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When did the Quakers cease to quake?

Stephen Cooper, Chairman of the Burford & District Society, Manager of the Moody Collection in the Burford Tolsey Museum & Archive.


 

The Meeting House of the Society of Friends in Guildenford advertises itself as a place where 'We seek a gathered stillness'. Yet the 'the Friends' are popularly known as 'the Quakers', a term first applied in the 1650s because they supposedly 'trembled in the way of the Lord'. At that time, they were famous for their refusal to attend the Church of England (whose churches they called 'steeple-houses') and their refusal to take their hats off, or take the oath, in court.  Worst of all, in 1656 the 'Quaker' James Nayler rode through Bristol, appearing to claim that he was Jesus Christ. Though his followers denied (and deny) that this was his intention, he was punished by having a hole bored in his tongue and the letter 'B' (for blasphemy) branded on his forehead.

            The Quakers were persecuted with renewed vigour after the Restoration of Charles II in 1660. It is at this time that we learn about an individual of particular interest to us: "Thomas Minchin of Burford, a poor blind Man, was prosecuted in the Bishop's Court for Absence from his Parish-Church, and afterwards excommunicated and sent to Oxford Gaol on 23 April 1663, where he lay a Prisoner Eight Years and a half."

            Even at the time, this punishment was clearly regarded as harsh, at least by fellow Quakers; and the writer of this account took some comfort in telling us that "Twas observed, that the Priest of Burford, who read the Excommunication against him, had about half a Year after his Sight suddenly taken from him in the Pulpit, and continued blind till his Death"; and further that "The Registrar of the Bishop's Court, who was eager in the same Prosecution, was not long after struck with a Sore and Lameness, so that his Flesh rotted away, while alive."

            Relief was at hand. The Parliament which met after the so-called 'Bloodless' or 'Glorious' Revolution of 1688 enacted a Toleration Act, which granted religious toleration for all nonconformist Protestants (though not Roman Catholics). This was what made the Quakers respectable in the eyes of society, because they could now hold meetings in public, without fear of reprisals.

            It was therefore in the early 18th century that the Friends built the Meeting House in Burford which we see today. It was also at this time that, in their concern to record the persecution  they had endured, some of them published a vast multi-volume work entitled 'The Sufferings of the People called Quakers for the Testimony of a Good Conscience', which is where we learn about poor Thomas Minchin; and the revenge which the Lord evidently wreaked upon his persecutors.

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