Letters concerning the English Nation/Letter III

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LETTER III.

ON THE

QUAKERS.

YOU have already heard that the Quakers date from Christ, who according to them was the first Quaker. Religion, say these, was corrupted, a little after his death, and remain'd in that state of corruption about 1600 Years. But there was always a few Quakers conceal'd in the world, who carefully preserv'd the sacred fire, which was extinguish'd in all but themselves, 'till at last this light spread it self in England in 1642.

'Twas at the time when Great Britain was torn to pieces by the intestine wars which three or four sects had rais'd in the name of God, that one George Fox, born in Leicestershire, and son to a silk-weaver, took it into his head to preach; and, as he pretended, with all the requisites of a true apostle, that is, without being able either to read or write. He was about twenty five[1] years of age, irreproachable in his life and conduct, and a holy mad-man. He was equip'd in leather from head to foot, and travell'd from one village to another, exclaiming against war and the clergy. Had his invectives been levell'd against the soldiery only, he would have been safe enough, but he inveigh'd against ecclesiasticks; Fox was seize'd at Derby, and being carried before a justice of peace; he did not once offer to pull off his leathern hat; upon which an officer gave him a great box o'th' ear, and cried to him, Don't you know you are to appear uncover'd before his worship? Fox presented his other cheek to the officer, and begg'd him to give him another box for God's sake. The justice wou'd have had him sworn before he ask'd him any questions: Know, friend, says Fox to him, that I never swear. The justice observing he Thee'd and Thou'd him, sent him to the house of correction in Derby, with orders that he should be whipp'd there. Fox' prais'd the Lord all the way he went to the house of correction, where the justice's order was executed with the utmost severity. The men who whipp'd this enthusiast, were greatly surpriz'd to hear him beseech them to give him a few more lashes for the good of his soul. There was no need of intreating these people; the lashes were repeated, for which Fox thank'd them very cordially, and began to preach. At first, the spectators fell a laughing, but they afterwards listned to him; and as enthusiasm is an epidemical distemper, many were persuaded, and those who scourg'd him became his first disciples. Being set at liberty, he ran up and down the country with a dozen proselytes at his heels, still declaiming against the clergy, and was whipp'd from time to time. Being one day set in the pillory, he harangued the crowd in so strong and moving a manner, that fifty of the auditors became his converts; and he won the rest so much in his favour, that his head being freed tumultuously from the hole where it was fastned, the populace went and search'd for the church of England clergyman, who had been chiefly instrumental in bringing him to this punishment, and set him on the same pillory where Fox had stood.

Fox was bold enough to convert some of Oliver Cromwell's Soldiers, who thereupon quitted the service and refus'd to take the oaths. Oliver having as great a contempt for a sect which would not allow its members to fight, as Sixtus Quintus had for another sect, Dove non si chiavava, began to persecute these new converts. The prisons were crouded with them, but persecution seldom has any other effect than to increase the number of proselytes. These came therefore from their confinement, more strongly confirmed in the principles they had imbib'd, and follow'd by their goalers whom they had brought over to their belief. But the circumstances which contributed chiefly to the spreading of this sect were as follows. Fox thought himself inspir'd, and consequently was of opinion, that he must speak in a manner different from the rest of mankind. He thereupon began to writhe his body, to screw up his face, to hold in his breath, and to exhale it in a forcible manner, insomuch that the priestess of the Pythian God at Delphos could not have acted her part to better advantage. Inspiration soon became so habitual to him, that he cou'd scarce deliver himself in any other manner. This was the first gift he communicated to his disciples. These ap'd very sincerely their master's several grimaces, and shook in every limb the instant the fit of inspiration came upon them, whence they were call'd Quakers. The vulgar attempted to mimick them, they trembled, they spake thro' the nose; they quak'd and fancied themselves inspir'd by the Holy Ghost. The only thing now wanting was a few miracles, and accordingly they wrought some.

FOX, this modern patriarch, spoke thus to a justice of peace, before a large assembly of people. Friend, take care what thou dost: God will soon punish thee for persecuting his saints. This magistrate being one who besotted himself every day with bad beer and brandy, died of an apoplexy two days after, the moment he had sign'd a mittimus for imprisoning some Quakers. The sudden death with which this justice was seiz'd, was not ascrib'd to his intemperance, but was universally look'd upon as the effect of the holy man's predictions; so that this accident made more converts to Quakerism, than a thousand sermons and as many shaking fits cou'd have done. Oliver finding them increase daily was desirous of bringing them over to his party, and for that purpose attempted to bribe them by money. However, they were incorruptible, which made him one day declare, that this religion was the only one he had ever met with that had resisted the charms of gold.

The Quakers were several times persecuted under Charles the second, not upon a religious account, but for refusing to pay the tythes, for Thee-ing and Thou-ing the magistrates, and for refusing to take the oaths enacted by the laws.

At last Robert Barclay, a native of Scotland, presented to the king in 1675, his apology for the Quakers, a work as well drawn up as the subject cou'd possibly admit. The dedication to Charles the second is not fill'd with mean, flattering encomiums; but abounds with bold touches in favour of truth, and with the wisest counsels. "Thou hast tasted," says he to the king at the close of his epistle dedicatory, "of prosperity and adversity; thou knowest what it is to be banished thy native country; to be over-rul'd as well as to rule, and sit upon the throne; and being oppressed, thou hast reason to know how hateful the oppressor is both to God and man: If after all these warnings and advertisements, thou dost not turn unto the Lord with all thy heart; but forget him who remembred thee in thy distress, and give up thy self to follow lust and vanity, surely great will be thy condemnation.

"Against which snare; as well as the temptation of those, that may or do feed thee, and prompt thee to evil, the most excellent and prevalent remedy will be, to apply thy self to that light of Christ, which shineth in thy conscience, which neither can nor will flatter thee, nor suffer thee to be at ease in thy sins; but doth and will deal plainly and faithfully with thee, as those, that are followers thereof have plainly done——Thy faithful friend and subject, Robert Barclay.

A more surprizing circumstance is, that this epistle, written by a private man of no figure, was so happy in its effects as to put a stop to the persecution.

  1. Fox could read at that age.

This work was published before January 1, 1926, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.