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Reflections  >  Witchcraft and Quakerism  >  Chapter Three

Witchcraft and Quakerism:

A Study in Social History

By Amelia Mott Gummere


T, witch on broomHE Quakers were so remarkably free from popular superstitions, that we are not surprised to find this one more instance in which the world had to have its fling at them. There are cases of individuals among them who entered into superstitious practices, and those cited are from the records. But as a body, the Society at once discountenanced everything of the sort. In 1667, Southwark Monthly Meeting (London) records, "Richard and Ann Cookbree has denied meetings; he is given to study astrologie, and is run into imaginations." The next year, "Sara Pratt has spoken flightily of Friends and Truth * * * * and has taken part in a superstitious burying.[1]

    Elizabeth Pennitt, servant to Mary Bannister, a Yorkshire Friend, took out a certificate as a traveling minister in 1709. The records of Scarborough Monthly Meeting[2] say that she "ran into ungodly and vain practices, going unto those that pretend to be fortune-tellers, and following their directions and counsell, in order to accomplish what she designed * * * which has been proved to her face."Sixteen men Friends signed her minute of disownment, in September, 1709. Eighteen months later, she sent an acknowledgment from Whitby Preparative Meeting, owning it a "great Evil to ask Counsell of Man or Woman to know what will befall one in this life."

    So late as 1728, the same Friends of Southwark Meeting disowned a man "for joining with an alchymist in attempting to transmute metals."[3] The whole neighborhood of Oxford was very superstitious. At Witney, a nearby village, may still be seen a house in which the superstitious householder has driven six ghost-nails between the courses of the stones.[4]

    An old Minute Book of Hawkshead Meeting, dating from 1699, contains the following entry: "Hawkshead, 1744. There was given for ye supply of 3 poor ffriends within Hawkshead meeting, by George Knipe, ye sume of £160, ye will of ye said G. K., with instructions and ful manadgements of sd. afairs by his Trustees. * * * * He gave also a Gold Ring, which is kept in Mary Satterthwaite hand yt any poor ffriends may have it to wash sore eyes with."[5] Possibly this entry shows more ignorance of medicine than any real superstition.

  "I have a sty here, Chilax."
    Chilax.   "I have no gold to cure it, not a penny."[6]


    The custom of naming the day and hour of birth arose originally from the necessity to facilitate the calculations of the astrologer in "casting a nativity," or telling the future fortune of a child, should it become necessary. We usually find the Quaker records falling in with the custom, particularly those that are private -- in old family Bibles, for instance. The state of the weather is occasionally referred to, but there is never, at least so far as has yet appeared, any evidence of actual belief in astrological prophecy, such as is found in the parish registers of the period. An instance taken from the register of the parish of St. Edmunds, Dudley, shows how necessary many thought it to record all possible data. "1539. Samuell, son of Sir William Smith Clarke, Vicar of Duddly, was born on Friday morninge, at 4 of the Clock, being the XXVIIJ day of February, the signe of that day was in the middle of aquaris ascending; the signe of the monthe * ; the planet of that day Venus ; plenet of the same ower Mercury; and the morow day whose name hath continued in Duddly since the Conqueste."[7]

    The family Bible of George McMillan, an Irish Quaker who came out to Pennsylvania, records his birth, "In ye yeare of our Lord 1732 The 2d. day of the 4th. Month About (record torn) Noone and 18th. of the Moons Age." Probably this was written in County Antrim, Ireland.[8] The cabalistic signs of the zodiac have always been associated with potato planting. Early tables of alphabets of ancient languages had not appeared before the publication of several editions of Webster's Dictionary, or there would no doubt have been opened new solutions to some of these occult problems!


    There is plenty of evidence that the world regarded the early Quakers as in league with the powers of darkness, because of their strange denial of what everybody owned. The British Museum furnishes any number of papers, pamphlets and books written in regard to witchcraft.

    What wonder that these gentlemen turned their guns against the Quakers? The year 1655 seems to have been fertile in such literature as the following, holding the Quakers up to ridicule:

1. "The Quakers' Fiery Beacon, or the Shaking Ranter's Ghost" (published for G. Horton.)[9] An extract from this charming volume runs thus: "It is evident in some instances that they are Anti-Magisterical, as well as Anti-Ministerial; yea, that these Quakers use inchanted Bracelets, Potions, Sorcery and Witchcraft to intoxicate their Novices and draw them to their party."

2. "The Quaker's Terrible Vision, or The Devil's Progress to the City of London," &c., &c. For G. Horton, in the great yeare of Quaking, 1655." In this, the Quakers are said to be "an old Love-Lock, cut off from Satan's head."[10]

3. "The Quaker's Dream, or The Devil's Pilgrimage in England. Being an infallible Relation of their several meetings, Shreekings, Shakings, Quakings, Roarings, Yellings, Howlings, Tremblings, * * * * * with a narration of their several Arguments, Tenets, Principles, and Strange Doctrines; The Strange and Wonderful Satanical apparitions and the apearing of the Devil unto them in the likeness of a Black Boar, a Dog with flaming Eyes, and a black man without a head, causing the Dogs to bark, the Swine to cry, and the cattel to run, to the great Admiration of all that shall read the same." 1655.[11]

    All the above are illustrated with appropriate wood-cuts; the last has under each picture on the title-page, the inscriptions, "Free-Will," "Walk Answerable," "The Light Within You," "Be Thou Merry," and "Above Ordinances." These, however, lead us into the field of satirical anti-Quaker publications, which needs to be thoroughly explored. The prints that were published at this time, as well as the pamphlets, books and broadsides, form a very necessary part of Quaker history, disagreeable and coarse, like the times, but none the less important, and quite neglected.

    A story is told of St. Medard, who, while promenading one fine day on the shore of the Red Sea, saw Satan carrying in a bag a number of sinners. The saint, in compassion for the poor souls, slit open the bag, whereupon the prisoners escaped.

"Away went the Quaker -- away went the Baker --
      Away went the Friar -- that fine fat Ghost,
 Whose marrow Old Nick had intended to pick,
      Dressed like a woodcock and served on toast!"[12]

Anabaptisticum et Enthusiasticum Pantheon und Geistliches Lust-Haus
Title-page of "Pantheon,"
published in Hamburg in 1702.
From copy in Haverford College Library.

    A book which had an early vogue on the American side of the Atlantic, and which is interesting and curious, both to the student of history and folk-lore, was a quarto in Latin and German, describing the "Philtres Enthusiasticus, or English and Dutch Quaker-Powder!"[13] This extraordinary volume sought to prove the use of certain nostrums among the Quakers, in order to propagate their faith. The Philter was supposed to be administered to the person whom the Quakers sought to proselytize. Soon a trembling or quaking state was reached, when the conversion was pronounced complete. The author cites several proofs under his affidavit that these were Quaker methods. Such books tickled the popular fancy and had a large circulation. A copy of this, which is believed to be unique, is owned by Dr. J. F. Sachse, of Pennsylvania, and bears the imprint of the University of Rostock.

    Another curious old German folio, of 1702, published in Hamburg, is entitled "Anabaptisticum et Enthusiasticum Pantheon und Geistliches Lüst-Haus, wider die Alten Quäcker und Neuen Frei-Geister," etc.[14] The volume is full of unfounded aspersions against the Quakers, all the satirical publications against the sect in England seeming to have been taken seriously and translated into German. The Quakers are represented as shooting men down in the streets, or breaking faith to the Sovereign; and James Nayler's eccentricities are given as characteristic of the Society. The second part alludes to the Quaker-Powder again, and other enchantments of the sect! Under the heading "Der Quaker und Schwärmer Zauber-Künste," is the following stanza:

"Wer auch der Tauff abschwert, den Teuffel ehrt mit beten,
  Die Prediger behezt, mit Satan Unzücht übt,
  Wem dieser Zittern macht, wer Quacker-pulver giebt --
  Ist der nicht in den bund der Zauberei getreten?"[15]

    In this connection, we may notice the curious "Looking Glass for George Fox," in which Ludovic Muggleton, the leader of the "Muggletonians," declares that his sentence of damnation upon the Quakers has caused the cessation of their "witchcraft fits." "I do know and affirm that those speakers of the Quakers and others whom I have passed the sentence of damnation upon, that they have not nor do grow in any experience of Revelation since the Sentence of Damnation was passed upon them." "For the Quakers' Revelation doth arise in them only when the witchcraft fit is upon them, nay, I have known some that have followed the Quakers, desiring to be of them, and earnestly desiring in their meetings to have these fits as other Quakers had." "And the Cause why these Persons aforesaid could have no such Fits, it was because they had talked with me before they fell to the Quakers' principles, so that no Witchcraft-Fit could be produced in them, though their endeavors were great!"

5 figures, the Quaker appears to be reclining on ground
1. The Quaker
2. The Ranter.
3. The Robinsonian.
4. The Jew.
From the "Pantheon," etc.

Chapter Four ...>>

Notes and Links

[1] Beck and Ball. "History London Friends' Meetings." p. 228.

[2] Quoted by J. W. Rowntree. "The Rise of Quakerism in Yorkshire."

[3] Beck and Ball. "History London Friends' Meetings." p. 225.

[4] Monk. "History of Oxford." p. 54.

[5] William Satterthwaite in London Friend for Ninth month, 9th, 1892.

[6] Beaumont and Fletcher, "The Mad Lovers." Act V, Sc. 4.

[7] T. F. Thistleton-Dyer. "Social Life as Told by the Parish Registers." p. 122.

[8] A. C. Myers, "Irish Quaker Immigrants into Pennsylvania." 401.

[9] Brit. Mus. Lib. E. 844/13.

[10] Brit. Mus. Lib, E. 83510.

[11] Brit. Mus. Lib. E. 833/14.

[12] Legend of St. Medard. From Ingoldsby Legends.

[13] Its title is "Dissertatio Historico-Theologica de Philtres Enthusiasticus Angelico Batavis," etc. Rostochl, Typis Joh. Wepling I, Seren. Princ. and Acad. Typog.

[14] This great folio is not so rare; copies are owned by Haverford College, Penna.; The Boston Public Library; British Museum, etc.

[15] Whoso abjures baptism; honors the Devil by prayer; worries preachers; commits sin with Satan and is made by his power to tremble; administers Quaker-powders, has he not entered into the covenant of magic arts?

Chapter Four ...>>