The Clouded Quaker Star: James Nayler, 1618-1660

By Vera Massey

Friends United Meeting/Sessions Book Trust, 1999 | ISBN 0-944350-46-1 (US); ISBN 1-85072-224-2 (UK)

Reviewed by Merle Harton, Jr.

The story of James Nayler is just plain heartbreaking. Nayler was one of the rising stars of the early Quaker movement in 17th-century England. He was a respected soldier in Cromwell's army, a husband and father, a Christian called to dedicated service totally apart from home and family, a convinced Friend and noted Quaker leader, a powerful speaker and writer, and someone who enjoyed the company and affection of Quaker founder George Fox. So how did he get from this fine situation to trial by Parliament, convicted of "Horrid Blasphemy," pilloried, scourged, burned through his tongue with a hot poker, fire branded with a capital "B" on his forehead, and tossed into prison indefinitely? How did he go from prominence in the Society of Friends, once described as "the chief Quaker," to being touted as the "King of Israel" and "Son of God"? What possessed him to ride into Bristol with a fanatical entourage proclaiming him Christ returned? Who is Martha Simmonds and what role did she play in the tumultuous divisions in the early Quaker movement? The answers to such questions really make this story one of the strangest tales of a Christian martyr in our history.

It is no wonder, then, that Massey wants to retell this small piece of history. Nayler's story, both poignant and weird, has an undercurrent of sex and scandal, madness and intrigue, abandonment and reconciliation, and the bitterest of ironies.

Massey relates the drama in a narrative style that enlivens the main characters, highlights the dangers that Nayler unwittingly brought upon the nascent Quaker movement, and brings the whole into a useful historical perspective. She writes for the non-academic reader, placing her reference sources in a final summary chapter, but covers the key events and figures with a scholar's heedfulness. This fine book succeeds in bringing together the several sensational historical elements into a taut biographical picture of a new faith community imperiled by human frailty.

Copyright © 1999 by Merle Harton, Jr.

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