1627 – 1712
William was born in Westmoreland in northern England, and was soon orphaned. His uncle brought him up, and apprenticed him to a carpenter when he was 13.
By then the English Civil War was brewing. He eventually joined the Parliamentary army, under Oliver Cromwell, and was involved in the 1650-51 campaign that defeated the Scottish Royalists. Edmundson soon realised that fighting was not for him, and left the army as soon as he could.
Cromwell’s army, including William’s brother John, went on to defeat the Royalists’ Irish allies. English families were encouraged to settle in Ireland, and Edmundson and his new wife, Margaret, joined John in Antrim.
He frequently travelled back to England and began attending Quaker meetings. In 1653 he heard James Nayler speak and this transformed his life. He went on to be one of the most significant early Quaker missionaries. He was known as a charismatic speaker, with a reputation for sincerity and integrity, and for having the courage of his convictions. Many were inspired by his example and the Quaker principles he espoused.
He and Margaret settled in Lurgan in 1654, where they opened a drapers shop, and he started the first Quaker meeting in Ireland. Quakers were persecuted in Ireland as they were in England, and Edmundson was frequently imprisoned. They decided to move further south, to Cavan, hoping to escape further persecution. It was not to be, so in 1659 they moved south again to Rosenallis, near Mountmellick, in the centre of Ireland. There they settled, and William bought a farm at Tinneal. This was his home for the rest of his long life, and he and Margaret raised seven children there. Like other Quakers, he still had issues with the authorities, especially over the Quaker refusal to pay tithes. He was imprisoned from time to time, but they were not compelled to move again.
He travelled all over Ireland, bringing many to Quakerism, and in 1668-9 he and George Fox created an organisation to bring together the various meetings that had grown up. William Penn had become a Quaker whilst in Ireland, and became a good friend.
In the 1670s he made three eventful missionary journeys to the North American colonies, and played a major part in establishing Quakerism there.
His first visit was in 1671, when he travelled with Fox, Elizabeth Hooton, and others, to Barbados, Jamaica and thence to Patuxent, near modern Baltimore. Fox continued northwards, but Edmundson travelled south to Virginia and then the Carolinas. In Virginia he followed in the footsteps of Quaker missionary John Burnyeat, who had made many converts there in 1665, but in the Carolinas Edmundson was the pioneer. He travelled there through swamp and forest, heading for a plantation owned by Henry Phillip and his wife, who had become Friends when living in New England. They had had no contact with Friends since leaving, but they called neighbours together to hear William speak, and a substantial Quaker community quickly came into being. William then travelled back north to join Fox, and played a prominent part in a significant public debate about the nature of Quakerism with Roger Williams, founder of the town of Providence in Rhode Island. Williams was deeply antagonistic to the Quaker message, but the Quakers ‘won’ the debate. Edmundson went on to Boston and Long Island, before returning home in 1672.
He visited New England again in 1675. He made many converts, and met peaceably with Indian leaders. He travelled via Barbados, whose economy depended on slavery, and made one of the first public statements against slavery there.
His third visit was in 1676-7, when he returned to Virginia and the Carolinas, strengthening the Friends there, and helping them set up a functioning organization, as he had done in Ireland. He visited for a fourth time in 1683.
In 1689-91, the new King, William of Orange, came to Ireland to suppress another rebellion. There was tension everywhere, and Edmundson and two sons were nearly executed by Irish rebels. His wife was taken on another occasion, stripped naked in the cold, and sadly died a few months later.
William continued his work until he died in 1712. He is buried in the Quaker burial ground at Mountmellick. The photograph shows a memorial stone there.