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James Nayler and the unity of covenant Quakerism

Ben Pink Dandelion writes about James Nayler’s infamous ride into Bristol 350 years ago and the effect it had on Quaker practice


I write this on the evening of October 24. This date three hundred and fifty years ago is the date that James Nayler and seven others entered Bristol to enact a sign of Christ coming in the flesh of ordinary men and women. Nayler rode on a horse and the other Friends walked alongside in pouring rain and deep mud, some waving branches and calling out ‘Holy Holy Holy, Hosanna’. This group had enacted the same sign in Glastonbury and Wells but Bristol was a powder-keg and the city was eager to use the sign as an excuse to react against the Quaker successes there. Martial law the previous year had placed Major General Desborough in control of the city and he had been overly lenient towards the Quakers in the minds of many. The Quakers were rude and arrogant in their theological claims of perfectability and the unfolding second coming, and disturbing in their vision of spiritual egalitarianism and social revolution. Perhaps one in ten of the population were Quaker and for the other ninety per cent, this was deeply unsettling. Nayler was tried for ‘horrid blasphemy’, for believing he was Jesus. His case, as high profile as it was (Nayler was believed by many to be the leader of the Quaker movement), passed to the newly

elected parliament to judge. Asked if he was the son of God, Nayler gave the same kinds of replies Fox had given at his blasphemy trials, that he was a son of God, as all those ‘raised up’ were. However, letters found on Nayler from some of his friends did not help his case. One claimed that his name should be no more James but Jesus and others addressed him in similarly exalted terms. Nayler avoided the death sentence but was punished horribly: he was sentenced to 310 lashes, his tongue was bored and he was branded on the forehead with ‘B’ for blasphemer. In Bristol he was made to ride through the

streets backwards to represent the undoing of his actions. He was then imprisoned in Bridewell jail, London before being released in 1659 under a general amnesty. He died a year later following a mugging as he made his way back north to his home in Yorkshire. There was nothing inherently wrong with Nayler’s actions. Many Quakers enacted signs to show the spiritual inauthenticity of nonFriends. However, the timing of his actions and perhaps the motives behind it were why Nayler has only recently been reinserted into Quaker histories. Nayler enacted his sign, it appears, at just the time that

Photo courtesy of Chichester/Phillimore & Co fr om

Criminal L ondon: A Pictorial H istory fr om Medieval T imes

to 1939 by Mark Herber. £18,ISBN:1-86077-199-8

the Friend , 3 November 2006