Quaker Heritage Press > Online Texts > Works of James Nayler > Volume 3
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 <iv> 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).
<v> 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.
1. "A Discovery of Faith" in Works of James Nayler (QHP ed.), p. 155.
2. see page 551 below.
3. p. 736 below.
4. p. 547 below.