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After experiencing what he described as the voice of God calling him from work in his fields, Nayler gave up his possessions and began seeking a spiritual direction, which he found in Quakerism after meeting George Fox in 1652. Nayler became the most prominent of the traveling Quaker evangelists known as the "Valiant Sixty"; he attracted many converts and was considered a skilled theological debater. By all accounts an extremely charismatic man with a somewhat Christ-like appearance, he also attracted a loyal personal following, which some other Quakers regarded with suspicion. On several occasions, Fox expressed concern that the ministry of Nayler and his associate Martha Simmonds was becoming over-enthusiastic and erratic. Though the substance of the disagreements is unclear, by 1656 Fox and Nayler were not on speaking terms.
In October 1656, Nayler and his friends, including Simmonds, staged a demonstration which proved disastrous: Nayler reenacted the arrival of Christ in Jerusalem that is commemorated on Palm Sunday, riding 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" (consistent with the Quaker doctrine of the Inner Light), he refused to comment further on the meaning of the action, and the ecstatic devotion of his followers convinced many that he had messianic pretensions. On December 16, 1656 he was convicted of blasphemy in a highly publicized trial before Parliament. Narrowly escaping execution, he was instead punished with two floggings, branding of the letter B on his forehead, piercing of his tongue with a hot iron, and two years' imprisonment at hard labor.
George Fox was horrified by the Bristol event, writing in his Journal that "James ran out into imaginations, and a company with him; and they raised up a great darkness in the nation", despite Nayler's account of his actions being consistent with Quaker theology, and despite similar loft language used by Fox and the other Quakers themselves. Nevertheless, Fox and the movement in general denounced Nayler publicly, though this did not stop anti-Quaker critics from using the incident to paint Quakers as heretics, or to equate them with Ranters. To modern eyes, Nayler's procession might not seem particularly outrageous compared to the acts of other early Quaker activists, who often disrupted church services and sometimes appeared nude (as a symbol of spiritual innocence); but at a time when Quakers were already being pressed to denounce the doctrine of the Inner Light because of its implication of equality with Christ, Nayler's ambiguous symbolism was seen as playing with fire. The Society's subsequent move, mostly driven by Fox, toward a somewhat more organized structure, including giving Meetings the ability to disavow a member, may have been motivated by a desire to avoid similar problems.
Nayler left prison in 1659 a physically ruined man; he repented his actions and was formally (but reluctantly) forgiven by Fox. In October 1660, while traveling to rejoin his family in Yorkshire, he was robbed and left near death in a field; brought to the home of a Quaker doctor in Kings Ripton , he died the next day on October 21.
A collected edition of the Tracts of Nayler appeared in 1716, edited by his friend (and important early Quaker) George Whitehead , though Whitehead omitted Nayler's more controversial works. See A Relation of the Life, Conversion, Examination, Confession, and Sentence of James Nayler (1657); a Memoir of the Life, Ministry, Trial, and Sufferings of James Nayler (1719); and a Refutation of some of the more Modern Misrepresentations of the Society of Friends commonly called Quakers, with a Life of James Nayler, by Joseph Gurney Bevan (1800).
- This entry incorporates public domain text originally from the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica.
- Leo Damrosch , The sorrows of the Quaker Jesus ISBN 0-674-82143-2
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