The Power of Suffering Love: James Nayler and Robert Rich

The following is a revised and expanded version of an essay I published originally in 1996 on the Quaker Electronic Archive site. I am publishing it here in hopes of making the story more widely known.

Nayler's entry into Bristol

The Christian scriptures report that Jesus once entered Jerusalem seated upon an ass, with people laying their cloaks before him and chanting “Hosanna!”1 I doubt that we’ll ever know whether that story records an actual event or is simply an expression of the faith of some of Jesus’ followers. We do know, however, that a similar scene took place in England many centuries later, when the Quaker James Nayler, one of the most influential and beloved of the first group of Quaker ministers, entered the town of Bristol on horseback as chanting people spread their scarves upon the ground. It may be that, as some have asserted, Nayler’s act was the result of delusion and megalomania. I suggest, however, that Nayler was engaging in a bit of “street theater” to demonstrate the fundamental Quaker experience that the same Spirit which was in Jesus and his disciples is available to us today — that, in other words, “sacred history” is not so much the story of a golden age in the past but what we do here and now: “the Kingdom of God is within and among you.”2 I think that Nayler’s behavior afterwards supports that hypothesis, but I recognize that, as with the story about Jesus, questions about his demonstration will always linger.

The English authorities, however, did not pause to ask questions. Nayler and his associates were immediately arrested. Nayler was charged with blasphemy, a serious offense.

After debate, the Parliament sentenced Nayler to severe penalties. He would be pilloried in Westminster and then whipped through the streets on his way to the pillory at the Old Exchange in London, receiving in the process three hundred and eleven lashes. Then, after being pinned in the pillory for two more hours, he would be bound upright to it, his tongue would be bored through with a hot poker, and he would be branded on the forehead with the letter “B” for “blasphemer.” He would then be taken back to Bristol and set upon a horse, riding bareback and facing backward, after which he would be removed from the horse, stripped, and scourged on his way to imprisonment at hard labor. As he was being led away after hearing the sentence pronounced, Nayler was heard by one of his enemies to say, “The Lord lay not these things to your charge. I shall pray heartily that he may not.”

Some people wondered why an apparently deluded Quaker was worth so much time and trouble. Some were surprised, too, by the severity of the sentence and its being imposed before petitions for leniency were read. No doubt there were political motives behind the Parliament’s decision, and at least some legislators seem to have believed that Nayler was the principal leader of the Quaker movement. Quakers, however, including George Fox, disowned Nayler publicly and emphatically after his arrest at Bristol, leaving him largely alone in his suffering. But not everyone abandoned him. The response of his most steadfast friend, Robert Rich, has always moved and inspired me.

Rich, a businessman with much to lose, did not hesitate to act on Nayler’s behalf. He boldly wrote to the Parliament in defense of Nayler, arguing that Nayler’s act had not been blasphemous. He offered to meet with the legislators and prove Nayler’s innocence by scripture; it is not recorded that any member of the Parliament accepted the invitation. After the first public flogging, which Nayler underwent with Christ-like meekness, others joined Rich in pleading with the government for clemency, but the only mitigation was a delay of one week to allow Nayler to recover somewhat from his injuries.

On the day set for the completion of the punishment, Rich appeared at the door of the Parliament, where he stayed all morning, speaking to the members as they passed, exhorting them to Christian mercy. At length, after crying out to the legislators that they should keep their hands clean of blood, Rich went to stand with the suffering Nayler. I quote now from William Sewell, whose early history3 is one of my sources for this account:

Then [Rich] went towards the Exchange, and got on the pillory, [and] held Nayler by the hand while he was burned on the forehead, and bored through the tongue; and was not a little affected with Nayler’s suffering, for he licked his wounds, thereby as it seems to allay the pain; and he led him by the hand from off the pillory.

I cannot read those words without tears.

Nayler bore all of his tortures with humble dignity and forgiveness, even embracing the executioner after being burned. His “sign” at Bristol may have been too ambiguous to convey the message of Christ’s spirit in human hearts, but the experience of his meek, loving manner, and of Rich’s courageous love, seems to have awakened many of the onlookers to that spirit. It was the custom for those assembled before the pillory to jeer the accused and pelt him with thrown objects. Although the crowd gathered before Nayler may have numbered in the thousands, the people were largely silent, men even removing their hats during the worst of the torture. I think that they must have understood at last that, despite the manner in which he had tried to express himself, Nayler was indeed possessed of the spirit of Christ. After all, to speak, to make claims, even to act, can be all too easy, but to continue to love through torture and rejection requires a real grounding in the spirit of him who said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Whatever the motivation for it, the entry into Bristol was but a prelude to the powerful revelation of Christ in the suffering love of James Nayler — and of Robert Rich.

Rich, while never abandoning his radical faith, would become increasingly estranged from “orthodox” Quakerism under George Fox’s leadership. Nayler, however, continually strove for reconciliation, and he was eventually accepted, if grudgingly, back into the fold. But the long ordeal had ruined his health. Within a year of his 1659 release from prison, and almost four years after the entry into Bristol, James Nayler died, at the age of 44, a day after being found robbed and bound in a field. “About two hours before his death,” Sewell tells us, “he spoke, in the presence of several witnesses, these words:”

There is a spirit which I feel, that delights to do no evil, nor to avenge 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 thought to any other: if it be betrayed, it bears it; for its ground and spring are the mercies and forgiveness of God. Its crown is meekness, its life is everlasting love unfeigned, and 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 of the earth, who through death obtained this resurrection, and eternal holy life.


Notes for “The Power of Suffering Love”

(The illustration above the essay is from a 1702 book; it is reproduced in one of my sources, Leo Damrosch’s The Sorrows of the Quaker Jesus: James Nayler and the Puritan Crackdown on the Free Spirit. For more on Nayler and Rich, I recommend Damrosch’s book along with The Light in Their Consciences, by Rosemary Moore, and The Early Quakers and the ‘Kingdom of God,’  by Gerard Guiton — who, I am pleased to note, is in agreement with my characterization of Nayler’s ride into Bristol as “street theater.”)

[1] The scene in the gospel books casts Jesus in the role of the king in Zechariah 9:9-10: “Rejoice, rejoice, daughter of Zion; shout aloud, daughter of Jerusalem; for see, your king is coming to you, his cause won, his victory gained, humble and mounted on an ass, on a foal, the young of a she-ass. He shall banish chariots from Ephraim and war-horses from Jerusalem; the warrior’s bow shall be banished. He shall speak peaceably to every nation, and his rule shall extend from sea to sea, from the river to the ends of the earth.”

[2] Luke 17:21. The Greek entos is rendered as “within” in some translations and as “in the midst of” in others: I have taken the inclusive approach to rendering it.

[3] William Sewell, The History of the Rise, Increase and Progress of the Christian People Called Quakers, first published in the early 1700’s. My quotations are taken from the 1844 printing (Baker & Crane); the first from p. 184 and the second from pp. 202-203. Sewell, by the way, spells the name as “Naylor,” but it now generally appears as “Nayler.”



9 thoughts on “The Power of Suffering Love: James Nayler and Robert Rich

  1. Reblogged this on Take What You Need and commented:
    I am always struck by the story of James Nayler. Following a dispute with George Fox, Nayler felt moved to make a radical entry into Bristol modelled on Christ’s entry into Jerusalem in order to call attention to “that of God” in every one. To his shame, I hope, George Fox disowned Nayler from the movement, proving that even the most revered leaders can be wrong in their assessments of situations.

    • There are very powerful anti-social forces at work in the spiritual world. This is why, I believe, Quakers have developed the social practice of “Clearness” and place such emphasis on group “Spiritual Discernment”. My work in maximum security prisons have brought me into contact with men who thought – were led spiritually – to violence upon themselves and others. The individual needs the social, the group, to lovingly help in dealing with powerful spiritual forces.

      • I couldn’t agree more! We also need a wise social community rather than one that furthers more violence. I imagine it must be tough working in such a place. Here’s to you…many blessings!

  2. Thank you, George, for the reminder of Nayler’s faith to patiently endure suffering for the sake of Truth. Here’s an excerpt from the writing of 7th century theologian Maximos, which is found in the Philokalia (vol. 2, p.155). The excerpt illuminates Nayler’s words: “…delights to endure all things in hope to enjoy its own in the end.”

    It is not the man who worships God with words alone who glorifies God in himself but he who for God’s sake bears hardship and suffering in the quest for virtue. Such a man is glorified in return by God with the glory that is in God, receiving through participation the grace of dispassion as a reward for virtue. For everyone living the life of ascetic practice who glorifies God in himself by suffering for the sake of virtue is himself glorified in God through the dispassionate illumination of divine realities perceived during contemplation. For the Lord said as He drew near to His passion, “Now is the Son of man glorified, and God is glorified in Him. If God is glorified in Him, God will also glorify Him in Himself; and He will glorify Him at once” (John 13:31-32). From this it is clear that divine gifts follow sufferings endured for the sake of virtue.

  3. Friends,
    My views on James Nayler are probably quite different to many other Friends and certainly different from the replies to the blog.
    People with extremely strong convictions have always been willing to risk the disapproval and/or punishment of their society about the practice of these convictions. During the Vietnam war era people were arrested for sewing the American flag on their clothing. Now it is common to see shirts, socks and mens boxer style shorts with flag representations on them. In 1970 they were called traitors, now they call themselves patriots.
    Workers demonstrating for a living wage became the Haymarket Massacre. Unions are now common.
    People with strong convictions changed society.

    So it was (IMO) with founding Quakers as well as other Non-Conformists. We must not forget that Quakers were not the only religious dissenters that were persecuted by English courts. These groups threatened the power of the governmentally established church and like establishments throughout history, the reaction was severe.

    I believe that George Fox, like the Vietnam war and civil rights protestors, was willing to accept the disapproval and punishment that would result from challenging them. I believe that he and other dissenters, like the war protestors, expected the public to notice the certain over-reaction to the events and any resulting public debate and/or revulsion would illustrate his beliefs. Also that the punishment would not fall outside of the norm.

    You, Friends, may think this is cynical but I believe it is realistic.

    Naylor was completely different. His entry into Bristol put him beyond the pale. Fox himself condemned his actions. It is reasonable to think that any person of that time would read it as a declaration of equivalency to Christ and react in accordance with the strong religious practices of the time. The result of Naylors trial may then have caused many people to conclude that he was simply mis-guided at best, and deluded at the worst and was not deserving of the harsh penalties he received. Thus the silence at the stocks. The severity of his punishment very likely caused these witnesses to wonder about the justice of their society.

    I do not consider Naylor as a martyr. A martyr may be challenging the authorities and may understand that there will be consequences but they are not thumbing their noses. Madmen, zealots, fools and rebels are not martyrs. That Naylor suffered his punishment silently and meekly does not mean martyrdom.

    In Peace,

    • When it came to the Quaker doctrine of oneness with Christ, Nayler proved himself to be the more careful and articulate theologian, rescuing Fox, for example, during one of the blasphemy trials that they, and others, gave the government excuse for. But perhaps Fox expressed the doctrine most succinctly in his assertion, which would exercise even William Penn, that “Christ is not distinct from his saints.” Nayler’s theology of the unity of Christ and the saint was not a departure for a Quaker; on the contrary, it was “orthodox” at the time. Indeed, Fox accepted accolades that scripture had applied to Christ — see the sources mentioned below for more on that.

      The relationship between Fox and Nayler became fraught. Nayler was the most prominent Quaker in London, apparently thought by many to be the main Quaker leader in England. While we can only speculate based on the textual evidence, it does appear that Fox may have felt some envy toward Nayler, and certainly their relationship was poor already before Bristol — Fox behaved haughtily toward Nayler, for example, when Nayler was imprisoned. And Nayler’s act at Bristol, whatever he thought himself (and he suffered much about it beforehand, knowing the dangers), was obviously impolitic, so Fox may well have been angry about the new threat to “his” movement. It’s hard to say.

      For more background, see Richard Bailey’s New Light on George Fox and Early Quakerism: The Making and Unmaking of a God and Leo Damrosch’s The Sorrows of the Quaker Jesus: James Nayler and the Puritan Crackdown on the Free Spirit.

      • Thanks George,
        Your mention that Naylor was the most prominent Quaker in London was something I had forgotten. London, being the seat of government, may have put him under closer observation than Fox. If this was the case then any demonstration done by Naylor would have received immediate attention.
        Whether his intention was a form of “street theatre” or megalomania, any act would have been all the excuse needed to prosecute.
        I am now curious about religious festivals of the day and if a Palm Sunday re-enactment was common. I don’t know when the Toleration Act came in but in Fox’s time it was against the law to be a dissenter but it does not follow that Naylor’s act at Bristol was.

        If it wasn’t then he was not being prosecuted as a violator of the law but just to punish him. So IMO if Naylor was doing something that he did not expect to be considered so severe then my own comments would indicate that he WAS a martyr.

  4. There is a relevant article on Nayler, “Performance, Incarnation, Conversion: Theology and the Future of Imagination” by Alison Searle, in the just-published Theology and the Future: Evangelical Assertions and Explorations, edited by Trevor Cairney and David Starling. Searle sees Nayler’s act as “performance art.” Here are two brief excerpts.

    Nayler resisted the endeavours of the English Parliament to equate his entry into Bristol with his small band of followers as a blasphemous attempt to re-enact the gospel story and identify himself as Jesus Christ. (p. 212)

    Nayler’s imaginative appropriation of the life of Christ and its consequences are, admittedly, an extreme case. However, his dramatic sign and its aftermath raise questions of more general concern. What constitutes a faithful performance of creaturehood for Christian believers? How do we fulfill the biblical injunction to ‘put on the Lord Jesus Christ’ (Rom. 13.14)? Who has the right to determine whether a particular performance is ‘horrid blasphemy’ or a Christ-like martyrdom? (p. 204)

    The article can be previewed at

  5. Could it be that George Fox who seems to have great discernment upon meeting James Nayler knew there was in front of him a man who looked to glory in self? Perhaps even James Nayler did not truly know for the heart is most deceptive. Therefore requiring that which George Fox kiss his foot. Perhaps he knew that James Nayler could not do such a thing as led by the Spirit. Yes I see the work of humbling in James Nayler after much persecution (or mercy of the Lord) that he saw what he was. How can a man say such beautiful words about the goodness being only of the Lord unless such a humbling been accomplished. I dare say he in the end came to a more victorious place than Fox.

    On another note the way that he died disturbs me. I know as a marked man he surely would have been regarded less than others and especially to a criminal. Yet Paul also suffered I believe this way too.

    All I know is that I hope I can say those words as James Nayler did. That that would be in my heart always.

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