The Early Quakers

The Quakers came into existence during the uproar when England fought a civil war, deleted a king, founded a start-up republic, and then rebooted the king (a new one, not the one they’d deleted). And whenever people found some down time, they argued about religion. 

And you thought we were living through interesting times.

Let’s start the tale with George Fox. He was the son of a weaver and came from Fenny Drayton. I mention the first fact because it places him in a relentlessly hierarchical society (he wasn’t anybody grand) and the second because I can’t help myself. It’s as absurdly English a place name as you’ll find anywhere. 

Screamingly irrelevant photo: An old-fashioned kind of hydrangea. If I have my British snobberies right (which is far from a sure thing), they’re the classier kind, and the fuller ones for the people like me who don’t know any better.

He left home at  nineteen to seek the truth.

About what? When people talk about seeking the truth, they’re pretty much always talking about religion. And religion, remember, was what everyone talked about anyway. Politics was religion. Everything was religion. Where’d you lose your mittens? I didn’t lose them. They went where god willed them to go. What’s for supper? Even that would circle back to religion. 

Fox listened to preachers–the country was well stocked with preachers–and inevitably he began to preach himself. I never thought of the Quakers as a preaching-type group, but it was a Quaker website using the verb, so we’ll let them set the tone: He preached, and he did it to increasingly large crowds. 

What he told them was that god’s light was in everyone. Or since he’d surely have used a capital letter, so let’s use his presumed style: God’s light. Follow that thought to its logical end–and he did–and you’ll end up attacking the social structure of the day, which held that God had made some people a whole lot better than other people, and that this was natural and good and necessary. 

Not only did everyone have that inner light, he preached that they had to follow it, even when it diverged from the Bible. 

In 1650, he was jailed for blasphemy. The early Quakers spent a lot of time in jail. I won’t list many of their arrests, but keep in mind that this was a risky set of beliefs to live by.

In 1652, Margaret Fell (later Margaret Fox) heard him preach and was convinced, and she quickly became central to the movement, coordinating the communications of its far-flung preachers and offering the safety of her house and the protection that her husband, who was a judge, could sometimes provide. She was one of the few founders who was from the gentry and she was the first to put the movement on record as being against violence. 

It was also in 1652 that Fox gained another key follower, James Naylor (or Nayler–it wasn’t possible to spell a word wrong back then). He was a more difficult personality than Fell and we can have more fun with him, so he’s going to get more space. Sorry. 

Naylor had served in the Parliamentary army. This was before the Quakers dedicated themself to nonviolence, and some branches of the army had Quakers hanging from every bough.  He was charismatic and a good debater, and he attracted a personal following that made other Quakers uneasy. 

He and Fox clashed. Meetings were disrupted. In an attempt to make peace, Fox offered Naylor his hand to kiss. Naylor told Fox to kiss his feet instead.

Yes, they believed all men were equal–and by men, of course, they meant both men and women. Yes, they meant what they said. No, it’s not easy to step outside the biases and assumptions of your time and place, or even to see them.

In 1656, Naylor and some followers re-enacted Christ’s entry into Jerusalem in Bristol. The scene included a couple of women walking beside Naylor’s horse and singing, “Holy, holy, holy.” 

Whatever they intended to get across, the authorities decided that Naylor’d presented himself as Christ, and it couldn’t have been too hard a case to make. At some point–earlier, later, during; I have no idea–he called himself the Sun of Righteousness, the Prince of Peace, the only Begotten, the fairest of ten thousand.

Not to mention the soul of modesty. 

His followers said he was the anointed king of Israel. No one thought to phone Israel to either check on that or tell them the news.

He was brought to London to be tried. We’re still in the middle of the Protectorate here–that period between the deletion of one king and the reboot of the next–and the Protectorate was all for freedom of religion, but only up to a point. You had to be Christian to take advantage of it. And you couldn’t be a Catholic kind of Christian. Or a licentious kind. 

Naylor was whipped, branded, imprisoned, and had his tongue pierced with a hot iron. 

After he was released, he and Fox made a reluctant sort of peace, with Naylor kneeling to Fox and asking his forgiveness.

Like I said, it’s not easy to step outside your time and place.

But enough about Naylor. Let’s go back to the Quakers as a movement.

By 1660, some estimates put their numbers in England at 50,000. By way of comparison there were about 35,000 Catholics. Eleven of their sixty key people–called the Valiant Sixty–were women. Women preached. Women spoke at meetings. Quakers promoted education for both girls and boys. If everyone had a spark of god in them, then everyone was spiritually equal.

And in case that wasn’t radical enough, they refused to use the titles that were so important to a hierarchical society, so no sirs, no madams, no lordships. They–and this would’ve applied only to the men–wouldn’t take their hats off to their social superiors. They addressed everyone by the informal thou, and people back then knew their thou from their you, so they knew when to consider themselves insulted. These days, if you address someone as thou and all you’ll get is a blank look. 

After the kingly reboot, the Church of England was back in power and in a position to demand tithes. Quakers refused to pay them. 

They wouldn’t take oaths. Not oaths as in curse words but as in I swear to tell the truth and all that stuff. They told the truth all the time, they said. But the culture took oaths seriously, and if you refused the swear one in court it was easy to convict you of pretty much anything. If you wouldn’t swear to tell the truth, who could believe you?

In short, they were principled, upright, and a pain in the ass to a society that took the symbolic stuff as seriously as the practical. They stuck quietly, consistently, and relentlessly to their beliefs.

In 1662, the Quaker Act made it illegal to refuse to take an oath of loyalty. It also outlawed meetings of five or more Quakers. In 1663, a hundred Quakers were arrested in a single day. 

It was 1689 before the Toleration Act allowed them to meet legally. And at that point we’ll leave them. Their later history is better known, from their implacable opposition to slavery to their long opposition to war. 

*

I’ve drawn on a number of books for this post, as well as the websites I’ve linked to, but the longest and most interesting section I found is in Paul Lay’s Providence Lost: The Rise & Fall of Cromwell’s Protectorate, which gives James Naylor a good chunk of text.

Christmas carols in the U.S. and Britain

As Christmas approaches, carols leak into the folk (and occasionally other kinds of) songs at the pub’s singers night. It happens every year, and every year I ask myself if I shouldn’t take a week or two off to avoid them.

I have a couple of reasons for that. The first and simplest is that I expect carols to be unchanging and over here they’re not. Some have the same words as the American ones and at first the tunes sound like they’ll behave, then they take a sharp left and head off in some new direction, leaving me all alone and on the wrong note. Usually at full volume. In others the tune stays the same but the words are different.

Sending you light in the darkness and good wishes for whatever you celebrate.

Sending you light in the darkness and good wishes for whatever you celebrate.

The first few times I heard that, I’d turn to someone nearby and say, “That’s not the way we sing it.”

I might as well have said how shocked I was that gravity was operating over the holidays. Whoever it was would say, “Oh, I know. That’s the Cornish version.” Or the Boscastle version. Or the Padstow version. They’d learned a different version back in Shropshire, or Essex, or Truro, or Wherever.

I’d explain: In the U.S., Christmas carols are harder to change that the Constitution, which (to simplify things a bit) only needs a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate and then the approval of three-quarters of the state legislatures. It’s a high standard to meet, but at least a procedure’s mapped out and ready to use. Christmas carols, though? Sorry, but we don’t have a way to change them, so they stay fixed, the North Star of our culture.

Whoever I was talking to would hear me out and then tell me all over again about Shropshire or Essex or Wherever. Eventually I stopped trying.

So that’s one reason I think about disappearing for the holidays. The next is that some of the carols are—well, let me tell you a story instead of trying to sum them up: Wild Thing and I went to a school Christmas concert to hear a friend’s daughter, and one of the carols was about Mary’s womb. And there we were expecting “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Which, by the way, I hate.

Wild Thing leaned over and whispered that the Methodists in Amarillo never talked about Mary’s lady parts, let put them to music. In Amarillo, it was all “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “Glo-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o(etc.)ria.” They sang the same carols I did, whose religion had, at least to my ears, been worn away by repetition. But change the words a bit and toss in Mary’s womb and you’ll jolt me out of my dozy acceptance. It starts to sound, you know, religious.

I should add that the word womb doesn’t make for a particularly singable line.

I grew up celebrating Christmas as a secular holiday. The extended family came to our apartment (and later, to our house) to eat, give the kids presents, and enjoy an argument or two, usually about politics. What can I tell you? Arguing was a form of entertainment in my family. But one year an older cousin’s girlfriend played the piano and we gathered around and sang carols, and every Jewish atheist one of us knew the songs as well as the few non-Jewish family members did.

It’s a moment I remember fondly. It was decades before I stopped to think what deeply weird picture it makes.

Then I moved to Minnesota and started to feel smothered by Christmas, and that’s my third reason, if you remember after all these words what we’re counting. In New York—at least in the circles I traveled in—there were enough Jews around to create a space for people who didn’t celebrate, and that made celebrating feel voluntary. I never paid much attention to who was Jewish and who was something else, but this wasn’t about individuals. It was about the impact of demographics. (At the time, my experience was pretty much limited to Jews and Christians. I don’t know if the New York created space for other forms of non-Christians over the holidays.)

Minnesota, though, is packed with people who even if they’re not religiously Christian are at least culturally so, and that left less space for people who didn’t celebrate the holiday. Celebration stopped feeling voluntary, and I developed mixed feelings about it—part celebratory, part crabby.

And in Cornwall? As far as I know, I’m the only Jew for miles around, and probably ditto for the only person whose family wasn’t, at some point, Christian. I still celebrate the holiday, which is good since Wild Thing never saw a holiday she didn’t want to be part of and has a strong historical claim to this one, but the more insistently it surrounds me the more footnotes, caveats, reservations I add.

This year, the carols weren’t overwhelming at the pub, and the harmonies on a couple of them were stunning. My crabby meter registered only minimal grumpiness. Maybe repetition is starting to blunt the edges of the religion.

*

Whatever you celebrate and whether it’s religious or secular, I wish you a good one of it. And if you don’ t have a holiday at this time of year, tuck my good wishes away and save them whenever your next holiday comes around. If you still remember by then where you left them.