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A story serialised in fragments for Quaker Week and written for the Quaker Malton Festival 2016 by Chris Newsam.
Here in a few short serialised fragments is a remarkable story, a story of a 'peculiar people', called or nicknamed Quakers - The Quakers of Malton.
Our story begins in 1651/52. Malton was back then a small but important market town having been the host of a Loyalist garrison during the English Civil war (1642-1651). It's difficult for us to imagine the upheavals, disruption and carnage of this period which resulted in the death of around 1 in 20 of the population. Social and religious structure of the country were in chaos, the King, Charles 1st, had been beheaded just months before (January 1649), disrupting the divine rights of kings, the political and religious doctrine of royal and political legitimacy which asserted that a monarch is subject to no earthly authority, deriving his right to rule directly from the will of God. This was a period also where ordinary people were, for the first time, able to have direct access to the Bible with the publishing of the King James Version early in the century in 1611. Across the North of England groups of Dissenters from the established church were meeting, often in secret, in silent assemblies. Often these groups were loosely known as 'Seekers'. It may be of some interests of our story that that just outside Malton, in the village of West Heslerton the local Minster during the 1630's and early 1640's was John Saltmarsh. John Saltmarsh became widely known and recognised nationally as a leader in the Seeker Community and published a number of books and pamphlets about his ideas. John Saltmarsh probably led a Seeker community locally. Wikipedia suggests 'Seekers held meetings as opposed to religious services, and as such had no clergy or hierarchy. During these gatherings they would wait in silence and speak only when felt that God had inspired them to do so'. Seekers have been said by some to be the forerunners of the Quakers, perhaps a ready made group of individuals waiting to be gathered!
Into this hotchpotch and ferment comes a young itinerant preacher from Leicestershire, George Fox. Fox had spent a number of restless years travelling around the county, particularly the Midlands, debating with many of the dissenting preachers of the time. When he arrives in our area in 1651 he has started to formalise and clarify his thinking and his charisma and passion were starting to gather and ignite both interest and a dedicated following. Following his now established pattern he made his way to the parish church in Malton and there interestingly he discovered that the congregation consisted of only around a dozen people, that was before people discovered that this now, rather infamous preacher, was there, whence it suddenly filled with people eager to hear him speak. The priest invited Fox to come up to the pulpit to speak but Fox said he would not raise himself above the congregation and instead stood up on the pew and spoke. We do not know what he said but what we do know is that it changed lives and was instrumental in quickly gathering a group together who soon afterwards identified themselves as 'Quakers' - perhaps the very first reference to the name referring to an organised group other than as a derogatory nickname. Sometime, perhaps around 6 months following Fox's second visit to Malton big things were about to surface.
Between 200 - 300 'Friends' gathered in Malton and held a largely silent Meeting to 'wait upon the Lord' that lasted continuously day and night for 3 to 4 days. It is possible that there were two or more of these large gatherings in Malton, but at least at one of these miraculous events were said to have taken place with the whole of the room visibly being shaken - perhaps similar to the events that were said to have taken place in the first century at the feast of Pentecost and recorded in the Acts of the Apostles chapter 2. Giving the sense of one of these occasions Richard Farnsworth writing to Margaret Fell gives his eye witness testimony of what went on "There was at Malton at the time called Christmas, nigh two hundred Friends met to wait upon the Lord, and did continue there to four days together, and did scarce part night or day I was with them, and twice the mighty power of the Lord was made manifest; almost all the room was shaken". whatever was happening at Malton was significant and our small town became not only notorious because of the Quakers but also attracted numerous regular visitors from leading Quakers including William Dewsbury and James Naylor as well as George Fox on a number of subsequent visits. Some historians suggest that the actual number of those converted, or as Quakers say 'convinced', in Malton in the early 1650's was actually around 50 people which would imply that these larger numbers of around 200-300 people were boosted by Malton possibly acting a an early regional centre or hub for the nascent Quaker religion.
A painting by Geoffrey Makin depicts the scene whereby a reputed crowd of possibly 2-300 Quakers cause uproar as they burnt their valuable silks and expensive accessories in protest at the waste of the rich minority compared with the outright poverty of the many ordinary people. This directly following the brutal civil war is dangerous and seditious stuff and coupled with this group's refusal to cow tow to the gentry or to the established church was bound to caught both notoriety and clamp down. And so it proved to be. our next instalment looks at a couple of local people who found themselves leading this social and religious insurrection, Jane Holmes and Roger Hebden.
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