Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content

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 in which the carts and horses and none else usually go,'" trudging "knee-deep in mire" due to the rain. Their blatant imitation of our Lord incited such outrage that they were arrested straightaway and held in jail until their hearing.

During his trial, Nayler insisted that he had only enacted a sign of Christ; he had not presumed to be the Lord himself. And in The Sorrows of the Quaker Jesus, Leo Damrosch confirms that "on the whole, … Nayler's testimony … should have convinced any fair-minded observer that he clearly distinguished between himself and Christ."

Damrosch has undertaken in this gripping historical monograph to explain what he refers to as "the meaning of the Nayler affair." Against the background of the political culture of the Interregnum period, he seeks to unpack the rich significance of Nayler's mistakenly blasphemous "sign." To his credit as a self-professed secularist, Damrosch refuses to reduce his discussion of the "meaning" of this affair to the terms of social-scientific explanation, treating the intense debate concerning blasphemy waged by Nayler and his critics as simply a cover for the expression of more important, social concerns. Rather, Damrosch argues, while "modern interpreters sometimes regard the worldly arguments as the 'real' ones and the religious ones as a coded translation of them," we must recognize that "such a distinction would have made no sense" to his book's early modern subjects. "In their minds religious considerations were worldly ones," for, in their world, religion and politics "ran in tandem."

What, then, was the real meaning of the Nayler affair? For Damrosch, the answer has several dimensions. First, the Quakers posed a very serious threat to the stability of the fledgling Puritan government. While not as radical or political as groups like the Levellers or the Diggers, they too blamed the Puritans for having "sold out the revolution." To their minds, what had started as a movement to oppose governmental oppression and put an end to religious "priestcraft" had become as elitist and controlling as the monarchy it had deposed. In protest, as the Quakers rose to prominence in the 1650s they practiced customs that defied the Puritans' newly established social order.

Their preachers—often young men fresh out of Oliver Cromwell's cocky New Model Army who were fiercely independent and alarmingly egalitarian—had a reputation for being well-trained, ideologically driven, obnoxious religious hecklers. Breaking up Puritan worship services and tearing down the established ministry, these preachers proclaimed a commitment to what they called the doctrine of "the inner light."

Their followers—many of whom, significantly, were forceful women—supported the likes of James Nayler and fellow Quaker luminary George Fox in undermining England's institutional religion. Forgoing propositional theology in favor of the immediacy of divine truth, they distrusted biblical literalism disconnected from the Word within; they opposed the support of professional ministers and withheld the taxes that paid their salaries; they refused to swear any oaths and thus disrupted judicial proceedings; they declined to doff their hats as a sign of deference to social "superiors" (they usually removed their hats only for prayer); and they insisted on addressing these superiors with the diminutive "thee" and "thou," using only people's first names and ignoring formal titles.

More important, according to Damrosch, the Quakers upheld a threatening form of religious antinomianism, one that stood too close to Protestant orthodoxy to be ignored. Believing with many of their Calvinist neighbors that Christ communed directly with the elect, they found little use for the mediatorial role of laws, doctrines, and churches. Though not opposed to Christian mores, they thought that most Christians observed them too slavishly, missing the freedom that comes from genuine, immediate, and full participation in Christ. While the Puritans had been free spirits, they thought, at the beginning of their rise to power, their movement had since become petrified and now proved much too authoritarian.

For Damrosch, then, it comes as little surprise that the Puritans persecuted Quakers with zeal, for, in doing so, they were purging themselves of their own, original antinomian tendencies. He writes,

the early Quaker movement … played the role of scapegoat for the ascendant Puritans. In effect, the Puritans ascribed to Quakers versions of beliefs and practices for which they themselves were criticized but wished to repudiate, and they confirmed their sense of righteousness by throwing Quakers in jail.

It was Nayler's fate in this culture of fearful moralistic backlash to serve as a "double scapegoat" for the antinomian cause. There is "great paradox," according to Damrosch, in "the crisis of authority that developed when the Puritans, who had always defined themselves as individualist and oppositional, found that they had no choice but to assert control in much the same ways as their predecessors had done." But "still more paradoxically, the Quaker movement too, despite its ideology of absolute individualism, was forced in its turn to impose discipline." Significantly, Nayler was not only punished for impersonating Christ on behalf of his movement, he was also written out of Quaker history by his fellow religionists. An embarrassment to a movement trying to gain respectability in a hostile religious environment, he was abandoned by his friends and foes alike.

The Nayler affair, then, sheds much light on what Damrosch characterizes as "the fatal logic by which every antinomianism contains the seeds of its own collapse. Rather than representing an exhilarating challenge to order posed by freedom," he argues, "[this affair] represents the systematic transformation of freedom into order as each radical movement in turn becomes conservative in order to survive." In the end, he concludes, "it was an anti-antinomianism that asserted itself within the Puritan and the Quaker movements, and the Nayler case is indispensable in exposing how it did so."

But is Damrosch right to portray James Nayler as a victim "crucified" hypocritically in a culture struggling to repress the free spirit within its soul? And is the conservative Christian tendency toward institutionalization and dogmatization really—as scholars like Damrosch have suggested frequently at least since the days of Adolf von Harnack—one that proves by definition inherently oppressive? Though the Quakers deemed Puritans dull to the inner meaning of the Incarnation, taking a nearly gnostic pleasure in the Christly glories of the light within, perhaps the Puritans saw (however dimly) that to take the Incarnation seriously means to seek the presence and purpose of God in the world of flesh, fixture, and form. As Irenaeus asserted long ago against his antinomian Gnostic foes, the Incarnation reveals that God takes our world and its structures very seriously. Rather than resting with smug complacency in an apocalyptic antinomianism (whether that of ancient spiritualists or early Quakers) then, and ignoring the carnal world without our walls, devoted citizens of the city of God, from ancient days to our very own, have been called to the service of institutions and dogmas that make Christ tactile to those in need.

Clearly Nayler's punishment, as well as the persecution of Quakers generally, is reprehensible to those of us who value religious liberty. But despite our well-placed objections to Nayler's truly horrid treatment, it may remain possible to interpret his case as something more than a brutal "crackdown" enforced by a group of increasingly cautious Christian bureaucrats. Certainly the Puritans of the Interregnum were becoming more powerful and less sectarian than they had been in the days of their own suffering under the Stuarts. And, as Damrosch illustrates so vividly in this superbly crafted book, there is a very real (and dangerous) sense in which all power does corrupt. But while it is difficult to be incarnational in this sinful world of power politics without also becoming conservative in the worst sense of that ambiguous word, the effort to flesh out God's earthly kingdom in ways that endure and prove reliable may well be worth the risk of a bit too much Christian bureaucracy.

Douglas A. Sweeney is assistant professor of church history and the history of Christian thought at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

Most ReadMost Shared