This week a different kind of inspiration came to me when I was thinking about the message I would bring this morning. I heard the phrase, “The Valiant Sixty,” in my head, and I just knew that stories would come and attach themselves to that title. And they did. So today we’re going to spend a little time looking back—and enjoying, I hope—some of the unique leadings and actions of early Friends. In each story, we can feel the gleam of God at work. And we can listen, knowing that their time—in which they did their best to carry the light into a world that seemed resistant to it—is not so different in that way from ours. Perhaps we’ll draw a little encouragement from that.
We talked a bit about the Valiant Sixty in our Quaker 101 class last year. This was a group of spirit-led and active Friends in the mid-1600s, when our tradition was just beginning. These were people who became convinced as to the truth and resonance of the leadings of Christ within. Many of this group—and there were actually more than 60, all told—had heard George Fox preach personally, or they lived in or near houses where he stayed while he preached in towns and districts throughout England.
The Valiant Sixty came from many different areas and occupations. For the most part, they were farmers and people of ordinary trades. Married folks, single folks, even a few teenagers among them. A dozen of them were women. They all heard and were inspired by the message, resonated with its truth, and then felt compelled to step out in a sense of gratitude and obedience to the inner light. They wanted to share it. That’s not unlike the first disciples who dropped their fishing nets and left their homes when Jesus invited them to be fishers of men.
One of the first members of the Valiant Sixty I looked up, Thomas Aldham, was a farmer and an early follower of George Fox. They created the Balby meeting together. It is said that Thomas preached there at Balby meeting for several hours under a walnut tree in 1652 and a chair that is today housed at the Doncaster Meeting is made from the wood of that tree. Unlike the quietists that would follow him, Thomas has a flair for the dramatic. He was imprisoned later that year for speaking out in a church of England, refusing to pay taxes, keeping on his hat, and saying “thou” to the judge. After two and a half years in prison, he was brought before Oliver Cromwell, and he is said to have ripped his hat to shreds right in front of him, supposedly indicating that Cromwell as the protector would soon be stripped of his power. Once he was released from prison, Thomas carried a special concern for those behind bars and traveled from town to town, visiting imprisoned Quakers, encouraging them, and advocating for better treatment of prisoners. The Religious Society of Friends grew from a small new group to a national movement during Thomas’s lifetime.
In 1651, at a house near Balby meeting, another member of the Valiant Sixty, William Dewsbury, met George Fox and became convinced that this new faith group was on to something significant. He’d had similar inward leadings himself since his early years as a shepherd’s boy. Also present at that meeting were three other men who would become part of the Valiant Sixty—Richard Farnsworth, James Nayler, and Thomas Goodaire. In 1652 William became a Quaker minister and began to travel and preach extensively. He left behind many writings as a testimony to the life of the spirit he found within him.
As I researched more about his life and writings, I found two quotes that inspired me with their clarity, truth, and energy. Here’s the first:
“Do not make the way to heaven easier in your minds and imaginations than indeed it is; and think it sufficient to live in an outward observance of the ways of God. If your own wills are alive, and your corruptions remain un-mortified, the judgment of God will be your portion. Therefore, in the Lord’s name, come along with me, I have come to declare what I have heard and seen of the Father. Come and examine your conscience. Have you brought your deeds to the light?”
He is inviting those listening to bring careful thought to their inner life. Don’t gloss over things too hastily, he says, but open your heart and experience before God. He invites us along with him and shares what he has experienced. This is not about judgment, it’s about inclusion as we walk each other home.
The second quote gives us a taste of what we Friends have come to know as the immediacy of God—the idea that God’s kingdom is present and accessible to us right now, not some far-away goal we will hopefully reach at the end of our lives. He writes,
“All people, look no longer forth; the glad tidings of the gospel of eternal salvation is heard within, in this day of the Lord’s mercies, in which he is teaching his people himself, as was declared by the prophet Isaiah 54:13, and is now witnessed by all the children of light, whose minds are turned within to wait on the Lord for his teaching, to establish them in the covenant of life and peace.”
Ann Blaykling was one of the first women considered to be part of the Valiant Sixty. She first heard George Fox speak when he came to a nearby town and stayed at the farm where she, her father and brother lived. Her brother, John, was a Puritan minister but after hearing Fox speak but he and his sister began traveling and sharing the Quaker message. Ann has a bit of a reputation for being confrontational and unafraid; after a particularly heated exchange, one woman told others that Ann was “no woman, but a man.” She was put in prison many times for confronting preachers—once for “abusing the minister at Haverhill.” She also was said to have argued with John Bunyan, a Puritan minister and the author of Pilgrim’s Progress. The entry about her life says she fell out of favor with early Friends for a season—we don’t know whether it was because of combative ways or not—but she eventually married a Quaker and came back to Friends’ tradition.
Mary Fisher is a more well-known member of the Valiant Sixty and one of the first to travel abroad carrying the Quaker message. She was a housemaid in a large estate home where George Fox spent a night during his ministry travels. Fox brought a message to the family and staff while he was there, and Mary’s spirit was stirred and she felt drawn to ministry. She became what was known as a Quaker “Publisher of Truth” and began rebuking those in power in the church and taking their message to campuses where ministers were being trained. She and another early Friend, Elizabeth Williams, were the first to be publicly flogged for their ministry.
In 1655, Mary and another female Quaker preacher, Ann Austin, sailed to the New World to share Quaker thought and practice. Word of their arrival preceded them—people were frightened by news of the incoming Quaker heretics—and in Boston they were met by authorities and imprisoned. They were forced to undress in the public square so they could be examined for signs of witchcraft, and all their pamphlets and books were burned. The judge had the window in their cell boarded up and authorities planned to simply starve the women, but a nearby innkeeper bribed the guard to allow him to bring food to them each day. After five weeks they were released and deported to Barbados, and that singular innkeeper was the only one to hear their message. He, however, became the first and only—at that time—convinced Friend on the North American continent.
The year after returning to England, Mary felt a leading that took her—and five other Quakers—across the Mediterranean and into the Ottoman Empire. It is this story that brought to mind for me our New Testament scripture from John, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” Mary followed that new leading, now knowing where it might end up. When they reached their destination, Mary asked to see the Sultan. The consul told her that wasn’t a good idea and then tricked her and her companions to board a ship heading for Venice. When Mary realized what had happened, she asked to be put ashore on the island of Greece. Then she set off alone—on foot!—and walked across Macedonia and Bulgaria to finally reach the Sultan. By her account, he listened attentively to her message, “testifying to the Universal Light.” In her Journal, she wrote about this meeting, saying:
“Now returned into England… have I borne my testimony for the Lord before the king unto whom I was sent, and he was very noble unto me and so were all that were about him… they do dread the name of God, many of them… There is a royal seed amongst them which in time God will raise. They are more near Truth than many nations; there is a love begot in me towards them which is endless, but this is my hope concerning them, that he who hath raised me to love them more than many others will also raise his seed in them unto which my love is. Nevertheless, though they be called Turks, the seed of them is near unto God, and their kindness hath in some measure been shown towards his servants.”
These gutsy early Friends are inspiring, aren’t they? Their stories remind us that faith is a journey we can’t map out, that progress is personal and step by step, and that God can use every quirk, every personality, every circumstance, every gift and limitation, to bring what’s needed in the name of love to the situation at hand. Our tradition emerged from very deep roots, planted in the soil of the original garden, nourished with silence and enriched as we waited on God and acted as we were led. One Quaker writer says the first silent worship is recorded in the book of Job, when Job’s friends sat with him in silence for seven solid days without saying a word.
The light of God has been present in every age—across all time. How it will move, who it will touch, what it will inspire, and where it will lead, is anyone’s guess. But we can know and take heart in knowing that the Light is still very much at work today, transforming lives, with the purpose of love’s healing, one heart at a time. And like the Valiant Sixty, we, too have our parts to play as we bring what we have, and do what we can, and share what we are given in the name of love. As we do our best to live with peace, integrity, reverence and compassion, we carry forward the legacy of these early Friends and at the same time, we create our own valiant lives—true of heart, strong of spirit, and full of God.
- OT Job 2: 11-13
- NT John 3: 8-12
- William Dewsbury: https://www.hallvworthington.com/Dewsbury/Bio-1.html
- Mary Fisher: http://www.quakersintheworld.org/quakers-in-action/187/Mary-Fisher
- Thomas Aldham: https://studylib.net/doc/8481470/history-of-quakers-in-doncaster