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Reflections  >  Witchcraft and Quakerism  >  Chapter Two

Witchcraft and Quakerism:

A Study in Social History

By Amelia Mott Gummere


A, with someone in cloakT the period when the Quakers arose, alchemy and its allied arts were falling into the hands of quacks and mountebanks; and witchcraft, which held its own much later, was not nearly so conspicuous as it had been, although it was still sufficiently prevalent. Selden, who had little or no belief in witchcraft himself, said, in justification of some harsh proceedings against alleged witches, "that if a man thought that by turning his hat round and saying 'boz' he could kill a man, he ought to be put to death for making the attempt." So also Dryden: "Though he cannot strike a blow to hurt any, yet he ought to be punished for the malice of the action, as our witches are justly hanged, because they think themselves to be such, and suffer deservedly for believing they did mischief, because they meant it."[1]

    The first penal statute against witchcraft was enacted in 1541, when Cranmer enjoined the clergy "to seek for any that use charms, sorcery, enchantments, witchcraft, soothsaying, or any like craft invented by the Devil." Under King James, Parliament made witchcraft punishable by death. The last judicial condemnation for witchcraft in England was in 1712, in Hertfordshire, when a woman was sentenced to death for selling her soul to the Devil. A royal pardon saved her. The capital sentence against witchcraft was only abolished by George II, in 1736.[2] In those seventeenth century days, it was necessary to believe in witches to be considered orthodox. The man who did not to a certain extent believe in witchcraft, was looked upon very much as the more advanced advocates of scientific, or the "higher" criticism, are now regarded by the old-line conservatives.


    In 1707, the Camisards, or Cevennois, who came over to England in that year, were supposed to be prophets and work miracles. They were first stirred up by Cavalier. These people were subject to epileptiform disorders. They were supposed to be inspired, had great vogue, were dispersed from France, and some of them came to England. They were commonly known as "The French Prophets." They chiefly preached the approach of the millennium. Sir Isaac Newton himself had a strong attraction to go and hear these "prophets," and was with difficulty restrained by his friends, who feared that he might be affected by them as Fatio, the mathematician, had been.[3] The famous George Keith, who was disowned for heresy by the Quakers, published, in 1707, a pamphlet with the following title: "The Magic of Quakerism; or the Chief Mysteries of Quakerism Laid Open. To which are added a preface and postscript relating to the Camisards, in answer to Mr. Lacy's preface to The Cry from the Desart."[4] In 1708, the Quakers of Westminster Monthly Meeting (Third month 5th) mention in their records the attendance at the Camisards' meetings of one of their own women preachers. "A paper was brought in from one Mary Willis and read, wherein she condemned herself for going and joining with those they call the French Protestants, and suffering the agitation spirit to come upon her. She is advised to forbear imposing her preaching upon our public meetings for worship until Friends are better satisfied."[5]

    The tests were very arbitrary as applied to witches. Thoresby (quoted by Ashton) says he went to see a witch who could not repeat the Lord's Prayer -- "a fit instrument for Satan!"

    An account of the trembling and excitement of some of the Quakers is given in an early tract, "Brief Relation of the Irreligion of the Northern Quakers" (London, 1653). The writer adds: "I heartily believe these quakings to be diabolical raptures." In reference to these manifestations of excitement, Barclay says:[6] "The Friends seem to have treated them among themselves very rationally, and occasionally administered a cordial or medicine of some kind, and this is commented upon in the tracts of the times as a circumstance of the utmost mystery and a proof of sorcery!" Of course the Friends naturally quoted as a precedent the facts as given in the Bible -- that Moses "quaked," David "roared," and Jeremiah "trembled." The peculiar feature of early Methodist, or rather Wesleyan, excitement, was quaking and trembling.[7] Many manifestations of this sort were given in the Independent churches also, and in one, Mr. Davies, the pastor, was charged by some of his brethren of dealing in "the Black Art!"[8]


    John Bunyan and his contemporary, George Fox, were not entirely superior to the superstitions of their age. The bare and narrow lives of the earlier Friends, excepting the few of rank and station, were compensated for in the early days of persecution by a spiritual exaltation that bore them safely over danger-points always open in a system where the graces of society and its intellectual needs are ignored. When the tinker and the cobbler had become the two great preachers of differing creeds, they still kept unquestioned their belief ln the existence of occult powers, although they, with most educated people, held to it with less earnestness than before. Fox has always been represented by his followers with too little of the human side, while his critics have treated him unfairly, from the beginning. His own journal, which is the authority for every statement here made, has never been given to the public unabridged and complete, with all its innocent errors upon its head.[9] Fox's character has nothing to lose in the open glare of sharpest criticism. The human touch which our picture of him lacks is given by the knowledge of his few frailties, not one of them to his discredit.

    After visiting Brigham, in 1653, when his preaching so affected the people at "John Wilkinson's steeple-house," he tells us in his journal, "As I was sitting in an house full of people, declaring the word of life unto them, I cast my eye upon a woman and discovered an evil spirit in her. I was moved of the Lord to speak sharply unto her, and told her she was under the influence of an unclean spirit, whereupon the woman went out of the room. I, being a stranger there, and knowing nothing of the woman outwardly, the people wondered and told me afterward I had discovered a great thing, for all the country looked upon her to be a wicked person. The Lord had given me a spirit of discerning, by which I many times saw the states and conditions of people, and would try their spirits. Not long before, as I was going to a meeting, I saw some women in a field, and I discerned them to be Witches and I was moved to go out of my way into the Field to them and declare unto them their Conditions: telling them plainly, They were in the Spirit of Witchcraft.[10]

    "Another time there came one into Swarthmoor Hall in the meeting time, and I was moved to speak sharply to her, and told her she was under the power of an evil spirit, and the people said afterward she was generally accounted so to be." "There came also another time a woman and stood at a distance from me. I cast mine eye upon her and said, 'Thou hast been an harlot,' for I saw perfectly the condition and life of the woman. She answered, many could tell her of her outward sins, but none could tell her of her inward. I told her, 'Her heart was not right before the Lord, and that from the inward came the outward.' This woman was afterward convinced of God's truth and became a Friend."


    The remarkable occurrence at Lichfield two years previous is an example of the heights of enthusiasm to which Fox's religious fervor occasionally rose. Barefooted and bareheaded, travel-stained and weary, Fox, under the deepest spiritual sense of duty, passed through the streets of Lichfield, crying loudly, "Woe to the bloody city of Lichfield!" The incident as related by him is too long for insertion here, but is very striking. He had just been released from Derby jail, in a condition of exhaustion and nervous strain, and Professor James puts upon pathological grounds the state of trance or nervous exaltation in which Fox trod the streets of the town. Fox's own rather far-fetched explanation is not adequate; he says it was because "that in the Emperor Diocletian's time, a thousand Christians were martyred in Lichfield." It was required of him to "raise a memorial of the blood of those martyrs, which had been shed a thousand years before and lay cold in the streets." Faulty chronology leaves the explanation of Fox without historical basis, which, however, makes none the less sincere our sympathy for his religious convictions. No doubt Fox's mind, after this performance, was clear, and his satisfaction upon the subject unclouded. It is to be interpreted simply as an act of obedience to an apprehended duty, and as such, is easily understood. There are many such instances; that good judgment did not accompany the act makes it none the less sincere. It is quite possible, also, as a recent writer has pointed out, that Fox had a sub-conscious recollection of the burning of one Wightman, an early Dissenter, at Lichfield, an event which took place not forty years before, and to which the minds of the inhabitants must have at once reverted, even if Fox himself may not have recalled the fact of the incident clearly.[11]


    The founder of Quakerism was a social-religious reformer. His mysticism, while a very real thing, was but a small part of his life, whose object was to teach his fellowmen the proper channels into which to direct their human activities. He employed his eight periods of imprisonment, not in the ecstatic contemplation and meditation of the true mystic, but in writing most plain and practical common-sense letters to his people, to the Court and Parliament, and to the English nation at large, as well as in planning out further mission campaigns for himself and his companions.

    Professor Royce has told us that Fox was subject to nervous attacks which were due to sympathetic conditions. They were often brought about by malnutrition, and it was of one of these that he fell ill in 1664, at the age of forty, when "burdened with the world's spirit," i.e., Quaker persecution, during which attack he temporarily lost both sight and hearing. The "openings" of Fox -- who, with all other religious people of his time, took his Bible as a literal guide and test of piety -- were given him by that inner vision in which spiritual conditions are felt, not seen; and it is only to such clear, and at the same time, sympathetic minds as that of Fox that these do not prove dangerous. Fox was full of strength, of fearless energy, of nervous power, which translated themselves at once into the widest activities. His whole life was objective. But many of the temperaments to which his preaching made its appeal, under the resulting nervous excitement, dropped into subjective self-analysis; and, without the impulse, the ability or the spiritual poise of their leader, they fell into the conditions, which, in the early days of unsettlement, sent certain erratic converts of Fox aimlessly wandering about the country; it is these who brought upon Quakerism its first reproach. The enthusiasm of Fox, tinged with the fervor of religious conviction that struck so deeply into the English people during the Commonwealth, partook more of the spirit of the prophet Isaiah than that of any preacher since his day.


    But Fox did not rally his people to any credulity. Although he speaks soberly of the existence of spirits, he is often ready to ridicule the superstitions of the people. When he was taken prisoner in 1659 under a warrant from Major Porter, then Mayor of Ulverstone, fifteen men sat up all night to watch him; "some of them," he says, "sat in the chimney, for fear I should escape up the chimney, such dark imaginations possessed them!" Again he comes out in a fine bit of eloquence, in which clearly enough the ringing Quaker "testimony" against superstition is heard. "The prisoners and some wild people * * * * talked of spirits that haunted Devonsdale, and how many had died in it. But I told them that if all the devils in hell were there, I was over them in the power of God, and found no such thing, for Christ our Priest would sanctify the walls and the house to us, He who bruised the head of the Devil." In the early Quaker days, the reality of witchcraft had never been called in question. Fancy, then, how radical must have seemed Fox's paper addressed, "To Seafaring Men," dated Swarthmoor Hall, the 28th of Eighth month, 1676. Referring to the power of witches in the minds of sailors, to create storms and breed cyclones, he says, "And let New England professors (of religion) see whether or no they have not sometimes cast some poor simple people into the sea on pretence of being witches." * * * "For you may see that it was the Lord who sent out the wind and raised the mighty storm in the sea, and not your witches, or ill-tongued people, as you vainly imagine."

Witch of Endor

Chapter Three ...>>

Notes and Links

[1] Essay on Dramatic Poetry.

[2] Act 9, Cap. 5, Geo. II. Ashton, "Social Life in the Reign of Queen Anne." Vol. I. p. 122.

[3] Spence's "Anecdotes." p. 56.

[4] By "George Keith, M. A., Rector of Edburton, in Sussex."

[5] Beck and Ball. "History of London Friends' Meetings." p. 252.

[6] R. Barclay. "Inner Life of Religious Societies of Commonwealth." 312.

[7] See Southey's "Life of Wesley," I, chap. VII; and Wesley's Journal, passim.

[8] Hist. Independent church at Rothwell. By N. Glass. pp. 85-87.

[9] Since the above was written, notice has been received of the forthcoming authorized edition of Fox's Journal, unabridged and annotated.

[10] The editing of the Journal has modified Fox's own statement, in every published edition. The quotation is from the original manuscript. A remarkable etching has recently been done by Robert Spence, an English artist, representing this scene with the "witches" in the field. See frontispiece. Mr. Spence owns the original MS. Journal.
[The "witches in the field" scene is found in Rufus Jones' 1908 edition of Fox's Journal, as follows: "I saw some women in a field, and I discerned an evil spirit in them; and I was moved to go out of my way into the field to them, and declare unto them their conditions" (p. 185). Nothing of this incident is mentioned in the latest authorized edition (John Nickalls 1952, p. 155), which purports to rely on the Spence MS. - online editor]

[11] "Two or three years ago there was found, in the State Paper office [at London], a series of documents relating to one John Trendall, a mason, who, in 1639, was imprisoned for holding religious meetings apart from the Episcopal Church.  *  *  A proposal was made in all seriousness that he should be burned at the stake!  *  *  The Lords of the Council wrote to Neile, Archbishop of York, asking as to how he had brought about the hurning of one Wightman, twenty-seven years previously." The Archbishop stated that the execution had taken place in 1612, at Lichfield, during his own bishopric over that see, and that he had had the assistance of Laud, then Archbishop of Canterbury. Neile urged the good done by this burning, and that of Legate in the same year, the last occurrences of the kind in England. [See Transactions of Congregational Society for July, 1902; also an article by A. Neave Brayshaw, "The Burning of Non-conformists," in British Friend for January, 1903.]

Chapter Three ...>>