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Quaker Thought & History

Spiritual Healing Among Early Quakers

By Edward Grubb


Spiritual Healing Among Early Quakers

The Quaker movement in its early days was the outcome of a very intense spiritual experience, which raised George Fox and others into a realization of the Divine presence and power that flooded their whole inner being with new light and moral energy. In such times of religious awakening, it is as if a door were opened into the spiritual world, letting in tides of new life that carry people up to a higher level of vision and efficiency — quickening even their physical and mental as well as their moral and spiritual faculties. This is what George Fox seems to have felt in himself at the time when (as recorded in his Journal, Vol. I, p. 28), he thought "the natures and virtues of things had been so opened to him" that he was "at a stand in his mind" whether he should "practise physic for the good of mankind."

We may be thankful that he thought better of this; but it is, I think, indisputable that the new life that had come to him did sharpen his intellectual as well as his moral power, and that it was no merely temporary excitement of the nervous centres. All through his life he showed a readiness and adaptability to meet difficult situations, without time for thought or preparation, which greatly impressed his friends, and which must have been due to something more than native shrewdness. In the preface to the Journal William Penn writes: "Having been with him for weeks and months together on divers occasions, and those of the nearest and most exercising nature, ... I can say I never saw him out of his place, or not a match for every service and occasion. For in all things he acquitted himself like a man, yea, a strong man, a new and heavenly-minded man." (Fox's Journal, Preface, p. I.)

This side of the matter must not now be pursued, though, in my judgment, it is closely related to that which is before us, viz., "spiritual healing."

There is a mass of testimony, in the original Journal of George Fox,1  and scattered through other writings of the early Friends, to show their belief that spiritual insight was given them, at times at any rate, to discern hidden things in the personalities of other people, and power to set right that which was wrong, even when this carried with it the ability to heal their bodies. To these men and women some of the events that occurred in their experience appeared frankly miraculous. We may think them naive and even credulous, but I do not see that we need refuse them the word. For the "miracles" of the New Testament themselves would seem to have been the outcome of just such an influx of spiritual power, on a still greater scale, which came into the world in the personality of Jesus of Nazareth, and passed through Him into others.

Some of this testimony I propose to quote. I will first deal with cases in which the "Publishers of Truth" themselves were healed in ways that transcend ordinary experience. The following narrative may be taken as typical of many similar experiences. At Ulverston, in 1652, there was a riot caused by George Fox Speaking in the church (after obtaining permission from a Justice of the Peace to do so).

"And when they had led me to the common, a multitude of people following, there they fell upon me with staves and hedge-stakes, and the constables and officers gave me some blows over my back with their willow rods, and so thrust me amongst the rude multitude; and they then fell upon me as aforesaid, and beat me on my head and arms and shoulders till they had mazed me, and at last I fell down upon the wet common. And when I recovered myself again, and saw myself lying on a watery common, and all the people standing about me, I lay a little still, and the power of the Lord sprang through me, and the eternal refreshings refreshed me, that I stood up again in the eternal power of God, and stretched out my arms amongst them all, and said again with a loud voice, 'Strike again; here is my arms, my head, and my cheeks.' And there was a mason, a rude fellow, a professor; he gave me a blow with all his might just atop of my hand as it was stretched out, with his walking rule staff; and my hand and arm was so numbed and bruised that I could not draw it in to me again; so as the people cried out, ' He hath spoiled his hand for ever having any use of it more.' And I looked at it in the love of God, and I was in the love of God to them all that had persecuted me. And after a while the Lord's power sprang through me again, and through my hand and arm, that in a minute I recovered my hand and arm and strength in the face and sight of them all." (Cambridge Journal, i., p. 58. Spelling modernized throughout.)

This does not mean that Fox was preserved from acute bodily suffering. He says his "body and arms was yellow black and blue with the blows and bruises" he received that day. And a fortnight later he had an almost worse experience — after which he walked three miles, arriving at a Friend's house hardly able to speak.

"And I went to bed, but I was so weak with bruises I was not able to turn me; and the next day they hearing of it at Swarthmoor they sent a horse for me; and as I was riding the horse knocked his foot against a stone and stumbled, that it shook me so and pained me as it seemed worse to me than all my blows, my body was so tortured; so I came to Swarthmoor and my body was exceedingly bruised." (Cambridge Journal, i., p. 61.)

We pass on now to cases in which healing power seems to have been exercised by Fox and others on persons in need of it.

At Arnside, in 1653, there was a certain Richard Myer, or Myers, who claimed to be a prophet, and with whom Friends had some trouble. Fox says, in his quaint way, that "he went out into imaginations, but came in again, and died in truth."

"And after, I went to a meeting at Arnside where there was a many people; and I was moved of the Lord to say to Richard Myer amongst all the people, 'Prophet Myer, stand up upon thy legs' — for he was sitting down. And he stood up and stretched out his arm, which had been lame a long time, and said, ' Be it known unto you all people and to all nations that I this day am healed.' And after the meeting was done his father and mother could hardly believe it was made whole; and had him into an house and took off his doublet, and then they saw it was true; and he came to Swarthmoor meeting and there declared how the Lord had healed him." (Cambridge Journal, i., pp. 107-108.)

There is also the case of the "Baptist woman" at Baldock in Hertfordshire (1655), who, Fox was informed, "was not a woman for this world ... I was moved of the Lord God to speak to her, and the Lord raised her up and she was well, to the astonishment of the town and country." (Cambridge Journal, i., p. 199.)

(We note how in every case Fox is careful to ascribe the healing power to God, and to claim nothing for himself.)

Undoubtedly many such cures may be described as due to "suggestion" (convenient word!) — the ailments cured being for the most part apparently due to nervous trouble. Fox was a man of very commanding presence, and well able to influence the bodies of people through their minds. The power of his eyes is often mentioned. Dr. Rufus Jones says:—

"Fox's commanding presence, his piercing eye, and the absolute assurance which his voice gave that he was equal to the occasion, were worth a thousand doctors. Those who understand the psychology of suggestion, and the effect of faith on certain diseases, will hardly question the simple accounts given here and elsewhere." (George Fox, 1903, p. 113.)

There is in the original Journal a batch of narratives of this sort, one of them of a remarkable character, which Ellwood unfortunately omitted from the standard editions of the Journal. The date here is 1653:—

"And after I came out of Carlisle prison, I went into the Abbey Chamber; and there came in a mad woman that was sometimes very desperate, and she fell down of her knees and cried, 'Put off your hats, for grace, grace hangs about thy neck.' And so the Lord's power ran through her that she was sensible of her condition, and after came and confessed it to Friends.

"And I came to another place in Cumberland, where a man's wife was distracted and very desperate, attempting at times to kill her children and her husband; but I was moved of the Lord to speak to her; and she kneeled down of her bare knees and cried, and said she would work of her bare knees if she might go with me; and the Lord's power wrought through her, and she went home well.

"And in Bisboprick while I was there they brought a woman tied behind a man [i.e. riding on a pillion], that could neither eat nor speak, and had been so a great while; and they brought her into the house to me to Anthony Pearson's. And I was moved of the Lord God to speak to her, that she ate and spake and was well; and got up behind her husband without any help, and went away well.

"And as I came out of Cumberland one time I went to Hawkshead, and lighted at a Friend's house; and there was young Margaret Fell with me and William Caton; and it being a very cold season we lighted, and the lass made us a fire, her master and dame being gone to the market. And there was a boy lying in the cradle, which they rocked, about eleven years old, and he was grown almost double; and I cast my eye upon the boy, and seeing he was dirty I bid the lass wash his face and his hands, and get him up and bring him unto me. So she brought him to me and I bid her take him and wash him again, for she had not washed him clean. Then I was moved of the Lord God to lay my hands upon him and speak to him, and so bid the lass take him again and put on his clothes, and after we passed away.

"And some time after I called at the house, and I met his mother, but did not light. 'Oh stay,' says she," and have a meeting at our house; for all the country is convinced by the great miracle that was done by ye upon my son; for we had carried him to Wells and the Bath, and all doctors had given him over, for his grandfather and father feared he would have died and their name have gone out, having but that son: but presently, after you was gone (says she), we came home and found our son playing in the streets' . . . And this was about three years after, that she told me of it, and he was grown to be a straight, full youth then; and so the Lord have the praise." (Cambridge Journal, i., 140, pp. 141.)

Sometimes it is others who are instrumental in working the cure, and not Fox himself. We find mention of a man John Chandler (1654), who had been a priest and a ranter and had "run into much wickedness," who lay crying that he was in hell-fire and no one could comfort him." And I was moved to bid Edward Burrough go to him and turn him to the light of Christ, and settle his mind upon Christ; and so he did, and his message was effectual, and he became a very fine Friend, and died in truth." (Cambridge Journal, i., p. 166.)

There were some Presbyterians at Nailsworth, who took an oath to have no dealings with Friends, and the "eminentest woman among them" fell sick and was in a numb condition, so that she could stir neither hand nor foot, and all the doctors could do her no good. At last some of the Presbyterian women so far "climbed down "as to come for help to Thomas Atkins' wife." So Thomas Atkins' wife took the woman in hand and cured her." (Cambridge Journal, ii., p. 153.)

In the introductory pages of the works of William Dewsbury, which contain "Some expressions of his amongst a few friends near a week before his departure this life" (he died in 1688) we read:—

"He (i.e. God) confirmed the same by signs and wonders, and particularly by a lame woman who went on crutches; where I with my dear brethren George Fox and Rd. Farnsworth were cast; and as I cried mightily unto the Lord in secret that he would signally manifest himself at that time amongst us,... R.F. in the name of the Lord took her by the hand, and G.F. after spake to her in the power of God and bid her stand up, and she did, and immediately walked straight, having no need of crutches any more."

(Then follows immediately the well-known passage saying that he "never played the coward, but joyfully entered prisons as palaces, and did esteem the locks and bolts as jewels.")

There is an undated MS. signed by Samuel Hooton (MSS., in Ref. Library, Devonshire House, Bishops-gate, E.C., Portfolio 3), which seems to refer to the period about 1666. In this he tells how he went to New England, and "the hand of the Lord was with me, both in outward miracles and in the work of the spirit." There was a woman who had been convinced, and whom the doctor had given up for dead, whom "the Lord raised up by his own power from that very time, and she became a fine Friend"; and he goes on to tell of another woman that was no Friend who also lay dying, her husband and family crying by her bedside;" and when I had kneeled down to pray with her, her spirit revived from that same time, and the Lord healed her; and all the people saw it and said it was the Lord's work. And this woman was after a fine and tender-hearted woman who much loved me, and several that saw it praised God and came to meetings."

On one occasion it seems that Fox quite believed he had brought a dead man back to life; but it is probable that his natural shrewdness, aided by the clear insight of which I have spoken, enabled him to perform successfully an amateur surgical operation, before life was really extinct. It was in New Jersey, in 1672, during Fox's very arduous journeys among the American Colonies. A Friend named John Jay, of Barbadoes, who was with him, "went to try a horse, and got on his back, and the horse ran and cast him on his head, and broke his neck as they called it. And the people took him up dead, and carried him a good way, and laid him on a tree, and I came to him and felt on him, and saw that he was dead. And as I was pitying his wife and family, ... I took him by the hair of his head, and his head turned like a cloth it was so loose, and I threw away my stick and gloves, and took his head in both my hands, and set my knees against the tree, and raised his head . . . And I put my hand under his chin and behind his head, and raised his head two or three times with all my strength, and brought it in, and I did perceive his neck began to be stiff, and then he began to rattle and then to breathe. And the people was amazed, and I bid them have a good heart, and carry him into the house. And then they set him by the fire, and I bid them get him some warm thing, and get him to bed. So after he had been in the house awhile he began to speak, and did not know where he had been. And the next day we passed, and he with us pretty well, about sixteen miles to a meeting at Middletown, and many hundreds of miles afterwards through woods and bogs." (Cambridge Journal, ii., p. 227.)

With this we may compare the case of Dorcas Ebury, who in 1656 was brought out of a swoon by James Nayler, who laid his hand on her head and cried over her, "Dorcas, arise." The young woman believed that she had been raised from the dead, and it was made a charge against Nayler that he professed to have worked a miracle; but he was extremely careful, when examined on it by the Parliament, to claim no power of his own. (Beginnings of Quakerism, pp. 247, 253, 256.)

These are specimens of the kind of thing to be found pretty freely in the writings of the early Friends. They collected quite a store of such narratives in a "Book of Miracles," to which we find allusions here and there, but it has unfortunately disappeared.2

One more brief example may be given from the Cambridge Journal (ii., p. 342) — the date is about 1667:—

"I was sent for to many sick people; and at one time I was sent for to Whitechapel, about three o'clock in the morning, to a woman that was lying, and her child, and the people were weeping about her. And after a while I was moved to speak to the woman, and she and her child was raised up; and she got up to the astonishment of the people, and her child also was healed."

It is, I think, particularly important to notice that in nearly every case of such healing Fox records that he was "moved of the Lord" to do it, and he seems to have been always careful not to proceed unless he had some inward intimation that it was the Divine will that he should do so. This is specially marked in the case of John Banks, a Cumberland Friend largely engaged in the ministry, who about 1677 suffered from pain in his shoulder and arm, so severe that he gradually lost the use of his arm and hand, which began to wither. Doctors failed to cure him, and at last one night while asleep he had a dream or vision that he was with George Fox, and told him he had faith to be healed. After much exercise of mind, he went to G.F. at Swarthmoor, on a Sunday morning, and told him what had occurred. "And in a little time, we walking together silent, he turned about and looked upon me, lifting up his hand; and he laid it upon my shoulder and said, * The Lord strengthen thee both within and without.'" John Banks went away, and at supper that night at a Friend's house suddenly found that he could use his hand. Next day his "hand and arm were restored to their former use and strength, without any pain. And the next time that George Fox and I met, he readily said, 'John, thou mended, thou mended.' I answered, 'Yes, very well, in a little time.' 'Well.' said he, 'give God the glory.'" (Cambridge Journal, ii., pp. 466, 467.)

We may, I think, reasonably conclude that it is because of this carefulness not to act, unless with some inward prompting, that we hear of so few failures. There are, indeed, one or two. In December, 1654, Francis Howgill wrote from London to George Fox in much perplexity because he had tried to cure a lame boy and had not succeeded.3

There is another instance in which Thomas Willan writes to Margaret Fell in 1654 about some women at Worcester (who seem to have been Ranters rather than Quakers), who tried to raise to life a young man that after being convinced had lost his senses and drowned himself. After his burial a certain "Mrs. Pearson as they call her . . . told his mother that she would restore her son alive to her, and so she and another woman went to the grave and took him forth, and imitated the prophet, and that not doing they went to prayer, and nothing prevailing they buried him again, and so the enemy got the advantage." Fox shows his common-sense by endorsing this letter, "Mad whimsey." (Swarthmoor Collection, i., p. 217.)

In a few cases, like that of John Banks, we hear of "faith" on the part of the patient as a condition of, or at least contributory to, the cure; but this is exceptional. In a manuscript "Journal of some of the meetings and travels of George Fox" we read that about the year 1683 he was in the neighbourhood of Guildford, where a Friend named James Stacpole was ill with an internal complaint that caused him long periods of excruciating agony. George Fox says, "I was moved to lay my hand upon him and desired the Lord to rebuke his infirmity, and the Lord's power went through him, and his wife had faith, and was sensible of the thing, and he presently fell of a sleep." Next day he was almost well, and "came 25 miles in a coach with us."

There is another narrative recorded by one John Taylor, of York, in which the "faith" element appears prominently. About 1662 he was travelling in the West Indies, in the ministry, and in the island of Nevis, where he stayed three weeks, he found a daughter of a Friend, William Fifield, dying — the doctor and others with her, expecting her departure. He went to the bedside and stooped down, asking the girl "if she had so much faith as to believe that she might recover." She was too far gone to speak, but at length she said, "Yea." John Taylor kneeled down and prayed for her "in the power of Christ Jesus our Lord"; and presently the girl sat up in bed and spoke "pretty heartily." Next morning she "got up and walked out, and took her fowls, and made some other provisions to send to the ship for my voyage." (From A Short Recital, etc., 1710, pp. 32 ff.)

It has been suggested (as by Rev. J. M. Thompson in his book Miracles in the New Testament) that the works of healing recorded in the Gospels are quite believable as due to "faith healing," while the so-called "nature miracles" (such as the feeding of the five thousand) are not. I am not myself disposed to consider this a really valuable classification. Even if we knew what "faith healing" means, which is certainly not the case — the suggested explanation is too much like the popular one "put it down to electricity," or "to animal magnetism" — the question still confronts us, Why do some people possess the power to evoke in some sick folks the needed faith, while others wholly lack it? There can be no doubt, I think, looking at these narratives as a whole, that the personality of the "agent" counts for at least as much as, and probably for a good deal more than, the personality of the "patient." We have to recognize that some people, in very close communion with the spiritual world, do possess the power, under certain conditions, of releasing hidden supplies of spiritual energy, which may flow through them into others, bringing new life and healing efficacy. We remember, for example, the case of the ailing woman who was healed by touching the Lord's garment, when He "perceived that the power proceeding from him had gone forth." (Mark v. 30.)

It is a very important question whether we ought to regard such power as quite abnormal, and only to be expected to manifest itself in times of intense religious experience, like the early days of Christianity, and of Quakerism, or whether it ought rather to be expected, at least in some degree, as a normal accompaniment of Christian living. For my own part, though I have but little experience of such things myself, I am driven to believe that we miss much of the full powers and blessings of the spiritual order into which our Christianity ought to lift us, through our want of faith and childlike obedience. We too readily assume that what we call "the natural order" is all there is. We must not indeed, suppose that "the natural order" is undivine, that God does not manifest Himself in the ordinary processes of Nature. As our Lord said, it is the heavenly Father who clothes the lilies and feeds the birds of the air. Life is ultimately one; the physical and the spiritual, as we call them, are not water-tight compartments of being, though for ordinary purposes of thought and speech we have to distinguish them. It is not really sense to take for granted that our "natural" life is shut up to the operation of purely physical forces, and that the "spiritual" cannot alter it. The spiritual order does influence it, every time we choose rightly in the conflict between good and evil, and put our choice into action. Things happen in the physical world through the agency of a person in touch with God and righteousness, which would not happen if he were not so. It should be quite easy for us to believe and expect that soul should influence body in ways to which as yet we have no clue; and we ought not to set arbitrary limits either to the power over the physical world that may be possessed by a soul which by prayer and faith and obedience has the key to unlock the Divine resources, or to the extent to which these tides of spiritual refreshing4  can overflow the limits of a single personality, and bring help and healing to other souls.

But two things need to be borne in mind. The physical order is in part known to us, and we have learnt something of its laws. The inflow of spiritual force into the physical order does not contradict or contravene these laws, any more than the raising of a weight in my hand contradicts the law of gravitation. We. cannot expect that such inflowing will make us independent of the laws of physical health: that if we undermine our constitutions by self-indulgence or overwork we can trust to "spiritual healing" to set things right. The very condition of receiving power is that we should be in harmony with the will of God; and the laws of the physical order are part of the manifestation of that will.

The second caution is this. The laws of the spiritual order are much less known to us than those of the physical; indeed we scarcely have a glimpse of them. We do not know in the least why the power seems at times to flow and at times to be withheld. Not, we may be sure, for any arbitrary or insufficient reasons; there are doubtless definite causes, but they are hidden from us. This is clearly the truth that Fox and his friends had hold of, when (as we have seen) they were unwilling to proceed in the attempt to heal without inward indication that it was right for them, in the particular circumstances, to do so. This was their way of getting into right relations with conditions which intellectually they could not grasp. It is probably for want of this endeavour to seek for guidance, and for lack of experience of its reality, that spiritual healing is so often attended by disappointing failures. There seems to me to be a real work for Friends here.

Such guidance most Christians profess (at least in some measure) to believe in. The Society of Friends made the venture, and alone among the churches still makes it, of basing its whole church polity on the possibility of this inward guidance; and this venture has not been in vain. But I suspect that, had our faith and obedience remained at the George Fox level, we might have used to much greater advantage the opportunity to enter for ourselves, and perhaps to help others, into a larger experience of the freedom, power, and blessing of the spiritual order.

Chapter IX ...>

From Quaker Thought and History: A Volume of Essays. By Edward Grubb, M.A. Published in 1925 by The MacMillan Company, New York.)

Notes and Links

 1  The bulk of the original Journal has been printed verbatim by the Cambridge University Press. The standard editions, based on one issued officially in 1692, and edited by Thomas Ellwood, omit a good many of the cases of healing. These are for the most part retained in the Tercentenary Edition, 1924, edited by Norman Penney.

 2  See Cambridge Journal, ii., p. 106, 348. The latter passage is from directions given by G. F. to his friends as to the disposal of his writings. He says: "The Book in which the Lord's power was manifest at the breaking first of the Truth, where it may be seen some were miracles that his power wrought, you may print if you will."

 3  The passage is in an autograph letter in Devonshire House Reference Library, A.R.B. No. 21, and the crucial part has been crossed out — not so carefully but that the main drift of it can still be made out. The former Librarian, Norman Penney, has been kind enough to decipher it for me as far as possible, and it runs as follows, the dashes representing words that are undecipherable:

"E. B. [i.e., Edward Burrough] and I was moved to go to a friend's house in the city who had received the truth, and her daughter, and a little boy about five years of age being lame of his leg. As I was sitting in the house I looked upon him and I was struck to the heart, and E. B. also, not speaking to one another at all about two hours, but waited. And——was grievous, and the power of the Lord came upon me at last in great fear and trembling, yet I believed and was moved to arise up and take the boy by the hand and say, 'In the name and power of God that raised Jesus from the dead, rise, stand up and walk, and if thou believe thou art made whole.' The boy stood up, but——should have gone he failed and sat down again, and E. B. and I was troubled. And yet the Lord doth evidence to me still it was his word; but because of the——I am pressed down."

 4  It will, I hope, be recognized that in all cases where I use such words as "flow," "power," "energy." I am using them as convenient metaphors, and not as tying myself to the idea of a physical or quasi-physical force.