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Full Online Book HomeEssaysJames Nayler, The Mad Quaker, Who Claimed To Be The Messiah
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James Nayler, The Mad Quaker, Who Claimed To Be The Messiah Post by :starlit Category :Essays Author :William Andrews Date :November 2011 Read :2759

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James Nayler, The Mad Quaker, Who Claimed To Be The Messiah

History furnishes particulars of many men who have claimed to be the Messiah, and perhaps the most celebrated of the number is James Nayler, "the mad Quaker." He was born at East Ardsley, near Wakefield, in the year 1616. It is certain that his parents were in humble circumstances, and it is generally believed that his father occupied a house near the old church, and that he was a small farmer. James Nayler, for a person in his station in life, received a fairly good education. In his early manhood he was a husbandman, and resided in his native village. When about twenty-two years of age he married, as he puts it, "according to the world," and removed to Wakefield.

Shortly after his marriage, the Civil War broke out in England, and Nayler took his share in the struggle between King and Parliament. He joined, in 1641, as a private, the Parliamentarian army, and his conduct and ability gaining him advancement, he rose to the position of quarter-master under General Lambert. While in Scotland ill-health obliged him to retire from active service, and he returned home.

Nayler carefully studied the Scriptures, and was a zealous member of the Independents, worshipping at Horbury, but he left this body in disgrace. It transpired that he had been paying attentions to a married woman named Mrs. Roper, of Horbury, whose husband had been absent from her for a long period, and that she became a mother, and that Nayler was the father of the child. The Rev. Mr. Marshall, the minister of the Independents, exposed him, and took him severely to task, so that he was finally expelled from that body.

George Fox, the founder of the Society of Friends, visited Wakefield in the year 1651, and made a convert of James Nayler. Here commences the real interest of Nayler's career--a career in which there is much to deplore, but much also certainly to cause wonder. He possessed extraordinary gifts as a preacher, and impressed the people with the truth of his teaching, more especially in the North and West of England. Troubles beset him almost on every hand,--troubles often caused through his own mistaken zeal and frail conduct; but he bore his trials with a noble Christian spirit. Nayler had no sooner joined the Quakers then he commenced what he termed his travels. At the quarter-sessions held at Appleby, in 1652, he was tried and found guilty of blasphemy, and sentenced to twenty weeks' imprisonment. On being released he continued spreading his doctrines in the North. We gather from the remarks of an officer who had served under Cromwell a testimony to the power of Nayler's preaching. "After the battle of Dunbar," says the officer, "as I was riding in Scotland at the head of my troop, I observed at some distance from the road a crowd of people, and one higher than the rest; upon which I sent one of my men to see, and bring me word what was the meaning of the gathering; and seeing him ride up and stay there, without returning according to my order, I sent a second, who stayed in like manner; and then I determined to go myself. When I came thither, I found it was James Nayler preaching to the people, but with such power and reaching energy as I had not till then been witness of. I could not help staying a little, although I was afraid to stay, for fear I was made a Quaker, being forced to tremble at the sight of myself. I was struck with more terror by the preaching of James Nayler than I was at the battle of Dunbar, when we had nothing else to expect but to fall a prey to the swords of our enemies, without being able to help ourselves. I clearly saw the Cross of Christ to be submitted to, so I durst stay no longer, but got off, and carried condemnation for it in my own breast. The people there cried out against themselves, imploring mercy, a thorough change, and the whole work of salvation to be effected by them."

Nayler, in 1654 after visiting in the West, wended his way to London, and preached to two congregations which had been formed by Edward Burrough and Francis Howgil, members of the Society of Friends, who suffered imprisonment with him at Appleby. He broke up both congregations, and drew after him "some inconsiderate women."

His mind gave way, and he believed that he was the Messiah. "Notwithstanding the irregularities of Nayler's life," says Scatcherd, the learned historian of Morley, "there were many things in the man, which, with low and ignorant people, exceedingly favoured his pretensions to the Messiahship. He appeared, both as to form and feature, the perfect likeness to Jesus Christ, according to the best descriptions. His face was of the oval shape, his forehead broad, his hair auburn and long, and parted on the brow, his beard flowing, his eyes beaming with a benignant lustre, his nose of the Grecian or Caucasian order, his figure erect and majestic, his aspect sedate, his speech sententious, deliberative, and grave, and his manner authoritative." Carlyle has drawn a pen picture of Nayler, but not with the skill of the foregoing.

It is not our intention to attempt to trace Nayler from place to place in his wanderings, but to touch on the more important episodes of his closing years. He visited the West in 1652 on a religious mission, and revisited it again four years later. During his visit to Cornwall, he prophesied, and subsequently one of the charges made against him was that he proclaimed himself to be a prophet. At Exeter he was charged with vagrancy, and imprisoned. During his confinement he was visited by a number of women, who had been moved by his teaching. Amongst the number was a widow named Dorcas Erbury. She fell into a swoon, and it was supposed that she was dead. Nayler went through certain ceremonies, and he pretended to have restored her to life. Referring to this when examined by the Bristol Magistrate at a later period, the woman said: "Nayler laid his hand on my head after I had been dead two days, and said, 'Dorcas, arise!' and I arose, and live, as thou seest." On being asked if she had any witness to corroborate her statement, she said that her mother was present. The local authorities at Exeter released Nayler after detaining him for a short time. At this period some strange scenes occurred. "The usual posture of Nayler," says Scatcherd, "was sitting in a chair, while his company of men and women knelt before him." These, it appears, were very numerous and constant for whole days together. At the commencement of the service, a female stepped forth and sang:--

"This is the joyful day,
Behold! the King of righteousness is come!"

Another, taking him by the hand, exclaimed:--

"Rise up, my love--my dove--and come away,
Why sittest thou among the pots."

Then, putting his hand upon her mouth, she sunk upon the ground before him, the auditory vociferating:--

"Holy, holy, holy, to the Almighty."

His procession through Chepstow caused much amazement in that quiet place. "Nayler" is described as being mounted on the back of a horse or mule;--one Woodcock preceded him bareheaded, and on foot:--a female on each side of Nayler held his bridle; many spread garments in his way,--while the women sang: "Hosannah to the Son of David--blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord--Hosannah in the highest!"

Nayler and his followers entered Bristol in a procession similar to the one just described. We are told that on this particular day in the year of grace 1656, when he visited the city of Bristol, rain was falling, and the roads were deep with mud, but neither mud nor rain could check the ardour of himself and disciples, and they sang hymns of praise. They first wended their steps to the High Cross, and then to the White Hart, Broad Street, where a couple of Quakers were staying. The local magistrates were soon on the alert, and had the party apprehended and cast into prison. After being examined by Bristol magistrates, Nayler and his followers were sent to London to be examined before Parliament. His examination and the debate on it occupied many days, and the members finally resolved "that James Nayler was guilty of horrid blasphemy, and that he was a grand impostor and seducer of the people"; and his sentence was, "that he should be set on the pillory, in the Palace Yard, Westminster, during the space of two hours, on Thursday next, and be whipped by the hangman through the streets from Westminster to the Old Exchange, London; and there, likewise, he should be set on the pillory, with his head in the pillory, for the space of two hours, between the hours of eleven and one, on Saturday next, in each place wearing a paper containing an inscription of his crimes; and that at the Old Exchange his tongue should be bored through with a hot iron, and that he should be there also stigmatised in the forehead with the letter B; and that he should be afterwards sent to Bristol, to be conveyed in and through the city on horseback, with his face backwards, and there also should be whipped the next market-day after he came thither; and that thence he should be committed to prison in Bridewell, London, and there be restrained from the society of all people, and there to labour hard till he should be released by Parliament; and during that time he should be debarred the use of pen, ink, and paper, and he should have no relief but what he earned by his daily labour." This terrible sentence was duly carried out, although Parliament and Cromwell were petitioned to mitigate the punishment. During his imprisonment he wrote his recantations in letters addressed to the Quakers. After being confined for two years he was set at liberty, and repaired to Bristol, and at a public meeting made a confession of his offence and fall. His address moved nearly all present to tears. The Quakers once more received him back to their Society.

His end came in the year 1660. In that year he left London for Wakefield, but failed to reach it. At Holm, near King's Rippon, Huntingdonshire, one night he was bound and robbed, and left in a field, where he was found by a countryman. He was removed to a house at Holm and every attention paid to him, but he soon died from the results of the rough treatment he had received at the hands of the highwaymen.

(The end)
William Andrews's essay: James Nayler, The Mad Quaker, Who Claimed To Be The Messiah

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