come to terms. Fox’s position was logical, once he had accepted the concepts of the ‘world’ and ‘sin’.  By the ‘World’, Fox and his contemporaries meant, as Cecil W Sharman has summarised:

… outward interests and activities of this life alone; people who give their attention only to these, and  who look down on any who give priority to religious or ethical considerations.

The early Quaker attitude towards sin and perfection had its dangers. Was the vision of the individual paramount? Was there to be no external authority? In that case, as its enemies pointed out, there was no fundamental difference between them and the Ranters, who were not an organised group but a loose movement for radical thinkers. As far as the concept of ‘original sin’ was concerned, Fox believed that the responsibility for this was to be laid at man’s door, not God’s. In his 1659 book, The Great Mistery, he wrote:

As for the soul, that is immortal, for God breathed into man the breath of life and made man a living soul, and sin came by disobedience – and that separates between man and God who is pure and hath all souls in his hand; but as for you are in a cave of darkness, the mystery of the soul is from you hidden, but you confess it is by your means that sin is conveyed to your children. Yea, take it to yourselves, it is your work and the Lord hath no hand in it, not in sin nor in making sinners.

In the same volume, Fox quarrelled with Richard Baxter’s saying that Christ’s kingdom is a hospital, and has no subjects but diseased ones. To this, he replied:

We read of no such thing in scripture … But they who follow the Lamb, in their mouth is no guile, nor spot, nor fault before the throne of God …; and they are the faithful, and called, and chosen that overcome the world, and his kingdom stands in power and in righteousness and joy in the Holy Ghost, and is not a ‘hospital’, nor his subjects diseased ones, for he heals them, and coverts them, and washes them. The diseased, or such as come to Christ to be healed, them who come to him he heals them of what infirmity soever it be, and cures them, and clothes them in the right mind.

Since part of the strength of the Inner Light, of conscience, is its ability to change with a changing intellectual climate, it is not surprising that in the England of Charles II the Quaker consensus came down on the side of discipline, organisation and common sense. They had spread their ideas by becoming wandering speakers, and the torrent of pamphlets on religious matters which poured from the presses during the Commonwealth had owed much to them. Some of them were deeply exercised about the paradoxes of good and evil, God and nature; others simply enjoyed the advantages of a philosophy which devalued all ethical codes. Christopher Hill suggested in his 1972 work on the sects in the Civil War that …

The Quaker movement up to 1659, was far closer to the Ranters in spirit than its leaders later liked to recall after they had spent many weary hours differentiating themselves from Ranters and ex-Ranters. 

But, after the Restoration, the Inner Light had to adapt itself to the standards of the commercial world where ‘yea’ and ‘nay’ helped one to prosper. It was as pointless to condemn this as a sell-out as to praise its realism; it was simply the consequence of the organised survival of a group which had turned the world upside down only to see it turned the ‘right’ way up again. By the 1680s, Fox’s inner voice was telling him something quite different from what it had been telling both him and James Nayler thirty years earlier. Nayler had already become a dark shadow lying across the communal memory of the Society.

From ‘Anarchy’ to ‘Progress’ – Penn, Baxter & Bunyan:

In his Preface to Fox’s Journal, looking back from 1692, the year following George Fox’s death, William Penn identified many Quakers in the earlier days of the Ranter wing, who:

… would have every man independent, that as he had the principle in himself, he should only stand and fall to that, and nobody else; and though the measure of Light and Grace might differ, yet the nature of it was the same, and being so, they struck at the spiritual unity which a people guided by the same Principal are naturally led into …

Some weakly mistook good order in the government of church affairs for discipline in worship, and that it was so pressed or recommended by him and other brethren.

The potential tension between this independent principle and spiritual unity convulsed the Quaker movement three times during Fox’s lifetime. In the first of these, the controversy surrounding James Nayler, the doctrine of the Inward Light had been severely tested. It may have been the case that the church could only survive by establishing itself as an institution, albeit quite different from other churches, even nonconformist ones, in its doctrines and practices. But some Friends, even today, feel that their Society never recaptured the qualities which were symbolically ‘cast out’ with James Nayler. Although still persecuted until 1689, the long-term development of the Society, through a period of withdrawal from the world, commercial success, enlightened social witness, the evangelical movement, to the humanism of today, Quakerism may seem to have more to do with the rationalism of John Locke than the mysticism and prophetic fire of the younger George Fox and James Nayler.

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In 1673, Penn also wrote that it was a Ranter error to suppose that Christ’s fulfilling of the law discharged believers from all obligation and duty required by the law as well as to suppose that all things a man did were good simply because he had convinced himself they were. The later seventeenth-century Quaker conundrum was how to win agreement on objective standards of good and bad, lawful and sinful. This, Penn argued, necessitated church ‘authority’ of some kind. Otherwise, Friends would have to wish…

… farewell to all Christian church order and discipline (which would then provide) an inlet to Ranterism and so to atheism. 

That stated the clear dilemma of a highly individualistic church which had grown up from being a millenarian sect and was at first organisationally influenced mainly by a desire to remove hindrances to spiritual freedom. In the post-Commonwealth era, it had to face the problem of continuing to exist in, what for Friends was undoubtedly an uncongenial world that was being re-established. That necessitated discipline and organisation and a more regular form of teaching ministry. No longer, in Penn’s words, could men afford…

… to wait for a motion of the spirit for everything.

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Penn had won fame as a soldier and had been a great favourite at the Court of Charles II, but he no longer wore a sword as the Quakers,  whom he had joined, thought that all fighting was wrong. Instead of the ‘French garbe’ (right), armour and sword that he had worn when Samuel Pepys met him in 1664, he dressed in the same dark cloth jackets and breeches that were worn by other Quakers, with short-crowned felt hats. Of course, he later went to America to be able to worship and serve God freely, founding the colony of Pennsylvania.

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Following the restoration of the monarchy, Charles II was persuaded by his restored bishops to agree to ‘The Act of Uniformity’ which required ministers to promise to use the Prayer Book and to obey the bishops. If they did not do this by St. Bartholemew’s Day in August 1662 they were turned out of their churches and livings. Richard Baxter believed that it was wrong to force people to do anything against their consciences and so he would not agree to the Act. Baxter said:

And now hundreds of good ministers with their wives and children had neither home nor bread.

Many congregations followed their popular ministers out of the churches, travelling about to go on listening to their teaching and preaching in private houses. The government responded by passing The Conventicle Act, forbidding such meetings and sending everyone who attended them to prison. As a result, the prisons were soon full of those who defied the Act, especially the Quakers. The justices were so busy with the Quakers and the prisons so full of them that they had less time and room for other Nonconformists. A further Act was passed against them called the ‘Five Mile Act’ which said that they must not come within five miles of any important town or of any place at all where they had once been ministers. This prevented them from receiving charitable funds from their home parishes, thus cutting off their incomes completely. Left to himself, the ‘merry monarch’ would have probably allowed both Catholics and Nonconformists to worship in freedom. Parliament would not allow this, however, but the magistrates knew that they could allow nonconformist preaching to continue in private houses. In 1672 the King issued a Declaration of Indulgence, doing away with some of the fierce laws against Nonconformists and granting licenses for certain preachers. Richard Baxter was one of the ministers to get a licence and he returned to London, settling in Bloomsbury.

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Baxter reveals how many ministers thought t it was better for them to go on teaching and preaching openly even if they were sent to prison than to starve or, worse still, see their children starve. Baxter went on preaching in his own house to his family and friends, first in London and then in Acton. As more and more people from neighbouring parishes were coming to hear him preach, he was careful not to preach during the time of ‘divine worship’ at the parish churches. As his house was close to the church, he used to preach before the service and then take all the people over to the church with him afterwards to hear the vicar. But the vicar betrayed him to the magistrates and he was sent to Clerkenwell jail since Newgate was already too full of Quakers. He was allowed a room of his own and his wife to stay with him, so they kept house as comfortably and contentedly as at home, though in a narrower space. 

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While staying with friends at Rickmansworth in Hertfordshire, Baxter met William Penn, and the two of them held a meeting in which they discussed and debated before an audience. It lasted from ten in the morning until five without even a break for refreshments. William Penn was a man with a large private income, the son of an admiral who had been a close personal friend of James, Duke of York, who had been in charge of the Navy during Charles II’s reign. We have no record of his disputation with Baxter, but it may well have had a significant effect in the shift in Quaker doctrine which has been characterised as ‘the Quakers’ return to sin’. The man who above all made this ‘adjustment’ was Robert Barclay, son of an old Scottish landed family related to the Stuarts, who was also to be seen at James II’s court. In addition to his famous Apology (1678), Barclay had also published an attack on The Anarchy of the Ranters and other Libertines as late as 1676.

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Baxter continued to teach thousands of people in London who, after the Great Fire and the Acts against the Nonconformists, were without churches and ministers. In February 1685, Charles II died and his brother James, Duke of York, became King. Although, as a Roman Catholic, he could have continued his brother’s tacit toleration in the interests of making common cause with the Dissenters, James hated them because so many of them had opposed him acceding to the throne. Almost as soon as he did so, he authorised the active persecution of them to resume. Baxter was their most famous preacher and writer and, though worn out by age and illness, James thought that the Nonconformists could best be punished by making an example of him through a public trial. His ‘judge’ was the Lord Chief Justice of England, Judge Jeffreys, a man who would do anything the King required. He was the last in a long line of Welsh recruits to the world of Tudor and Stuart political careerists, a clever but cruel man, who is notorious for having hanged more people than any judge before, including the poor West country farmers who rose up in support of the Monmouth rebellion later the same year.

Baxter was duly brought to trial before him at the Guildhall on 30 May 1685, apparently on a charge of sedition, based on twisted interpretations of his Bible commentaries. According to a letter in the collection of a contemporary minister, Rev. Daniel Williams (1643-1716), written by an eye-witness to an ‘honoured old friend’, Baxter told the ‘mad’ Judge who was ‘ablaze with anger and brandy’:

“One day, all these things will surely be understood and it will be seen what a sad and foolish thing it is that one set of Protestant Christians are made to persecute another set. … I am not concerned to answer such stuff (as I am accused of) but am ready to produce my writings, and my life and conversation is known to many in this nation.”

That was all Baxter was allowed to say in his own defence, since Jeffreys pointed out to him that he had “written books enough to load a cart, everyone full of sedition, I might say treason, as an egg is full of meat.” Baxter was imprisoned at Southwark since he was unwilling to pay the fine of five hundred marks. He remained in prison for eighteen months. The correspondent commented sarcastically:

We have fine judges and juries in England you see! This viper, I am told, proposed a whipping through the city, but I hear some of his brethren abhorred the notion and stamped on it. So amongst them out of their great clemency, they have set the above fine. …

036John Bunyan was also one of those ‘mechanic preachers’ who lived out much of his life in prison, spending seven years in Bedford gaol where he wrote The Pilgrim’s Progress, which became, next to the Bible, the most popular and sometimes the only other book in homes all over England. When Bunyan was brought before a judge in 1670, he was told that if he did not stop preaching he must be hanged. Bunyan replied, “If I were out of prison today, I would preach the Gospel again tomorrow, by the help of God.” He remained in prison for twelve years, during which time he wrote many books, including his famous allegory.

Justice Hotham’s famous remark to Fox in 1652, that Quakers had prevented the nation being overrun by Ranters, looks rather different in the context of 1685 and Fox’s Journal, written in that decade than it did when it was first uttered. Without the Quakers, he had gone on:

… all the justices in the nation could not have stopped it with all their laws, because (said he) they would have said as we said and done as we commanded, and yet have kept their own principle still. But this principle of truth, said he, overthrows their principle, and the root and ground thereof.

Assuming it was correctly reported by Fox himself, perhaps a rather large assumption, this is not a simple statement like ‘Methodism saved England from a French Revolution’. JPs could never have destroyed Ranterism because Ranters would compromise, recant, and yet remain of the same opinion; but the Quakers’ principle led them to bear witness in public, and so to be far less dangerous. If they were to survive, their public witness forced on them the organisation which destroyed the Ranter element in their faith. One of the Ranter characteristics, by contrast, was their readiness to flee from persecution.

George Fox witnessed to the lifelong character of his spiritual struggle in his words as he came out of his last Quaker meeting, a few days before his death in 1691: “I am glad I was here, … now I am fully clear.” The nature of this struggle can be seen during the periods of mental stress which he went through in the years up to 1649, in the summer of 1658 and the winter of 1670-71. His descriptions speak of insecurity and uncertainty, a sense of actual danger, threatening visions and an almost telepathic identification with the sufferings of others. These spells brought physical prostration, sometimes alternating with short bursts of hyperactivity. In each case, the period ended with one or more visions which spoke to him of wholeness and integration, and which left him ready to face new problems and demands with deeper spiritual resources. For instance, his almost fatal illness in the winter of 1670-71 was immediately followed by his strenuous visit to America. The people of Baycliff said of Fox that “He is such a man as never was, he knows people’s thoughts.” He interpreted dreams and was credited with healing powers. It is not surprising that legends grew up around him, such as that he could be in different parts of the country at the same time. But there is no doubt, from both his own Journal and contemporary accounts that he understood the needs of his fellows, their strengths and weaknesses, and that the practical and mystical went hand in hand with him.

Fox did not use his gift of discernment primarily to judge others but to try to arouse in them the ‘witness of God’ which would convert or ‘convince’ them from the heart; it was not his own words, but that which answered them within the hearer which was meaningful. A priest with whom he had been disputing said, “Neighbours, this is the business: George Fox is come to the light of the sun, and now he thinks to put out my starlight.” Fox told him he would not quench the least measure of God in any, much less put out his starlight if it was true starlight – light from the Morning Star. But sometimes Fox felt the need to match his kindliness with sternness. When one man came and told Fox that he had had a vision of him: … I was sitting in a great chair … he was to come and put off his hat and bow down to the ground before me, Fox told him, “Repent, thou beast.” When an individual experienced the teaching, healing and judging power of the Light in him, he could find confirmation of the fact that this was no delusion or personal fantasy by turning to accounts of the historical Jesus and finding them consistent with their own personal experiences. For this presence which believers encountered in the depths of their being, Fox used an abundance of metaphors: Light, Rock, Ensign, Seed, Anchor, Voice, Hammer, Word, Truth, Life, Lamb, Heavenly Man, Captain, Foundation, and many more. All these were used almost interchangeably with ‘Christ Jesus’ and ‘the Spirit of God’. Fox was never in doubt that what Friends would find in those ‘depths’ was Christ, teaching and ministering to them in a way which was consonant with what they could read of him in the Gospels.

Paradise Regained? True Simplicity & Uniform ‘Grey’:

In his interpretation of the historical Jesus, George Fox went back to the traditions of Jesus’ teaching and ministry preserved in the synoptic gospels. His theme was eschatological, that the Kingdom of Heaven had now come. However it presented itself, it must be grasped and held fast; everything else would be added to it. This teaching characterised the early Quaker experience and emphasised the seeking of the Kingdom over the doctrine of the atonement found especially in John’s Gospel and the epistles. Fox suggested that the events of Jesus’ earthly life were in some real sense re-enacted within Friends.

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In this way, he supported the claim of Milton (pictured right), that Paradise could be regained, restoring the right relationship between God and man and the whole of creation. We owe the theme of Paradise Regained to another Quaker, Thomas Ellwood, to whom Milton lent the manuscript of Paradise Lost. Apparently, he returned it with the comment, Thou hast said much of paradise lost, but what of paradise found? Fox himself demanded that believers must come out of the state that Adam is in, in the Fall, to know the state that he was in before he fell.

He took seriously the claims of the New Testament that salvation has already come, that our bodies are temples of God, and that if we abide in the Light there is no occasion of stumbling in us. For most of his life, Fox seems to have had a rare ‘full assurance’ of God’s grace, but he was not alone in this among early Quakers.

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Neither was the Quaker ’cause’ limited to a small number of enthusiasts. By the time of George Fox’s death in 1691, one Englishman in every hundred was a Quaker, worshipping in a way which had almost no point of contact with the other churches’ tradition. traditions. They were the largest of the dissenting sects. Their movement was equally remarkable for its courage, its toleration, its discipline and its democracy. In ‘steeple-houses, law courts, shops and streets, in and out of prison, in prosperity and under threat of death, among the humble and before the powerful, they witnessed to a direct experience of God which changed the way they lived their lives. Experience of this Divine Light bore out the truth of Scripture, and they expected to find that the insight given to one could not contradict that given to another; nor could it disagree with the teaching of Jesus. As Fox wrote, All they that are in the Light are in unity; for the Light is but one. Any disagreement, whether over a course of action or a matter of belief, could only indicate that one or more parties to the discussion had not yet clearly perceived the truth. The desire to harmonise the individual vision with the corporate wisdom of the meeting was not easy. Painful experience played a part in drawing a line. One early Quaker writer described their experience of the meetings s/he attended:

When I came into the silent assemblies of God’s people, I felt a secret power among them, which touched my heart; and as I gave way unto it I found the evil weakening in me and the good raised up; and so I became thus knit and united to them, hungering more and more after the increase of this power and life whereby I might feel myself perfectly redeemed; and indeed this is the surest way to become a Christian. …

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In the days of the Commonwealth, Friends were not conspicuous for asceticism, though they tried (and most were obliged) to live simply. Within the much more permissive Restoration culture, they were led to a strong witness for moderation and simplicity in dress, eating, drinking, and every use of the gifts of creation. Since every word one spoke should be as sacred as an oath, every meal a sacrament, every day a holy-day, it was natural that they should condemn licentious painting, music and theatre of the 1660s, the elaborate and artificial manners of the gentry, the love of rich dishes, jewels and expensive clothes, the luxuries of madmen who destroy the creation.

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028This was not, at first, a set of rules, but gradually, after Fox died in 1691, Quakers began to conform to the stereotypical image of uniform grey clothes, ‘plain speech’ and an aversion to art, music and ‘sociable living’, which Fox would have castigated, as Margaret Fell did at the end of her life, as ‘running into forms’. But George Fox was not a ‘modern’ born out of his time, as some have suggested. He was very much a seventeenth-century man, nor did he set himself up to give answers, though he was sure where they could be found. His deeper insights are capable of interpretation, development and rediscovery, perhaps infinitely, for they touch the centre of all men’s religious experience.

To every quotation, modern, Quaker or biblical, his rejoinder would be the personal challenge he first issued to Margaret Fell in 1652 on his first visit to her home at Swarthmore Hall: Christ saith this, and the apostles say this; but what canst thou say?

 

 

Sources:

003Christopher Hill (1972), The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Christopher Hill (1973), Winstanley: The Law of Freedom and Other Writings. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Austin Woolrych (2002), Britain in Revolution, 1625-1660. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Robert Latham (ed.) (1978), The Illustrated Pepys: Extracts from the Diary. London: Bell & Hyman (Book Club Associates).

Mabel R Brailsford (1927), A Quaker From Cromwell’s Army: James Nayler. London: The Swarthmore Press.

Cecil W Sharman (ed.) ( 1980), No More but my Love: Letters of George Fox, 1624-91. London: Quaker Home Service.

John Lampen (ed.) (1981), Wait in the Light: The Spirituality of George Fox. London: Quaker Home Service.

Katharine Moore (1961), Richard Baxter – Toleration and Tyranny, 1615-1691). London: Longmans.

Norman Cohn (1957), The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages. St Albans: Granada Publishing.

 

 

Posted March 23, 2020 by TeamBritanniaHu in Agriculture, Anglicanism, Apocalypse, baptism, Baptists, Bible, Britain, British history, Child Welfare, Christian Faith, Christian Socialism, Christianity, Church, Civil Rights, Colonisation, Commonwealth, Compromise, democracy, Domesticity, English Civil War(s), English Language, eschatology, Family, gentry, Gospel of John, History, Humanism, Humanities, John's Gospel, literacy, Literature, morality, Mysticism, Narrative, Navy, Nonconformist Chapels, Parliament, Population, Poverty, Quakers (Religious Society of Friends), Respectability, Revolution, Scotland, Stuart times, Synoptic Gospels, theology, toleration, tyranny, United Kingdom, Women's History

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