Harvard's Libraries and the Quaker Jesus


Leo Damrosch

When I joined the Harvard faculty in 1989, I looked forward eagerly to the unparalleled riches of its libraries, but I also knew that it wouldn't be easy to make time to use them. Harvard's brilliant and responsive students encourage one to devote the greatest part of one's efforts to teaching and tutorial; a colleague in the History department once remarked that we all became better teachers after we came to Harvard. And when I was appointed chair of my department in 1993, I knew that I needed a research project that could be pursued in whatever spare hours could be set aside. I wanted to find something that would take me regularly to Houghton Library, just across the street from my office in Warren House. By serendipity I happened to look into a curious story, from the period of Puritan rule in seventeenth-century England, that had piqued my curiosity years before when I happened on it in David Hume's eighteenth-century History of England, and I discovered that Harvard holds an extraordinarily complete collection of the primary texts. Few of these have ever been closely examined by scholars, and anyone who did study them was usually guided by assumptions very different from those of recent scholarship; so this has turned out to be a case in which an old and rarely consulted trove of source material yielded new answers when new questions were put to it.

In brief, the story is as follows. In late October of 1656 a strange party approached Bristol, the largest city in the west of England. Apparently indifferent to a deluge of rain, a small group of men and women, some on horseback and others on foot, sang hosannas before a mounted figure who was unmistakably imitating Christ's entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. This was James Nayler, formerly a soldier and now a well-known itinerant preacher in the nascent Quaker movement. The incident immediately became notorious. It looked like deliberate and outrageous blasphemy to the established ministers of Bristol and to many other people as well, and since the confrontational tactics of the Quakers had aroused great resentment throughout England, it ignited official outrage and furnished a convenient test case for anti-Quaker action. Several detailed accounts of what happened were promptly published, and the case was soon a cause célèbre at the national level. What actually happened at Bristol was never in doubt, but its significance proved to be endlessly disputable, even after the entire Parliament had debated the Nayler case for ten days and then meted out a brutal punishment: the skin was flayed from his back by more than three hundred lashes, his forehead was branded with the letter B (for "blasphemy"), and his tongue was bored through with a red-hot iron. Consigned afterwards to solitary confinement in Bridewell prison, Nayler spent three years there before a general amnesty released him in 1659, and he died a year later at the age of forty-three.

Imaginary portrait of Nayler. In 1661 an engraved portrait, supposedly of Nayler, appeared in an updated sixth edition of Ephraim Pagitt's Heresiography. The reproduction here is not, however, the Pagitt engraving, but rather a sketch in pen with which an earlier reader replaced an original that had been cut out. The sketch catches the likeness to Christ, and it endows Nayler with a tranquil mildness of expression that stands as an implicit reproach to the furious indignation of Pagitt. The verses beneath the picture, transcribed from the original in Pagitt, read as follows:
Of all the Sects the Night & Errors own
And with false Lights possess the world there's none
More strongly blind or who more madly place
The light of Nature for the light of Grace.
Houghton Library.

Many intelligent people--not least of whom was Nayler himself, a lucid and prolific writer struggled repeatedly to explain what the Bristol incident meant, and the records of the controversy illuminate an exceptionally turbulent moment in British history. In the 1650s, when George Fox, Nayler, and other charismatic figures initiated the Quaker movement, it expressed a profoundly individualist and socially disruptive faith. After the Restoration in 1660 it grew increasingly conservative, under the pressure of intense official persecution, and by the end of the century Quakers struck their neighbors as deliberately drab and taciturn, cautious among strangers and notable mainly for shrewdness in business. But in the 1650s they seemed very different, both to themselves and to a culture that felt threatened by them. As for Nayler, at the time of his much-publicized catastrophe he was considered crazy even by many of his fellow Quakers, and Quaker historians who later explored the history of their movement regarded his "fall" as an unlucky aberration, to be forgiven but not condoned.

For political and social historians of the period, as opposed to those directly concerned with sectarian history, Nayler is necessarily a "minor figure" since he didn't achieve political power, or become the undisputed leader of a sect, or write books with lasting literary prestige, and they have generally continued to assume that he was a delusionary who became an involuntary scapegoat through whom an increasingly conservative Puritan establishment cracked down on insubordinate behavior. Occasionally he has been romanticized, notably by the Marxist historian Christopher Hill in The World Turned Upside Down, a widely influential study of seventeenth-century radicalism. Hill minimizes Nayler's religious thinking by translating it into the political terms that were supposedly what he really meant. But to read the original texts with care is to realize how much a conventionally political interpretation leaves out, and how much it has trouble explaining; Hill averts his eyes completely from the messianic entry into Bristol, the details of which, he surprisingly declares, "are well known."

When I looked into the Houghton catalog, I was astonished to find how complete its holdings are: Harvard has virtually all of Nayler's fifty-odd books and pamphlets, together with a comprehensive collection of the anti-Quaker diatribes that generally called them forth. Many of his writings were included in a volume published in 1716 by an aged former colleague named George Whitehead, with the title A Collection of Sundry Books, Epistles and Papers, Written by James Nayler, Some of which were never before Printed, With an Impartial Relation of the Most Remarkable Transactions Relating to His Life. But many other pamphlets and tracts were omitted from Whitehead's selection (commonly misdescribed as Works by historians) because they were too radical in tendency for eighteenth-century readers. And although scholars have winnowed with great care the magnificent collection of manuscript letters in the Friend's House Library in London, Nayler's published writings have been quite seriously neglected. The reason is that they seemed redundant and unrewarding so long as certain kinds of questions were being asked; but if one asks different questions, they grow eloquent once more. It is worth adding that working with the original publications is very different from using the microfilm collections of early texts that Widener, like other large academic libraries, naturally has available. Some pamphlets that are essential for my purposes have never been microfilmed; many that have been microfilmed are too blurry to read with confidence; and, above all, one has no opportunity to put two versions of a text side by side to see what comparison may reveal. A few historians have wondered whether the 1716 Sundry Books accurately reproduces the original texts, but no one seems ever to have actually compared them, and I believe I am the first to have done so. In fact the 1716 volume makes many alterations, usually for stylistic reasons, but sometimes for doctrinal ones from which much can be learned.

When I began this project I knew very little about the Quakers and have drawn gratefully on the achievements of modern scholars: historians of sectarianism like Hugh Barbour and Phyllis Mack; social and political historians like David Underdown, John Morrill, and Blair Worden; and others like the sociolinguist Richard Bauman whose Let Your Words Be Few, neglected by historians, is a masterly study of the motivation and style of Quaker oppositional behavior. Material in a library does not, so to speak, get used up; instead, it gets reused when different questions are asked, and the Harvard libraries have a symbiotic relationship in which the current scholarship in Widener helps to make the old materials in Houghton speak anew.

As I began reading my way into the subject, two areas of my own expertise turned out to be helpful. I had written a book on the role of Puritan ideas and experience in the rise of the novel and was therefore familiar with the intellectual context of Nayler's time and with the beliefs of his Calvinist enemies. And I had also written a book on William Blake, born a century after the Bristol episode, whose profoundly symbolic thinking throws a flood of light on the assumptions that guided Nayler and his companions.

A careful reading of Nayler's lucid responses under interrogation and his writings afterward shows clearly that he was never crazy. What was diagnosed as madness was at a deep level an imaginative understanding of principles that all antinomians, and many orthodox believers too, claimed to accept. I use the term "antinomian" in the sense in which Nayler himself understood it, as the replacement of an external moral law by an internal spiritual one. In its extreme form, which the Quakers firmly repudiated, this might be taken to mean that the Ten Commandments had become irrelevant and that a saved person was liberated from moral obligations of any kind. The Quaker position was that the law was still binding, but that participation in Christ made it possible to live up to its demands instead of endlessly failing to do so. In the opinion of the Quakers, the Calvinist Puritans, refusing to understand this consequence of the Incarnation, remained trapped in the punitive legalism of the Old Covenant and had yet to understand the real message of Christ. "My covenant is the new one, and the law in the heart," Nayler declared in 1655, "and here Christ is the rule of life to me for ever, and my law is spiritual and not moral."

This theology lies at the heart of early Quaker thinking, but in making literal what was normally figurative Nayler put it to the test: he articulated the practical implications of antinomian thought with great clarity and consistency. During an earlier imprisonment in 1653 he had written: "The Cross is daily to be taken up, for the Cross is to the carnal, wild, heady, brutish nature in you, which lies above the Seed of God in you, and oppresseth the pure. Now giving this up to be crucified, makes way for that which is pure to arise." What Nayler did in Bristol was to permit his followers to stage the passion of Christ, with himself as protagonist like an actor in a mystery play, enacting in a deliberately challenging form the daily taking up of the cross which was commonly invoked as a mere metaphor, but which needed to be internalized and lived as a potent sign. The tragic absurdity of the actual performance, the handful of bedraggled singers trudging knee-deep in mud, was actually essential to the enactment. To be despised and rejected, to be mocked by the world, was precisely to imitate Christ, as Nayler had said in the same work: a person who is born again in Christ "is willing to be a fool to the world and Serpent's wisdom, content to suffer wrongs, buffetings, persecutions, slanders, reviling, mocking, without seeking revenge, but bears all the venom the Serpent can cast upon him with patience and is made perfect through suffering, and counts it joy, and rejoiceth in the Cross." But as Nayler elsewhere demanded of the Puritans, in words that are highly applicable to his own fate, "Are you like Christ, because you profess him, when you crucify every appearance of him to your selves afresh?" The great Puritan preacher Richard Baxter, who hated the Quakers, wrote long afterward, "Their chief leader James Nayler acted the part of Christ at Bristol, according to much of the history of the Gospel." Nayler did not claim to be Christ, but he acted the part of Christ, reproducing the details of the entrance into Jerusalem as reported in the Bible.

The more I read, the more interested I became, and it was exhilarating to hope that I might revive long-muted voices and help them to speak again. The result of this research is a book entitled The Sorrows of the Quaker Jesus: James Nayler and the Puritan Crackdown on the Free Spirit, which will be published later this year by the Harvard University Press. The great majority of the quotations from Nayler in the book, and more than a few of those from his contemporaries, have never appeared in print since their original publication. And I believe that my training as a literary scholar has helped me to reanimate them in fresh ways: I look closely at particular passages in order to understand how they make sense or evade it, and I try to listen attentively to notes of uneasiness and ambiguity rather than interpreting all texts as declarative statements. In addition, I have found it invariably fruitful to seek in a concordance--helpfully on hand in the Houghton reading room--any phrase that sounded scriptural; it is remarkable how seldom scholars look up such references even when they are explicitly invoked. But to read Puritan and Quaker tracts without pondering the Biblical texts they refer to (often only allusively) is to hear only one-half of dialogue and, very often, to miss its point. My own beliefs, however, are entirely secular, and my aim has been to understand what Nayler thought he was doing, not to preach his message as such. And in the end it turns out that (much to my surprise) I have turned myself, however temporarily and imperfectly, into a historian.

Still, as I have sat reading the faded records of those long-ago passions in the well-appointed comfort of Houghton Library, I have had to reflect on the immense gulf that separates Nayler and his contemporaries from any modern interpreter. Harvard's copy of the 1716 Collection of Sundry Books has a history that deserves reflection. On the flyleaf an early purchaser inscribed his name and date in the Quaker style: "Jn. Pemberton, London 6th mo., 20th. 1750" (he paid the considerable price of five shillings and sixpence for what must by then have been a used book). Pemberton was twenty-two years old at the time. The ninth of ten children of a Philadelphia merchant, he had sailed to Europe in search of improved health, had come under the influence of a Quaker minister with the allegorical name of John Churchman, and was now beginning what would turn into a three years preaching tour in Churchman's company. Pemberton died in 1795 after a lifetime of proselytizing, interrupted only by a distressing period of imprisonment in 1777-1778 when his principles prevented him from cooperating with armed colonial resistance against England. This was a reader who would have wanted to know what Nayler had to say about Truth, and for whom most of the questions modern interpreters ask would have seemed impertinent if not incomprehensible.

Inside the front cover a printed label is pasted, from to the Friends Library of Philadelphia, with the annotation "The Gift of John Pemberton." There the book must have remained for many years, but also pasted in the cover is the bookplate of the Earlham College Library, with a picture of a man and woman in Quaker dress gazing at a forest above which an institutional building rises upon a cloud-capped hill. In 1929 this copy of Nayler's Sundry Books had fallen at last into the hands of professional academics, albeit ones who were sympathetic to the movement; Hugh Barbour, one of the most distinguished of Quaker historians, taught at Earlham (and now lives in retirement in Cambridge, where I have had the benefit of valuable conversations with him). A few years later the book came to Houghton as part of an exchange of duplicate materials. Professor Thomas D. Hamm of Earlham has kindly informed me that when the Friends Library in Philadelphia was broken up in 1929 its contents were distributed among several Quaker colleges; Earlham already had a copy of the Nayler volume, and gave this one to Harvard in 1935. Now, another sixty years later (and two and a half centuries after its purchase by young John Pemberton) it is being asked to yield up answers its author and first readers never thought of. But it has also, I hope, helped to illuminate what they did think and believe, and thereby to contribute to the understanding of a cause célèbre that can still reveal much about the experience of the seventeenth century.




Michael McCormick Eckehard Simon John R. Stilgoe Richard F. Thomas Jan M. Ziolkowski T. N. Bisson
Leo Damrosch James Engell Owen Gingerich Richard Marius Dudley Herschbach Francisco Márquez




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