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THE TRIAL OF JAMES NAYLER AND RELIGIOUS TOLERATION IN ENGLAND William G. Bittle* W. K. Jordan's landmark opus The Development of Religious Toleration in England'1 examines in considerable detail the trial of the Quaker James Nayler. "In the famous Nayler case," Jordan writes, "Parliament sought to extend its coercive and regulatory power to the restraint of grevious blasphemy and error."2 At the same time the Government, i.e. Cromwell and the Council, was locked in a struggle with Parliament to preserve the principles of religious toleration to which the Protector was so firmly committed. "The Nayler case," Jordan concludes, "was consequently ofvery great importance in the development of religious toleration."1 James Nayler, it will be recalled, was a key figure in the early Quaker movement, second in prominence only to George Fox. In the fall of 1656 he allowed the more demonstrative of his followers to lead him into the city ofBristol in clear imitation ofChrist's entry into Jerusalem. This was an act which to Jordan, as well as to the majority of Nayler's contemporaries, branded him as "obviously demented"4—"plainly unbalanced."5 Others have taken a somewhat more charitable view ofhis actions, or at least attempted to interpret them in the light ofsimilar Quaker "excesses" ofthe period.6 What is undeniable, however, is that once passed by the Bristol magistrates to *William G. Bittle is Dean and Assistant Professor of History at Kent State University , Canton, Ohio. 1.W. K. Jordan, The Development of Religious Toleration in England, 4 vols. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1932-1940). 2./te/., 3, p. 221. 3.Ibid. 4.Ibid., 3, p. 223. 5.Ibid.,?,, p. 226. 6.Emilia Fogelklou, James Nayler: The Rebel Saint, 1618-1660, translated by Lajla Yapp (London: Ernest Benn Limited, 1931); Mabel Richmond Brailsford, A Quaker From Cromwell 's Army: James Nayler (New York: The Macmillan Company , 1927); William G. Bittle, "James Nayler: A Study in Seventeenth Century Quakerism," (Ph.D. dissertation, Kent State University, 1975). 29 30Quaker History Parliament,7 the case attracted widespread attention out ofall proportion to its own significance. Consequently there have been various attempts to identify deeper issues underlying this Parliamentary cause celebre. Jordan cast both Nayler's Parliamentary trial and the subsequent search for an appropriate punishment in terms of a struggle between moderates in Parliament, representing Cromwell and the Council, and the Presbyterian element which sought to undermine the foundations of religious toleration. "The Nayler case," Jordan states, "supplied Parliament with precisely the lever needed to bring an irresistible pressure upon the Lord Protector." He adds, erroneously, that Parliament purposefully "asserted its jurisdiction in the case."8 In his reconstruction ofthe trial Jordan sees Parliament breaking into three factions: "The conservative majority," determined from the outset to execute Nayler and use the case to pass the harshest possible anti-heresy, anti-blasphemy legislation;9 "the Government party," committed to saving both Nayler and the underlying principles of toleration; and, at the key point in the debate "rather more than one hundred members" who "refrained from voting."10 It was this final centrist or "swing faction" on which Jordan depends for the strength of his argument. The Nayler case which, in one form or another, occupied Parliament more than ten days, actively involving 103 members, saw the critical division occur December 16, 1656, on a motion to punish Nayler with death. Following one member's particularly eloquent plea urging moderation, "the pressure ofthe Government, the fear of raising once more the specter ofpersecution, and genuine devotion to the principle of religious liberty prevailed."" Nayler was spared ninety-six to eighty-two. The debate continued as an alternate punishment was sought. Critical to the Government's victory over the 7 . Incidents similar to the Bristol entry had frequently been dealt with quickly and locally, and many writers have expressed surprise at Bristol 's referral ofthe matter to Parliament, attributing it to their confusion, shock, and incompetence. No such factors were involved. The Bristol magistrates were not hopeless rustics; Bristol was the second leading city in the country. Their motives were clear and well-calculated. The Nayler case provided, in their minds, an extreme example to spur an...


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