Courage and Quakers – talk by Trish Munn

Trish Munn, Clun Valley LM, recently gave a talk to the Clun LM Study Group and has agreed to share the text.

A PDF of the talk can be downloaded for printing – please click here.

Courage and Quakers.

Trish Munn.

My plan for this study session had been to speak about three of the lesser known 18th century English women who made the transatlantic crossing to Pennsylvania  – several times in fact.  But while reading about them and how they lived their lives, I was struck more and more by their extraordinary courage.  And I began to wonder about that, which is why I’d now like to explore a bit the quality of courage.   Of course there are millions of people throughout the ages who’ve demonstrated enormous courage, but I’m only going to pick a few.

Some of us here get a daily message from Richard Rohr at the Centre for Action and Contemplation in New Mexico.  A few weeks ago, towards the end of a message he says, “The most courageous thing we will ever do is to bear humbly the mystery of our own reality, to trust our divine image and grow in God’s likeness.”

Courage is a heart word.  Its root is Cor –the Latin word for heart.   Its etymology relates to whole-heartedness.  And wouldn’t we all like to think of ourselves as whoIe-hearted.  In one of it’s earliest forms, the word courage meant, “To speak one’s mind by telling all ones heart”; over time the definition changed, and today we more typically associate courage with heroic deeds.   I’d like to think about what we mean by courage now.   And is it a quality that describes who we are as people.  Quakers have always been known as a peculiar and courageous people, and I hope this is still true.

It seems that the spiritual intensity that was common among early Friends has diminished.   I suppose in part it’s simply that we no longer have to struggle against the hatred and violence that was experienced by the early Quakers, and we’re in huge debt to all those immensely brave men and women who forged the way before us.

There’s a quote in the Bible, from the prophet Micah that goes, “This is what Yahweh asks of you, only this, ‘To act justly, to love tenderly, and to walk humbly with your God.’”  This sums up for me, what it means to be a Quaker.  It sounds such a gentle command, in fact not a command at all, but it calls upon integrity, which in turn calls on discernment, and within those qualities we find courage – to act, or not to act.

Of course there are many kinds of courage that don’t involve great danger or hardship.  For example, the courage of endurance  – simply putting up with a situation not of your own choosing with patience and cheerfulness.  When you think of those with long-term illnesses, unable to do anything for themselves and having to rely on the kindness of others.  It takes enormous  courage to go on day after day – and also for those who do the caring; there are huge demands on everybody concerned. 

There’s the courage it takes of standing against your tribe, your friends, your peer group.  It’s easy enough when you take a stand against something with your people, but something else entirely to find yourself standing against them too.   

Eileen Caddy (of Findhorn) said, “It takes great faith and courage to step out and follow those deep inner promptings, especially when the action you are taking appears as utter foolishness in the eyes of others.”

There’s the phrase, to have the courage of one’s convictions – so like the term that Quakers use when we say Quaker by convincement.  And perhaps this a clue to what gave them such courage.   The other thing I’ve noticed when I’ve been reading is how often there was a dream, or an experience of some sort, of there being a message from God directly heard.

We know about the vision that George Fox had on Pendle Hill.  I was about to say, and how it encouraged him.  And then I realised what the word, ‘encouraged’ meant, which according to dictionaries means to spur on; to give confidence, to hearten, to urge, – and its obvious link to courage.  We all need encouragement; it makes our hearts braver.

When we feel braver we are more in touch with our whole-heartedness.  We can do anything that we really believe in. 

I would think that those who had these direct experiences from God, either as visions or hearing God speak to them directly were encouraged at their deepest level and were somehow carried forward.  When you think of people who’ve had near death experiences, how their lives are transformed, and they cease to concern themselves with small concerns.  They are able to move into their hearts.

In many ways I feel I’m doing this talk in the wrong order – as I want to speak about Elisabeth Ashbridge first, an 18th century English woman, before speaking of two from the previous century.  I also feel I’m doing all these women an injustice as each one calls for a much more detailed account of their journeys.  To my mind Elisabeth demonstrates the courage of endurance.

She was born in Cheshire in 1713 to Anglican parents and brought up in their faith.   By all accounts she was a wild vivacious creature, much given to singing and dancing.   Her father was a ship’s surgeon which meant he was absent for much of the time.   These absences seemed to create in Elisabeth an ambivalence which influenced many of her choices in life.   As a young girl she began to feel conflicting emotions towards religion, and began to equate God with her absent father and the desire to be loved by paternal figures.   She didn’t feel this love and she rejects patriachy by abruptly leaving home and eloping at the age of fourteen.  Five months later she was widowed, but was unwelcome in the  home of her parent’s, and was sent to stay with Quaker relatives  in Dublin.  But she found their company dull and gloomy and made her way to the west coast to stay with some Catholic relatives.  Elisabeth got on very well with her aunt there and they had many good talks.  She stayed with this family for five years and seriously considered becoming a Catholic, but suddenly in an act of rebellion after hearing a talk from a priest, decided to emigrate to the American colonies.

While preparing for her journey she was kidnapped by an unscrupulous woman who was in the business of buying and selling indentured servants and was locked up for three weeks before she managed to escape.  She was still determined to get to America, and went unwittingly back to the ship where she’d been kidnapped from and set sail.  Shortly afterwards she overheard some Irish servants plotting to sieze control of the ship.  She told the captain and managed to foil the plot, but was only rewarded by the captain taking advantage of her naivite and poverty and making her sign illegal indentureship papers, binding her to a tryrranical and abusive man in New York.

She suffered inumerous hardships, including a narrow escape from the town whipper to discipline her.  During her time with him she considered a career on the stage, but she knew her father would disapprove, and decided to start sowing instead, and eventually earned enough through her needle-work to pay off the last year.

After she left she married a school teacher, Mr Sullivan who’d fallen in love with her because he’d seen her singing and dancing.    Apparently she felt no love for him so it’s unclear why she took this action.  It wasn’t a success and she went through years of physical, mental and emotional abuse.   One wonders what was really going on as she continues to attract, or to fall into a pattern of aligning herself with abusive men. 

Throughout the early years of this marriage Elisabeth continued her search for a religious centre, and eventally found it on a visit to some Quakers relatives in Pennsylvania.  She was concerned because not only were they Quakers, but her aunt was also a preacher.  In Elisabeth’s own words she says, “I was exceedingly prejudiced against these people and often wondered how they could call themselves Christian.” However she’d only been there three hours when she took up a book and read two pages and had to stop as her ‘heart burned within her’.  And some days later, in the night she had a vision of her sins, and saw before her a grave woman holding a light, who declared, “Thy lamp shall not be put out in obscure darkness” but added only if Elisabeth deepened in the spirit of her Inward Light.

When her husband heard she’d become a Quaker he tells her that he’d rather have heard she was dead, and flew into a rage when he hears her use the word ‘thee’.  She’s determined to pursue her Quaker faith but he does all he can in his power to prevent her.  One day he brought out a penknife and said that if she goes to Meeting the next day, he’ll cripple her.  His abuse continued as Elisabeth began to preach at Quaker Meetings.  His efforts to prevent her ranged from denying her the use of his horse to get to Meetings, to restraining her physically at home. 

Yet they did eventually find some measure of peace together, and he even began going to Meetings with her, but always made sure to leave before she got up to speak.   However it didn’t last and one night in a drunken stupour he left their home and enlisted in the army.  He died after being badly beaten up for refusing to fight, citing the Quaker testimony to pacifism.

Five years later Elisabeth married Aaron Ashbridge, a well-known member of the Quaker community in Chester.  Not much is known about her marriage to Aaron, but what is known is that by marrying him her influence as a witness widened.  A few years later she gave up this new security because she felt called  to preach abroad.  With the consent of her husband, and after an appointing committee had been set up to ascertain that her motivation was genuinely inspired by the voice within, the elders signed a certificate that sanctioned her travel.  By this time she was a renowned speaker, and was a welcome guest throughout the transatlantic community, and owing to her work in England and Ireland her reputation continued to grow.  At the height of her power, while still in Ireland she fell ill and died in 1755 at the age of 42.

As I mentioned at the beginning, it was the early Quaker women who forged the way for people like Elisabeth.  And Elisabeth herself was very aware of the connection of her own abuse to the persecutions suffered by the 17th century  Quaker women.  And even though 18th century Quakers were largely spared the violence and horror of physical persecution, the stories of their martyred  ancestors remained firmly in the cultural memory of later Friends.  Their stories demonstrated great courage amidst terrible hardships, and Elisabeth wanted to emulate them. 

You’ll probaby know more about the two women I’d like to talk about next than I do.  I’ll start with Elisabeth Hooton.  She was one of the two powerful women who influenced George Fox’s life, and possibly the first person to be ‘convinced of the truth’.  When Fox met her she was part of the local Baptist community in Skegby, and was married to Oliver Hooton.  She was already nearly fifty when a meeting with Fox changed her whole life, and she became a Quaker by convincement.  In fact is was the power of her words that persuaded Fox that God had anointed women for ministry as well as men, and within a few years she’d become one of his itinerant preachers.  It wasn’t long before she was imprisoned in Derby for reproving a priest, and the following year was jailed for 16 months in York.

She was a literate woman and wrote to judges and other officials to protest against the conditions in the prisons.  When she was sixty she made her first trip to New England with her friend Joan Brocksop.  Quakers in New England were suffering terrible persecutions, and when they tried to visit Friends in prison, they were imprisoned themselves for days without food, after which they were put in stocks and beaten.  Then they were taken into the wilderness, a two day walk, and left there.  They managed to survive by following wolf tracks in the snow until they found a settlement.  They returned to England, and once there petitioned Charles 11 to stop the persecution in Massachusetts Bay Colony.  She refused to kneel and walked beside him as an equal, and she must have won his respect as he gave her a document authorising her to buy land and to use it to make a safe haven for the Quaker colony.  However, when she returned, the letter gave her no protection at all, and once again she was stripped and beaten even more harshly, whipping her through three towns before being taken out into the wilderness again; and again she managed to find her way back, and returned to England, where after a short time was imprisoned again in Lincoln for disturbing the congregation.

In 1672 she accompanied George Fox on his only voyage to the New World, where she suddenly fell ill and died one week after their arrival.

I’ve left Mary Fisher til last as I find her story so fascinating.   You probably all know about her visit to the Sultan of Turkey, but I haven’t before now, and it caught my imagination.  Actually she’s not the first or the only one who did this.  St Francis visited the Sultan of Egypt in the 13 century.  Can you imagine the travel arrangements?  And the courage and perseverence it must have taken to walk, ride or take boats to such strange lands.  Can you imagine any of us having the courage to do anything so bold?? 

When George Fox first met Mary she was a 27year old indentured servant.  But she was lucky enough to work in a household who were open to spiritual ideas, and who had been inspired by the message of Fox.  Mary was equally inspired, and she and her mistress were two of the hundreds of women in the first decades of Quakerism who shared the message by preaching in public places.  She was one of the most ardent and gifted of the early travelling ministers who came to be known as the Valient Sixty.

At the time Mary was illiterate.  After her conversion she quickly started proclaiming the Quaker message; she was chastised by the local priest and thrown into York prison.  There she had the company of several wise and loving fellow Quakers, including Elisabeth Hooton and others who became like teachers and mothers.  Together they worshipped and told their stories, and while there Mary was taught how to read and write. 

After being released she felt called to travel to Cambridge.  Elisabeth Williams, a fifty year old Quaker woman felt called to travel as a partner to Mary.  They took the Quaker message to England’s seminaries where they survived terrible beatings.  She didn’t return to the household where she worked as a servant as they had released her for travel in the ministry.  She was again imprisoned for speaking critically to the priest, and was put back into York Castle Prison where two of her previous companions welcomed her back.  For a while she was able to pay the fee to share a private cell with a fellow Quaker, but when her money ran out she was put in a large common room where 60 Dutch soldiers, prisoners of war, were crowded together.  The soldiers began making rough sexual advances on Mary, and Thomas Aldam another Quaker there offered to pay for a private cell for her. 

But Mary had been learning experiencially about the transforming power that can be released in accepting suffering in the cause of Truth.  She refused his gift; and touched by her suffering and her witness against injustice (when she realised those who had money could get better quarters) Thomas Aldam felt God speaking to him, telling him to give away his own money with which he’d been paying for a private cell for himself.  He was put in the common cell with Mary, which made such a huge impression on the Dutch prisoners, as well as the jailors that the abuse stopped. 

In the next year Mary felt called to take the Quaker message across the ocean to the Puritans in Massachusetts, and she set sail with Ann Austin.  Virulently anti-Quaker tracts had been written by Puritan ministers in England, and when the women identified themselves on board ship by using the pronoun ‘thee’ they were escorted directly to prison for being Quakers.  Boston had begun executing women for witchcraft, and the women were stripped naked so their bodies could be searched for signs of the Devil.  Ann Austin said she felt more trauma from that search than from giving birth to any of her children.  The prison was boarded over, and they were deprived of writing materials and given no food.  A Boston citizen, an old man named Nicholas Upsall, felt compassion  for them and bribed the jailer to be allowed to send in food for them.  Somehow the women were able to recipricate by giving him the spiritual food for which he’d hungered.  Nicholas Upsall became the first Boston convert to Quakerism.

Then Mary felt a calling to take the message to Turkey, and to speak with the young Sultan.  She set sail with five others; the journey was anything but straightforward.  When they arrived in Smyrna, Turkey they were received with much hostility.  The English Consul was kind but opposed to their plan, certain it would do no good for English relations with the Turks.  He tricked them into getting on another ship that was going to Venice.  As they headed north the ship encountered a terrifying storm, and Mary, who hadn’t given up, begged the captain to pull into port on the island of Zakinos.  The story goes that Mary then tavelled alone, on foot across the Peloponnesian Peninsula, through the Greek mainland and Macedonia, crossing the mountains of Thrace.  In any case, she got there, alone of her party and arrived in Edirne where the Sultan was camped with 20,000 of his soldiers, camped in 2,000 tents.  The Sultan and his Grand Vizier were camped in the centre in magnificent luxury.  And then in walks Mary Fisher in her plain dress, much worn after a year of travel by boat and by foot.  She walked towards the centre of the tents but was thwarted in her efforts to get an introduction to the Sultan. 

At every public event he was accompanied by his executioner, sword in hand and ready to remove the head of anyone who caused displeasure to the Sultan.  Should Mary and her message not find favour, she and anyone who had introduced her would lose their heads!  The Sultan was  then only in his late teens; his armies were under the direction of the Grand Vizier (Kupruli the Fourth).  In the five years of government, Kupruli had caused 36,000 people to be strangled for not entirely submitting to his authority.  He was the only one  who might not risk his life by advising the Sultan to grant her an interview.  And though until recently an illiterate serving-maid from Nottinghamshire, Mary came to him and his Sultan without submissiveness or fear, carrying herself as the equal of every person, even the most powerful.

Mary was introduced into the Sultan’s magnificent gold-embroided tent the next morning.  As a messenger of the Supreme Power, God, she was accorded the honors given to an ambassador.  The Sultan was lounging on silk cushions and was elegantly dressed for the state occasion in a gold vest with a dark black sable lining.  Arrayed around him, in colourful uniforms and caps, were his guards, his servants, his eunochs and pages.  His Grand Vizier sat beside him and three dragoons stood ready to translate the message Mary would speak.  Mary didn’t know exactly what God wanted her to say, and needed to listen worshipfully to hear.  She waited in silence, a silence that must have startled the assembly.  The Sultan asked her if it were true she had a message from God.  She said she had.  Speak on, he said.  But still she was silent.  The executioner stood nearby waiting for the slightest indication from his master that he should take off her head.  Finally she spoke from the silence.  No-one knows what her words were, but the words came and were translated by the dragoons.  And the words said touched the Sultan, who listened with respectful attention.  When she stopped he asked her if she had more to say, and she simply inquired if he had understood what she said.  He answered, yes, every word, and it is truth.

The Sultan had every respect for one who’d travel such a distance to bring him a message from God, and invited her to remain in his kingdom.  She declined, but she was very touched by the reception she had received which stood in stark contrast with how brutally she’d been treated by her fellow Christians in Cambridge and  Boston.  She had nothing more to say; she had  completed the task which had brought her on this year long journey.  She had shared with him the essence of an inner, spiritual form of Christianity, had spoken of the Inward Light that illuminates every conscience.

Half a year later, and having rejoined the others who set out with her, she returned to London. 

Sadly the Sultan’s armies didn’t stop warring on the Christian nations, and so you wonder if her visit achieved anything.  However, in delivering her message with love for a people considered enemies, and their reception of it in mutual respect for God, it could be said that the Divine will had been accomplished.

I can’t help thinking that if anyone was bold enough to try that now, they’d lose their head in a jiffy.  But it does open us up to wondering just how these people, these ordinary Quaker women had the courage to even try.  She married twice after this journey.  Her first husband died on a sea voyage.  She married again and emigrated to Charleston, South Carolina with her second husband.  Mary died in 1687 at the age of 76.

I was going to end with a quote by Richard Rorh, but instead I found this piece in a chidren’s book called Wonder, by RJ Palacio.  It has nothing to do with courage, but I thought it a good note to end on:

“If every person in this room made it a rule that they will try to act a little kinder than necessary – the world really would become a better place.  And if you do this, if you act just a little kinder than is necessary, someone else, somewhere, some day may recognise in you, every single one of you, the face of God.”

©Trish Munn

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