James Nayler

1618 - 1660

James Nayler was born in Ardsley in Yorkshire. From 1642 to 1650 he served in the Parliamentarian army. After experiencing what he described as the voice of God calling him, he gave up his possessions and began seeking a spiritual direction. He found it in Quakerism after meeting George Fox in 1652.

Nayler became the most prominent of the travelling Quaker evangelists known as the "Valiant Sixty"; he attracted many converts and was considered a skilled theological debater. He led much of the work in London and the south of England, especially when George Fox was in prison.

By all accounts he was an extremely charismatic man and a great preacher. He attracted a loyal personal following, which troubled some other Quakers.  George Fox often expressed concern that Nayler was becoming over-enthusiastic and erratic, and by 1656 they were hardly on speaking terms. Although Fox visited Nayler in Exeter prison that September, they were not reconciled, and the differences remained.

In October 1656, Nayler and his friends staged a demonstration that proved disastrous: they re-enacted the arrival of Christ in Jerusalem (still commemorated on Palm Sunday). Nayler rode on horseback into Bristol attended by followers who sang "Holy, holy, holy" and strewed the muddy path with garments. Though Nayler denied that he was impersonating Jesus and said rather that "Christ was in him", he refused to explain his actions, and the ecstatic devotion of his followers convinced many that he had messianic pretensions.

George Fox was horrified, recounting in his Journal that "James ran out into imaginations, and a company with him; and they raised up a great darkness in the nation". Quakers denounced Nayler publicly. Their faith in ‘that of God’ in everyone was seen by many of their critics and persecutors to imply equality with Christ. Though Quakers strongly denied this criticism, Nayler's ambiguous symbolism was seen as playing with fire.

In December 1656 Nayler was convicted of blasphemy in a highly publicised trial, and sentenced to 2 years imprisonment, with hard labour.  He was whipped through Bristol streets, branded with the letter B on his forehead, and his tongue was pierced with a hot iron.

Nayler left prison in 1659 a physically ruined man; he repented his actions and was formally (but reluctantly) forgiven by Fox, who apparently required his former associate to kneel before him and ask forgiveness. He joined Quaker critics of the collapsing regime and begin to write condemnations of the nation's rulers. In October 1660, while travelling to rejoin his family in Yorkshire, he was robbed and left near death in a field. A day later and two hours before he died on 21 October, aged 42, he made a moving statement, that many Quakers value:

There is a spirit which I feel that delights to do no evil, nor to revenge any wrong, but delights to endure all things, in hope to enjoy its own in the end. Its hope is to outlive all wrath and contention, and to weary out all exaltation and cruelty, or whatever is of a nature contrary to itself. It sees to the end of all temptations. As it bears no evil in itself, so it conceives none in thoughts to any other. If it be betrayed, it bears it, for its ground and spring is the mercies and forgiveness of God. Its crown is meekness, its life is everlasting love unfeigned; it takes its kingdom with entreaty and not with contention, and keeps it by lowliness of mind. In God alone it can rejoice, though none else regard it, or can own its life. It’s conceived in sorrow, and brought forth without any to pity it, nor doth it murmur at grief and oppression. It never rejoiceth but through sufferings; for with the world’s joy it is murdered. 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.

These words inspire Bob Johnson to set up the James Nayler Foundation, which worked with people with extreme personality disorders from1997 to 2012. Outliving all wrath and contention…. wearying out exaltation and cruelty..

Further Reading and Credits

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