October 1656: Did God look like an Englishman?

October 1656: Did God look like an Englishman?
Tuesday 7 October 2014

James Nayler spent most of October 1656 hungry. Although those arrested for vagrancy in Cromwellian Exeter might have expected a meagre ration, Nayler, a leading member of the Society of Friends, fasted during his incarceration in order to demonstrate his spiritual purity to those either hostile to ‘Quakers’, or opposed to Nayler’s prominence within the movement, also known as the ‘Children of Light’.

Following his release, Nayler, with seven companions who considered him the sect’s leader, journeyed north. They reached Bristol on the 24th. Later testimony agreed that Nayler rode into the city, while the other Friends trudged through driving rain and thick mud. As they walked, they cast garments before Nayler and sang hosannas. Equally strange to witnesses was the fact that the seven were bareheaded. Friends eschewed many common, worldly symbols of status and due deference, including hat honour. Hats were doffed to no superiors; only ever in prayerful recognition of the divine.

Authorities interpreted the scene as a reenactment of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, and arrested Nayler for blasphemy. In mid-seventeenth-century England, Nayler was not the first person allegedly claiming that he was the Messiah. But the Protectorate’s parliamentarians wanted to make an example of him.

They ignored his repeated claims that Bristol’s tableau was symbolic of Christ’s return in spirit, a spirit or inner light which Friends believed dwelled within those who accepted Him (and renounced the fallen world). A committee of inquiry burned much candle debating the most appropriate sentence. Nayler escaped execution but, perversely, his punishment made him a spectacle once more.

Before being returned to the scene of his crime, London’s hangman would whip Nayler through the capital’s streets and then pillory him. In the stocks, Naylor was stigmatised: his tongue bored and a ‘B’ seared into his forehead.

Nayler’s patient suffering would join the testimony of countless Friends’ persecution to be sure, but this vignette is significant not so much for what it says about the Friends as about Protestant culture at mid-century. Clearly England’s puritan republicans had grown uneasy at the heterodoxy – theological, political, and social – that followed on the heels of Cromwell’s policy of religious toleration. Yet their reaction to and treatment of Nayler also reveals that these men, known as violent iconoclasts, nonetheless shared a mental image of Christ’s person.

For Nayler was, in effect, found guilty of having impersonated Christ on that dreary October day. By coincidence or design, Nayler’s physiognomy was commonly believed to resemble the Messiah’s. The parliamentarians even debated whether a barber should crop the blasphemer’s hair but ultimately decided this would send the wrong signal; be tantamount to an admission that, after years of Protestant reformation, English people could still picture the divine incarnate or, since they had been made in His own image, that God did indeed look like an Englishman.

Dr Mark Dawson teaches early modern history in the School. He is working on a monograph concerned with human variation and social discrimination in early modern England. A current interest of his is the part that religious discourse played in scripting somatic types.

Image credit:
E. Pagitt, Heresiography (London, 1661 edn), p.244. Courtesy of British
Printed Images To 1700 (http://www.bpi1700.org.uk/)  #9993.


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