Feb 04

“I have been asked to speak about the Quaker background of the Sturge family, how they came to be Friends and what it meant for them to be Friends. A lot of the directly personal things about the family coming in to the Society of Friends must, I’m afraid, be speculation; but we can see some of the background and make some guesses. So, I shall talk about how Quakerism came to the South Gloucestershire of our Sturge, Player and Young ancestors in the 17th century, looking at the practices of Friends at that time, which obviously must have affected the lives of our ancestors considerably, and say a few things about the Sturge’s and Quakerism since then.


The 1650’s were pretty turbulent times in this country; we had just undergone a major revolution and, of course, the Civil War followed by regicide. But that revolution hadn’t finished - they were revolutionary times. A lot of bubbling going on; a lot of stirring, people asking questions, wondering, arguing, getting angry with people who didn’t agree with them and so on, and it was pretty difficult for those who wanted a quiet life. It was also a very stirring time for those who wanted to get at the truth of the matter. We sometimes think of that just in political terms, and we sometimes think of it just in religious terms, but the two things go together. The radical sects of the 1640’s and 1650’s were political and religious and you cannot really separate the two.

These radical movements are well described in a book called “The World Turned Upside Down” by Christopher Hill - an apt title. Against the background of the struggle between Parliament, army and king, a succession of sects upturned established views of natural order, both spiritual and secular. In a hierarchical society the Levellers, very strong in Cromwell’s army, must have produced the same kind of fear among the nobility and church as that engendered by the revolutionaries in France in the 18th century and the Bolsheviks in the 20th, for much the same reasons.

General Winstanley’s Diggers followed with an economic message reflected later in the Quakers’ objection to tithes. The Fifth Monarchy Men may have been seen as a particularly political challenge and the Ranters, who placed personal revelation above any other authority challenged the theological as well as the social supremacy of the clergy.

  Quakers were the heirs to these movements and were associated in the official mind with them. As we shall see they managed to stand firm by their beliefs and practices when the others, perhaps readier to recant, gradually lost momentum and disappeared. Quakers survived to work through their radical phase into their withdrawn quietism of the 18th century, but in the 1650’s and 1660’s they were prominent among the radicals, reviled and feared by those in authority.
  That is the sort of situation that existed in this country, not just in South Gloucestershire but in all Britain at that time and our ancestors were not exempt from that any more than anyone else. They seem to have been fairly prosperous - we have seen the kind of houses they lived in, even as early as the mid-17th century. Gaunts Earthcott is a fairly substantial house. They were probably comfortable, prosperous farmers. There is a suggestion that Thomas Sturge’s father was John Sturge, the lord of the manor in Frampton Cotterell but I don’t think we really know that. They were, as it were, near to being gentry but not quite; they were tenant yeoman farmers.
  Now, I am going to indulge in some speculation. My guess is that they were fairly strong supporters of Parliament, they took a non-conformist position in the arguments between the Catholic and Anglicans on one hand and the Calvinist / Puritan on the other; some of the family might well have been soldiers in Cromwell’s army. They would have been very much aware of all the various arguments and sects of the time; the Levellers, the Diggers, the Ranters, the Fifth Monarchy Men and the Seekers. It really was a great bubbling that was going on.
  Into that situation came an explosion. In 1652 the group of Seekers in Westmorland who had been meeting, arguing, praying and trying to seek the truth as they would put it, were suddenly galvanised into action by a young man called George Fox. He had been travelling the country and preaching for about five years. In one or two places there were little groups of people who had been converted by him and called themselves the Children of Light, but it had not really got going. At Swarthmore Hall, near Ulveston, he found a base from which to operate and within a year or so missionaries were coming out from Westmorland. They were such a clearly defined group of people that since then they have been called the Valiant Sixty and a lot is written about them.
Two of the Valiant Sixty, John Camm, who was a farmer, (a fairly elderly man suffering from consumption who died soon after these events) and the younger John Audland, who was a linen draper and farmer, arrived first of all in Bristol, England’s second city, where, as I said, there had been a lot of bubbling. Quakers, as they were already called by 1654, had been heard of in Bristol and their arrival was expected. People knew about them and they were welcomed in some quarters but not in others. Great crowds flocked to see them and they spoke in various places in the city. During their stay they came out to Filton, which is just down the road from here. Also to Winterbourne, which we came through on our way back and to Olveston and Elberton. Crowds came to hear what these very powerful and forceful people had to say, challenging the authority of the church and of the state, preaching a gospel of direct revelation to the individual.
We do not know whether the first Joseph of our line was in those crowds that came to hear Camm and Audland. I would be surprised if he was not because a great many people came; there were very big crowds and a thinking person around here would have gone. I don’t know whether any of the names I am going to mention now ring any bells with anybody who has looked into this period, but the people who we know were in contact with Camm and Audland at that time were Robert Cole of Winterbourne (they were later Coles in our family, but whether they were related to this one I do not know,) Walter Clements of Olveston, Robert Smith of Elberton and two Friends called Edward Parker and Eleanor Canning. All we know is that Joseph became a Friend at some point, (this is the first Joseph of that name, the son of Thomas.) When he died in 1669 he was, as you know, buried at Hazel, so he must already have been a Friend.
These early missionaries were followed by George Fox himself and the other great leader of the Quakers at that time, James Naylor. They certainly came to Bristol and may well have come out to these villages on the outskirts. They were known to the Friends who were beginning to be established in this area. We have a letter from Walter Kemp of Olveston, and he wrote quite affectionately to Margaret Fell, who later married George Fox. He obviously knew her already, he had met her here or when he had been up in Westmoreland, or in London, we do not know. There was a lot of travelling about and you saw the difficulty we had getting around the lanes in our coaches; imagine the job they had just getting from Gaunts Earthcott over to Elberton on broken up tracks on horseback. Imagine them going up to Westmoreland and to London, it really is quite remarkable.
In that letter Walter Kamp is reporting on the state of Friends in his own area and he makes reference to the difficulties that have arisen because of James Naylor’s arrival in Bristol. That was the notorious incident in which James Naylor, under the influence of one wing of the Quaker movement at that time (it wasn’t really a Society then,) entered Bristol in the manner of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem. This led to a serious rift between James Naylor and George Fox and that is reflected in what Walter Kemp has to say to Margaret Fell. The result of this was James Naylor’s trial for blasphemy before the Houses of Parliament.
In that letter Walter Kamp is reporting on the state of Friends in his own area and he makes reference to the difficulties that have arisen because of James Naylor’s arrival in Bristol. That was the notorious incident in which James Naylor, under the influence of one wing of the Quaker movement at that time (it wasn’t really a Society then,) entered Bristol in the manner of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem. This led to a serious rift between James Naylor and George Fox and that is reflected in what Walter Kemp has to say to Margaret Fell. The result of this was James Naylor’s trial for blasphemy before the Houses of Parliament.
Other people had done similar things and had appeared to be pretending to be Jesus Christ, (which was the accusation) and nobody had taken much notice. But James Naylor was the leader of a very powerful movement and this of course was very frightening for the authorities. He was tried for blasphemy and received dreadful punishment. It was a very serious turning point in their life for the emerging Society of Friends and I think it must be mentioned in what we want to talk about at the moment because it affected the kind of people the Friends were.
James Naylor represented what has sometimes been called the Ranter wing of Quakers, elevating the individual revelation so far that it was very difficult to deal with the problem of how you distinguish between divine leading, the leading of the inner light which was the basic teaching of Quakers and responding just to your own will; so there was a problem of discipline. After his terrible punishment and imprisonment James Naylor was eventually reconciled with Fox, not long before he died but George Fox recognised the danger of this kind of movement in the Society. It must have been a major factor in what he then did over the next decade or so in establishing the Society of Friends as a organisational thing and the establishment of Monthly Meetings. The Frenchay Monthly Meeting was established in 1668. George Fox went round the country, right around in two years, setting up monthly meetings and quarterly meetings. They had control in some senses over the behaviour of their members and a bit more of that in a minute. But I would just like to say something about the kind of things they were concerned about.
As I said before, the Quakers were rejecting authority; they were rejecting the authority of the church, whether it was the catholic tradition of the church or the tradition of the learned minister who acted as an intermediary between the believer and God, or the secural authority of the priest, gentry and magistrate represented particularly by the system of tithes. Early Friends were highly scornful of what they called hireling priests and steeplehouses and frequently interrupted the sermons.
This rejection of authority showed itself up in a great many ways which we have come to associate with Friends, not only in their origin but in some of the remnants of the way we behave now. We do not often now hear Friends using what we call Plain Speech, using thee and thou instead of you but that was a very important part of Quaker teaching in the early days and then remained as a tradition, as a custom even into the present century. It was an important rejection of authority for a young man to call his father “thou.” It was a very hard thing to do and it would have upset his father very much. For a Quaker farmer brought before a magistrate or the lord of the manor and to say “thou” to him would have been considered very disrespectful, but they insisted on doing it. They refused to remove their hats before their superiors.
They refused to take oaths. This was partly the determination to let your “yea be yea” and your “nay be nay,” but it also had a point to do with the authority of the state and of the magistrates. If a court wanted a charge to stick on a Quaker for causing disorder, or whatever, all they had to do was to say “you will take the oath of allegiance to the king” (after 1660) and of course they would refuse. They would refuse on the grounds that they rejected the secular power and that they refused to take oaths. They would then be considered to be traitors and be thrown into prison for refusing to take the oath of allegiance.
Along with that was a refusal to bear arms; that developed , it was not just a thing that happened but the peace testimony, the pacifist stand of Quakers, was something that developed over about twenty or thirty years. In 1690 or so, the Yearly Meeting of Friends in London sent down an advice to Friends who were shipmasters that they should not carry arms because they would make themselves more likely to be attacked and therefore endanger their passengers. This was anyway contrary to Friends’ practice and teaching and, worst of all, they were making life very difficult for Friends who had been pressganged and were refusing to take arms in the navy.
I mentioned the refusal to recognise magistrates; they also refused to pay tithes and this was a great problem. We hear of Joseph II and his elder brother, Thomas, being distrained (having their goods taken away for refusal to pay tithes.) Tithes were doubly objectionable; they were a payment to the church, but they were also objected to on the grounds that they were political - they were bad economics - they were taxing somebody for the labour he had put into the land and if he improved his land, if he got more out of the land, he would get tithed more. So this was considered bad practice and in any case Friends would have nothing to do with it; they refused to pay tithes and quite often had their goods taken away. I don’t know whether it ever went further than that, but there is a list in Besse’s ”History of the Suffering of Quakers” and both Thomas and Joseph II appear in that on a number of occasions.
Having rejected the authority of the church and of the state on the one hand, and having, in James Naylor, the awful warning of what happens if you let the individual revelation go too far, (James Naylor was not the only one; his “Ranterism” was represented as a fairly widespread thing among Quakers and some of the related sects they were sometimes classed with,) it seemed important to have a pretty firm sense of discipline within the movement. That the movement turned into a Society and had pretty long-lasting effects, seems in large measure due to its internal discipline as well as Friends’ refusal to recant under pressure.
We have already heard in the commentary on the coach tour about the disownment of Caleb, how Friends would have gone to Caleb Sturge and argued with him, pleaded with him not to live in such a disorderly and uncouth manner, to mind his language, to avoid the kind of conversation that is not in keeping with what we profess, but in the end it is too much and Caleb is disowned. The meeting signs a certificate saying that this man is no longer one of our profession. He is chucked out in other words.
We also hear in the minutes of the meeting about Thomas Sturge, (I think he was referred to, wasn’t he, as the one with the very long legs) visiting Nathaniel Cooksey to plead with him about his disorderly living. Friends would have arranged their own legal disputes and it is still the custom of the Society of Friends today that two members of the Society do not go to law against each other. If there is a legal dispute between two members of the Society of Friends, according to Friends’ custom, they are supposed to settle that within the Society and there is provision although it very rarely happens. One of the advices sent down by Yearly Meeting in the early 18th century advises how they should deal with appeals, so that Friends would not go to law against each other.
They also had their own system of records, and that is where we come to the question of knowing about our ancestors. A lot of the information is there in the minute books of the monthly meetings because everything was laid down and the records were kept very carefully. We still have our own custodians of records and there is great care of archives. The librarian of Friends House suggests that in groups such as Quakers were, groups that separate themselves, either have a complete disregard for records or they become very preoccupied with them. It is said that only the Quakers and the nobility keep such good records.
Another of the things that we must give some attention to is the question of marriage, because the recording of marriage gives us a great deal of information for tracing our ancestors. The way in which Friends married is I think very significant and, of course, it continues today. Friends could not be married in church obviously, they would not accept the authority of the priest so they would not go to church and yet that was the only way of being married after 1660. Before 1660 there was a civil marriage (I do not suppose they accepted that either.) What they did was adopt the presbyterian form of words which is very similar to what it is now, using the same words for both parties and they made that their own.
Since their marriages were illegal, they made sure that they were conducted with as much publicity as possible. That was absolutely typical of early Friends. Other of the radical sects (and notice they did not survive) would hide themselves, would shift, would adjust to the pressures of the time. Friends said “no, this is how we believe it should be – we will do it” and so in order to make their marriages acceptable they made them as public as possible. It was not too much of a problem, I mean living in sin is not too difficult, but the problem is what happens to the inheritance. It was very important to establish in court that this marriage actually took place and they took great care to see that the couple being married were free of encumbrances. We hear in the minutes of various members of the Sturge family coming before the Men’s Meeting to declare their intention of marriage. Then you hear of other Sturges being appointed by the Men’s Meeting to visit some young Friend who is proposing to get married and to check that that young person was free to marry .
We hear of Joseph’s, Nathan’s and Thomas’s being called up to act in these various capacities. Then the marriage having been allowed, the young Friends having been liberated to be married, they would then have to come to this Meeting House, in the mid-week meeting usually, (it was not a special meeting, it was the meeting that took place for worship during the week.) During that meeting they would get up and say their piece. You know, the usual, standard sort of things about taking this person to be my wife and so on, and of course the implication of monogamy, but all very much settled beforehand through this checking by the monthly meeting to see that the young people were free and understood what they were letting themselves in for.
Sometimes this went wrong. Here I am going to quote from Elizabeth Sturge, who gave a talk on a rather similar theme to the one I am giving on this occasion, fifty years ago. So it is a great privilege to have in front of me Elizabeth Sturge’s contribution, called “The Sturges and Early Quakerism:” “We have in 1770 a certain John Gaynor and Jane Sturge, the daughter of Nathan of Yate, who came to the monthly meeting at Olveston and announced their intended marriage. The usual enquiries were made and the parties “passed the meeting,” as the phrase went. About a year afterwards we are surprised to find the same Jane going through the same ceremony with another young man. The engagement had been broken off and the young woman is now engaged to someone else. This indicates such instability of character as Friends could not lightly pass over, so before sanctioning the marriage, they insist upon her producing a “Certificate of Release” from her former fiance. One fancies one discerned an undertone of pique in the letter that John writes, “This is to certify to you and all whom it may concern that I have no claim on Jane Sturge and do give my consent for her to marry Jacob Woodward, or any person she may approve of.”
Well, those were Quakers. I wonder how many people here are still Quakers? Do you think we could put up hands? I should say rather less than 50%. So about half here, although we do not know about the people who have already left. Now that is very encouraging as I would have expected it to be rather less than that. I imagine that the musical branch moved out of Friends at an early stage. The survival of music in the family would suggest that because one of the things that happened to Quakers was that they rejected such worldly pursuits as music.
However, of Joseph IV’s offspring, Thomas, Joseph, Jacob and his two daughters Celia and Fanny, I don’t know of any descendants of Thomas who are still friends, but there are descendants of all the other four who are, as well as an awful lot of descendants of them who aren’t. I have not go time to go into that in great detail, but just to say that one of the factors in that does seem to have been disownment for marrying out. It was Joseph Stevenson Rowntree writing in the 1850’s attacking this practice of disownment for marrying out, quoted “rich is the church that can lose so many for so little cause.” I wonder how many of the non-Friends here are descended from a disorderly marriage!”
Roger Sturge - Frenchay Meeting House, 20th July, 1980.