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Douglas A. Sweeney


The Sorrows of the Quaker Jesus

In late December 1656, over the course of several days, the 38-year-old Quaker leader James Nayler was punished severely. He had been convicted of "horrid blasphemy" by the entire British Parliament after a ten-day meeting devoted to the consideration of his case. Having escaped a sentence of execution by only a very narrow margin, Nayler was pilloried twice and publicly whipped on three separate occasions, suffering over 300 excruciating lashes altogether. According to one report,

there was not a space bigger than the breadth of a man's nail free from stripes and blood, from his shoulders [to] near his waist. And his right arm was sorely striped. His hands also were sorely hurt with the cords, that they bled, and were swelled. The blood and wounds of his back did very little appear at first sight, by reason of the abundance of dirt that covered them, till it was washed off. … And others saw that he was much abused with horses treading on him, for the print of the nails were seen on his feet.

As if this were not enough, Nayler's tormenters bored his tongue with a red-hot poker and, among other afflictions, branded his forehead with a burning, iron-letter "B" (which event "gave a little flash of smoke"). They threw him in prison in London on a woefully indefinite basis and assigned him to manual labor to earn his keep. Though he was released on a general amnesty in September of 1659, he died pitifully the following year after being robbed on the highway while heading back to his home in the county of Yorkshire.

What had Nayler done to deserve such punishment? He had carried out a prophetic "sign" before the citizens of Bristol by re-enacting Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem. During a "pelting downpour" in late October 1656 "in which they 'received the rain at their necks and vented it at their hose and breeches,' " a small band of four men and three women, all followers of Nayler, shouted hosannas as he rode slowly into town. They entered "'the dirty way ...

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