Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Parnell, James

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PARNELL, JAMES (1637?–1656), pamphleteer and quaker, was born at Retford, near Nottingham, in 1636 or 1637. Sewel says (i. 137) that he was ‘trained up in the schools of literature,’ and from his own account (cf. ‘Fruits of a Fast,’ Works, p. 231) he seems to have had a classical education. Of precocious intellect, he was physically weak, being very short in stature, and called derisively, even when grown up, ‘the quaking boy.’ His family were strict adherents of the church. He encountered strong opposition from them when, at the age of fifteen, he set out to find in the north a ‘seeking people,’ with whom he had corresponded. He visited George Fox in prison in Carlisle, and as soon as Fox expounded quakerism to him he was ‘effectually reached.’ He returned home and resumed his business; but both voice and pen were henceforth employed in promulgating his new opinions. He was with Fox at his famous dispute with Nathaniel Stephens, vicar of Fenny Drayton, at Atherstone, Warwickshire, in 1654 (Fox, Journal, p. 201). His first book, ‘A Trial of Faith, wherein is discovered the ground of the Faith of the Hypocrite, which perisheth, and the Faith of the Saints, which is founded upon the Everlasting Rock,’ &c., was published at London in 1654. It was twice reprinted in 1655, and again in 1658. It was translated into Dutch in 1656, into French as ‘L'Espreuve de la Foy,’ &c., Londres, imprimé pour Robert Wilson, 1660, and into German, Amsterdam, 1681.

When between sixteen and seventeen Parnell visited other quakers near Retford. Thence he went to Cambridge, where he found several of the society in prison; and before a fortnight he was himself committed by William Pickering, mayor, for publishing two papers on the corruption of magistrates and priests. After lying in prison two sessions, Parnell was acquitted by a jury; but the magistrates remanded him, and after three days he was forcibly driven from the town, with a pass describing him as a rogue. He soon returned to Cambridge, and spent six months visiting the neighbouring towns and villages.

On 30 March 1655, while he was preaching at the house of one Ashen, at Fenstanton, Huntingdonshire, he was challenged to dispute with some baptists under Richard Elligood, who came to hear him. He drew up forty-three queries, which were read to the congregation, and no adequate answer was returned. Parnell seems to have had the last word. A similar debate followed with Joseph Doughty, who was accompanied by Henry Rix, the leader of the independents, and one Arthur Hindes, a tanner in Cambridge, on 20 April 1655, in the Shire House, in the Castle Yard, Cambridge. A riot took place; but Parnell, after disputing with much skill, was allowed to escape.

Parnell, who was only eighteen, then passed into Essex. After holding meetings at Felstead, Stebbing, Witham, Colchester, &c., he went to Coggeshall, a town nine miles off, on 12 July, the day appointed for a public fast. A service conducted by ‘Priest Willis’ of Braintree, and William Sparrow of Halstead, was being held in the parish church of St. Peter's, and Parnell endeavoured to obtain a hearing. But confusion ensued, and Justice Dionysius Wakering, a member of the commission of triers, arrested him, and committed him to Colchester Castle as ‘an idle and disorderly person.’ Parnell answered the mittimus by ‘The Fruits of a Fast, appointed by the Churches gathered against Christ and His Kingdom,’ &c., London, Giles Calvert, 1655, 4to.

In a few weeks he was marched to Chelmsford (twenty-two miles distant), chained to felons, and there tried. He was fined 40l. for contempt of authorities, and returned to gaol in default of payment. He was visited in prison by Fox, George Whitehead [q. v.], and Stephen Crisp [q. v.], who had joined the quakers through Parnell's preaching at Colchester. His treatment was extremely severe. The cell in which, after Christmas 1655, he was confined—a deep hole in the thick wall of the castle—is still shown. He was compelled to receive his food by climbing up twelve feet by a short rope to the opening. Falling from this one day, he received injuries from which he never recovered. He died after ten months' imprisonment, at the beginning of May 1656, and was buried in the castle yard, the authorities refusing his body to his friends.

At the inquest on 5 May 1656 a verdict was passed that Parnell wilfully rejected food, and otherwise brought about his own destruction. Parnell had made many enemies by his unsparing tongue, and ‘A true and lamentable Relation of the most desperate Death of James Parnel, Quaker, who wilfully starved himselfe in the Prison of Colchester,’ &c., London [7 May], 1656, was printed by Dr. Francis Glisson [q. v.] of Colchester. The author, in a letter addressed to Parnell in prison on 22 March, had called him a disciple of Henrik Niclaes [see Nicholas, Henry], the Familist. There was also published a ballad entitled ‘The Quaker's Fear; wonderful, strange, and true news from the famous town of Colchester, in Essex, shewing the manner how one James Parnell, a Quaker by profession, took upon him to fast twelve days and twelve nights without any sustenance at all’ (black letter broadside, with three woodcuts). These exaggerated effusions were answered on 5 June by Parnell's friends in ‘The Lamb's Defence against Lyes. And a true Testimony given concerning the Sufferings and Death of James Parnell. And the ground thereof. By such hands as were eye-witnesses, and have subscribed their names thereto,’ London, Giles Calvert, 1656. The tone of this is temperate and convincing.

Parnell's undoubted ability, extreme youth, and untimely death at once exalted him into the position of the ‘quaker protomartyr.’ His works show acumen and skill in argument. Had he attained to maturity, he would probably have been a great writer. As it is, they abound in bitter invective, exaggerated by the crudity of youth. Besides the works noticed, he wrote: 1. ‘The Trumpet of the Lord blowne, or a Blast against Pride and Oppression,’ &c., London, Giles Calvert, 1655, 4to. 2. ‘A Shield of the Truth, or the Truth of God cleared from Scandalls and Reproaches,’ &c., London, 1655, 4to. 3. ‘The Watcher … or a Discovery of the Ground and End of all Forms, Professions, Sects, and Opinions,’ &c., London, 1655, 4to. 4. ‘Goliath's Head cut off with his own Sword; In a Combat betwixt Little David, the Young Stripling … and Great Goliath, the Proud Boaster,’ &c., London, 1655. This was in answer to a paper issued against him by Thomas Drayton of Abbot's Ripon, Huntingdonshire. He also wrote from prison, shortly before his death, many epistles and addresses, as well as ‘A Warning to all People’ (translated into Dutch, 1670), all of which are printed in ‘A Collection of the several Writings given forth from the Spirit of the Lord, through … James Parnel, &c. Published in the year 1675.’ An original letter from Parnell to Stephen Crisp is in the Colchester collection of manuscripts (see Crisp and his Correspondents, 1892, p. 4).

[Works, ed. Crisp, 1675; the present writer's Crisp and his Correspondents, pp. xvii, xxxiii, xxxiv, 4–8, 70; Besse's Sufferings, i. 86, 190, 191; Callaway's Memoir of Parnel, 1846; Life, in vol. ii. of Tuke's Biographical Notices; Sewel's History of the Rise, &c. i. 137–41; David's Hist. of Evangelical Nonconformity in Essex, pp. 319–321 n., 402; Dale's Annals of Coggeshall, pp. 172–5; Fox's Great Mystery, &c. pp. 13, 14; Fox's Journal, ed. 1891, pp. 172, 201, 231; Barclay's Letters of Early Friends; Smith's Catalogue, ii. 268–72; Smith's Bibliotheca Anti-Quakeriana, p. 199; Cutts's Colchester, p. 209; Whitehead's Christian Progress, p. 65; Wood's Fasti, i. 435; Evans's Old and New Halstead, 1886, pp. 52, 53; manuscript Book of Sufferings preserved at Colchester; Register of Burials of Colchester Monthly Meetings.]

C. F. S.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.215
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

Page Col. Line  
347 i 37 Parnell, James: for Abbey Ripon read Abbot's Ripon
ii 4 for or read of
5 for Matins read Meetings