The People in White Raiment – George Fox and Quaker Grisdales

Posted: January 18, 2014 in History
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“A mighty meeting there was and is to this day, near Sedbergh, which I gathered in the name of Jesus.”

George Fox, in his journal

In England the seventeenth century has often been called the Century of Dissent. Many poor and oppressed people, and even some not so poor and oppressed, started to reject the authority and brutality of the church and crown. Some Puritans left for Holland and from there made their way to America – the Pilgrim Fathers. But many dissenters remained. Eventually this discontent led to the English Revolution and the execution of King Charles the First, and the advent of the Levellers and Diggers. But this was also the background to the rise of the Society of Friends, the Quakers. If any one man can be called the founder of the Quakers it was George Fox, who one day in 1652 arrived in Brigflatts near Sedbergh in Cumbria.

While travelling through the northern Dales making contact with and preaching to fellow Friends and Seekers, George Fox had arrived at Pendle Hill in Lancashire:

As we travelled we came near a very great hill, called Pendle-Hill, and I was moved of the Lord to go up to the top.

This George did ‘with difficulty’ because the hill was ‘very steep and high’.

From the top of this hill the Lord let me see in which places he had a great people to be gathered.

George Fox Preaching in a Tavern circa 1650

George Fox Preaching in a Tavern circa 1650

In a local inn that night Fox wrote a ‘paper to the priests and professors’ declaring ‘the day of the Lord…’. It was after this, he later wrote, ‘that the Lord opened unto me, and let me see a great people in white raiment by a river side, coming to the Lord, and the place I saw them in was about Wensleydale and Sedbergh’. So that is where George now headed.

Having preached in Wensleydale, Fox wrote that he ‘went also through Grisdale, and several others of those Dales, in which some were convinced’. From here he was directed to find Richard Robinson, one of the leaders of the group who lived at Brigflatts near Sedbergh: ‘He passed through a village of flax-weavers whose settlements lay in the low flatts that bordered the rushing river Rawthey a mile or two outside of Sedbergh Town.’ Fox wrote:

So when I came to Richard Robinson’s I declared the Everlasting Truth to him, and yet a dark jealousy rose up in him after I had gone to bed, that I might be somebody that was come to rob his house, and he locked all his doors fast. And the next day I went to a separate meeting at Justice Benson’s where the people generally was convinced, and this was the place that I had seen a people coming forth in white raiment; and a mighty meeting there was and is to this day near Sedbergh which I gathered in the name of Jesus.

‘This identifies Brigflatts as the place in the vision – the riverside refers to the Rawthey which flows past the end of Brigflatts Lane and the reference to “people in white raiment” could be a reference to the large community of Flax Weavers, living in the lane at the time, who were making white linen.’

Later that week Fox goes on to preach in the churchyard of Sedbergh church and then on to the great open-air meeting on Firbank Fell which is now usually identified as the start of the Quaker movement. The crag upon which Fox preached is now known as Fox’s Pulpit and is a popular destination for those tracing the origins of the Society.

Many Quakers see the meeting and sermon on Firbank Fell as the real start of the future success of the movement. At ‘Fox’s Pulpit’ there is still an inscription that reads:

          LET YOUR LIVES SPEAK. HERE OR NEAR THIS ROCK GEORGE FOX PREACHED TO ABOUT ONE THOUSAND SEEKERS FOR THREE HOURS ON SUNDAY JUNE 13 1652

Brigflatts Friends Meeting House

Brigflatts Friends Meeting House

‘A permanent Meeting was settled by Fox at Brigflatts later in 1652 and has continued uninterrupted until this day. The Meeting House was built 23 years later and in 1677 Fox returned here with his wife Margaret and her daughter. He records that about 500 were present at that Meeting and “a very good Meeting it was”’.

Among the large crowd of Seekers and Friends on that day at Firbank in 1652, it is most likely that there were one or more members of the Sedbergh ‘Grysdale’ family who I discussed in an earlier article (see here).

That article was concerned with where this Grisdale family might have originated, but whatever the truth, they were well established in Sedbergh by the time George Fox preached at Firbank. Margaret, the wife of John Grysdale, died in 1818 at Firbank, and thus it seems likely that John was actually one of the Flax weavers living in and around Brigflatts, one of the people in ‘white raiment’.

John’s putative sons Richard and Edward Grysdale were having children in the 1610s and 1620s in Sedbergh and were quite possibly still alive in 1652, as without doubt were their children. Both Edward and Richard had only one son each, both were called John. We know that one of these Johns stayed in Sedbergh and was a Quaker. There are two references in Quaker records to his death in 1696. He was said to be of Settlebeck (in Sedbergh) and was buried in the cemetery of the Brigflatts Friends Meeting house which had been built in 1674.

Although the Conventicle Act of 1670 – which forbade non-conformist meetings – was still in force, in 1674 the Friends of this area decided to build a Meeting House and purchased a piece of ground at Brigflatts from John Dawson for ten shillings (50p). The building is very much in the style of local farmhouses of that period, practical, simple and undecorated. It was built without an architect by and for the people who would use it. Materials were provided by Friends who had them, labour provided by everyone else. Unusually for the time the building was roofed with some 40 tons of local flags – thatch being the more usual material for buildings of this size at the time. Perhaps the builders were making a statement about the permanency of their creation. Originally the building had just an earth floor and was heated by an open fire at the west end of the building. An open loft existed at the first floor level at the west end reached by a ladder.

Inside of Brigflatts Meeting House

Inside of Brigflatts Meeting House

The meeting house is still in use today.

Brigflatts, near Sedbergh, Cumbria, is one of the most famous Quaker meeting houses, known and loved by Friends all over the world. Far beyond the boundaries of the Society, it is acknowledged for all the simplicity of its lime-washed stone walls and interior woodwork — panelling, columns and balustrading — as one of England’s vernacular gems. For many, the peace and tranquillity of the Meeting House at Brigflatts leave a lasting impression. Three-and-a-quarter centuries after George Fox first visited the hamlet of Brigflatts; it is still the home of a Friends’ Meeting. It receives more than 2,000 visitors a year from all over the world, many coming to explore the “1652 Country”, the birthplace of Quakerism. Visiting groups and individuals regularly join local Friends in worship on Sunday mornings.

Brigflatts Cemetery

Brigflatts Cemetery

So good Quaker John Grysdale of Sedbergh had made his dissent against social and religious oppression and persecution. Was he perhaps involved in 1660 ‘when five hundred Friends, many from the Sedbergh district, were imprisoned for such offenses as non-attendance of church and non-payment of church dues’? ‘Some died in prison, while others had their belongings confiscated.’ It’s a pity that by the time John died in 1696 the good work of the English Revolution had been undone and the hateful kings were back. The Quakers of course went on to achieve many wonderful things in England and America, particularly in William Penn’s Pennsylvania.

This is the end of this little story. I hope one day to know more about the Grysdale Quakers of Sedbergh. However, for those interested, in A Book of Quaker Saints, Lucy Violet Hodgkin tells us a little more about these ‘People in White Raiment’ as later Quaker hagiography viewed them:

These flax-weavers of Brigflatts were a company of ‘Seekers,’ unsatisfied souls who had strayed away like lost sheep from all the sects and Churches, and were longing for a spiritual Shepherd to come and find them again and bring them home to the fold.

George Fox was a weaver’s son himself. Directly he heard it, the whirr of the looms beside the rushing Rawthey must have been a homelike sound in his ears. But more than that, his spirit was immediately at home among the little colony of weavers of snowy linen; for he recognised at once that these were the riverside people ‘in white raiment,’ whom he had seen in his vision, and to whom he had been sent.

Not only the flax-weavers, but also some of the ‘considerable people’ of the neighbourhood accepted the message of the wandering preacher, who came to them over the dales that memorable Whitsuntide. The master of the house where the meeting was held, Colonel Gervase Benson himself, and his good wife Dorothy also, were ‘convinced of Truth,’ and faithfully did they adhere thereafter to their new faith, through fair weather and foul. In later years, men noted that this same Colonel Benson, following his teacher’s love of simplicity, and hatred of high-sounding titles, generally styled himself merely a ‘husbandman,’ notwithstanding ‘the height and glory of the world that he had a great share of,’ seeing that ‘he had been a Colonel, a Justice of the Peace, Mayor of Kendal, and Commissary in the Archdeaconry of Richmond before the late domestic wars. Yet, as an humble servant of Christ, he downed those things.’ His wife, Mistress Dorothy, also, was to prove herself a faithful friend to her teacher in after years, when his turn, and her turn too, came to suffer for ‘Truth’s sake…..’

But in these opening summer days of 1652, no shadows fell on the sunrise of enthusiasm and of hope, as, in the good Justice’s house beside the rushing Rawthey, the gathering of the ‘great people’ began.

This was the Truth that had grown dusty and neglected in England in this seventeenth century. The ‘still, small Voice’ had been drowned in the clash of arms and in the almost worse clamour of a thousand different sects. Now that, after his own long search in loneliness and darkness, George Fox had at length found the Voice speaking to him unmistakably in the depths of his own heart, the whole object of his life was to persuade others to listen also to ‘the true Teacher that is within,’ and to convince them that He was always waiting to speak not only in their hearts, but also through their lives. ‘My message unto them from the Lord was,’ he says, ‘that they should all come together again and wait to feel the Lord’s power and spirit in themselves, to gather them together to Christ, that they might be taught of Him who says “Learn of Me.”‘

This was the Truth—an actual, living Truth—that not only the flax-weavers of Brigflatts, but many other companies of ‘Seekers’ scattered through the dales of Yorkshire and Westmorland, as well as in many other places, had been longing to hear proclaimed. ‘Thirsty Souls that hunger’ was one of the names by which they called themselves. It was to these thirsty, hungering Souls that George Fox had been led at the very moment when he was burning to share with others the vision of the ‘wide horizons of the future’ that had been unfolded to him on the top of old Pendle Hill.

No wonder that the Seekers welcomed him and flocked round him, drinking in his words as if their thirsty souls could never have enough. No wonder that he welcomed them with equal gladness, rejoicing not only in their joy, but yet more in that he saw his vision’s fulfilment beginning. Here in these secluded villages he had been led unmistakably to the ‘Great People,’ whom he had seen afar off, waiting to be gathered.

Within a fortnight from that assembly on Whit-Sunday at Justice Benson’s house George Fox was no longer a solitary, wandering teacher, trying to convince scattered people here and there of the Truths he had discovered. Within a fortnight—a wonderful fortnight truly—he had become the leader of a mighty movement that gathered adherents and grew of itself, spreading with an irresistible impulse until, only a few years later, one Englishman out of every ninety was a member of the SOCIETY OF FRIENDS.

George Fox - Quaker Founder

George Fox – Quaker Founder

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Comments
  1. Tim Shey says:

    Very good post. I greatly appreciate the work and writings of George Fox. George Fox’s life and preaching were probably a greater revolution than the English Revolution.

    “Gleanings from George Fox”
    http://hitchhikeamerica.wordpress.com/2013/01/09/gleanings-from-george-fox/

    “Woe to the Bloody City!—George Fox”
    http://hitchhikeamerica.wordpress.com/2012/11/07/woe-to-the-bloody-city-george-fox/

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