Quaker Heritage Press > Online Texts > Works of James Nayler > Volume 4
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Geoffrey Nuttall once described the study of James Nayler as "a country from whose bourne no traveler returns,"1 though in its origin in Shakespeare's Hamlet this phrase referred to death, and Nuttall survived for many years after writing his essay. Even I have survived in a manner, though whether I have survived as a Quaker may be questioned by some. Nuttall never claimed to be a Quaker.
It was of the essence of early Quakerism that the inspiration of the Holy Spirit was objective truth, uniting all those who were obedient to the divine Guide. This was Nayler's faith, which he never retracted, though the complexities of his relationships with other Quakers after 1656 required some sort of accommodation: either most of them had been wrong or Nayler had been wrong, and there had to be a reason in either case.
Nayler had, since his emergence as a Quaker preacher in 1652, been a doctrinally orthodox Quaker, maintaining the same doctrines as George Fox and other Friends; he continued to maintain the same doctrines after his quarrel with Fox and his imprisonment for blasphemy in 1656. The tone of his later writings is a little less strident than that of his earlier ones, and he has more to say about the virtue of "meekness," but he remains uncompromising about total obedience to Christ within as the only road to salvation. The Quakers are still "the people of God," even if "there is that amongst them which must be purged"—and even if they reject James. But why? asks Robert Rich, when George Fox lacks love toward anyone who will not follow him? We never used to compromise with oppression.
But Nayler cannot make a cause of himself, especially not when the world is gloating over the division amongst Quakers. He thus finds himself in the grotesque position of disowning his own fans, who have been actively protesting, in Quaker meetings, the way he was treated; and of having to come up with something to apologize for.
One looks in vain, in Nayler's confessions, for anything <iv> very specific that he thinks he did wrong. He does recognize that the expressions and postures of his companions toward him, in the Bristol episode, gave an appearance of idolatry; and that if he encouraged that in any way he must have done wrong; but just when or where he erred, or what he should have done instead is left unclear. His "judgment was taken away"; and this happened "through want of watchfulness and obedience to the pure eye of God, and diligent minding the reproof of life"; but in what specifics he failed to mind the inward Guide we are not told. He says he didn't really raise Dorcas Erbury from the dead—though just what happened to make her think he had, we still do not learn. And he says he was guilty of following other people instead of the light—though he also apologizes for rejecting the advice of Friends who tried to correct him, without explaining how he should have known whose advice to take and whose to reject.
It is difficult for this reader to believe that James Nayler wasn't, all along, following his leadings about as well as he could. But what would I know?
God in his mercy took Nayler away at the age of 44, before he might have had occasion to "fall" again, try to explain it again, and make new apologies. Nayler's faith, and his ability to expound it, remain undiminished in the writings that follow, though some of them had to be smuggled out of prison, and some of them could not be graced with his name until enough time had passed for that name to be less of a scandal. Three of his late essays were co-authored with other leading Quakers (two with Richard Hubberthorne and one with George Whitehead).
In no way did Nayler diminish his emphasis on the manifestation of Christ in the bodies of his redeemed ones—the Son of God begotten within—which had been the point of the Bristol demonstration as well as a fundamental Quaker principle. (By 1716, Whitehead was just a little uncomfortable with it.)
From my first contact with Quakers in 1967, and on countless occasions since, the name of James Nayler has been represented to me as that of one who made a serious mistake—from which some lesson or other had been, or ought to be learned. The usual proposed lesson is something along the lines of: don't trust the inward guidance of God. Check it out with a committee first. Certainly no such doctrine can be found <v> in the writings of Nayler, nor do I think it can be proved from history. But that is still how Nayler's name is most often used by Quakers today. Scholarship has become more sympathetic to him; but scholarship makes little dent in the body of clichés offered to all who come to the Society of Friends.
After spending six years with James Nayler, I can only see him as a saint, and probably a better man than those who have thought they knew what was wrong with him. If there is any "lesson" to be learned from his life it is that faced with extreme physical abuse, imprisonment, and rejection by both the world and his co-religionists, a man may go on loving Christ, forgiving all his enemies, and standing for the truth he perceives. Did he perceive it all correctly, either before or after his crisis? Which of us could possibly be in a position to say?
This volume has been delayed in part due to my determination to include in it an index to the 4-volume set. Nayler is not easy to index, and certainly no machine could do it.
I am again indebted to Diana Morrison-Smith for her volunteer work at the Friends House Library in London, transcribing manuscript letters. As before, any errors in my rendering her verbatim et literatim transcripts into modern spelling and typography are my own.
David Neelon generously lent me, for over a year, his copy of the rare 1716 edition of Whitehead's collection, since in my present location it is not a book that can be obtained through local libraries.
The frequent help of Ann Upton, curator of the Quaker collection at Haverford College, has been essential, as I have relied upon her to provide me with photocopies of many rare pamphlets.
Thanks also to Brandy Thoma, a student at Bryn Mawr College, for downloading online copies of a few documents that we could not access from our current location.
Larry Kuenning and Charlotte Kuenning have been diligent proofreaders.
1. James Nayler: A Fresh Approach (London: Friends' Historical Society, 1954), p. 1.