Littell's Living Age/Volume 128/Issue 1658/The Quaker's Hat

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From The Saturday Review.


A very big book might be written on the part played by the hat in history. If the mad hatter of "Alice in Wonderland" had undertaken to write a history of the world, he could have summed up the leading epochs in the development of European civilization under headings designated by the prominent headpiece of each epoch. What better symbol for the old Greek epoch than the stephanos, for the old Roman epoch than the civic crown, for the Byzantine empire than the diadem, for the Middle Ages than the papal tiara, or for the revolution than the bonnet rouge?

Perhaps no other human headpiece has been the cause of so much stir in society as the hat of George Fox, the founder of Quakerism. We have seen the pilgrims at Thonon, in Savoy, kiss the hat which the eager Francis de Sales forgot to put on his head when he started upon his preaching mission against the Calvinists. What would one give to see the far more important hat which George Fox first refused to put off in the presence of the magistrates and ministers of Cromwell's reign? "Proud flesh," says George Fox, "looks for hat-honour." The refusal to uncover the head before the magistrates, like many other parts of the Quaker ritual, had been intermittently attempted by some of the earlier Puritans. "Saltmarsh was the first," says Dr. King, in his "Life of John Locke," "that began to be scrupulous about the hat." It appears, however, from Camden's Annals, that more than a century earlier Hachet and some of the first Marprelates refused, in Elizabeth's reign, to take off their hats before the magistrates. That which was undefined and tentative for a few here and there among the forerunners of Quakerism became a fixed and hard ritual for thousands when it was adopted by the powerful mind of George Fox. He claimed a divine commandment for his apparent want of respect and politeness. "When the Lord sent me forth into the world He forbade me to put off my hat to any, high or low. O the rage that was then in the priests, magistrates, professors, and people of all sorts! But the Lord shewed me that it was an honour invented by men in the fall and in the alienation from God, who were offended if it were not given them, and yet would be looked upon as saints." His disciples accepted at once and without hesitation the command to pay no "hat-honour" to their neighbours, and were satisfied with the arguments produced by their leader. Before they came into conflict with the higher powers upon this point they had to endure "blows, punches, and beatings for not putting off their hats to men," and often "had their hats violently plucked off and thrown away." Many a good Quaker, George Fox tells us, lost a good hat through his resolute obedience to this novel unsocial ritualism. Many Quaker tradesmen lost their customers at the first, for "the people were shy of them, and would not trade with them, when Friends could not put off their hats, nor bow, nor use flattering words in salutations, nor go into the fashions and customs of the world; so for a time some Friends that were tradesmen could hardly get money enough to buy bread." But when it was discovered that the yea of these queer persons "was yea, and their nay was nay," their customers returned, until the complaint became common in the north of England amongst "envious professors, if we let these Quakers alone, they will take the trade of the nation."

The first occasion on which the Quaker's hat came publicly and officially into trouble was at the Launceston Assizes in the year 1656, before no less a person than Chief-Justice Glynn. "When we were brought into the court," says Fox, "we stood a pretty while with our hats on, and all was quiet, and I was moved to say, 'Peace be amongst you!' 'Why do you not put your hats off?' said the judge to us. We said nothing. 'Put off your hats,' said the judge again. Still we said nothing. Then said the judge, 'The court commands you to put off your hats.'" George Fox, with amazing simplicity, asked for some Scriptural instances of any magistrate commanding prisoners to put off their hats. He next asked to be shown, "either printed or written, any law of England that did command such a thing." Then the judge grew very angry, and said, "I do not carry my law-books on my back." "But," said Fox, "tell me where it is printed in any statute-book, that I may read it." The chief-justice cried out "Prevaricator!" and ordered the Quakers to be taken away. When they were brought before him again, the chief-justice asked Fox whether hats were mentioned at all in the Bible? "Yes," said the Quaker, "in the third of Daniel, where thou mayst read that the children were cast into the fiery furnace by Nebuchadnezzar's command with their coats, their hose, and their hats on!" Here was a proof that even a heathen king allowed men to wear hats in his presence. "This plain instance stopped him," says Fox. "So he cried again, 'Take them away, gaoler;' accordingly we were taken away, and thrust in among the thieves, where we were kept a great while." After nine weeks' imprisonment "for nothing but about their hats," as the chief-justice told them, they were again brought before him, grimly wearing the offending head-near. "Take off their hats," said the judge to the gaoler. "Which he did," says Fox, "and gave them unto us; and we put them on again. Then the judge began to make a great speech, how he represented the lord protector's person, and that he had made him lord chief justice of England." The Quakers were incorrigible. They were sent back to prison, but not really so much for the wearing of their hats as for the suspicion that they were royalist emissaries affecting religious singularity in order to win their way amongst the extreme Puritans. Indeed a Major Seely actually gave evidence — false enough — that he had heard George Fox boast that he "could raise forty thousand men at an hour's warning, involve the nation in blood, and so bring in King Charles."

These first public prosecutions for the sake of the hat happened in 1656. In the following year John ap John was put in prison at Tenby for wearing his hat in the church. George Fox went to the mayor, justice, and governor of the prison, and asked them why the Quaker was imprisoned, while the Puritan minister was left in freedom; he had seen the minister "in the steeple-house, with two caps on his head, a black one and a white one, while John ap John had but one." The brims of the "priest's" hat were cut off; the brims of the Quaker's hat were left on "to defend him from the weather." Was the difference in brims cause enough for imprisonment? "These are frivolous things," said the governor. "Why then," replied the patriarch of the Quakers, "dost thou cast my friend into prison for frivolous things?" In the year 1658 many Friends were in trouble in London with Sir Henry Vane, "who, being chairman of committee would not suffer Friends to come in, except they would put off their hats. Now, many of us having been imprisoned upon contempts (as they called them) for not putting off our hats, it was not a likely thing that Friends, who had suffered so long for it from others, should put off their hats for him." Vane, however, did not make so much ado about it as the country justices or the high legal officers had done. After some slight word-conflict, he allowed these quaint irreconcilables to plead before him with covered heads.

George Fox speaks of the restoration of Charles II. as a judgment-day "upon that hypocritical generation of professors, who, being got into power, grew proud, haughty, and cruel beyond others, and persecuted the people of God" (his periphrasis for Quakers) "without pity. O the daily reproaches, revilings, and beatings we underwent amongst them, even in the highways, because we would not put off our hats to them!" The Restoration did not bring about a total cessation of Quaker persecution, but it brought some amelioration of their condition. The easy-going Charles II., always personally tolerant, was much more amused than offended when the Quakers refused to uncover their heads in his presence. Not only upon Fox himself, but upon Hubberthorn, Ellis Hooke, and several others, the king made a very pleasing impression. In December 1660 Charles granted an interview to Thomas Moore, of Hartswood, who had been a justice of peace, in order to receive a petition upon Quaker suffering. There was much debate amongst the courtiers, in the presence of the king, what they should do with this sturdy Quaker's hat. All agreed that he could not be called in with his hat on, and that he would never take it off himself. Some proposed that it might be removed gently by the clerk of the council. The king, the greatest gentleman of them all, declared that the hat should not be taken off at all, unless Thomas himself chose to remove it; no other should take it off. "When I saw the king at the head of the table with the rest of the council," says Moore, "I made a stop, not knowing but that I might give offence; when one of the council spoke to me and said, 'You may go up; it is the king's pleasure that you may come to him with your hat on.'" His whole account of the interview shows that there was not a particle of rudeness or impertinent self-assertion in the sturdy Quaker. Six years later, when Adam Barfoot "came out of Huntingdonshire to warn the king" he met Charles at Whitehall, "betimes in the morning, going ahunting." Adam "stepped to the coachside," says Ellis Hooke, in a letter to Margaret Fell, "and laid his hand upon it, and said, 'King Charles, my message is this day unto thee, in the behalf of God's poor, afflicted, suffering people.'" When he came to the coach-side, the footman took off his hat; "but the king bid him give the man his hat again, and was very mild and moderate." Similar testimonies to the good-natured and gentle manner of Charles II. from men who were the very opposite of courtiers and cavaliers, occur frequently in the autobiographies and letters of the first generation of Quakers.

They were quite as determined to remain covered before Charles's Parliament as before Charles himself. In May 1661, Edward Burrough and two other Quakers were cited before a Parliamentary committee. There were "some obstructions," says Burrough, "about our hats, which at last were taken off by one of them." A few days later, some members procured four Quakers admittance to plead at the bar of the House against the proposed bill to "compel certain persons called Quakers to take lawful oaths." By the vote of the House they were called in; "and after some little debate at the door by some of the members about our hats," says Burrough, "the sergeant came and told us we might come in with our hats on or off, which we would. So into the House we were conducted by him, with our hats on; and within the House near the bar he took them off." The hat had, in fact, become the war-standard of this quaint army of non-fighters, and its victorious maintenance is chronicled always with a kind of gleeful and quiet humour by the Quaker autobiographers.

In the seventeenth century it seems to have been as usual for men to keep the hat on in some assemblies which were not religious as it is now for women to wear their hats or bonnets at all public assemblies. In the account of the meeting of the English "Academy, or Royal Society," in the "Travels of the Grand Duke Cosmo," in the year 1669, it is implied that the fathers of scientific congresses conducted their business with their hats on. "They observe the ceremony of speaking to the president uncovered, waiting from him permission to be covered." The refusal of hat-honour by the Quakers was at first a chance testimony against supposed worldly and unreal courtesy; but in time the negative refusal to take off the hat was fossilized into a kind of positive ritualistic symbol; it became the duty of a Friend of God to keep his hat on. When William Penn, a man of utterly different spirit from George Fox, was at the court of the religious Princess Elizabeth at Herford, in 1677, he argued against hat-honour in the language of his spiritual master. "The hat choketh" (he said to "a certain graef or earl") "because it telleth tales. It telleth what people are; it marketh men for separatists; it is a blowing a trumpet, and visibly crossing the world; and this, the fear of man cannot abide." But, when he was closeted with his own sovereign, he spoke of the Quaker's hat in a more courtierly and less pretentious tone. The king asked Penn to give him his own explanation of the difference between their religions, Roman Catholicism and Quakerism. The Quaker answered by pointing out the symbolical difference between the hats worn by the king and by himself. "My hat," said he, "is plain. Thine is adorned with ribbons and feathers. The only difference between our religions lies in the ornaments which have been added to thine." No Quaker of the Commonwealth period could have brought himself to give utterance to such a mild definition of Popery. The Quaker's peculiar hat, after lingering long as an exterior sign of the religion of the wearer, has now nearly wholly disappeared. Whether the refusal of hat-honour is disappearing with the broad-brimmed symbol, we do not know, but we believe that there are some "Friends" who remove their hats to ladies, and we know that there are some who take them off when they visit a church.

We must not omit to mention that the fiercest controversy within the Quaker sect itself in Fox's time was also connected with the hat. The once famous John Perrot determined to out-Quaker Quakerism, and to develop it along those lines which Fox had pleased to cut short. Fox often speaks bitterly of this schismatic and of "those that run out from truth with him." Perrot naturally asked why, if it were no true honour to neighbours and magistrates to remove the hat to them, it can be true honour to God to remove the hat to Him?—which Fox and his disciples invariably did in prayer. God, said Perrot, does not demand hat-honour but heart-honour. He spoke too late, however. At the close of the seventeenth century there was no longer sufficient raw material in England for the formation of new sects; the amazing religious productiveness of the nation had come to an end. The general Quaker body remained content with the casuistic arguments provided by their leader for the retention of the inherited habit of uncovering the head in worship. Fox's latest declaration on the subject of the hat was made at Harlingen, in Friesland, in 1677. We quote it for the proverb which he cites: — "The very Turks," says he, "mock at the Christians in their proverb, saying, 'The Christians spend much of their time in putting off their hats, and showing their bare heads to one another.' Now is not the Turk's proverb a reproach to the Christians, and have not you (the burgomaster and council of Harlingen) fined and imprisoned many because they would not put off their hats to you, and show you their bare head?"