Skip main navigation

New offer! Get 30% off your first 2 months of Unlimited Monthly. Start your subscription for just £35.99 £24.99. New subscribers only T&Cs apply

Find out more


Hilary Hinds on itinerance
I’m joined by Hilary Hinds for this film on early Quakers and itinerancy. Thanks for joining me again, Hilary. We know George Fox travelled a lot as a young man and in setting up the Quaker movement. Did his travels carry on after that? They did. Really those early journeys set the pattern of a lifetime. He travelled, in the first instance, to establish new meetings. But as time went on, he returned to many of those meetings, visited them again, and he did so to offer encouragement and to warn against backsliding - leaving the path of truth. And his final international journey was to Holland in 1684. A few years, seven years, I think, before he died.
So it really was a lifetime on the move. And was Fox an exception, or are always Quakers travelling? Well, many of the people that he convinced, I think particularly in those early years, joined him and travelled on behalf of the new movement as well. And in this, they were really very different from other radical groups which didn’t establish themselves through itinerancy, but the Quakers did. So after Fox’s journeys through the Northwest in 1652 and 1653, the movement began to go south. The so-called valiant 60. A group of, I guess travelling ministers - they were called public friends - took the Quaker word south.
They took it to important urban centres, London, Bristol, but also Oxford and Cambridge as well as to smaller towns. And really, down into the far southwest into Cornwall, too. So yes. Very extensive travels. And how did they travel? And how were they travelling around? They travelled for the most part on foot. Occasionally on horseback. But we think for the most part on foot. They travelled in pairs. Often pairs of women together and the fact that they were on foot left them open, very frequently, to charges of vagrancy. And vagrants were unwelcome because they could become a charge, an expense on the parish. And this could lead to them being arrested, being imprisoned briefly, and being banished.
When Quakers travelled, they tended to seek out people that they thought would be sympathetic to their ideas. But they also met with really quite extraordinary levels of hostility and sometimes violence. So there were two women, Elizabeth Fletcher, who was just 16 years old at the time, and Elizabeth Levens, who left Kendal to take the message south. They were the first to take the Quaker message to Oxford. And they received really quite savage treatment from what they called the black tribe of scholars when they were preaching repentance in the churches and colleges of Oxford. And they were arrested, imprisoned, and whipped out of the city by the civic authorities. And how far afield did Quakers travel?
Well, they very quickly became an international movement. So after the spread of the movement through England, it spread into Wales, to Scotland, to Ireland, into northern Europe. But most importantly, to the so-called new world. So meetings were established on the island of Barbados, very important Quaker meeting on Barbados. But also along the North American seaboard. New England, Jersey, Maryland, Carolina, and so on. And they did meet really high levels of hostility from the Puritan settlers in America to the extent that there were four Quakers who were hanged in Boston between 1659 and 1661. They’d previously been to Boston. They’d been banished on pain of death if they returned and they did. They did return.
But many of the Friends who travelled did, again, like Fox, it became a lifetime of travel for many of them, as well. These weren’t one off journeys. They really did travel very extensively and over a period of many years. An example of that is a woman called Mary Fisher, who was a servant from Selby in Yorkshire. And she travelled first of all to Cambridge, but then later to Barbados, to Nevis, to Boston, to Turkey. And she finally settled in South Carolina with her second husband in the 1670s. I think the most extraordinary journey of hers was the one that took her to Turkey.
She travelled hundreds of miles with the intention of meeting the sultan in Adrianople to put to preach the Quaker word to him. And she did indeed meet him, Sultan Mohammed IV met her, listened very courteously, declined to turn to the inward light as she suggested he might. But she wrote of him that he was very noble unto her and and listened to her without contradiction. And in fact, she said that the English people that she met on her journeys through Europe, were, she said, more bad, most of them, than the so-called infidels that she met in Turkey. The itinerant seems to set Quakers apart as part of their radical nature. Why do you think they’re travelling so much?
Well, I think it was necessary in the first instance. Because of the origins of the movement in the northwest of England in scattered, small, rural communities. Quakers - they thought of themselves as the bearers of the truth. It was incumbent upon them to spread the word. And so given where the movement started, it was really necessary to be on the move. To take that word to other communities. So there are obviously practical reasons. Were there any other reasons, though? Theological reasons? Yeah. There’s a strong Christian symbolism around travel, around journeying. Luke’s Gospel defines Christ by his homelessness. He says foxes have their holes and birds have their nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.
So there is that symbolism that I think is very important. But even more important perhaps than that was the fact that the first followers of Christ were also itinerants. The first disciples were also on the move. And early Friends were very consciously following in the footsteps of those first disciples. They thought of themselves as returning really to the practices of so-called primitive Christianity.
So for example, there was a group of Friends that set off to follow in St Paul’s footsteps around the Mediterranean in the mid 1650s. And Mary Fisher, who went to Turkey, was part of that group. If we think about Christianity and travel, we may think about pilgrimage. And is there any similarity between sort of Christian ideas of pilgrimage and this early Quaker travel? Yeah I, think that’s an interesting question. There is something in common, I guess, in the sense that both pilgrimages and Quaker journeys were concerned to leave behind the comforts and distractions of the world and to live more intensely in the spiritual domain. But there are also, I think, important differences between pilgrimages and Quaker journeys.
Because for Quakers, there was really no sense of a kind of, particularly holy destination that they were moving towards. Quakers don’t have any sense of consecrated ground, so there’s really nowhere in this world that’s any more holy than anywhere else. So really, I think Fox felt that to move through the world was to move through a terrain that was already spiritually charged. It was a place in which darkness persisted but where there was always the potential that people might turn to the light. And so really, the destination of his journeys was immaterial. What was important was to spark that turn to the inward light and that could happen anywhere and really at any time. Thank you very much, Hilary.
Thank you.

Travel is obviously key to the story of George Fox.

In this video, Hilary Hinds explains why, how typical this was for early Quakers, and also whether travel continued to be key as the Quaker movement grew and spread.

Think about how far travel can help a missionary movement and what the advantages and disadvantages are of having its leadership always on the move. Please post your reflections in the comments section.

Remember that you can refer to the Timeline of Key Events, short biographies of the Key People and contextual notes.

This article is from the free online

Radical Spirituality: the Early History of the Quakers

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now