George Whitehead (Quaker leader)

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George Whitehead (1636–1723) was a leading early Quaker preacher, author and lobbyist remembered for his advocacy of religious freedom before three kings of England. His lobbying in defense of the right to practice the Quaker religion was influential on the Act of Uniformity, the Bill of Rights of 1689 and the Royal Declaration of Indulgence. His writings are both biographical and ideological in nature, examining the Quaker way of life.

Early life[edit]

Whitehead was born at Sunbiggin, near Orton, Westmorland.[1] He became convinced of Quaker principles by the time he reached the age of 14[2] and in 1652, he left home at the age of 16 believing that Christ had commanded him to preach.[3] After a year of preaching in southern England, Whitehead became known as one of the Valiant Sixty who traveled as Quaker preachers during a time of religious persecution. Whitehead, James Parnell and Edward Burrough were the only teenaged males counted among the sixty (Elizabeth Fletcher and perhaps Elizabeth Leavens were 16 years old when they left Kendal to preach).[4]


Whitehead was frequently jailed. The first of several incarcerations occurred in 1654. While he was visiting Peter's Church in Norwich,[5] Whitehead addressed a gathering upon the conclusion the service and was subsequently jailed by the mayor for disseminating an unorthodox opinion about baptism. When Whitehead appeared in court, he was sent back to jail for failing to remove his hat in the presence of the judge.

He was arrested again on 30 May 1655 after associating with a man who posted a religious text on the church door in Bures, Suffolk. He wrote:

In 1656 Whitehead was released from prison because of pleas to Oliver Cromwell who interceded on his behalf. Whitehead was publicly whipped in Nayland and in Saffron Waldon he was placed in the stocks.[6]

Advocate of religious freedom[edit]

By 1660 Whitehead had settled down, was staying out of jail, preaching less and working as a grocer in London to support his family. In 1661, he was persuaded to join a group of Friends appearing before the House of Commons to argue against the passing of the Act of Uniformity.[2] The group was unsuccessful and the act became law the following year, resulting in the departure of nearly 2,000 clergymen from the English church.

Whitehead remained in London throughout the difficult times that followed. In 1665, he was praying at the bedsides of dying Quakers as the plague claimed the lives of close to 100,000 throughout England. When the following year brought the Great Fire of London, Whitehead again remained in London to pray with victims.[5] He was imprisoned again in 1668 after a meeting with several Friends that would serve as inspiration for his next mission where Whitehead led a group of Friends in obtaining for individuals persecuted for their religion a pardon directly from King Charles II known as the Royal Declaration of Indulgence. It called for the release of 490 persons from English jails, among them John Bunyan who would go on to be one of Whitehead's greatest public critics.[2] This was one of several major steps towards freedom of religious worship in England.

In 13 May 1670 he married Anne Downer who was much older than him. She was a notable advocate for Quakerism.[6]

In May 1685, accompanied by Alexander Parker and Gilbert Latey, he appealed to King James II to honor the agreement made with King Charles II, the King blaming Presbyterians in Parliament for voiding the declaration.[5] Again a declaration was issued that pardoned more prisoners of religious persecution. His wife died in 1686.[7]

In 1689 led a group of men before King William III to plead for a continuation of pardons and rights for the religiously persecuted. The meeting was successful and would influence the king in the creation of the Bill of Rights of 1689.[4] Of this meeting Whitehead said:

George Whitehead died in 1723 and was laid to rest in the Quaker Burying Ground, Bunhill Fields, next to another of the Quaker movement founders, George Fox.[2]


In 1716, George Whitehead edited a collected edition of James Nayler's writings entitled A Collection of Sundry Books, Epistles, and Papers Written by James Nayler, Some of Which Were Never Before Printed: with an Impartial Relation of the Most Remarkable Transactions Relating to His Life . However, Whitehead omitted Nayler's more controversial works and freely edited and changed the text. Note that this was after the death of George Fox, who opposed the re-issuing of any of Nayler's writings.[8]


  1. ^ "Parishes (East Ward): All Saints', Orton | British History Online". Retrieved 2017-08-14. 
  2. ^ a b c d Ellwood, Thomas (1906). The History of the Life of Thomas Ellwood. London. Headly Brothers
  3. ^ Barbour, Hugh. Roberts, Arthur (ed).(1973). Early Quaker Writings. Wallingford. Pendle Hill Publications.
  4. ^ a b Hall V. Worthington: The Christian Progress of George Whitehead
  5. ^ a b c d e Whitehead, George (1711). "The Christian Progress of George Whitehead". London
  6. ^ a b Nigel Smith, "Whitehead, George (1637–1724)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, accessed 14 Aug 2017. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/29287.
  7. ^ Catie Gill. "Whitehead [née Downer; other married name Greenwell], Anne (c. 1624–1686)". doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/69080. Retrieved 2017-08-14. 
  8. ^ Leo Damrosch. The Sorrows of the Quaker Jesus: James Nayler and the Puritan Crackdown on the Free Spirit. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996, pp. 6, 238.


  • Beck, William, The Friends: Who They Are- What They Have Done. (Edward Hicks, London, 1893)
  • Claus Bernet (2010). "George Whitehead (Quaker leader)". In Bautz, Traugott. Biographisch-Bibliographisches Kirchenlexikon (BBKL) (in German). 31. Nordhausen: Bautz. cols. 1447–1479. ISBN 978-3-88309-544-8. 
  • Whitehead, George, Christian Doctrine (William Sewel, London, 1722)
  • Whitehead, George, The Memoirs of George Whitehead V1: A Minister of the Gospel in the Society of Friends (Kessington Publishing Company, 2007 reissue, ISBN 978-1-4304-6150-0)

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