I’ve learnt a lot about the early history of the Quakers in the last three weeks, thanks to the excellent FutureLearn course ‘Radical Spirituality: the Early History of the Quakers’ www.futurelearn.com/courses/quakers/1 . This course, put together by Lancaster University and led by Ben Pink Dandelion, has covered the beginnings of this religious group as it emerged in 17th century England. We have read and heard extracts from George Fox’s journal and also the writings of other key early Quakers such as Margaret Fell and Francis Howgill and some of the videos have been recorded at significant locations in the formation of the group such as Pendle Hill and Swarthmoor Hall. I was already aware of my husband’s Quaker ancestry when we visited Swarthmoor Hall near Ulverston on a particularly wet and gloomy day a good 25 years ago. Despite the weather I have fond memories of it being a special place and of the warm welcome we received there.
I have known for years that some of the earliest Quakers in Norfolk were Musketts, but following this course has enabled me to appreciate just how early they were. In the book ‘The Intwood Story’ by Reverend A J Nixseaman, published in 1972, he asserts that “the first of the Muskett family known to have been a Quaker was Andrew Muskett, son of John Muskett, Gent. of Fersfield. We find him settled in Thelton in the year 1659, and then known to be a Quaker”. What is unclear is where this information came from but, if accurate, it means there was a Quaker Muskett in Norfolk barely five years after the Quaker message was disseminated from its Lancashire origins, when the ‘Valiant Sixty’ (Quaker preachers) set out on an organised mission to spread the message to the rest of Britain. The book goes on to tell us that the first citizen of Norwich to become a Quaker was Thomas Symonds, in 1654, and the source for this information is ‘The First Fifty Years of Quakerism’, compiled by Arthur J Eddington in 1932.
Andrew Muskett’s son Andrew was twice imprisoned in Norwich Castle because of his beliefs, we are told. Quakers had been free to worship since the Act of Toleration in 1689, but imprisonments continued for non-payment of tithes. Andrew’s eldest son John, born in 1711, had 12 children by two wives: Ann Hart and then Mary Heyward, both from Quaker families. John lived at Tharston Hall. He sent his seven sons to a Quaker boarding school in Lancashire called Yealand’s, founded by brothers John and James Jenkins. His sons were born between about 1739 and 1762 and at that time a stage coach must have taken several days to make the journey from Norfolk to Lancashire. The seven sons were John, Ephraim, Joseph, Zachariah, Benjamin, William and Thomas, and it is from Thomas, born in 1762, that my husband’s line of the family is descended. Thomas settled in Gressenhall, where coincidentally I have found some of my Norfolk George family. I live in hope that one day I will find a connection between the two families!
The FutureLearn course has been a real eye-opener into the radical nature of the early Quaker beliefs. At a time when the Puritans conveyed the message that the ‘elect’ had already been chosen for salvation, it must have been an amazing revelation to people to be told that they could discover God for themselves, without the help of the Established Church, just as George Fox had done in the 1640s. An additional surprise was the role of women in the movement, not least Margaret Fell, whose strong leadership and organisational skills helped to ensure the survival and growth of the Quaker movement despite the opposition it encountered.
The Quaker faith today is quite different , and we would be wrong to think of our early Quaker ancestors as being peace-loving and liberal-minded. From what I have learnt during the last few weeks, they appear to have been feisty people who knew their mind. If you have Quaker ancestors I would recommend the following websites for further information:
http://www.qfhs.co.uk/ The Quaker Family History Society