350 years ago this month a small group of men and women approached the gates of Bristol, singing hosannas before a man on a horse. They appeared to be imitating Christ’s entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. The man was James Nayler (1617-1660), a leader of the upstart Quaker movement and onetime member of Cromwell’s New Model Army. The Puritan authorities were outraged. Nayler was seized and charged with blasphemy.
Sent to London where he was the subject of a full Parliamentary debate for ten days, and found guilty of “horrid blasphemy,” he received over three hundred lashes, a brand of the letter B on the forehead, and finally a red-hot iron through his tongue. He was placed in solitary confinement for three years in Bridewell until 1659. He died a year after this.
Why were the authorities of the time so frightened of this man that they had to demonise and publicly torture him as an example to the people of England?
Who was James Nayler?
Born at Ardsley near Wakefield in 1618 in the West Riding of Yorkshire, Nayler was a farmer until the outbreak of the First Civil War when he left his farm in the care of his wife and daughters and enlisted in the Parliamentarian army. He served under the Fairfaxes in Yorkshire and later became a quartermaster in John Lambert’s regiment of horse in the New Model Army. Nayler is known to have served at the battle of Dunbar in 1650 where he was noted as a gifted preacher.
He left the army in 1651 owing to ill health, returned to Yorkshire and resumed farming. According to his own account, however, a heavenly voice interrupted him whilst ploughing one day and commanded him to leave home and take to the road as an itinerant preacher. Nayler became associated with the Children of the Light, the sect popularly known as the Quakers. With his gift for preaching and strong personal charisma, Nayler became a leading figure in the establishment of the Quaker movement in northern England during 1652-4.
What did James Nayler believe?
- He said no man or King had a divine right to rule. He was a fighter for democracy.
- He refused to take his hat off to any man. He did not believe in deference to the rich and powerful saying… ‘He that respects persons commits sin’.
- He spoke out against the slave trade… ‘Where can the innocent go out and not a trap laid to bring him into bondage and slavery?’.
- He said that anyone who was a ‘self lover, proud, covetous or respects ‘gifts’ or rewards’ should not be a ruler.
- He criticised the wealthy for taking the common land from the people… ‘Getting great estates in the world, laying house to house and land to land, till there be no place for the poor. And when they are become poor through deceits then you despise them and exalt yourselves above them and forget that you are all made of one mould and of one blood, and must appear before one judge, who is no respecter of persons’… ‘God is against you, covetous and cruel oppressors who grind the needy and the poor’.
- He denied ‘original sin’ and said that God would not ‘conclude the condemnation of some persons before they come into the world’.
- He denied that the Bible was the word of God and said that people had the ‘spirit of Christ’ within them.
- He said that Christ had not risen to heaven and would ‘not come back at the last day as a man to judge all nations’ implying that Jesus was a man and not the son of God.
- He said that there would be no resurrection of the body suggesting that ‘heaven was on Earth’ and so rubbishing the central pillar of traditional Christianity.
Why were the Authorities so afraid of Nayler?
Nayler was no lone lunatic to be laughed at and dismissed; he was one of the leaders of an organised Quaker movement estimated to be 40,000 strong at that time. The ideas of these religious radicals had swept down from the north of England with shocking speed. Crowds gathered everywhere to hear them speak and demolish the arguments of the few priests who would dare to take them on in theological debate. Nayler was a brilliant speaker, a ‘common man’ and so related to the soldier, farmer or vagrant of any English village.
The movement that he led was both social and political, it was challenging the rule of the Church and State and attacked the very core values of Christianity. Some of the ideas came from a new people’s reading of the Bible, which had only been widely available in English for a few years. There was a feeling that ‘the meek should inherit the Earth’ but now and not by waiting for death and ascendance to heaven. A feeling that ‘the common man’ had goodness in him and Eden could be made on earth by the tillers of the soil; that ‘natural man’ should live ‘naturally’ which meant that food, drink and sex were as holy as going to Church. Finally there should be no ‘respecting of persons’ whether priest, rich man or King. This opened the way for all men and women to preach, put the religious gathering in the hands of the people and attacked the hierarchy of the established Church.
These religious radicals and their ideas had moved the people to join up to fight the Royalists and had ‘fuelled’ the New Model Army that had won the English Civil War and beheaded the King for the Parliamentarians. As far as the wealthy new Puritan rulers were concerned the war was over and things should just go back to normal. All this talk of ‘freedom’ and ‘levelling’ had to be stopped. The radical soldiers of the New Model Army had protected this revolutionary movement until a frightened Cromwell carried out a purge of the ranks in 1649. Now the time was right to deal with these troublemakers once and for all. Not only would Nayler be put in the dock but the policies of religious and political toleration as well.
Why should James Nayler be remembered?
James Nayler and his supporters rode into Bristol that October day in 1656 to enact a ‘sign’, a symbolic act which represented their belief that ordinary men and women could achieve the perfection of Christ and perform Christ’s works. This was a ‘levelling’ act in itself, bringing what was made untouchable by the whole structure of Christianity down to the everyday life of a common farmer. This is what he preached and for this brave act alone he should be remembered.