LOGIN | REGISTER  Unregistered

Features: Articles


Naked Quakers

Apocalyptic obsessions and public nudity - the world of the early Quakers

A Quaker's Dream

Naked goings-on on the title page of an anonymous anti-Quaker pamphlet of 1655 entitled 'The Quakers Dream'


…a man, a Quaker, came naked through the [Westminster] Hall, only very civilly tied about the privates to avoid scandal, and with a chafing-dish of fire and brimstone burning upon his head… crying, “Repent! repent! (Samuel Pepys, Diary, 29 July 1667).

For those who don’t think that they are a breakfast cereal, or confuse them with the Amish, Quakers today are generally thought of as a harmless, if rather worthy, Christian denomination. Indeed, in Britain at least, the Religious Society of Friends, as Quakers are formally called, now appear reticent about appearing religious at all, feeling more comfortable to claim that they “share a way of life, not a set of beliefs”[1] and happy to include atheists and humanists amongst their members.

However, the origins of Quakerism lie in the turmoil of the English revolution, in the same feverish religious environment that gave birth to such radical groups as the Diggers, Levellers, Ranters, Fifth Monarchy Men and Muggletonians (see FT253:46–50, 254:50–54). But unlike the others, the early Quakers had global ambitions. Within a few years of their appearance in the north of England in the early 1650s, Quaker prophets, both men and women, were proclaiming their ‘Everlasting Gospel’ from Constantinople to Surinam to Lapland, and, along the way, generating more than their fair share of phenomena of interest to forteans.

Driven by an intense apocalypticism,[2] Quakers called on people to be obedient to the light of Christ within. Now was the time, they claimed, to worship God “in Spirit and in Truth” and to abandon all outward forms of religious worship. Clergy, of whatever kind, were denounced as ‘false prophets’ and ‘hireling shepherds’ and church services disrupted as the Quaker prophets demanded that all humanity awaken from the long night of apostasy that they claimed had existed since the time of Christ.[3]

Although they were pacifists, such behaviour often had violent consequences. George Fox, who emerged as the leading figure in the movement, was not alone in being regularly beaten by churchgoers, angered by his interruptions to their parish worship – on one occasion he was even given a bloody nose by a clergyman who hit him in the face with a Bible to silence him.[4] However, Friends did not restrict themselves to provocative behaviour in churches. Not only did they preach wherever they felt the Spirit moved them to speak – even if that happened to be in Parliament or the court of the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire – but some did not restrict themselves to words alone: many, both men and women, stripped off.


In most cases, it seems that the Quakers involved were inspired by examples from the Bible, and particularly the prophet Isaiah, who went naked as a sign of judgment upon the enemies of Israel (although none of the Quakers managed Isaiah’s three years of nudity) rather than as a statement of moral freedom that may have inspired radicals with a closer affinity to Ranter ideas. Solomon Eccles, the Quaker whom Pepys saw at Westminster, made something of a habit of it, though most did it rather less often[5] and with some dread, one complaining that “it was as death unto me, and I had rather, if it had been the Lord’s will, have dyed then gone on in this service”.[6] Others kept their clothes on but caused even more of a stir. In 1656, James Nayler, one of the movement’s key leaders, entered Bristol on a horse, with a group of followers singing ‘Hosanna’, in a clear re-enactment of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem. The scandalous event brought about his famous trial before Parliament for blasphemy. It did not help that Nayler had chosen to model his appearance on Jesus, or rather what passed for Jesus in the 17th-century English imagination. [see panel].

Such was their belief that the Quaker movement was endowed with the same Spirit as that which was present amongst the first Christians, many Friends claimed that they were able to effect miraculous cures akin to those found in the Bible. Nayler, for example, allegedly raised Dorcas Erbury, one of his entourage, shortly before his fateful entry into Bristol.[7] If this was not enough to disturb their contemporaries, their stubborn insistence on what they saw as obedience to the ‘Truth’ led early Quakers to adopt a number of practices that challenged the social, religious and legal cohesion of 17th-century society. These included such things guaranteed to provoke a hostile reaction as not removing their hats to anyone except God, opening their businesses on the Sabbath, Easter and Christmas day, and refusing to swear oaths in court. Although some women preachers were known in various revolutionary sects before the arrival of the Quakers, the Friends’ belief that in the end times God had poured out his Spirit “on all flesh: and your sonnes & your daughters shall prophecie”[8] meant that the figure of the Quaker woman preacher became a common and troubling one to society at large as thousands took up the call (leading Samuel Johnson, in the following century, to say of such women: “Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”)[9]

It is unsurprising therefore that Friends were loathed by many of their neighbours[10] and became the victims of sensational accusations of magic and sexual deviance. In 1659, for example, an anonymous pamphlet entitled Strange and Terrible News from Cambridge recounted how Quakers had been put on trial in that city for turning a woman into a horse and riding her around the countryside at night, while the title of another published that year, A relation of a Quaker, that to the shame of his profession, attempted to bugger a mare near Colchester, speaks for itself. Although in the first few decades of the movement, thousands of Quakers were imprisoned and assaulted, and scores killed, early Friends seem to have thrived in the face of such persecution, interpreting it as a necessary part of their apocalyptic ‘Lambs War’[11] and confirming the validity of their faith.

Despite the difficulties the movement faced at home, from the outset, the Quakers remained true to the universal claims of their apocalyptic vision and the demand in the book of Revelation that the ‘Everlasting Gospel’ be preached “unto them that dwell on the earth, and to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people”. They were especially successful in their attempts to do this on the other side of the Atlantic, in the North American colonies and the Caribbean, although initially it came at some cost, with the execution of a number of Quaker prophets, both English and native American.[12] However, in South America, things took a surprising and perplexing turn. The Quakers who arrived in Surinam in 1657 were banished by local magistrates, and barely survived, being forced to “live among the monkeys” but, according to an account obtained from an English planter who had subsequently been forced to leave the region, after the Quakers left, their message was reiterated by some mysterious visitors with apparently supernatural powers:

“And after there came a white people to Suriname, and they told them they came from the Great God beyond the sun to warn them to repent and if anyone hurt them, the Great God would destroy them and there was a Dutch man shot at them but did not hurt them so they went their way and they did not know whence they came nor whither they went.”

Those Quakers who went east towards the Mediterranean and beyond, rather than across the Atlantic, had mixed fortunes. Considerable resources were expended by the small and persecuted sect in supporting two major expeditions. The first, in 1657, seems to have focused upon reaching the Ottoman Sultan and proclaiming the Quaker message in the Levant. One of its members, Mary Fisher, a servant from Yorkshire, did fulfil this goal, managing to gain an audience before Sultan Mehmet IV at Adrianople in 1658. Despite being a little evasive when asked about what she thought about Mohammed, she was respectfully received, the Sultan remarking that “they could not but respect such a One as should take so much pains to come to them so far as from England with a Message from the Lord.”[14] This response was in stark contrast to her earlier experience in Cambridge in 1653, where she was whipped through the streets of the city for preaching much the same message[15] and in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1656 where she received similarly rough treatment at the hands of Puritan officials who detained her on her arrival, stripped her to check for the marks of witchcraft, jailed her for six weeks, burnt the Quaker books she had brought with her, and then forcibly expelled her from the colony.[16]

Other members of this expedition were less successful. John Perrot, an Irish Friend, spent three years being ‘pizzled’ (whipped by a dried bull’s penis) in an asylum in Rome, having unwisely sought to convert the Pope. His mental turmoil and the physical abuse meted out to cure him of his errors is vividly evoked in a remarkable epic poem entitled A Sea of the Seed’s Sufferings, through which Runs a River of Rich Rejoycing.[17] His companion, John Luffe, fared even worse and did not make it out of the prison alive. He was either hanged or starved to death.[18]

An even more ambitious expedition was launched in 1661 when a group of Friends, armed with epistles from George Fox and others, translated into various languages, “were moved to go towards China and Prester John’s country”[19] – the latter being the land of the legendary Christian ruler which was thought to exist somewhere in the east, surrounded by Muslims and pagans. Two of them, John Stubbs and Henry Fell, made it to Alexandria where they sought to go overland by caravan, but soon found themselves expelled by the English consul, throwing pamphlets in Hebrew, Arabic and Latin into the streets as they went – a foolhardy activity, as printing in Arabic was prohibited in the Ottoman Empire because of respect for the language of the Qur’an; if documents containing excerpts from the text were known to have touched the ground, the Quakers would have been in considerable trouble.[20] Two others, Daniel Baker and Richard Scotsthrop, made it to Smyrna in Turkey with the intention of travelling to Constantinople, but were frustrated by the English ambassador who issued a warrant against the troublesome Quakers proceeding any further and had them sent home (one would die en route). The ambassador explained his motivations in his warrant: “…the Carriage of that Sort of People is ridiculous, and is capable to bring Dishonour to our Nation, besides other Inconveniencies that may redound to them in particular, and to the English in general.”[21]

In addition to these two significant missions, there were a host of other ad hoc and spontaneous attempts by Quaker prophets to reach all the nations of the Earth in these early years. Most failed to arrive at their destinations, falling into the hands of the Inquisition. Katharine Evans and Sarah Cheevers, for example, found themselves unable to resist the opportunity to disrupt Catholic worship in Malta when the vessel aboard which they were travelling put in at the island in 1658, and found themselves incarcerated and tortured for the next three and half years.

John Philly and William Moore, who tried to reach Ottoman territories overland, found themselves in a similar predicament when captured by Catholic authorities in Hungary in 1662.[22] Some Friends even found it impossible to cross the Channel, once those transporting them became aware of their religious identity, while others, to judge from the complaints made by English travellers who encountered half-starved Quakers on the Continent during this period, failed to get very far. As William Braithwaite, a leading historian of early Quakerism, rightly says of these missions: “There was never a more complete scorn of consequence and circumstance”.[23]

In one unusual case, a Quaker appeared to fulfil his mission only for it to become apparent, centuries later, that he was in fact the victim of a hoax. The journey of George Robinson to Jerusalem in 1657 seemed to be a success similar to that of Mary Fisher. According to his own account, published in 1663,[24] this determined teenager, despite various attempts on his life, made it to his destination, though “not as a pilgrim but as a prophet”, and proclaimed his message to the leading Ottoman official in the region before returning home, content that he had done what he had been called to do. However, from recent work on the archives of the Inquisition by Stefano Villani, it now appears that the young Quaker was the victim of a deliberate fraud.[25] The ‘Turk in authority’ to whom he preached was nothing of the sort. Aware that the Quaker would not return home until he had prophesied before the official in charge of Jerusalem, and anxious about the threat posed to the delicate equilibrium between religious groups in this particularly volatile part of the Ottoman Empire, the priests dressed up one of their servants to act the part.

The Quaker travels to the East had one unexpected and enduring legacy. In 1673, a gruesome eyewitness account appeared of the fate of three Quakers who arrived in Constantinople and, in typical Quaker fashion, disrupted worship, albeit in a mosque. Despite being given 300 blows on the soles of their feet to dissuade them from repeating this foolhardy act, a punishment so crippling that “that in a few days the putrified flesh came off ,” the Quakers made themselves crutches and once again went to disrupt worship in the mosque, only this time they had “their hands chopt off, their tongues cut out, their eyes bored out, and each man… a sharp wooden stake run in at his Fundament and so quite through his body.”[26]

The account of the fate of these Quakers proved extremely popular and further editions were published in 1674 and 1681.[27] However, the work is clearly a fabrication: three different years are given for when the event allegedly took place and the county of origin of the Quaker prophets is altered in the 1674 edition and excised entirely from that of 1681. Quakers were meticulous in recording accounts of those that suffered for the ‘Truth’ and nowhere in either Quaker records of the time or those of the English officials and merchants in Constantinople do we find reference to this sensational incident or the Quakers that the accounts name. This story tells us more about anti-Quaker and anti-Ottoman prejudice in England in the late 17th century, and the persistent interest in the exotic and macabre amongst the pamphlet-buying public, than anything else.

In time, the Quakers’ apocalyptic fervour waned, and the movement began to settle down into a respectable, if eccentric, sect, somewhat embarrassed by the enthusiasm of its youth. The number of naked Quakers tailed off by the end of the 17th century and miracles became rather more scarce. Although George Fox’s Journal, published in 1694, three years after his death, does recount a number of such events, his Book of Miracles, in which nearly 200 miracles were dutifully recorded, was never printed by the Society and the manuscript was subsequently lost.[28] No more Quakers felt called to journey to the ends of the Earth to proclaim their message and what energies Friends had for overseas work was focused on consolidating their presence in the American colonies, in particular the ‘Holy Experiment’ of Pennsylvania, and trying to free the handful of Quakers who were slaves in North Africa, captured by privateers operating out of Algiers and Morocco. Amongst these, facing yet further deprivations, was Daniel Baker, one of those prophets who had tried to reach China and the lands of Prester John nearly 20 years earlier.[29]

1 www.quaker.org.uk/intro-quakers
2 For an introduction to the apocalyptic nature of early Quakerism see Douglas Gwyn: Apocalypse of the word: the life and message of George Fox (1624–1691), Friends United Press, Richmond, 1986.
3 A typical example of this message can be found in Edward Burrough: The true Christian religion again discovered after the long and dark night of apostacy, 1658.
4 George Fox: The Works of George Fox, vol.1, Philadelphia, 1831, p137.
5 Such as Lydia Wardell, who shed her clothes in Newbury, Massachusetts, in 1663 in protest at being forced to attend church by the Puritan authorities. See Diane Rapaport: The Naked Quaker: True Crimes and Controversies from the Courts of Colonial New England, Commonwealth Editions, Beverly, MA, 2007.
6 William Simpson: Going naked [as] a signe, 1660, p1.
7 John Deacon: The Grand Impostor Examined, 1656, p18.
8 Joel 2:28 (Geneva Bible).
9 James Boswell: The life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D., vol.1, 1791, p252.
10 John Miller: “‘A suffering People’: English Quakers and Their Neighbours c.1650–c.1700”, Past & Present, 188, 2005, pp71–10.
11 For the use of this expression see, for example, James Nayler: The lambs warre against the man of sinne, 1657. The expression was taken from Revelation chapters 5 and 22, where the Lamb is a figure who is both slaughtered and victorious.
12 See George Bishop: New England Judged, 1661.
13 Henry J Cadbury, (ed.): Narrative Papers of George Fox, Friends United Press, Richmond, 1972, pp38–39.
14 Bishop, op.cit., p20.
15 Anon: The First new persecution, or, A True narrative of the cruel usage of two Christians, 1654.
16 Bishop, op. cit., pp5–13.
17 See Nigel Smith: “Exporting Enthusiasm: John Perrot and the Quaker Epic,” in Thomas Healy and Jonathan Sawdy, eds: Literature and the English Civil War, Cambridge University Press, 1990, pp248–64.
18 Rosemary E Moore: The Light in their Consciences: Early Quakers in Britain 1646–1666, Penn State University Press, Philadelphia, 2000, p194.
19 George Fox: The Works of George Fox, vol.2, Philadelphia, 1831, p1. For Fox’s letter to the Emperor of China, see Works, vol.4, pp252–254. Elsewhere Fox confirmed that the main aim of the mission was to reach Prester John’s country (Cadbury, op.cit., p187).
20 See Daniel Baker: A clear voice of truth sounded forth, 1662, p28. For the dangerous implications of the Quakers’ treatment of printed material in Arabic, see Nabil Matar: Islam in Britain 1558–1685, Cambridge University Press, 1998, p135.
21 Katherine Evans & Sarah Cheevers: A true account of the great tryals and cruel sufferings, 1663, p95.
22 Joseph Besse: A Collection of the Sufferings of the People Called Quakers, vol.1, London,1753, pp420–432.
23 William C Braithwaite: The Beginnings of Quakerism, 2nd ed., Cambridge University Press, 1955, p420.
24 In an appendix to Evans & Cheevers, op. cit., pp277–292.
25 Stefano Villani: Il calzolaio quacchero e il finto cadì. Sellerio, Palermo, 2001.
26 Elias Wilson: Strange and wonderful news from Italy, 1673, p7.
27 John Elias: A true and strange relation of the travels, 1674; John Elias: A true and strange relation of the travels, 1681.
28 Henry J Cadbury: George Fox’s Book of Miracles, Cambridge University Press, 1948.
29 Kenneth L Carroll: “Quaker Slaves in Algiers, 1679–1688,” Journal of the Friends’ Historical Society, 54.7, pp301–12, 1982.


James Nayler (1618–1660; see FT129:36) was one of the first to proclaim the Quakers’ Everlasting Gospel and one of the most robust at defending their unorthodox views against opponents. A former soldier in the Parliamentarian army, he was a prolific author and disputant. Opponents of the movement saw him as a leader with equal authority to that of George Fox. However, in October 1656 he was arrested for entering Bristol on a donkey, dressed as Christ, with a group of followers singing ‘Hosanna’, an event clearly modelled on Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem as recorded in the Gospels. Indeed, subsequent interrogations revealed that Nayler’s party had in their possession a copy of the Letter of Lentulus, a mediæval apocryphal text popular in the 17th century in which the appearance of Jesus is actually described, something never done in the Bible. Nayler clearly wore his hair and beard in the manner described in the Letter,[1] the former “plaine and smooth almost to the eares… divided in the midst of the head”, and the latter “full and copious… with his haires not very long, but forked in the midst.”[2]

Parliament was outraged by the “great misdemeanour and blasphemy” of Nayler and spent a full 11 days debating the case, something which was complicated by the fact that Parliament itself was unsure of its own authority in the matter and the extent of religious liberty that should be allowed under the new, unstable, constitutional settlement. In the end they “unilaterally tried and sentenced a man without a law and without any clear constitutional authority to do so.”[3] Although Nayler was spared the death penalty, he was pilloried, whipped through the streets of London, had his tongue bored through with a hot iron, and had the letter B (for Blasphemer) branded onto his forehead. He was then sent to Bristol and paraded through the city on a horse (facing backwards) before being publicly whipped, pilloried once again, and transported back to London to suffer imprisonment with hard labour. On his release, almost three years later, Nayler returned to agitating for the Quaker cause, but ceased to be the charismatic figure he once had been and was physically a broken man. He is now most famous for his final words, uttered before his untimely death at the age of 42:

“There is a spirit which I feel that delights to do no evil, nor to revenge any wrong, but delights to endure all things… I found it alone, being forsaken; I have fellowship therein with them who lived in dens and desolate places in the earth, who through death obtained this resurrection and eternal holy life.”

It is hard to know what exactly Nayler intended by his entry into Bristol and whether his interpretation of his actions was shared by his most ardent followers who accompanied him on that day. Although it is customary to see him as one of a string of deluded messiahs – a kind of 17th-century David Koresh – the contemporary records of his trial give us little evidence that this was the case. We are probably wrong to think that Nayler supposed that “he was Christ except in the sense that Christ was present in all of the saints.”[5]

1 See Henry J Cadbury: “Early Quakerism and Uncanonical Lore”, The Harvard Theological Review, 40.3, pp177–205, 1947.
2 Anon: An epistle of Publius Lentulus, 1650, p1.
3 William G Bittle: James Nayler 1618–1660: the Quaker Indicted by Parliament, William Sessions, York, 1986, p133.
4 G Whitehead: A collection of sundry books, epistles and papers, written by James Nayler, 1716, p696.
5 Leo Damrosch: The Sorrows of the Quaker Jesus. James Nayler and the Puritan Crackdown on the Free Spirit, Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA, 1996, p163.

Bookmark this post with:













Strange and Terrible News
  James Nayler
James Nayler
Author Biography
Justin Meggitt is a senior lecturer in the Study of Religion at the University of Cambridge. His next two books, due out in 2011, are The Madness of King Jesus and Early Quakers and Muslims: Apocalypse and Anomaly. He loves all things apocalyptic.


Company Website | Media Information | Contact Us | Privacy Notice | Subs Info | Dennis Communications
© Copyright Dennis Publishing Limited.
Our Other Websites: The Week | Viz | Auto Express | Bizarre | Custom PC | Evo | IT Pro | MacUser | Men's Fitness | Micro Mart | PC Pro | bit-tech | The Full Signal | Know Your Mobile | Octane | Expert Reviews | Channel Pro | Know Your Mobile India | Digital SLR Photography | Den of Geek | Magazines | Computer Shopper | Competitions | Cyclist | Health & Fitness | CarBuyer | Cloud Pro | MagBooks | Mobile Test | Land Rover Monthly | Webuser | Computer Active | Table Pouncer | 3D Printing
Ad Choices