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The Quakers in English Society, 1655-1725$

Adrian Davies

Print publication date: 2000

Print ISBN-13: 9780198208204

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2011

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198208204.001.0001

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(p.224) 1 A Note on Sources

(p.224) 1 A Note on Sources

The Quakers in English Society, 1655-1725
Oxford University Press

Some of the chief sources utilized are worth noting. Particularly useful have been the records of the church courts in ascertaining the attitudes and behaviour of Friends in local society. Though suspended at the onset of the Civil War, the courts operated again after the Restoration. For the purpose of this study the courts may be described as being of two types. First, there were the Archdeaconry courts, which were a step up from the level of parish administration and had responsibility for enforcing conformity in the county. Above them were the Bishop of London’s Consistory and Commissary courts, which also had jurisdiction over Essex. Though effectively different bodies, they served much the same purpose. Churchwardens were expected to return to the courts accounts of parish affairs which included the state of the church, whether the local minister conformed to the prescriptions of the Book of Common Prayer, any evidence of bastardy, adultery, or fornication in the parish, and the incidence of religious nonconformity. A principal source for this study has been the Archdeaconry courts’ Act Books where offences by parishioners were entered. The names of offenders were presented in the courts and judgment reached as to what action should be taken against them. The decision of the church authorities was entered at the side of the original presentment. Much the same procedure applied in the Archdeaconry as in the Bishop’s courts.1 Quakers, of course, refused to accept the validity of either and failed to appear when summoned. The result for most Friends was excommunication.

The most valuable records of the secular courts for revealing official local attitudes towards Friends are those of the Quarter Sessions. These covered similar offences to those dealt with by the church courts, but also had jurisdiction over other areas of parish life such as poor relief, the building and maintenance of bridges, highway repairs, and weights and measures. Moreover, the court could levy a fine or commit culprits to gaol where judged appropriate. Every three months constables, magistrates, and jurymen submitted to the Quarter Sessions presentments, which are an important source for learning how nonconformists were dealt with. Like Quarter Sessions, the Assize court was independent of the Church but it was a national court that had local authority. Essex, for instance, was part of the Home (p.225) Circuit, with the court visiting the county twice a year. The Assize was considered to have a superior authority, dealing with cases of a more serious nature such as felonies, while misdemeanours were limited to the lesser Quarter Sessions. In reality, the remits of the courts overlapped and the activities of religious nonconformists were investigated in both.2 For Essex the indictments have survived only from the Assize court and these only for certain periods, though they still provide a useful guide to attitudes to dissent.

Records of Quaker business meetings contain much of the source material for this study.3 While Quaker meetings for worship welcomed all comers, the business meetings were exclusive to members, who were normally of some standing in the community. Besides offering opportunity for worship, they looked after administrative matters such as arranging apprenticeships for poorer members and also acted as the disciplinary body within the movement. The principal forum of Quaker government was the Monthly Meeting, which was itself serviced by four to six more locally based Particular Meetings. However, above all these in local importance lay the Quarterly Meeting, whose authority stretched across the county. This meeting also dealt with disciplinary matters and was the primary route for communicating matters with the centrally located Quaker administration in London. There was an exception to this pattern in Essex, since at Colchester, because of the large Quaker population in the town, there was a Two Weeks Meeting which possessed an importance equivalent to the Quarterly Meeting.

Preserved in the Friends’ archives are registers which detail the births, marriages, and deaths of members. There are also published diaries and journals which recount the experiences of early Friends and much other material that is of significance to a local study of the movement.4 In addition there is a mass of relevant literature in the form of books and pamphlets, though not always originating from Essex, that is extremely valuable. Much of this was issued by Friends and has been useful for charting the course of the movement. Literature critical of the movement, of which there is a considerable body, is also revealing, though it has to be read with care since its authors were surely not motiveless when attacking the sect.5

A key ingredient of this study has been a nominal index of Friends in Essex. The index was compiled principally by using references in the Friends’ own birth, marriage, and death registers alongside other records of the sect like books of suffering and discipline. Civil sources, such as presentments in the Assize and Quarter Sessions courts, provided useful supplementary evidence. Extensive use was also (p.226) made of wills and parish records. The index was compiled during research in national and local archives. A considerable amount of cross-checking was undertaken in local archives to avoid confusion of identity. The index has provided the key to unlocking the lives of the ordinary men and women in the local community whose actions and words are the basis of this work.6


(1) For a description of church records see Dorothy M. Owen, Records of the Established Church in England, British Record Association (1970); Alan Macfarlane, A Guide to English Historical Records (Cambridge, 1983), chap. 5; G. Worley, Essex: A Dictionary of the County Mainly Ecclesiological (1915); F. G. Emmison, Guide to the Essex Record Office, 2nd. edn. (Chelmsford, 1969), 67–71.

(2) Macfarlane, A Guide to English Historical Records, 59–64; id., Sarah Harrison, and Charles Jardine, Reconstructing Historical Communities (Cambridge, 1977), 60 –3; F. G. Emmison and I. Gray, County Records, Historical Assoc. (1973), 5–16; Emmison, Guide, 1–50.

(3) Hugh L. Doncaster, Quaker Organisation and Business Meetings (1958).

(4) Owen C. Watkins, The Puritan Experience (1972). The bibliography provides a useful guide to the journals and diaries of Quaker and other dissenting authors.

(5) Pamphlets critical of the Quaker movement are listed in Joseph Smith, Bibliotheca Anti-Quakeriana: or A Catalogue of Books Adverse to the Society of Friends (repr. New York, 1968).

(6) The definition of community is much disputed. For a discussion of the various views see Richard R. Beeman, ‘The New Social History and the Search for “Community” in Colonial America’, American Quarterly, 29 (1977), 422–42; Colin Bell and Howard Newby, Community Studies (1971).