I am always struck by the story of James Nayler. Following a dispute with George Fox, Nayler felt moved to make a radical entry into Bristol modelled on Christ’s entry into Jerusalem in order to call attention to “that of God” in every one. To his shame, I hope, George Fox disowned Nayler from the movement, proving that even the most revered leaders can be wrong in their assessments of situations.
Originally posted on The Postmodern Quaker:
The following is a revised and expanded version of an essay I published originally in 1996 on the Quaker Electronic Archive site. I am publishing it here in hopes of making the story more widely known.
The Christian scriptures report that Jesus once entered Jerusalem seated upon an ass, with people laying their cloaks before him and chanting “Hosanna!”1 I doubt that we’ll ever know whether that story records an actual event or is simply an expression of the faith of some of Jesus’ followers. We do know, however, that a similar scene took place in England many centuries later, when the Quaker James Nayler, one of the most influential and beloved of the first group of Quaker ministers, entered the town of Bristol on horseback as chanting people spread their scarves upon the ground. It may be that, as some have asserted, Nayler’s act was the result of delusion and megalomania. I suggest, however, that Nayler was engaging in a bit of “street theater” to demonstrate the fundamental Quaker experience that the same Spirit which was in Jesus and his disciples is available to us today — that, in other words, “sacred history” is not so much the story of a golden age in the past but what we do here and now: “the Kingdom of God is within and among you.”2 I think that Nayler’s behavior afterwards supports that hypothesis, but I recognize that, as with the story about Jesus, questions about his demonstration will always linger.
The English authorities, however, did not pause to ask questions. Nayler and his associates were immediately arrested. Nayler was charged with blasphemy, a serious offense.
After debate, the Parliament sentenced Nayler to severe penalties. He would be pilloried in Westminster and then whipped through the streets on his way to the pillory at the Old Exchange in London, receiving in the process three hundred and eleven lashes. Then, after being pinned in the pillory for two more hours, he would be bound upright to it, his tongue would be bored through with a hot poker, and he would be branded on the forehead with the letter “B” for “blasphemer.” He would then be taken back to Bristol and set upon a horse, riding bareback and facing backward, after which he would be removed from the horse, stripped, and scourged on his way to imprisonment at hard labor. As he was being led away after hearing the sentence pronounced, Nayler was heard by one of his enemies to say, “The Lord lay not these things to your charge. I shall pray heartily that he may not.”
Some people wondered why an apparently deluded Quaker was worth so much time and trouble. Some were surprised, too, by the severity of the sentence and its being imposed before petitions for leniency were read. No doubt there were political motives behind the Parliament’s decision, and at least some legislators seem to have believed that Nayler was the principal leader of the Quaker movement. Quakers, however, including George Fox, disowned Nayler publicly and emphatically after his arrest at Bristol, leaving him largely alone in his suffering. But not everyone abandoned him. The response of his most steadfast friend, Robert Rich, has always moved and inspired me.
Rich, a businessman with much to lose, did not hesitate to act on Nayler’s behalf. He boldly wrote to the Parliament in defense of Nayler, arguing that Nayler’s act had not been blasphemous. He offered to meet with the legislators and prove Nayler’s innocence by scripture; it is not recorded that any member of the Parliament accepted the invitation. After the first public flogging, which Nayler underwent with Christ-like meekness, others joined Rich in pleading with the government for clemency, but the only mitigation was a delay of one week to allow Nayler to recover somewhat from his injuries.
On the day set for the completion of the punishment, Rich appeared at the door of the Parliament, where he stayed all morning, speaking to the members as they passed, exhorting them to Christian mercy. At length, after crying out to the legislators that they should keep their hands clean of blood, Rich went to stand with the suffering Nayler. I quote now from William Sewell, whose early history3 is one of my sources for this account:
Then [Rich] went towards the Exchange, and got on the pillory, [and] held Nayler by the hand while he was burned on the forehead, and bored through the tongue; and was not a little affected with Nayler’s suffering, for he licked his wounds, thereby as it seems to allay the pain; and he led him by the hand from off the pillory.
I cannot read those words without tears.
Nayler bore all of his tortures with humble dignity and forgiveness, even embracing the executioner after being burned. His “sign” at Bristol may have been too ambiguous to convey the message of Christ’s spirit in human hearts, but the experience of his meek, loving manner, and of Rich’s courageous love, seems to have awakened many of the onlookers to that spirit. It was the custom for those assembled before the pillory to jeer the accused and pelt him with thrown objects. Although the crowd gathered before Nayler may have numbered in the thousands, the people were largely silent, men even removing their hats during the worst of the torture. I think that they must have understood at last that, despite the manner in which he had tried to express himself, Nayler was indeed possessed of the spirit of Christ. After all, to speak, to make claims, even to act, can be all too easy, but to continue to love through torture and rejection requires a real grounding in the spirit of him who said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Whatever the motivation for it, the entry into Bristol was but a prelude to the powerful revelation of Christ in the suffering love of James Nayler — and of Robert Rich.
Rich, while never abandoning his radical faith, would become increasingly estranged from “orthodox” Quakerism under George Fox’s leadership. Nayler, however, continually strove for reconciliation, and he was eventually accepted, if grudgingly, back into the fold. But the long ordeal had ruined his health. Within a year of his 1659 release from prison, and almost four years after the entry into Bristol, James Nayler died, at the age of 44, a day after being found robbed and bound in a field. “About two hours before his death,” Sewell tells us, “he spoke, in the presence of several witnesses, these words:”
There is a spirit which I feel, that 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 exaltation 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 are the mercies and forgiveness of God. Its crown is meekness, its life is everlasting love unfeigned, and 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 without any 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 this resurrection, and eternal holy life.
(The illustration above is from a 1702 book; it is reproduced in one of my sources, Leo Damrosch’s The Sorrows of the Quaker Jesus: James Nayler and the Puritan Crackdown on the Free Spirit. For more on Nayler and Rich, I recommend Damrosch’s book along with The Light in Their Consciences, by Rosemary Moore, and The Early Quakers and the ‘Kingdom of God,’ by Gerard Guiton — who, I am pleased to note, is in agreement with my characterization of Nayler’s ride into Bristol as “street theater.”)