The Sorrows of the Quaker Jesus


In October 1656 James Nayler, a prominent Quaker leader, rode into Bristol surrounded by followers singing hosannas in deliberate imitation of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem. In Leo Damrosch's trenchant reading this incident and the extraordinary outrage it ignited shed new light on Cromwell's England and on religious thought and spirituality in a turbulent period.
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In October 1656 James Nayler, a prominent Quaker leader, rode into Bristol surrounded by followers singing hosannas in deliberate imitation of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem. In Leo Damrosch's trenchant reading this incident and the extraordinary outrage it ignited shed new light on Cromwell's England and on religious thought and spirituality in a turbulent period.
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Editorial Reviews

Cambridge University John Morrill
Absolutely splendid. This book offers a substantial new analysis of the essence of early Quaker thought; and it is a poignant and gripping story of how one man was destroyed for exposing the soft underbelly of Cromwellian religious liberalism.
Damrosch has written what will become the definitive account of [the Nayler] affair in a book that could also serve as a model of how to extract information from obscure texts...[He] provides valuable new insights in understanding Nayler, his women supporters, Parliament, and Quakers.
History Today
[The Sorrows of the Quaker Jesus] conveys the power of religion in mid-seventeenth-century English society and politics in a very evocative way...[The Quakers] have attracted a great deal of attention in recent years and much is now known about the early Quakers, especially their militant and unconventional behaviour, which was very different from the pacifism and respectibility of the movement after the middle of the seventeenth century and which made the early Quakers an object of great fear and hostility among conventional opinion at the time. What until now has been much less obvious, are the answers to two questions about the early Quakers: why did some people find their message attractive; and why did James Nayler, one of the first Quaker preachers, ride into Bristol in October 1656 re-enacting Christ's entry into Jerusalem, for which he was convicted of 'horrid blasphemy'? The Sorrows of Quaker Jesus supplies the fullest answers to date to both of these questions.
Cross Currents
[The Sorrows of the Quaker Jesus] is emotionally moving and intellectually challenging. Both contemporaries and historians of various religious persuasions have argued and puzzled over the Nayler's story. Apparently, he could never fully explain his behavior that rainy day in Bristol. With masterful literary criticism and critical historical reconstruction, Damrosch analyzes the incident in all of its complexity. With chapters on the Quaker menace, theology, Nayler's sin and its meanings, the trial and an aftermath, the book contains paradox and irony on every page...Among its many virtues, The Sorrows of the Quaker Jesus is a fine historiographic study of the affair and how the event's meaning has changed over time...Damrosch has revealed an interesting and important affair in the history of the Quakers. After all these centuries Nayler has a sensitive interpreter of that event in Bristol.
Books and Culture
Damrosch has undertaken in this gripping historical monograph to explain what he refers to as 'the meaning of the Nayler affair.' Against the background of the political culture of the Interregnum period, he seeks to unpack the rich significance of Nayler's mistakenly blasphemous 'sign'...Certainly the Puritans of the Interregnum were becoming more powerful...As Damrosch illustrates so vividly in this superbly crafted book, there is a very real (and dangerous) sense in which all power does corrupt.
Canadian Journal of History
Leo Damrosch attempts to rehabilitate Nayler's reputation from centuries of bad press and Quaker editing. He has mined neglected sources, especially the more controversial of Nayler's pamphlets that were left out of George Whitehead's heavily edited 1716 edition of Nayler's works. The result is not another biography of Nayler but an attempt to get at 'the meaning of the Nayler affair.'
Southern Humanities Review
In late October 1656, James Nayler, a prominent member of the nascent Quaker movement, rode into Bristol on an ass, surrounded by a band of followers who cast their clothing before the rider while singing hosannas in the pouring rain. This apparent re-enactment of Jesus's entry into Jerusalem, and the outrage it ignited among contemporaries in Cromwell's England, is the subject of Leo Damrosch's fascinating book...Damrosch brings to the episode the disciplined curiosity of an intellectual and literary historian steeped in the documents of the period.
Quaker Studies
This is a superb piece of historical reconstruction. Damrosch's book is a revisionist account of the entry of James Nayler into Bristol, in which he decisively rejects the accusations of messianic delusion and the assertions of exceptionalism. Instead, he offers an account in which an increasingly conservative regime, while recognizing the symbolism of Nayler's actions, used it to comprehensively reject the threatening antinomianism for which it stood. Damrosch's study goes beyond a simple recontextualisation, however. In studying Nayler's followers he points out some aspects of early Quakerism which overturn the conventional understandings...This book seeks to offer a way into contemporary concerns: to make the religious as immediate as the political with which it was intertwined.
Douglas A. Sweeney
...[A]s Damrosch illustrates so vividly in this superbly crafted book, there is a very real (and dangerous) sense in which all power does corrupt....[T]he effort to flesh out God's earthly kingdom in ways that endure and prove reliable may well be worth the risk of a bit too much Christian bureaucracy.
Books & Culture: A Christian Review
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674330948
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 10/1/2013
  • Pages: 338
  • Product dimensions: 6.14 (w) x 9.21 (h) x 0.81 (d)

Meet the Author

Leo Damrosch
Leo Damrosch is Ernest Bernbaum Professor of Literature at Harvard University.


Leo Damrosch is the Ernest Bernbaum Professor of Literature at Harvard University. He has written widely on 18th-century writers.

Author biography courtesy of Houghton Mifflin.

Good To Know

Some interesting outtakes from our interview with Damrosch:

"I love sports, and my high point as an athlete was at the University of Virginia, when I was 40, and our English Department intramural softball team beat the basketball team for the championship. I was the pitcher, and got their seven-foot-tall star to pop up four times. Nowadays, I'm confined to watching sports on TV, an interest that my family finds inexplicable. I still play pool, and juggle."

"I've developed a big lecture course at Harvard called "Wit and Humor" that combines films with literature and tries to combine serious inquiry into why we laugh with a good deal of actual laughing."

"I live with a cockatiel who regards himself as the head of the family but condescends to groom my beard."

"Ever since college I've had a passion for geology; I pay attention to rocks wherever I go, and I especially admire the big glacial erratics that litter New England and furnished the material for thousands of miles of stone walls."

"I've loved photography ever since my teens; I recently went digital, and some of my pictures of places Rousseau lived are in the biography."

"I love to travel. My family and I have had memorable stays in a little village in Provence, and also on the islands of St. John and Guadeloupe. Basking in a tropical ocean is my idea of perfection."

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    1. Also Known As:
      Leopold Damrosch, Jr.
    2. Hometown:
      Newton, Massachusetts
    1. Date of Birth:
      September 14, 1941
    2. Place of Birth:
      Manila, Philippines
    1. Education:
      B.A., Yale University, 1963; M.A. Cambridge University, 1966; Ph.D., Princeton University, 1968

Table of Contents

A Note on Quotations
Introduction: Receding Echoes of a Cause Celebre 1
1 The Quaker Menace 15
Puritans, Seekers, and Quakers 15
Quaking and Solemnity 33
Itinerants and Hireling Priests 37
Forms, Hats, and Pronouns 52
The Apolitical Apocalypse 62
2 God in Man: Theology and Life 69
Doctrine, Prophecy, Truth 69
Words, Silence, and the Word 78
Christ Within 92
Sin and Perfection 97
The Abolition of Self 107
3 Nayler's Sign and Its Meanings 115
Leadership and Charisma 115
Turbulent Women and the Erotics of Belief 120
Exeter Jail and the Breach with Fox 134
The Entrance into Bristol 146
What Did It Mean? 163
4 Trial and Crucifixion 177
The Politics of Toleration and Repression 177
The Committee Report 186
Parallel Languages: The Example of Catholic Penalties 192
Horrid Blasphemy 196
Sentencing 213
Crucifixion 222
5 Aftermath 230
The Rise of Quakerism and the Reinvention of Nayler 230
Nayler's "Repentance" and His Afterlife 248
Notes 275
Index 315
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