Dear Editor: It was good to see your piece on James Nayler in “Pages for All Ages.” Friends today do not always recognize that in the first years of the Quaker movement, Nayler was as important a preacher and as central to the movement as George Fox himself, certainly in the eyes of many London Friends.
I think that you are right in seeing the pamphlet, To the Life of God in All, as alluding in some way to the Bristol affair and Nayler’s subsequent punishment and imprisonment, although it is not apparently the physical consequences that he regrets but rather that he had been “led from amongst the children of light, and into the world to be a sign.” The Bristol affair (Nayler reenacting Jesus’s ride into Jerusalem on a donkey) was intended as a “sign,” although clearly not signifying that he was literally the son of God, as the Bristol authorities took it, and as some Quakers did as well.
The story as I understand it really begins much earlier. We as heirs of the Quaker movement are apt to see George Fox as the recognized leader and initiator, and as Fox records in his Journal, when he met Nayler, he, Nayler was convinced. Since Nayler had already had his “calling” that led him to leave his family for a life of an itinerant preacher, it seems more likely that the two realized that they were engaged in very much the same mission.
For the next two years Fox and Nayler were engaged in a joint effort, principally among northern Seekers and other antinomians, to comprehend the radical message of the indwelling Christ as they had perceived it. In 1654 they turned south to London, and again in between bouts of imprisonment and much pamphleteering, found a large following among the London radicals and antinomians. Fox then went back north, leaving Nayler in London, where by 1655 Nayler came to be seen as the leading Quaker preacher.
Some of Nayler’s London followers, led by Martha Simmonds, resented Fox’s authority in the movement and attacked Borrough and Howgill when those two northerners attempted to mediate between an angry Fox and an evidently baffled Nayler. When Fox finally returned to London, the Simmonds group attacked him, disrupting his meetings in much the same fashion that Quaker preachers had disrupted other religious gatherings in the course of gaining adherents.
Despite being urged by Burrough, Howgill, and Margaret Fell to disavow the Simmonds group, Nayler apparently lapsed into silence, clearly at a loss as to what his next step should be. Fox was furious at the challenge of the Simmonds group and at Nayler for not disavowing them, and it was this situation of unresolved anger and tension that was the background of their meeting at Exeter. There Nayler apparently attempted a reconciliation, but when he attempted to greet Fox with a kiss, Fox gestured to his boots, a deliberately insulting suggestion that it was Fox’s boot that should be kissed, making it clear that there would be no easy reconciliation.
The Bristol affair followed shortly afterwards, and while it was clear that Nayler saw his action as symbolic, the testimony of several of the Simmonds group suggests that they literally believed Nayler to be the son of God, come to usher in the millennium.
After Nayler’s release from Bridewell, he went back to preaching, and once again he was seen as the principal Quaker preacher in London. When William Dewsbury attempted a reconciliation during one of Fox’s sojourns in London, Fox insisted that Nayler kneel before him, which Nayler did, but it was apparently clear to the London Quaker community that Fox never really forgave Nayler. With Nayler’s death in 1660, my sense is that what might be called the heroic age of the Quaker movement came to an end. The King’s return marked the onset of forty years of intermittent persecution, never enough to destroy the movement, but enough to gradually turn it inward: the great age of proselytizing was largely over. Fox went on as a great preacher, but a certain generosity and tolerance of the “leadings” of others was largely over.
– Paul Seaver, Palo Alto Friends Meeting (PYM)