The Sorrows of the Quaker Jesus
James Nayler and the Puritan Crackdown on the Free Spirit

Author: Leo Damrosch

In the mid-Seventeenth Century the central figure and in some ways the founder of Quakerism was George Fox, although many others were leaders also. One such, James Naylor, in some circles particularly London, was considered more important than Fox. Naylor was a model of the spitfire sanctity hallmark of Quakers, a better preacher and a better writer than the less educated Fox.

Quakerism in its beginnings was an ecstatic religion. Quakers were nick-named “Quakers” as they dramatically lost control of their bodies quaking and crying out under the guidance of the Spirit. Naylor and a handful of his women followers on a Palm Sunday decided to reenact the entrance of Jesus on the first Palm Sunday by Naylor riding into Bristol on a horse, donkey unavailable, with a few women followers throwing branches and clothing before him onto the muddy street. (Later pictures of this scene show dozens of followers and hundreds of watchers. Not so.)

This was not an extraordinary action in those times. Quakers thought, something like Catholics with the Mass, that in some way such an action brought Jesus back to life in that moment. Unfortunately although the act was played out in rain and mud with few to watch one person who did see the scene, found it blasphemous, genuinely horrified he turned the group in to the authorities. After a local trial, Naylor was turned over to Parliament which sentenced him to a severe punishment, time in the stocks, whipping until not a square inch of his back was undamaged, a hole burned through his tongue, and a brand of “H” for “Heretic” burned into his forehead, and years of solitary prison time to serve after that.

This condemnation spilled over into increased persecution for Quakers generally, who then denied and excommunicated Naylor leaving him the scapegoat for all evils the Quakers brought on themselves. (For instance telling others they are going to hell, is at the least irritating.) He appears in Quaker writing to this day as at best a bit of a nut job seduced by a group of women into acting on his worst inclinations to a man overcome by evil inclinations to an absurd act of pride.

Leo Damrosch, after rigorously searching the sources for what really happened, retells the story with a happier twist.

Naylor was a brilliant and God-fearing man. The ride into Bristol was a judgment call. His judgment was wrong but this was the third such ride that he had participated in and the others had been accepted as a theatrical reminder of a past event and gone without reprisal.

He was not a blasphemer. The most critical charge was that he had claimed to be the Son of God. When asked at trial if he had said that, he agreed that he had, but that he was such as every person is a Son (or daughter) of God. When somebody says that he intended no blasphemy a court cannot declare that person a blasphemer. He was passed to Parliament as not guilty.

Parliament, however was not interested in judging him they were into punishing him, and so they did.

Did Fox and his fellow Quakers help him in this moment? They did not. Fox visited Naylor during his imprisonment and when he tried to take Fox’s hand, a move that in the situation would require Fox to bend, Fox offered him his foot instead.

Writers refer to Naylor as rehabilitating himself. Not so. He saw no need to be rehabilitated. He had done nothing wrong. Except for expressing his sorrow at the pain he had brought on the Quaker movement he went on preaching and writing for a short period after his release, becoming recognized for his kindness and humility.

After a bit, he headed for home in the North, walking the way. He was set upon by thieves, beaten, and died alone.

In response to this event and others like it, Quakers under Fox’s guidance began organizing checks and balances to bring the pressure of the group to bear on the spontaneity of the individual, a sea change from the flagrant, exciting beginnings. (Only a little is said about this. Much less than the sub-title promises.)

I thank Leo Damrosch for moving James Naylor from a position of stain on my spiritual family to a man I now admire. Fox and the rest of that generation of Quakers proved themselves human and began the caution that lives on to this day, making the possibility of a new James Naylor not very likely at all.

Jesus said that the Kingdom of Heaven is like a man who discovers a Pearl of Great Price and sells everything to buy it. I would not call that our reigning strategy.

Read this book and learn more about not only Naylor but the movement in general during the earliest days.

The scholarship appears to me impeccable.