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James Nayler (or Naylor) (1616–1660) was an English Quaker leader. He is among the members of the Valiant Sixty, a group of early Quaker preachers and missionaries. At the peak of his career, he preached against enclosure and the slave trade. In 1656, Nayler achieved national notoriety when he reenacted Christ's entry into Jerusalem by entering Bristol on a donkey. He was imprisoned and charged with blasphemy.
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 travelling 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 hardly on speaking terms. On 23 September 1656, Fox visited Nayler in his prison at Exeter; when the prisoner refused to kiss his hand, Fox pushed his foot toward him, "It is my foot." It was clearly not a gesture that looked toward reconciliation, Fox never apologized, and the differences remained. Prominent Quaker author, Rufus M. Jones, however, gives a reverse description of the encounter:
Nayler tried to make a show of love and would have kissed Fox, but the latter would receive no sham kisses from one whose spirit was plainly wrong. "James," he said, "it will be harder for thee to get down thy rude company [of followers] than it was for thee to set them up."
In October 1656, Naylor and his friends, including Simmonds, staged a demonstration which proved disastrous: Nayler reenacted the arrival of Christ in Jerusalem, commemorated on Palm Sunday, by riding on into Bristol on a donkey, 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 16 December 1656 he was convicted of blasphemy in a highly publicized trial before the Second Protectorate Parliament. Narrowly escaping execution, he was pilloried and whipped through the streets of London, was branded with the letter B on his forehead, had his tongue pierced with a hot iron, and was then transported back to Bristol to be whipped through its streets too, before enduring two years imprisonment at hard labor.
George Fox was horrified by the Bristol event, recounting 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 lofty 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 "went naked as a sign" (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, seemed to have been motivated by a desire to avoid similar problems.
Nayler left prison in 1659 a physically ruined man; he repented of his actions and was formally (but reluctantly) forgiven by Fox, who apparently required his former associate to kneel before him and ask forgiveness. He did join Quaker critics of the collapsing regime and begin to write condemnations of the nation's rulers. In October 1660, while travelling to rejoin his family in Yorkshire, he was robbed and left near death in a field, then brought to the home of a Quaker doctor in Kings Ripton. A day later and two hours before he died on 21 October, aged 42, he made a moving statement which many Quakers since have come to value deeply:
"There is a spirit which I feel that delights to do no evil, nor to revenge any wrong, but delights to endure all things, in hope to enjoy its own in the end. Its hope is to outlive all wrath and contention, and to weary out all exaltation and cruelty, or whatever is of a nature contrary to itself. It sees to the end of all temptations. As it bears no evil in itself, so it conceives none in thoughts to any other. If it be betrayed, it bears it, for its ground and spring is the mercies and forgiveness of God. Its crown is meekness, its life is everlasting love unfeigned; it takes its kingdom with entreaty and not with contention, and keeps it by lowliness of mind. In God alone it can rejoice, though none else regard it, or can own its life. It is conceived in sorrow, and brought forth without any to pity it, nor doth it murmur at grief and oppression. It never rejoiceth but through sufferings; for with the world’s joy it is murdered. I found it alone, being forsaken. I have fellowship therein with them who lived in dens and desolate places in the earth, who through death obtained this resurrection and eternal holy life."
There Is A Spirit: The Nayler Sonnets is a collection, first published in 1945, of 26 poems by Kenneth Boulding, each inspired by a four- to sixteen-word portion of Nayler's dying statement (and also includes the intact statement). Boulding gave permission for the publication of his The Nayler Sonnets to Irene Pickard who printed them in 1944 in the periodical she was editing from New York City, "Inward Light."
The 2007 Swarthmore Lecture has the title Ground and Spring, taken from Nayler's "There is a spirit . . ." statement.
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).
- Leo Damrosch, The sorrows of the Quaker Jesus ISBN 0-674-82143-2
- Bob Johnson (psychiatrist) of the James Nayler Foundation
- John Winthrop
- The Story of George Fox, p. 83
- William G. Bittle, James Nayler 1618-1660. The Quaker Indicted by Parliament, York: Sessions of York, 1996, pp.131-145.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Nayler, James". Encyclopædia Britannica 19 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 318
|Wikisource has the text of the 1885–1900 Dictionary of National Biography's article about Nayler, James.|
|Wikisource has the text of A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature's article about Nayler, James.|
- James Nayler's "There is a spirit . . ." Statement
- Passages detailing James Naylers ride into Bristol from Bristol Past And Present by J. F. Nicholls and John Taylor published in 1882.
- Claus Bernet (2002). "James Nayler". In Bautz, Traugott. Biographisch-Bibliographisches Kirchenlexikon (BBKL) (in German) 20. Nordhausen: Bautz. cols. 1069–1092. ISBN 3-88309-091-3.. In German.