Osborn, Elias (DNB00)

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OSBORN, ELIAS (1643–1720), quaker, born at Chillington, Somerset, was baptised there 24 June 1643 (Parish Register). His mother died when he was two years old, and his father, a strict puritan, made him attend weekly lectures and repeat the substance of the sermon on the way home. He says in his autobiography that he was ‘inclined to religion’ when he was thirteen, but also loved ‘pleasure and vanity.’ At fifteen he left school, and was employed in the clothing trade. At ‘King Charles's return,’ he says, ‘I tried the common prayer, but soon wearied of it, and indeed of all other religions I then knew. Amongst the several forms,’ he continues, ‘and great professions, the Life and Power is lost.’

When nineteen he first heard of the quakers, read one or two of their books, and finally became convinced of ‘the truth.’ His father and other puritan relatives strongly opposed his conversion, and Osborn left the house and engaged himself to assist a widow with two daughters in the clothing trade. All three were quakers, and Osborn on 1 Oct. 1665, at the age of twenty-three, married Mary Horte, the younger daughter. His father, though strongly objecting to this quaker daughter-in-law, afterwards ‘loved her very dearly,’ and desired to be buried by her side. Concerning his son, he declared that, having done what he could to reclaim him, he was now satisfied it was ‘a matter of conscience with him,’ adding ‘he is more dutiful to me than before.’ Osborn and his mother-in-law, ‘a noble, generous-spirited woman,’ were imprisoned in 1670 at the suit of Lord Paulet's steward for non-payment of tithes, and their goods were more than once seized for the same cause.

They entertained many ‘travelling friends,’ and their meetings were suffered until the passing of the Conventicle Act (1670), when, Osborn says, ‘the nation seemed all of a flame, the worst men being let loose to ruin their honest neighbours by a law.’ A large monthly meeting at Stoke Gregory was the first to be broken up by Captain Lacy with a troop of horse. Other meetings were disturbed, chiefly by Justice Henry Waldron, a captain of militia, who lived eight miles from Chillington. He employed informers, and illegally consigned numbers of quakers from meetings to prisons as ‘rioters and conventiclers.’ Osborn and some others procured a counsel to plead their case, and defeated Waldron at quarter sessions. Some land was then bought and a large meeting-house built at Ilminster, three miles from Chillington, mainly at the expense of Osborn and his family.

In 1673 Osborn moved to Chard, where he was again frequently distrained upon. On 12 July 1675 his wife died. About three years after he married again. On 23 Sept. 1680, the day appointed for the Somerset quarterly meeting at Ilchester, the friends met in the house of an innkeeper named Abbott, the house usually rented by them from the gaolkeeper being full of prisoners. After the meeting for worship they divided as usual for separate business meetings—women upstairs, men below—when Captain Waldron appeared with his troop, took down many names, and, treating the assembly as two conventicles, fined Abbott 40l. Assisted by Osborn and other friends, the innkeeper brought an action at common law against Waldron at Wells assizes, but without success. A month after Captain Waldron came on Sunday to Ilminster while Osborn was preaching, and carried him and sixty-nine others before Sir Edward Phillips. The latter, although ‘no friend to dissenters,’ allowed Osborn time to explain the case, with the result that only six, of whom Osborn was one, were committed to prison. They appeared at Bath, and were remanded until the next sessions; but through the influence of Lord Fitzhardinge, who represented that the quakers were clothiers and large employers of labour, about eighty altogether were released. Osborn was returned to prison, but allowed considerable liberty, and discharged at the next sessions. On 28 April 1685 Osborn and three other Somerset quakers drew up an address (Besse, Sufferings, i. 644) to the members for the county, in which the ill-treatment of their sect was set forth, and the king's speech at Breda quoted as a guarantee for liberty of conscience. It seems to have been fruitless, since another address was presented at the Wells assize early in the following year from the prisoners in Ilchester gaol. After his release Osborn continued preaching among the Somerset villages, whose inhabitants joined the quakers in large numbers. He held a meeting of five hundred persons in the market-house at Wellington; and at Spiceland, Collumpton, Okehampton, and Crediton he also preached. He was prominent in the business meetings of his society, and at the Somerset quarterly meeting in 1697 was desired to procure a schoolmaster for the quaker school, removed in that year to Sidcot, where it still flourishes.

On 26 Oct. 1711, in his sixty-ninth year, Osborn completed his autobiography, published (London, 1723) under the title of ‘A Brief Narrative of the Life, Labours, and Sufferings of Elias Osborn.’ On 13 Dec. 1718 he wrote of his inability through age and deafness to be present at the funeral of William Penn [q. v.], ‘than whom he never loved any man better,’ and on 29 June 1720 he died in his own house at Chard, being buried in the quaker burial-ground there on 5 July following. ‘Testimonies’ from his monthly and quarterly meetings confirm his repute as a gifted minister, a discriminating disciplinarian, whose purse and heart were open to the poor. Osborn wrote, besides his autobiography, the introduction to ‘Some Remains of that Ancient and Worthy Servant of Christ, Daniel Taylor of Bridport,’ &c., London, 1715. He had four children by each marriage. His eldest son, Elias, born at Chillington 15 June 1668, settled at Bristol, and died there 3 Aug. 1703. The second, Timothy, born 30 April 1670, died at Ilminster 15 Nov. 1704.

[Autobiography; Besse's Sufferings, i. 610, 642, 645, 649; Tanner's Three Lectures on Bristol Friends, p. 126; Kendall's Letters, ii. 120; Registers at Devonshire House.]

C. F. S.