Quakers: The faith forgotten in its hometown

By Dave Wade
BBC News

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionGeorge Fox, founder of the Quakers, preaching in a tavern in about 1650

It was the faith of two US presidents and several prominent UK industrialists, yet the origins of the Quaker religion are little known today by people living in the English town where it began. However, a new heritage trail targeting the American tourist market is aiming to change that.

In 1647, George Fox, a cobbler, was walking past a church in the East Midlands when he received what he described as a message from God.

The son of a Leicestershire church warden, he had spent years wandering around an England torn apart by civil war and increasingly disaffected with the establishment church.

The vision of Christianity he received outside the church in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, was deeply radical - God was within everyone and there was no need for priests.

Within a few years, he was preaching to large crowds - and provoking the persecution of the authorities who felt threatened by his anti-priesthood agenda.

"He was fed up with preachers and professionals setting standards, leaving out the poorest people," said Ralph Holt, a historian.

"He couldn't see how someone could go to college and get a certificate and come back somewhere between this land and God."

image copyrightNottinghamshire County Council
image captionFox convinced thousands of people to join the Quakers in the 17th Century

He was once put in the stocks in the nearby village of Mansfield Woodhouse for standing up and attempting to speak during a church service - something only clergy were supposed to do.

And on another occasion he reputedly told a Derby magistrate to tremble - or quake - at God's name - the incident which many attribute to the origin of the faith's name.

One of many dissenting religions popular in England at the time, Quakerism spread around the British Isles. In subsequent decades, as religious dissenters fled persecution by emigrating to the American colonies, the faith spread to the other side of the Atlantic Ocean where it remains strong today.

There are currently some 400,000 adherents worldwide. US presidents Richard Nixon and Herbert Hoover were both Quakers, while UK chocolate manufacturers Cadbury's was founded by a Quaker family.

Fox himself is remembered with a memorial in his birthplace of Fenny Drayton, Leicestershire, and a tombstone in Islington, north London, where he died in 1691. However, until now, there was nothing in Mansfield to mark the birth of the religion he founded.

What do Quakers believe?

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionQuakerism links George Cadbury, Ben Kingsley and Richard Nixon

The name is thought to derive from a Derby courtroom where George Fox told a magistrate to tremble - or quake - at God's name. An alternative theory was that the magistrate derisorily referenced followers' habits of shaking during religious experiences

Quakers - or the Society of Friends - are pacifists. Many were imprisoned as conscientious objectors during the world wars

They believe all people are equal and do not believe in a priesthood

As non-conformists they were excluded from universities until the 19th Century, perhaps pushing more of them into trades like the chocolate industry

The teetotallers may have seen cocoa as an alternative to the evils of alcohol, historians have suggested

Famous Quakers include William Penn, who founded Pennsylvania in 1681, ex-US presidents Herbert Hoover and Richard Nixon, English actor Sir Ben Kingsley and musicians Bonnie Raitt and Tom Robinson

Now the county council plans to expose the county's "best kept secret" with the unveiling of a plaque and a heritage trail around the town.

"It amazes me that people aren't aware," said Mr Holt, who has attended Quaker meetings in Mansfield for more than 30 years and has been studying Fox's links to the town.

"I printed a little book to hand out to schools and various libraries but somehow it doesn't seem to click with anyone - they don't seem to realise the importance."

Laura Simpson, of the county council's tourism department, hopes the trail will attract visitors from around the world, particularly American tourists, to Nottinghamshire.

"With the Civil War Centre opening in Newark and the Pilgrim Fathers coming from Scrooby and Babworth, we hope Mansfield becomes part of a bigger package for tourists," she said.

"Given the increasing popularity of heritage tourism and the desire of people to find out more about their ancestors and religious origins, we hope this can be a draw for visitors from across the globe."

So why is so little known about the Quakers in Mansfield? Perhaps one reason is the town's first meeting house, where Quakers met to worship, was demolished in the 1970s to make way for a road.

image copyrightNottinghamshire County Council
image captionMansfield's first Quaker meeting house and burial ground were demolished in the 1970s
image copyrightNottinghamshire County Council
image captionAlmhouses were built for Mansfield's poor in 1691 by a prominent Quaker family

The remains of about 150 Quakers buried here up until the 1950s were removed and placed in an unmarked mass grave in the town's cemetery.

In recent years a headstone was put up in the cemetery - the only reminder of Mansfield's Quaker heritage.

The heritage trail and audio tour starts at the recently-built bus station, which now stands on the site, and a plaque will be unveiled, listing the names of the Quakers who were once buried there.

The trail continues to Quaker almshouses, built in 1691 for the poor, to the church outside which Fox received his calling, the Catholic church which stands on the site of his home and the current Mansfield Friends Meeting House.

It also includes the Metal Box Factory's clock tower - a symbol of Quakerism's links to the business world. The factory made tin containers and was founded and run by three prominent local Quaker families until it closed.

Tourists can also visit the home of Elizabeth Hooton, the first female Quaker, in nearby Skegby. This became the first meeting house and was also where many early Quakers were buried in unmarked graves - as dissenters, they could not be buried in consecrated ground.

Another reason why Mansfield's Quaker heritage is little known is that Quakers are "reticent" to shout about their religion, according to Anne van Staveren, media officer for Quakers in Britain.

"The church as we know it today is still the working structure that Fox founded," she added.

The Yearly Meeting, which he also began, will be held next week when more than 1,000 Quakers from around Britain will gather in Friends House in London to "listen in stillness and silence for the will of God".

Time will tell if the Mansfield trail attracts international visitors in the numbers the council hopes. But, given the Quakers' commitment to equality, it is unlikely Fox would approve of the celebrity status it may give him.

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