Recently, Quaker historians have been marking a cluster of anniversaries significant to Quakerism. The year 2024 marks the 400th anniversary of the birth of George Fox (1624-1691) who was the founding father of the Religious Society of Friends, also known as Quakers in 1647 in England. The year 2022 marked the 350th anniversary of the visit of George Fox to North America in 1672. 2022 was also the 350th anniversary of the death of Elizabeth Hooton (ca. 1603-1672) the first Quaker woman preacher, who accompanied George Fox on his 1672 voyage to America.

In England in the 1600s, there was a surge of dissatisfaction with the political, religious, and social order. English Protestants who sought to purify the Church of England of its Roman Catholic practices were called Puritans. Because they wanted to change Anglican worship, Puritans were persecuted for treason for challenging the king’s authority to dictate forms of worship. In the 1630-1640 decade, many Puritans departed to North America – the Great Migration. The Massachusetts Bay Colony was settled in 1630. As a result of the English Civil Wars 1642-1651, fought mainly over how the country should be governed, and also about issues of religion, Puritans became a major political force in England. Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) led armies against the government of King Charles I who was executed in 1649. In favour of reforms, Cromwell restored political stability after the wars and ruled Britain as Lord Protector of the Commonwealth from 1653 to his death in 1658.

During the Civil Wars (1642-1651) and the Interregnum 1649-1660, there was an increase of groups making radical changes in religion. One of the dissident sects to emerge was the Religious Society of Friends or Quakers founded by George Fox (1624-1691) in North England. Born July 1624 in Leicestershire, England, about 90 miles northwest of London, as he grew older, Fox became dissatisfied with the form of religious worship followed by the Church of England. At that time, preaching was done by well-educated male clergymen.

 In 1647, George Fox introduced his beliefs and started his ministry. His preaching a simple faith attracted many followers who were unsettled in their religious beliefs. A group of more than sixty persons who became members of the Religious Society of Friends in the mid-1600s were called the Valiant Sixty. They were ordinary farmers and tradesmen who, as itinerant preachers, spread the ideas of Friends in northern England. Several adherents were women. Quakers provoked hostility and violence, and from the 1650s suffered persecutions and imprisonment because of their speaking in public spaces such as market or town squares, admonishing local officials, interrupting church services, and finding fault with clergymen.

One of the early followers of George Fox was Elizabeth Hooton (1603-1672) who became the first Quaker woman preacher. Elizabeth, daughter of John Snowden, was baptized 2nd October 1603 at Worksop, Nottinghamshire, England. On 17th July 1632, Elizabeth Snowden became the second wife of widower Oliver Hooton in Edwinstowe, Nottinghamshire. Their son Samuel Hooton (1633-1709) was born in 1633. After living at Ollerton for several years, about 1636 the family moved to Skegby near Mansfield where at least four other children were born. Before her acquaintance with young George Fox, middle-aged Elizabeth Hooton had already disassociated herself from the Church of England and had joined a Baptist group of dissenters.

Skegby Village, photo from Elizabeth Hooton by Emily Manners.

In his Journal, George Fox wrote that, when travelling through some parts of Leicestershire and into Nottinghamshire, he met, near Mansfield, with a tender people and a very tender woman whose name was Elizabeth Hooton. After hearing George Fox speak in Nottingham in 1647, Elizabeth Hooton was one of the first persons to become `convinced’ of his beliefs. This meeting changed her life. Their exchange of ideas also had a great influence on George Fox, especially with regard to women’s participation in religion. Elizabeth Hooton made her house at Skegby available to Fox for holding meetings. At first, the use of their home met with opposition from her husband but he later acquiesced. In 1649, George Fox was imprisoned at Nottingham for interrupting a church sermon. He was again arrested at Derby in 1650 where the term Quakers was first used for the followers of George Fox. By the early 1650s Fox was sending Quaker missionaries to Wales and Ireland.

 Around this time, Elizabeth Hooton’s active ministry commenced. Fox wrote in his Journal ca. 1649 that Elizabeth Hooton’s “mouth was opened to preach the gospel.” She was the first female among Quakers to preach. Quakerism allowed women to express themselves and to participate in public life. However, women preachers produced extreme and harsh reactions; they were accused of witchcraft. Frequently imprisoned for her beliefs, Elizabeth became an activist for freedom of religion. In 1650, on a complaint by a priest, Elizabeth was imprisoned in Derby. She was an educated woman, able to read and write. While in prison, Elizabeth wrote a letter of complaint to the mayor. In 1652 she was committed to York Castle for sixteen months where she wrote letters to the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell, complaining about imprisonments for those who had done no wrong and also about the cruel treatment of prisoners. With others, including Mary Fisher and Thomas Aldham, she signed a tract, “False Prophets and False Teachers” (1652), attacking paid ministry written at the Castle. After speaking out in a steeplehouse in 1654, on the complaint of a priest she was imprisoned in Lincoln Castle for six months, the first Quaker punished in Lincolnshire. Harsh treatment prompted her to write another letter to Oliver Cromwell protesting about conditions in gaol. Cromwell was on sufficiently friendly terms with George Fox to explore religious questions with him. Although many Quakers were kept in prison for disturbing the peace, Cromwell could not save them from the heavy punishments voted by Parliament.

“False Prophets and False Teachers Described,” image from Elizabeth Hooton by Emily Manners.

By 1655, Elizabeth’s visits and preaching extended to Oxfordshire. Elizabeth’s activities and imprisonments put a strain on her marriage but Oliver finally came around to be supportive of his wife. Oliver Hooton (ca1603-1657) died and was buried at Skegby, 30th.4mo/June 1657; his death was recorded at Mansfield Meeting of Friends.

Part II will be released next week.


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