James Nayler, by John Greenleaf Whittier

Old Portraits and Modern Sketches

"You will here read the true story of that much injured, ridiculed man, James Nayler; what dreadful sufferings, with what patience he endured, even to the boring of the tongue with hot irons, without a murmur; and with what strength of mind, when the delusion he had fallen into, which they stigmatized as blasphemy, had given place to clearer thoughts, he could renounce his error in a strain of the beautifullest humility."—Essays of Elia.

"Would that Carlyle could now try his hand at the English Revolution!" was our exclamation, on laying down the last volume of his remarkable History of the French Revolution with its brilliant and startling word- pictures still flashing before us. To some extent this wish has been realized in the Letters and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell. Yet we confess that the perusal of these volumes has disappointed us. Instead of giving himself free scope, as in his French Revolution, and transferring to his canvas all the wild and ludicrous, the terrible and beautiful phases of that moral phenomenon, he has here concentrated all his artistic skill upon a single figure, whom he seems to have regarded as the embodiment and hero of the great event. All else on his canvas is subordinated to the grim image of the colossal Puritan. Intent upon presenting him as the fitting object of that "hero-worship," which, in its blind admiration and adoration of mere abstract Power, seems to us at times nothing less than devil-worship, he dwarfs, casts into the shadow, nay, in some instances caricatures and distorts, the figures which surround him. To excuse Cromwell in his usurpation, Henry Vane, one of those exalted and noble characters, upon whose features the lights held by historical friends or foes detect no blemish, is dismissed with a sneer and an utterly unfounded imputation of dishonesty. To reconcile, in some degree, the discrepancy between the declarations of Cromwell, in behalf of freedom of conscience, and that mean and cruel persecution which the Quakers suffered under the Protectorate, the generally harmless fanaticism of a few individuals bearing that name is gravely urged. Nay, the fact that some weak-brained enthusiasts undertook to bring about the millennium, by associating together, cultivating the earth, and "dibbling beans" for the New Jerusalem market, is regarded by our author as the "germ of Quakerism;" and furnishes an occasion for sneering at "my poor friend Dryasdust, lamentably tearing his hair over the intolerance of that old time to Quakerism and such like."

The readers of this (with all its faults) powerfully written Biography cannot fail to have been impressed with the intensely graphic description (Part I., vol. ii., pp. 184, 185) of the entry of the poor fanatic, James Nayler, and his forlorn and draggled companions into Bristol. Sadly ludicrous is it; affecting us like the actual sight of tragic insanity enacting its involuntary comedy, and making us smile through our tears.

In another portion of the work, a brief account is given of the trial and sentence of Nayler, also in the serio-comic view; and the poor man is dismissed with the simple intimation, that after his punishment he "repented, and confessed himself mad." It was no part of the author's business, we are well aware, to waste time and words upon the history of such a man as Nayler; he was of no importance to him, otherwise than as one of the disturbing influences in the government of the Lord Protector. But in our mind the story of James Nayler has always been one of interest; and in the belief that it will prove so to others, who, like Charles Lamb, can appreciate the beautiful humility of a forgiven spirit, we have taken some pains to collect and embody the facts of it.

James Nayler was born in the parish of Ardesley, in Yorkshire, 1616. His father was a substantial farmer, of good repute and competent estate and be, in consequence, received a good education: At the age of twenty-two, he married and removed to Wakefield parish, which has since been made classic ground by the pen of Goldsmith. Here, an honest, God-fearing farmer, he tilled his soil, and alternated between cattle-markets and Independent conventicles. In 1641, he obeyed the summons of "my Lord Fairfax" and the Parliament, and joined a troop of horse composed of sturdy Independents, doing such signal service against "the man of Belial, Charles Stuart," that he was promoted to the rank of quartermaster, in which capacity he served under General Lambert, in his Scottish campaign. Disabled at length by sickness, he was honorably dismissed from the service, and returned to his family in 1649.

For three or four years, he continued to attend the meetings of the Independents, as a zealous and devout member. But it so fell out, that in the winter of 1651, George Fox, who had just been released from a cruel imprisonment in Derby jail, felt a call to set his face towards Yorkshire. "So travelling," says Fox, in his Journal, "through the countries, to several places, preaching Repentance and the Word of Life, I came into the parts about Wakefield, where James Navler lived." The worn and weary soldier, covered with the scars of outward battle, received, as he believed, in the cause of God and his people, against Antichrist and oppression, welcomed with thankfulness the veteran of another warfare; who, in conflict with a principalities and powers, and spiritual wickedness in high places," had made his name a familiar one in every English hamlet. "He and Thomas Goodyear," says Fox, "came to me, and were both convinced, and received the truth." He soon after joined the Society of Friends. In the spring of the next year he was in his field following his plough, and meditating, as he was wont, on the great questions of life and duty, when he seemed to hear a voice bidding him go out from his kindred and his father's house, with an assurance that the Lord would be with him, while laboring in his service. Deeply impressed, he left his employment, and, returning to his house, made immediate preparations for a journey. But hesitation and doubt followed; he became sick from anxiety of mind, and his recovery, for a time, was exceedingly doubtful. On his restoration to bodily health, he obeyed what he regarded as a clear intimation of duty, and went forth a preacher of the doctrines he had embraced. The Independent minister of the society to which be had formerly belonged sent after him the story that he was the victim of sorcery; that George Fox carried with him a bottle, out of which he made people drink; and that the draught had the power to change a Presbyterian or Independent into a Quaker at once; that, in short, the Arch-Quaker, Fox, was a wizard, and could be seen at the same moment of time riding on the same black horse, in two places widely separated. He had scarcely commenced his exhortations, before the mob, excited by such stories, assailed him. In the early summer of the year we hear of him in Appleby jail. On his release, he fell in company with George Fox. At Walney Island, he was furiously assaulted, and beaten with clubs and stones; the poor priest-led fishermen being fully persuaded that they were dealing with a wizard. The spirit of the man, under these circumstances, may be seen in the following extract from a letter to his friends, dated at "Killet, in Lancashire, the 30th of 8th Month, 1652:"—

"Dear friends! Dwell in patience, and wait upon the Lord, who will do his own work. Look not at man who is in the work, nor at any man opposing it; but rest in the will of the Lord, that so ye may be furnished with patience, both to do and to suffer what ye shall be called unto, that your end in all things may be His praise. Meet often together; take heed of what exalteth itself above its brother; but keep low, and serve one another in love."

Laboring thus, interrupted only by persecution, stripes, and imprisonment, he finally came to London, and spoke with great power and eloquence in the meetings of Friends in that city. Here he for the first time found himself surrounded by admiring and sympathizing friends. He saw and rejoiced in the fruits of his ministry. Profane and drunken cavaliers, intolerant Presbyters, and blind Papists, owned the truths which he uttered, and counted themselves his disciples. Women, too, in their deep trustfulness and admiring reverence, sat at the feet of the eloquent stranger. Devout believers in the doctrine of the inward light and manifestation of God in the heart of man, these latter, at length, thought they saw such unmistakable evidences of the true life in James Nayler, that they felt constrained to declare that Christ was, in an especial manner, within him, and to call upon all to recognize in reverent adoration this new incarnation of the divine and heavenly. The wild enthusiasm of his disciples had its effect on the teacher. Weak in body, worn with sickness, fasting, stripes, and prison-penance, and naturally credulous and imaginative, is it strange that in some measure he yielded to this miserable delusion? Let those who would harshly judge him, or ascribe his fall to the peculiar doctrines of his sect, think of Luther, engaged in personal combat with the Devil, or conversing with him on points of theology in his bed-chamber; or of Bunyan at actual fisticuffs with the adversary; or of Fleetwood and Vane and Harrison millennium-mad, and making preparations for an earthly reign of King Jesus. It was an age of intense religious excitement. Fanaticism had become epidemic. Cromwell swayed his Parliaments by "revelations" and Scripture phrases in the painted chamber; stout generals and sea-captains exterminated the Irish, and swept Dutch navies from the ocean, with old Jewish war-cries, and hymns of Deborah and Miriam; country justices charged juries in Hebraisms, and cited the laws of Palestine oftener than those of England. Poor Nayler found himself in the very midst of this seething and confused moral maelstrom. He struggled against it for a time, but human nature was weak; he became, to use his own words, "bewildered and darkened," and the floods went over him.

Leaving London with some of his more zealous followers, not without solemn admonition and rebuke from Francis Howgill and Edward Burrough, who at that period were regarded as the most eminent and gifted of the Society's ministers, he bent his steps towards Exeter. Here, in consequence of the extravagance of his language and that of his disciples, he was arrested and thrown into prison. Several infatuated women surrounded the jail, declaring that "Christ was in prison," and on being admitted to see him, knelt down and kissed his feet, exclaiming, "Thy name shall be no more called James Nayler, but Jesus!" Let us pity him and them. They, full of grateful and extravagant affection for the man whose voice had called them away from worldly vanities to what they regarded as eternal realities, whose hand they imagined had for them swung back the pearl gates of the celestial city, and flooded their atmosphere with light from heaven; he, receiving their homage (not as offered to a poor, weak, sinful Yorkshire trooper, but rather to the hidden man of the heart, the "Christ within" him) with that self- deceiving humility which is but another name for spiritual pride. Mournful, yet natural; such as is still in greater or less degree manifested between the Catholic enthusiast and her confessor; such as the careful observer may at times take note of in our Protestant revivals and camp meetings.

How Nayler was released from Exeter jail does not appear, but the next we hear of him is at Bristol, in the fall of the year. His entrance into that city shows the progress which he and his followers had made in the interval. Let us look at Carlyle's description of it: "A procession of eight persons one, a man on horseback riding single, the others, men and women partly riding double, partly on foot, in the muddiest highway in the wettest weather; singing, all but the single rider, at whose bridle walk and splash two women, 'Hosannah! Holy, holy! Lord God of Sabaoth,' and other things, 'in a buzzing tone,' which the impartial hearer could not make out. The single rider is a raw-boned male figure, 'with lank hair reaching below his cheeks,' hat drawn close over his brows, 'nose rising slightly in the middle,' of abstruse 'down look,' and large dangerous jaws strictly closed: he sings not, sits there covered, and is sung to by the others bare. Amid pouring deluges and mud knee-deep, 'so that the rain ran in at their necks and vented it at their hose and breeches: 'a spectacle to the West of England and posterity! Singing as above; answering no question except in song. From Bedminster to Ratcliffgate, along the streets to the High Cross of Bristol: at the High Cross they are laid hold of by the authorities: turn out to be James Nayler and Company."

Truly, a more pitiful example of "hero-worship" is not well to be conceived of. Instead of taking the rational view of it, however, and mercifully shutting up the actors in a mad-house, the authorities of that day, conceiving it to be a stupendous blasphemy, and themselves God's avengers in the matter, sent Nayler under strong guard up to London, to be examined before the Parliament. After long and tedious examinations and cross-questionings, and still more tedious debates, some portion of which, not uninstructive to the reader, may still be found in Burton's Diary, the following horrible resolution was agreed upon:—

"That James Nayler be set in the pillory, with his head in the pillory in the Palace Yard, Westminster, during the space of two hours on Thursday next; and be whipped by the hangman through the streets from Westminster to the Old Exchange, and there, likewise, be set in the pillory, with his head in the pillory for the space of two hours, between eleven and one, on Saturday next, in each place wearing a paper containing a description of his crimes; and that at the Old Exchange his tongue be bored through with a hot iron, and that he be there stigmatized on the forehead with the letter 'B;' and that he be afterwards sent to Bristol, to be conveyed into and through the said city on horseback with his face backward, and there, also, publicly whipped the next market-day after he comes thither; that from thence he be committed to prison in Bridewell, London, and there restrained from the society of people, and there to labor hard until he shall be released by Parliament; and during that time be debarred the use of pen, ink, and paper, and have no relief except what he earns by his daily labor."

Such, neither more nor less, was, in the opinion of Parliament, required on their part to appease the divine vengeance. The sentence was pronounced on the 17th of the twelfth month; the entire time of the Parliament for the two months previous having been occupied with the case. The Presbyterians in that body were ready enough to make the most of an offence committed by one who had been an Independent; the Independents, to escape the stigma of extenuating the crimes of one of their quondam brethren, vied with their antagonists in shrieking over the atrocity of Nayler's blasphemy, and in urging its severe punishment. Here and there among both classes were men disposed to leniency, and more than one earnest plea was made for merciful dealing with a man whose reason was evidently unsettled, and who was, therefore, a fitting object of compassion; whose crime, if it could indeed be called one, was evidently the result of a clouded intellect, and not of wilful intention of evil. On the other hand, many were in favor of putting him to death as a sort of peace-offering to the clergy, who, as a matter of course, were greatly scandalized by Nayler's blasphemy, and still more by the refusal of his sect to pay tithes, or recognize their divine commission.

Nayler was called into the Parliament-house to receive his sentence. "I do not know mine offence," he said mildly. "You shall know it," said Sir Thomas Widrington, "by your sentence." When the sentence was read, he attempted to speak, but was silenced. "I pray God," said Nayler, "that he may not lay this to your charge."

The next day, the 18th of the twelfth month, he stood in the pillory two hours, in the chill winter air, and was then stripped and scourged by the hangman at the tail of a cart through the streets. Three hundred and ten stripes were inflicted; his back and arms were horribly cut and mangled, and his feet crushed and bruised by the feet of horses treading on him in the crowd. He bore all with uncomplaining patience; but was so far exhausted by his sufferings, that it was found necessary to postpone the execution of the residue of the sentence for one week. The terrible severity of his sentence, and his meek endurance of it, had in the mean time powerfully affected many of the humane and generous of all classes in the city; and a petition for the remission of the remaining part of the penalty was numerously signed and presented to Parliament. A debate ensued upon it, but its prayer was rejected. Application was then made to Cromwell, who addressed a letter to the Speaker of the House, inquiring into the affair, protesting an "abhorrence and detestation of giving or occasioning the least countenance to such opinions and practices" as were imputed to Nayler; "yet we, being intrusted in the present government on behalf of the people of these nations, and not knowing how far such proceeding entered into wholly without us may extend in the consequence of it, do hereby desire the House may let us know the grounds and reasons whereon they have proceeded." From this, it is not unlikely that the Protector might have been disposed to clemency, and to look with a degree of charity upon the weakness and errors of one of his old and tried soldiers who had striven like a brave man, as he was, for the rights and liberties of Englishmen; but the clergy here interposed, and vehemently, in the name of God and His Church, demanded that the executioner should finish his work. Five of the most eminent of them, names well known in the Protectorate, Caryl, Manton, Nye, Griffith, and Reynolds, were deputed by Parliament to visit the mangled prisoner. A reasonable request was made, that some impartial person might be present, that justice might be done Nayler in the report of his answers. This was refused. It was, however, agreed that the conversation should be written down and a copy of it left with the jailer. He was asked if he was sorry for his blasphemies. He said he did not know to what blasphemies they alluded; that he did believe in Jesus Christ; that He had taken up His dwelling in his own heart, and for the testimony of Him he now suffered. "I believe," said one of the ministers, "in a Christ who was never in any man's heart." "I know no such Christ," rejoined the prisoner; "the Christ I witness to fills Heaven and Earth, and dwells in the hearts of all true believers." On being asked why he allowed the women to adore and worship him, he said he "denied bowing to the creature; but if they beheld the power of Christ, wherever it was, and bowed to it, he could not resist it, or say aught against it."

After some further parley, the reverend visitors grew angry, threw the written record of the conversation in the fire, and left the prison, to report the prisoner incorrigible.

On the 27th of the month, he was again led out of his cell and placed upon the pillory. Thousands of citizens were gathered around, many of them earnestly protesting against the extreme cruelty of his punishment. Robert Rich, an influential and honorable merchant, followed him up to the pillory with expressions of great sympathy, and held him by the hand while the red-hot iron was pressed through his tongue and the brand was placed on his forehead. He was next sent to Bristol, and publicly whipped through the principal streets of that city; and again brought back to the Bridewell prison, where he remained about two years, shut out from all intercourse with his fellow-beings. At the expiration of this period, he was released by order of Parliament. In the solitude of his cell, the angel of patience had been with him.

Through the cloud which had so long rested over him, the clear light of truth shone in upon his spirit; the weltering chaos of a disordered intellect settled into the calm peace of a reconciliation with God and man. His first act on leaving prison was to visit Bristol, the scene of his melancholy fall. There he publicly confessed his errors, in the eloquent earnestness of a contrite spirit, humbled in view of the past, yet full of thanksgiving and praise for the great boon of forgiveness. A writer who was present says, the "assembly was tendered, and broken into tears; there were few dry eyes, and many were bowed in their minds."

In a paper which he published soon after, he acknowledges his lamentable delusion. "Condemned forever," he says, "be all those false worships with which any have idolized my person in that Night of my Temptation, when the Power of Darkness was above rue; all that did in any way tend to dishonor the Lord, or draw the minds of any from the measure of Christ Jesus in themselves, to look at flesh, which is as grass, or to ascribe that to the visible which belongs to Him. Darkness came over me through want of watchfulness and obedience to the pure Eye of God. I was taken captive from the true light; I was walking in the Night, as a wandering bird fit for a prey. And if the Lord of all my mercies had not rescued me, I had perished; for I was as one appointed to death and destruction, and there was none to deliver me."

"It is in my heart to confess to God, and before men, my folly and offence in that day; yet there were many things formed against me in that day, to take away my life and bring scandal upon the truth, of which I was not guilty at all." "The provocation of that Time of Temptation was exceeding great against the Lord, yet He left me not; for when Darkness was above, and the Adversary so prevailed that all things were turned and perverted against my right seeing, hearing, or understanding, only a secret hope and faith I had in my God, whom I had served, that He would bring me through it and to the end of it, and that I should again see the day of my redemption from under it all,—this quieted my soul in its greatest tribulation." He concludes his confession with these words: "He who hath saved my soul from death, who hath lifted my feet up out of the pit, even to Him be glory forever; and let every troubled soul trust in Him, for his mercy endureth forever!"

Among his papers, written soon after his release, is a remarkable prayer, or rather thanksgiving. The limit I have prescribed to myself will only allow me to copy an extract:—

"It is in my heart to praise Thee, O my God! Let me never forget Thee, what Thou hast been to me in the night, by Thy presence in my hour of trial, when I was beset in darkness, when I was cast out as a wandering bird; when I was assaulted with strong temptations, then Thy presence, in secret, did preserve me, and in a low state I felt Thee near me; when my way was through the sea, when I passed under the mountains, there wast Thou present with me; when the weight of the hills was upon me, Thou upheldest me. Thou didst fight, on my part, when I wrestled with death; when darkness would have shut me up, Thy light shone about me; when my work was in the furnace, and I passed through the fire, by Thee I was not consumed; when I beheld the dreadful visions, and was among the fiery spirits, Thy faith staid me, else through fear I had fallen. I saw Thee, and believed, so that the enemy could not prevail." After speaking of his humiliation and sufferings, which Divine Mercy had overruled for his spiritual good, he thus concludes: "Thou didst lift me out from the pit, and set me forth in the sight of my enemies; Thou proclaimedst liberty to the captive; Thou calledst my acquaintances near me; they to whom I had been a wonder looked upon me; and in Thy love I obtained favor with those who had deserted me. Then did gladness swallow up sorrow, and I forsook my troubles; and I said, How good is it that man be proved in the night, that he may know his folly, that every mouth may become silent, until Thou makest man known unto himself, and has slain the boaster, and shown him the vanity which vexeth Thy spirit."

All honor to the Quakers of that day, that, at the risk of misrepresentation and calumny, they received back to their communion their greatly erring, but deeply repentant, brother. His life, ever after, was one of self-denial and jealous watchfulness over himself,— blameless and beautiful in its humility and lowly charity.

Thomas Ellwood, in his autobiography for the year 1659, mentions Nayler, whom he met in company with Edward Burrough at the house of Milton's friend, Pennington. Ellwood's father held a discourse with the two Quakers on their doctrine of free and universal grace. "James Nailer," says Ellwood, "handled the subject with so much perspicuity and clear demonstration, that his reasoning seemed to be irresistible. As for Edward Burrough, he was a brisk young Man, of a ready Tongue, and might have been for aught I then knew, a Scholar, which made me less admire his Way of Reasoning. But what dropt from James Nailer had the greater Force upon me, because he lookt like a simple Countryman, having the appearance of an Husbandman or Shepherd."

In the latter part of the eighth month, 1660, be left London on foot, to visit his wife and children in Wakefield. As he journeyed on, the sense of a solemn change about to take place seemed with him; the shadow of the eternal world fell over him. As he passed through Huntingdon, a friend who saw him describes him as "in an awful and weighty frame of mind, as if he had been redeemed from earth, and a stranger on it, seeking a better home and inheritance." A few miles beyond the town, he was found, in the dusk of the evening, very ill, and was taken to the house of a friend, who lived not far distant. He died shortly after, expressing his gratitude for the kindness of his attendants, and invoking blessings upon them. About two hours before his death, he spoke to the friend at his bedside these remarkable words, solemn as eternity, and beautiful as the love which fills it:—

"There is a spirit which I feel which delights to do no evil, nor to avenge any wrong; but delights to endure all things, in hope to enjoy its own in the end; its hope is to outlive all wrath and contention, and to weary out all exultation and cruelty, or whatever is of a nature contrary to itself. It sees to the end of all temptations; as it bears no evil in itself, so it conceives none in thought to any other: if it be betrayed, it bears it, for its ground and spring is the mercy and forgiveness of God. Its crown is meekness; its life is everlasting love unfeigned; it takes its kingdom with entreaty, and not with contention, and keeps it by lowliness of mind. In God alone it can rejoice, though none else regard it, or can own its life. It is conceived in sorrow, and brought forth with none to pity it; nor doth it murmur at grief and oppression. It never rejoiceth but through sufferings, for with the world's joy it is murdered. I found it alone, being forsaken. I have fellowship therein with them who lived in dens and desolate places of the earth, who through death obtained resurrection and eternal Holy Life."

So died James Nayler. He was buried in "Thomas Parnell's burying-ground, at King's Rippon," in a green nook of rural England. Wrong and violence, and temptation and sorrow, and evil-speaking, could reach him no more. And in taking leave of him, let us say, with old Joseph Wyeth, where he touches upon this case in his Anguis Flagellatus: "Let none insult, but take heed lest they also, in the hour of their temptation, do fall away."