Quaker Heritage Press > Books in Print > James Nayler's Works
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"Repent, and turn in thy mind to that which would lead thee to do as thou would be done by."
If during the period 1652-56 an English person with an interest in the competing religious sects of the time had been asked who were the leaders of the Quakers, they would probably have replied, "George Fox and James Nayler." Nayler was actually the more prolific and articulate writer of the two, as well as being a powerful preacher. He was especially skilled at rebutting the arguments of the opponents of Quakerism.
Nayler, a Yorkshire farmer and landowner with a wife and three daughters, felt called into the itinerant ministry in 1652, having recently left the Parliamentary army for reasons of health. He was then 34, six years older than Fox. It is not certain what role Fox played in Nayler's conversion to the Quaker cause. The two men had met when Fox visited an Independent church at Woodkirk which Nayler was then affiliated with. They may have arrived at similar convictions independently, but in any case they were soon working closely together. Their relationship was unusual in that Nayler regarded Fox as a beloved brother in the faith but does not seem to have viewed him as superior, unlike most other early Quakers.
In 1656 a disagreement arose between Fox and Nayler, resulting from a prior disagreement between two other sets of Quakers, and Nayler's reluctance to take sides in it. On one side was Martha Simmonds, a vigorous London preacher and pamphleteer, with her husband and a number of their friends; on the other side were Francis Howgill and Edward Burrough, prominent in the London ministry, who had rebuked Simmonds for what they felt was inappropriate ministry. Exactly what Simmonds and her group had said or done that Howgill and Burrough objected to seems impossible to determine; but Simmonds sought to Nayler for support, while Fox supported Howgill and Burrough. Although Nayler did not actively promote either side of this dispute, his unwillingness to repudiate Simmonds put him in the wrong on Fox's view.
A few months after an unhappy exchange with Fox on this issue, Nayler, with Simmonds and several others, enacted the demonstration at Bristol for which he has been most famous ever since. He entered the city on horseback in imitation of Christ's entry into Jerusalem, his friends crying out "Holy! Holy! Holy!" and strewing garments in his path.
Nayler was arrested and charged with "horrid blasphemy." Most Friends, following Fox's lead, did not support him. Bizarre demonstrations by Quakers were not uncommon, and Fox usually defended them. He would presumably have supported Nayler's action had he not been offended by the latter's stance in the Simmonds controversy - an offense that would have been exacerbated by the fact that Simmonds herself was involved in the Bristol action. Then again, it is not clear whether the Bristol incident would have occurred had it not been for the prior quarrel between the two Quaker leaders. Just whose idea the demonstration had been, and what purpose was intended in it by the various participants, are among the questions that remain obscure. Many accused Nayler of claiming to be Jesus Christ; but he was not doing so in any other sense than that in which Quakers had from the beginning professed a degree of identification with Christ within them that scandalized their contemporaries.
After a lengthy trial by Parliament (at which some argued that he should be put to death) it was decreed:
That James Nayler be set on the pillory ... in the New Palace, Westminster, during the space of two hours ... and shall be whipped by the hangman through the streets, from Westminster to the Old Exchange, London and there likewise to be set on the pillory ... in each of the said places wearing a paper containing an inscription of his crimes; and at the Old Exchange his tongue shall be bored through with a hot iron; and that he be there stigmatized in the forehead with the letter B; and that he be afterwards sent to Bristol and conveyed into and through the said city on a horse, bare-ridged, with his face backwards and there also publicly whipped the next market day ...; and that from thence he be committed to prison in Bridewell, London, and there restrained from the society of all people and kept to hard labor till he shall be released by Parliament; and during that time be debarred from the use of pen, ink, and paper; and shall have no relief but what he earns by his daily labor.1
The prohibition of ink and paper must eventually have been relaxed, as by 1657 Nayler was again writing and publishing. But he remained confined until September 1659, when the then acting Parliament released all the Quaker prisoners.
At the urging of friends Fox reluctantly agreed to meet with Nayler, and a formal reconciliation took place, but Fox does not seem to have really forgiven his former companion. Nayler died in 1660, after being attacked and robbed on his way to his home in Yorkshire.
Nayler's name had come under a cloud; his role in the rise of the movement was downplayed by Fox and other Friends, and his writings received less attention than those of other leading Friends.
For more information on the history of James Nayler and his role in Quakerism the following sources are very helpful:
Readers should remember, however, that historians cannot read minds any more than other people can, and most historians are not theologians. Statements found in secondary sources, about the motives or beliefs of individuals, and about the theological issues between early Quakers and other sects of their time, are often unreliable.
A partial collection of Nayler's writings was published in 1716 under the title A Collection of Sundry Books, Epistles and Papers Written by James Nayler, edited by the 80-year-old George Whitehead, who had once been a friend and companion of Nayler's; this was reprinted in 1829. Omitted were most of Nayler's replies to anti-Quaker pamphlets and some of his other writings. The present edition is therefore the first collection of Nayler's Works that attempts to be complete.
Four volumes are planned. This, the first, contains mainly writings of 1652-54. Volume 2 will concentrate on 1655, Volume 3 on 1656, and Volume 4 on later writings.
I intend to include previously unpublished letters by Nayler; however it was not possible to obtain texts of most of these in time for the present volume, which therefore includes only two of the many such letters extant from 1652-54. I will try to publish the others in Volume 2.
With Nayler's writings I hope to include a number of related documents to help put his work in context. In Volume 1 these include (a) Pamphlets of which Nayler wrote part. Although I have not printed the entire pamphlet in every such case, I have done so with Saul's Errand to Damascus, Several Petitions Answered, Several Letters Written to the Saints, To you...Baptists, and Several Papers. Such jointly authored works illustrate how closely Nayler worked with Fox and other prominent Quakers. (b) Anti-Quaker pamphlets to which Nayler wrote replies. Volume 1 contains the 4-part "pamphlet war" begun by Thomas Weld with four other ministers, who attacked Quakerism under the title The Perfect Pharisee. Nayler replied; Weld et al. replied back; and Nayler replied again. Including all four installments of this debate seemed the best way of conveying what it was about. (c) Francis Higginson's reply to Saul's Errand to Damascus. Although Nayler did not reply to this, it is of interest as recounting conversations with Nayler and giving an opponent's first-hand perspective on the interactions.
In a later volume I hope to include a number of contemporary documents relevant to the 1656 Bristol episode, Nayler's subsequent trial and punishment, and the reactions of other Quakers to these events.
A question I have hoped to address is, how much did Whitehead, in his 1716 collection, alter or "censor" Nayler's work?2 Claims that he did so have been made by Leo Damrosch, who says, "the 1716 volume makes many alterations, usually for stylistic reasons but sometimes for significant doctrinal ones, as I shall point out when they suggest interesting points of interpretation."3 But Damrosch points out only one such passage in his book, and its usefulness for illustrating his point depends to an extent on his interpretation of Nayler's meaning, which I do not find convincing. He makes similar statements in 'Harvard's Libraries and the Quaker Jesus,' on the internet at http://www.fas.harvard.edu/~fdo/essays/damrosch.htm (1996), and his claims have been echoed by Erin Bell in "How Early 18th-Century English Quakerism Interpreted the Legacy of James Nayler," a paper presented at an October, 2002 conference on "George Fox's Legacy" at Swarthmore College.
Emlyn Warren, who in the 1990s published a number of Nayler's tracts as pamphlets, did a detailed comparison of all existing editions of these tracts, including Whitehead's, noting even the smallest changes, as in spelling or punctuation, and published these comparisons as "Library Editions" of the tracts examined. Warren does not claim that Whitehead made any doctrinal changes; and indeed the reader would be hard pressed to find anything of that sort in the revisions Warren notes.
The writings herein printed are transcribed from the earliest editions, and in those cases where Whitehead included the item4 I have done a line-by-line comparison with his version. I have not footnoted every change, as this would result in a volume overloaded with notes, most of which would be of no interest. Hence I have bypassed changes in spelling, corrections of grammar, and changes which obviously aim merely at rendering clumsy syntax smoother. But I have footnoted every change which, by any stretch of the imagination, might alter the meaning of a passage, aiming to err, if at all, on the side of inclusiveness in this respect: i.e., I have footnoted many changes which in my opinion do not affect Nayler's meaning at all.
My tentative conclusions from this examination to date (the project has not yet been completed for material to be printed in later volumes) are:
In the overwhelming majority of passages Whitehead faithfully represented what Nayler wrote.
Whitehead was not trying to tone down the severity of Nayler's criticism of the "priests," which is plentifully evident in the 1716 collection and could hardly be suppressed without also suppressing Fox and the other Quakers of that time.
Whitehead probably had no conscious intention of changing Nayler's doctrine, though possibly he has done so in a tiny number of passages.
Whitehead's overriding editorial motives were clarity and correctness. He did not like to see Nayler saying anything inaccurate, or anything which, because of clumsy expression, might be thought to imply an inaccuracy; and when he found anything like that he corrected it. This results in a style somewhat more formal and less off-the-cuff than Nayler's, but not in a misrepresentation of Nayler's doctrinal beliefs.
But there are a few cases of "censorship." The most startling one that I have found occurs in the Woe Against Kendal (see pp. 211-12) where Nayler writes that "the Lord hath caused some of his servants to go naked along your streets in Kendal and Kirkby Stephen, as signs of his wrath to come," and Whitehead omits the word "naked." Whitehead's prudishness here - which obscures the meaning and purpose of the tract - is odd, as it was not a secret that some of the early Quakers had gone naked for a sign: George Fox had mentioned the practice sympathetically at least 4 times in his Journal, as well as in The Great Mystery and in his doctrinal writings, a collection of which had been published only ten years earlier with Whitehead's signature leading the list of endorsers.
Whitehead also reduces the phrase "one whom the world calls James Nayler" to a mere "James Nayler" in several signatures. This type of expression, which had drawn caustic comments from critics, had dropped out of Quaker usage; but it was not peculiar to Nayler and can be found in Fox's writings as well.
I have retained the wording of the original documents but have modernized spelling and punctuation and have corrected what seem to be clearly printing errors (these occur mostly in chapter/verse Scripture references). Italics used in the originals to represent quotation have been converted to quotation marks, although this creates some awkwardness in that the quotations are sometimes indirect or imprecise.
Many people have helped make this volume possible. They include the members of Glenside Friends Meeting who offered proofreading, useful criticism, financial support, and loving patience. Also, Jane Orion Smith, who provided photocopies of several tracts; David Neelon, who helpfully sent a copy of the 1653 edition of Saul's Errand to Damascus; Tom Hamm and Debbie Follis at Earlham College Library, who provided Nayler's Lamentation over the Ruins of this Oppressed Nation; Betsy Brown and her successor Ann Upton at Haverford College Library; Charlotte Blandford at Friends Historical Library, Swarthmore College; Colby Mikhail at Westminster Seminary Library, who helped us find microfilms; and the librarians at the University of Pennsylvania. Brian Drayton sent me a copy of Geoffrey Nuttall's essay, "The Letters of James Nayler" (in The Lamb's War: Quaker Essays to honor Hugh Barbour), which has proved invaluable in tracing Nayler's letters. Emlyn Warren's reprints and chart of Nayler's writings have been a valuable resource. Rosemary Moore has answered many questions both through personal correspondence and through her remarkable spreadsheet bibliography of early Quaker and anti-Quaker tracts. Appreciation is also felt toward our friends on the Quaker-G and Q-Text e-mail lists for their continuing interest and encouragement.
Saul's Errand to Damascus [p. 1]
A Discovery of the First Wisdom [p. 41]
Several Petitions Answered [p. 72]
A Few Words Occasioned by a Paper Lately Printed [p. 120]
A Discovery of Faith [p. 150]
Sin Kept Out of the Kingdom [p. 166]
The Power and Glory of the Lord Shining out of the North [p. 170]
A Lamentation over the Ruins of this Oppressed Nation [p. 196]
The Stumbling Block Removed from Weak Minds [p. 204]
Several Papers, some of them given forth by George Fox, others by James Nayler [p. 208]
Churches Gathered Against Christ [p. 244]
Several Letters Written to the Saints [p. 262]
All Vain Janglers [p. 272]
Spiritual Wickedness in Heavenly Places [p. 286]
To you that are called by the name of Baptists [p. 298]
Debate with Thomas Weld:
A Brief Reply to ... Saul's Errand to Damascus (by Francis Higginson) [p. 537]
1. Bittle, p. 132. See p. v for bibliography.
2. For brevity I write as if Whitehead did all the editing of this book, but I do not know that to be the case. He was acting on a decision of London Yearly Meeting to produce a collection of Nayler's writings, and there were probably others working with him. He states in his introduction that he has not read all of Nayler's writings.
3. Damrosch, Sorrows, p. 11. See p. v for bibliography.
4. The following tracts were not included in Whitehead's collection: Several Petitions Answered, A Discovery of Faith, Sin Kept out of the Kingdom, To you that are called...Baptists, Spiritual Wickedness in Heavenly Places, An Answer to...The Perfect Pharisee, A Discovery of the Man of Sin. In Saul's Errand to Damascus Whitehead includes only "Divers Particulars of the Persecutions," "The Examination of Nayler at Appleby" and "James Nayler's Answer and Declaration" ("Truth Cleared from Scandals"). In Several Papers he includes only "Truth Cleared from Scandals" and "The Condition and Portion of the People of England." In the Letters section, all are included in Whitehead except the two not previously published, and the one that had been misattributed to Fox.
"My joy I would not change for all the parsonages in the world"
This volume - the second of a planned four-volume set - contains mostly writings published in 1655. James Nayler was much engaged in controversy during this year: more than half of the Nayler papers in the volume are replies to the attacks of opponents. In the majority of these cases we have included the paper being answered, as well as Nayler's reply, to more clearly convey what the disputes were about. Even those papers which were not part of a specific "pamphlet war" are highly polemical in tone and content: that was the nature of Quakerism in this era.
In the collection of Letters are included several letters of earlier date which were not available in time for Volume I, as well as several 1655 letters. Most of the letters have not been previously published. I am very much indebted to Diana Morrison-Smith for transcribing several letters from manuscripts housed at the Friends House library in London. Other letters were transcribed from the Swarthmore Manuscripts by Larry Kuenning and me, using copies from microfilm, some printed by Larry at Haverford College Library and some printed by Raymond Ayoub at Penn State Library.
David Neelon has again been very helpful in obtaining for me photocopies of several pamphlets from microfilm at Cleveland Public Library; others have been provided by the librarians at Haverford and Swarthmore Colleges.
Thanks are again due to Rosemary Moore for her availability as a consultant and her excellent bibliography, which is the source of many of the Thomason dates noted for these writings.
As in Volume I, I have compared the early printings of these pamphlets with the 1716 collection of Nayler's writings edited by George Whitehead, for those items that Whitehead included, and have footnoted changes that might affect the meaning. I have again found that Whitehead is much more interested in improving the clarity of the syntax and avoiding possible misunderstandings than in changing any doctrine. A possible exception is his replacing "holy flesh" with "holy faith" (p. 72, note 7), which may represent a desire to downplay the doctrine of Christ's flesh being manifest in his people, which is found in Quaker writings of the 1650s but mostly drops out after that. The revision on p. 230, note 3, may possibly have a similar purpose.
A Dispute between James Nayler and the Parish Teachers of Chesterfield [p. 1]
The Boaster Bared [p. 55]
To All the World's Professors and People [p. 70]
A True Discovery of Faith [p. 78]
Salutation to the Seed of God [p. 202]
An Answer to Twenty-eight Queries [p. 237]
To Thee Oliver Cromwell [p. 258]
The Royal Law and Covenant of God [p. 263]
A Discovery of the Beast [p. 271]
Letters of James Nayler:
"In thy will thou raised me, and sent me to the nations. A sign and a wonder thou hast made me, and a stranger to them who had well known me. Yea, how often hast thou changed me, so that I have not been known to myself? And thou hast hid me from such as have followed me."
The year 1656, as it pertains to James Nayler, can be divided roughly into two parts. In the first half, as a powerful and controversial preacher in London, he was involved in several "pamphlet wars," as scholars term the heated written debates of the time. As in earlier volumes, I have included some of the tracts on the other side, to help convey the flavor of the debates and the issues as seen by opponents.
Nayler's tone in these controversies is as fierce and confident as in earlier ministry -- if not more so -- and there seems to have been no rift between him and the other leading Quakers before the summer of 1656. Two of the pamphlets in this volume were dated by Thomason as having been sold to him in August and September, 1656 -- but Nayler's inner life and relationship with other Friends were already strained by that time (and indeed Nayler was in jail for most of those months) -- so it is likely that he wrote them a little earlier. The latest of his letters that have survived from that time were written in early June -- and after that we read much more from Nayler's detractors within and without the Quaker movement than we do from Nayler himself. He had fallen into one of most mysterious and dreadful situations that ever faced the embattled "people of God called Quakers." This preacher who had once confidently declared that "that which purifies the heart comes from one and draws to one; if they be ten thousand, they are one,"1 was forced to face disunity with his beloved friend George Fox, and consequent rejection by a majority of Friends. As if that were not enough, he then faced trial for "horrid blasphemy," torture and prison.
To this day, nobody knows exactly why Nayler rode through the Somerset towns of Glastonbury and Wells, and into Bristol, re-enacting Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem -- but he certainly knew what the end result of that trip had been for his Lord. The motives ascribed to him and his companions by George Bishop, a leading Friend and close associate of George Fox ("to set up their image, & to break the truth in pieces, and to bruise and tread down & beguile & devour the tender plants of the Lord"2) will not persuade many people today -- but Nayler's own statements about the incident are few and cryptic. Modern historians speculate about the motives of the people they study -- but I have tried to minimize that sort of commentary. The documents say what they say -- no more.
Did Nayler think he was Jesus? -- certainly not. It is less clear whether some of those traveling with him thought so. What really happened in Exeter Jail when it was believed that he had raised Dorcas Erbury from the dead? No adequate records can be found. Why did Nayler permit several companions to use words and gestures toward him that could hardly look other than idolatrous? His explanation that he didn't want to prevent their doing what God commanded them hardly satisfies us; the idea that they were really bowing to Christ within him and not to James Nayler himself, though consistent with Quaker thinking, leaves one wondering how he thought observers were supposed to tell the difference. After all, Quakers were known to refuse outward gestures of reverence to authority figures -- Nayler's own refusal to doff his hat to Judge Steele was what had landed him in Exeter Jail. George Fox -- despite his estrangement from Nayler at the time -- pointed out the irony of judging Nayler a blasphemer for accepting worship of the Christ within him, while earthly power-holders continued to demand worship of their own persons.3
How might the story have been different if Nayler had succeeded in reaching George Fox at the prison in Launceston as he set out to do -- instead of being arrested for nothing on the road and being himself a prisoner at Exeter when an offended Fox confronted him weeks later? To what extent was the Bristol demonstration a protest against the unbending stance of the most prominent Quaker -- George Fox -- who had himself been accused of blasphemy and had sometimes been referred to in terms suggesting an idolatrous identification of Fox with God (see, e.g., Margaret Fell's undelivered letter to Nayler in which she complains that he "would not be subject to him to whom all nations shall bow"4).
Did Nayler or any of his companions expect his "ride" to usher in some eschatological event? It is difficult to say, since all early Quakers talked as if the eschaton were right around the corner, apparently without intending anything specific. Historians who speculate that Martha Simmonds thought Nayler was the Second Coming of Christ, based on her apocalyptic language, may have overlooked how common such language was among the Quakers of that time -- for all Friends insisted that Christ's second coming was His inward coming, which had already occurred in them; and while they may have hoped for a more outward wrap-up to history they never tried to date such a thing or made very clear what sort of historical climax they hoped for. One is sometimes left thinking that early Friends always expected everything and nothing, from every public act they were led to perform -- and so far as any surviving literature testifies, Nayler's ride was no exception.
May 25, 2007
I am greatly indebted to Diana Morrison-Smith for transcribing handwritten manuscripts at the Friends House Library in London. Her transcripts are literatim -- retaining the original spelling and punctuation; any errors in converting them to modern typography are my own.
I am also grateful for the frequent help of Ann Upton, curator of the Quaker Collection at Haverford College Library, who located, photocopied, and mailed to me many of the documents in this volume at little charge and with great cheer. Other documents were provided by David Neelon.
Charlotte Kuenning and Larry Kuenning both did a great deal of proofreading; Larry also helped transcribe some of the manuscript letters.
Rosemary Moore was frequently available for consultation by e-mail; her bibliographies are the source of most of my Thomason dates.
Answer to Pendarves [p. 1]
A Public Discovery of the Open Blindness [p. 13]
Nayler/Toldervy debate [p. 258]
Wickedness Weighed [p. 403]
The Light of Christ [p. 428]
Deceit brought to Daylight [p. 509]
The Bristol Episode/Trial by Parliament [p. 529]
Letters of James Nayler [p. 747]
1. "A Discovery of Faith" in Works of James Nayler (QHP ed.), [vol. 1,] p. 155.
2. see page 551 below.
3. p. 736 below.
4. p. 547 below.