by James Smith, 1836
Site Editor's Preface
William Dewsbury was one of the most gifted of the early Quakers. He was brought to complete maturity in Christ, beginning at the early age of seven, and finishing in his twenties. Clearly, he experienced the translation into the Kingdom of Heaven. He wrote many letters directly from the presence of God, and from the prompting of words from God. He suffered one of the longest imprisonments of all Quakers, twenty years total. His life and record are a wonderful testimony to the changing, powerful grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.
This biography is written by a 19th Century Quaker, addressing Quakers of his time; the limitation of the intended audience illustrating the complacency of the Quaker movement towards any outreach beyond their society. He is representative of that prevalent frame of mind of then Quakers, admiring their founders' words, but critically judging the peculiarities of their minds and motives — entertaining the notion that they were uniquely required to preach to others only because of the time. Rather than edit out all the biographer's subtle doubts and rationalizations, I have left some of them in, only to further the understanding of the Quaker departure from the truth, for which there is further details in a separate page. Despite the equivocations of the biographer, the subject, William Dewsbury, is revealed as solid, intact, noble, committed, full of wisdom, able in counsel, and wholly instructive to the serious seeker.
William Dewsbury was created by Christ completely independent of Fox's ministry, yet if you have read Fox's Journal and Letters, you will hear the exact same message, reasoning, strength, courage, and faith that Fox exhibited. Within fifty years of the early Quaker greats' deaths, the later day Quakers began to doubt the claims of perfection of Fox, Dewsbury, and many others; reducing them to deluded zealots. They could not understand why the early Quakers were so rude as to go into another sect's service to declare the Truth. These latter day Quakers, obviously not in possession of the same themselves, could not understand the consequences of dying without total unity with Christ, the Truth. When you read Dewsbury's letters, along with other early Quaker notables on this site, it becomes increasingly difficult to dismiss an entire group of people as deluded. They all had the same message; they all had the same experience; they all possessed the same Christ in great measure — so they all spoke the Word of God. Five-hundred and twenty-eight Quakers wrote two-thousand-eight-hundred books in a period of fifty years — all with the same message, same language, same scriptural backup, same Spirit of God, same hope, same faith, and the same Gospel promising freedom from sin, purity, union, and translation to the Kingdom of God while on earth and then forever.
No, these great men and women of God were not deluded. In the eyes of the world who live in the flesh, the early Quakers were fools for Christ. Those who dismiss them with indifference today, condemn themselves to never discover the everlasting peace and joy that they experienced, despite being hated and suffering incredibly harsh persecutions — just as Jesus said his followers would be persecuted and hated. William Dewsbury was one of the greatest of these eminently true and faithful Christians.
William Dewsbury – Place of his birth – Allerthorpe – Early Convictions - Shepherd Boy - Apprentice Weaver - No Help Found from World's Ministers
AMONG the numerous memorials which have been preserved of the lives, labors, sufferings, and religious experience of the early members of the Society of Friends, and which lie entered through many volumes of their writings, consulted in the present day to a limited extent only, few have appeared to me to deserve preservation more than those which relate to "that ancient, suffering servant of God and minister of Jesus Christ," William Dewsbury.
William Dewsbury was born at Allerthorpe, a village near Pocklington, in the East Riding of Yorkshire, early in the seventeenth century. I have not been able to discover with certainty the year of his birth, although his memorial states, that he died in 1688, having lived to a good old age. His parents appear to have been religious persons; and no doubt were instrumental in cherishing that susceptibility of mind, which formed at an early age a striking feature in his character. His father died when the son was only eight years old; but, prone to reflection as he was, and not too young to be sensible of the loss he had thus sustained, the impression did not pass off so quickly as is usual with children. For while he was lamenting with tears over the solemn and affecting event, he heard what appeared to him a voice, which said, “Weep for yourself, for your father is well." So powerful was the effect produced on his mind by this extraordinary incident, that from that time forward he spent many hours, which in childhood are usually devoted to play, in prayer and fasting, under a sense of his lost and undone condition.
It is not one of the least remarkable particulars in the life of William Dewsbury, as was also the case with some others of the early Quakers, that almost in his very infancy, he was made deeply sensible of the depravity of our fallen state by a power not his own nor at his own command. As he advanced in years, he became increasingly sensible of the corrupt propensities of his nature; and this was his condemnation, that he lived without the knowledge or the fear of God. After many years' reflection, he had to lament the transactions even of his childish days, although there is no reason to believe that he exceeded the ordinary levity of young persons, or in his conduct went at all beyond what is commonly termed innocent at his age. In this manner, he was given to see the indispensable necessity of that change of heart, which in due time, by yielding obedience to the further manifestations of Divine light and grace upon his mind, was fully brought about to his inexpressible joy; and which, under the Gospel, is denominated a "being born again of incorruptible seed, by the Word of God, which lives and abides forever."
The materials for composing a biographical memoir of this Friend, are very scanty, and by no means such as the weight of his character, and the importance and extent of his labors, would lead one to desire. In a memorial, however, which he wrote while in Northampton jail, in the year 1655, the particulars of which confinement will be later related, he has left on record some interesting facts relative to his religious experience, extending to the time at which he was then writing. The tract in question was penned and circulated for general information, "To clear the truth from lies laid on it," and "to stop the mouths of false accusers." And as one of the charges brought against him, and on which he was committed to prison, was, that he taught the people there was no "original sin," he introduces himself to his reader with the following language: "I was conceived in sin and brought forth in iniquity; and in that state I lived, delighting in pride and pleasure, in lightness and vanity, as all do, who are in that nature, until I was about eight years of age. Even before that time, the Light in my conscience witnessed against me, and caused some trouble in me. But I departed from the light, and followed the counsel of my own heart; which led me into vanity, and to live without the fear of God. About the time when I was eight years of age, the word of the Lord came to me,— 'I created you for my glory; — an account you must give me for all your words and actions done in the body;' which word enlightened my heart and opened in me the book of conscience, in which was written all that I had done ever since I had had any remembrance. When I had read my condition, how I had lived without God, who had created me for his glory, the word of the Lord came unto me,— 'Shall the axe boast itself against him that hews with it, or shall the saw magnify itself against him that shakes it? As if the staff should shake itself against him that lifts it up, or the staff lift up itself as if it were no wood!' And by the power of the word of the Lord that spoke in me, my understanding was enlightened, and my conscience bore witness that such was my condition. I had lifted up myself against the living God, in living without his fear, who created me to live in obedience to Him; I, on the contrary, had lived in disobedience until that day. At which point, deep sorrow seized on me, and I knew not what to do to get acquaintance with the God of my life."
That which I am now relating occurred between the ages of eight and thirteen; at which early period of his life, was exemplified the Scriptural truth, that it is sin which has made the separation between man and his God. Under these powerful impressions, William Dewsbury endeavored to alter the course of his life. He ceased from what he was now led to consider his vain conduct, in which he had lived prior; and became thoughtful and serious, far beyond his years. He began to read the Holy Scriptures and other books on religious subjects from his own choice, and at the same time to mourn and pray to God; although, as the account states, he had at that time received no clear understanding as to where He was to be found. It is evident, however, that the mind of this youth, under the quickening and heart-searching operations of divine grace, was wonderfully opened to the sight of his spiritual condition. With David, his soul was thirsty for God, for the living God, and his cry, in effect was, "when shall I come and appear before God." It was in vain, that he diligently availed himself of such opportunities as were afforded him, of learning, through the public teachers of religion and other outward means, what he was thus anxious to know and to enjoy in himself. For if his own mind had been sufficiently prepared for the reception of such knowledge, the outward and carnal views of that class of persons were not calculated to gratify his searching spirit. He describes them as viewing the Savior with regard only to his outward and visible appearance, wholly losing that which is inward and spiritual, as abundantly set forth in the Holy Scriptures. When he inquired of these professors for Christ, whom beyond all things he desired to know, they told him his coming would be from heaven, meaning the firmament above us, and citing their eyes upwards, intimated in that significant way, to what point their own attention was directed. Thus, these ministers of the letter, failed in affording to the inquiring mind of the youthful Dewsbury, that instruction which his soul was longing for; and the experience of many subsequent years proved to him beyond question, that such a knowledge of the Father and the Son that is life eternal, was not to be attained through such physicians of no value. His strict attention to outward observances, as often enforced by professors in an attempted imitation the saints of old, but not with the life in the same spirit, in fasting, prayer, and in various other particulars, as recorded of Peter, Cornelius, and others, were equally unsatisfactory to him. His soul was in trouble because of him; and he found that no sacrifices which he could make, would avail to satisfy the Divine justice, or afford him peace. On the contrary, as a child of Adam, he had largely to partake of the consequences of the transgression and all of the parent of mankind, in a deep sense of the alienation from God, which, immediately, following that event, descended upon his posterity. In the sentence of condemnation which Dewsbury now felt within him, and in the utter impossibility which he found, as with his endeavors, of working out his own peace, was opened to his understanding the mystery of the cherubim, placed at the east of the garden of Eden, and bearing a flaming sword, which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life; by which sword, the righteous law of God, justice was executed upon the transgressing nature in him.
Until the thirteenth year of his age his occupation was chiefly that of a shepherd's boy, and Allerthorpe continued to be his home. This retired situation and way of life appear to have been very congenial with the state of feelings; as it relieved him from the interruptions of company, and afforded him an opportunity of indulging in secret meditation, and in mourning and breathing after the saving knowledge of God. But soon after this period, when his relations were thinking of apprenticing to learn some trade, he heard of a people called Puritans, near Leeds, thirty miles from the place of his birth, who were said to hear the Lord and to walk with greater strictness of religious profession than many with whom he had been acquainted. Such was his hunger and thirst after righteousness, that he had no rest in his spirit, until his parents, (his mother having I suppose married again) , had succeeded in procuring a place there for him; with no preference as to the nature of his employment, "if," he says, "I might be among those who feared the living God; and thus become acquainted with the God of my life, who created me for himself."
He was accordingly bound apprentice to a cloth weaver at Holdbeck near Leeds, who proved to be a very sharp master; but the Lord enabled him with much patience to endure his trials, attended as they were by a considerable portion of ill health, until the period of his apprenticeship was nearly expired. In the meantime, he continued in all diligence to seek that knowledge for which his soul was greatly athirst, and for lack of which he anguished. He attended assiduously at the preaching of all the chief teachers of religion in the neighborhood, wrote down their sermons in short hand, and went afterwards to their houses to discourse with them, that if possible he might gain some satisfaction as to the subject of his hunger. But in this he found himself disappointed; the result proving to him, that no outward profession of religious however high, no knowledge of Scripture however complete in itself, no attention to near religious observances [ritual] however strict, could ever cleanse the soul from sin, or restore it to a state of acceptance with God. "He wanted Christ," the chief of ten thousand, the beloved of souls, "and without him he could not live." The following are his own words.
Speaking of this serious people in the district about Leeds, "There was," he says, "as had been reported, much speaking of God, called preaching, and professing him in words, from the letter of the Scripture, what the saints had spoken forth, thus imitating the saints' practice in a carnal wisdom, and seeking the kingdom of God in outward observations, as I had done before I came there. But I met with none who could tell me what God had done for their souls, in redeeming them from the body of sin, which I groaned under, and which separated me from the presence of God. Although I walked strictly with them in their outward observations and in running to hear one man after another, called ministers, yet I found no rest nor peace to my weary soul. The flaming sword, the righteous law of God, cried in me for a perfect fulfilling of the law, and met me wherever I was; so that I could find no peace in that worship of God the world had set up,— such as receiving the bread and wine, which they told me were the seals of the covenant. It was long before I dared to receive them, because I was not myself prepared for the evil of my heart stood before me. When I was about to receive them, I sought the Lord to keep me by his power, that I might receive them worthily; and when I did receive them, my desire was that the Lord would seal up his will to my soul, but I found nothing sealed to my soul by it. Then much fear seized upon me for a long time after; and the condition of Judas was cast into my mind; until it was showed me, that the seal of the covenant was the Spirit of Christ, and no outward element; and that the supper was the body and blood of Christ which the world does not know, nor did I at that time, but I was made to wait for the manifestation of it to me."
"Then I dared join no more with the world in that practice; nor in singing David's conditions, which they called singing psalms. For the light in my conscience let me see the evil of my heart, that I was not in David's condition; the sense of which stopped my mouth: and while others were singing, I mourned and wept for want of the pure spirit that David had, and which caused him to sing. "Neither was I able to apply the promises, which they told me belonged to me, for I found no promise belonging to that nature; but the wrath of God abode upon me, for my disobeying his counsel in me, the light in my conscience. But being ignorant that it was his counsel, I departed from it, and lent my ears to those who said they spoke from the mouth of the Lord; and I was deceived, and thus caused to err by their lies, who drew me to seek the kingdom of God in observations without. But the word of the kingdom was in me, and executed the righteous judgment of God upon my adulterous heart, that took counsel and not at his mouth."
Under these exercises of mind, William Dewsbury's health gave way, and he became so weak as to be unable with all his efforts, conscientiously exerted, to answer the expectations of his master; who, thinking him to be in a consumption, was inclined at one time to send him home to his relatives; but on further reflection, he judged it to be more prudent to take medical advice. Dewsbury, however, being fully aware of the real cause of his malady, and rightly concluding that it was no other than the evil of his own heart, and the spiritual mourning arising, resolutely declined employing such means for his relief, with a solitary exception, to avoid giving offence. When, after diligent search among the Puritans, he was unable to find any who could apply a remedy to his spiritual malady, he was constrained to make his case known to such as were esteemed in the world as the most experienced ministers and professors; and to ask them what might do to be saved. But they also proved to be physicians of no value; mere ministers of the letter. They told him to believe in the name of Christ, and to apply the promises; but they never counseled him to wait for "the revelation of Jesus Christ" in his own heart, and it only added to his sorrow to be thus urged to believe in Christ, when neither he at that time, nor his advisers, knew where He was to be found, nor how believed in to the saving of the soul.
1642. Spiritual Conflicts - Joins Army -Disillusioned, Quits -Taught by Christ -In Condemnation -Sealed by the Spirit
THESE spiritual conflicts continued thus to exercise his mind for some years; and we are now brought to the time of the civil wars, about the year 1642, when I estimate he was twenty-one years old, and the term of his apprenticeship was drawing towards a close. It was at this juncture, that William Dewsbury, in common with many ardent but well-meaning persons, fell into a snare, which the enemy of all righteousness, who was a murderer from the beginning, laid for them, through the plausible reasonings of some, who professed to be ministers of Christ. These persons raised the cry of "Curse ye Meraz," because all were not so ready as they wished them to be in unsheathing the sword in the cause of civil and religious liberty; which act they called, going up to the help of the Lord against the mighty. With this bait, placed in so inviting a point of view to him, William Dewsbury was taken; and his inducement to swallow it, was probably greater than that of some others, from the despair he was then passing through. His case was not dissimilar to that described in the 6th, 7th, and 8th verses of the sixth chapter of the Prophet Micah. He, like the individual there described, was ready to make any sacrifice for peace. He was willing to give his body unto death, in obedience to the Lord, if by such a measure it had been possible to free his soul from sin, escape the condemnation he then lay under, and thus attain to the knowledge of God. Therefore, not at that time seeing the inconsistency of the sword among Christians-of professing to be the servant of Christ, and at the same time acting in a manner diametrically opposed both to his example, his precept, and his Spirit; and not then remembering that Christ came not to destroy men's lives, but to save them, he joined that little remnant, as he calls it, who entered into the Parliament army, and said they fought for the Gospel.
But, whatever way he turned himself at this period of his life, disappointment appears to have been the fruit of his labor. He entered the army under considerable expectation of meeting with fellow-travelers, whose main pursuit was one with his own, and whose minds had passed under similar baptisms; in this, however, he was deceived. He found as much ignorance of the real Gospel, its spiritual acceptance, and of Christ, the glad-tidings of the Gospel, as he had ever met with before. He therefore made a journey into Scotland in search of those who there walked in the fear of the Lord; and came to Edinburgh, where, he tells us, he found nothing but formality; the teachers calling to people to seek the kingdom of God in outward observances. Therefore he returned to England and sought Him for whom his soul loved and longed among the Anabaptists and Independents. "These," he tells us, "said, they were the children of God, and were setting up a more glorious image" in outward things. But he was not free to join them; for it was the testimony of the love of God to his soul, that he wanted and was in search of.
"Then," he says," the Lord revealed to me, that his love could not be attained to by anything I could do in any of these outward observations; and in all these musings of my carnal wisdom, while seeking the kingdom of God without, there the flaming sword turned, to keep the way of the tree of life, fenced me from it, cut me down, rent all my cover-up, and destroyed that mind which thus looked out to find the kingdom of heaven. Then, my mind was turned within by the power of the Lord, to wait in his counsel, the light in my conscience, to hear what the Lord would say. And the word of the Lord came to me, and said, 'Put up your sword into its scabbard; if my kingdom were of this world then would my children fight; do you not know, that if I needed, I could have twelve legions of angels from my Father?' Which word enlightened my heart, and revealed the mystery of iniquity; it showed the kingdom of Christ to be within, and that its enemies were within and spiritual; my weapons against them should also be spiritual,— the power of God."
Favored with these clear and Scriptural intimations of the will of the Lord concerning him, William Dewsbury no longer hesitated to the course that it was right for him to pursue. Not feeling himself now at liberty to use the sword for the destruction of his fellow-creatures, and that too under the mistaken notion of advancing the kingdom of Christ, (enthusiasm, indeed, of a most dangerous character!), he put up his weapon again into its sheath, and left the army. Having happily accomplished this resolution, he turned his steps homewards, and there labored at his previous occupation of cloth weaver; but he makes no mention of his pursuits in trade, and we are left to guess both as to their extent, and his success and prosperity* in regard to them. He informs us, however, that his mind was inwardly engaged, while laboring with his hands, in waiting on the Lord in the way of his judgments, until his own will was brought into subjection to the will of the Lord. Many Scripture types were from time to time opened to his understanding, greatly to his own instruction; chiefly those which in the characters of Cain, Esau, Pharaoh, Egypt, etc., set forth the condemnation that the man of sin is under, showing how the carnal mind is not, neither can be, subject to the law of God. Under an inward sense and feeling that he was himself by nature involved in the same condemnation, he was brought to the determination of unreservedly casting himself upon the mercy of God in Christ Jesus, and of yielding all up to His disposal, whatever that might be, whether to condemn or to save him; if the former should be consistent with the divine will, he could but acknowledge, that it would be just; if the latter, it was of His free love.
About this time also it appears from some hints he has left on record, that William Dewsbury received, greatly to his encouragement, a satisfactory and clear insight into the nature of the several dispensations of divine mercy to mankind, beginning at Adam, and passing through the administration of Moses to that of John; but, in what exact particulars, he does not very plainly state. However, the result was, that while he lay in the "condemned state" before mentioned, bewailing himself in the depth of his misery, without any hope of deliverance by anything he could do to pacify the wrath of God; he was favored with a clear evidence in the secret of his soul, that there was free redemption laid up for him in the Lord Jesus, and encouragement was ministered even in this condemned state, to wait for His coming, who "in the appointed time of the Father," he says, "appeared to my soul, as the lightnings from the east to the west, and my dead soul heard his voice, and by his voice was made to live, who created me to a lively hope, and sealed me up in the everlasting covenant of life with his blood. Then I witnessed the wages of sin to be death, and the gift of God eternal life through Jesus Christ, my Lord. Death reigns over all from Adam to Moses, and there is no rest to the soul, until Christ is manifested,— this the Scriptures witness; and I witness these Scriptures to be fulfilled in me."
Before I proceed with the narrative, it may possibly be advantageous to pause for a short time, for the purpose of making a few reflections, suggested by that portion of it which is now before the reader. The experienced Christian will readily find some understanding and relish of these passages presented to him, which to other readers may be enveloped in a degree of obscurity. Those who have passed through religious exercises of a similar tendency with those of William Dewsbury, will have little or no difficulty in reconciling such parts of his experience, which, though they may not run in all respects parallel with their own, are not the less instructive, and Scriptural, and true. The foundation that was from the first laid in his mind for the necessity of the great work of regeneration, by that deep sense of the depravity and sinfulness of man, is especially worthy of our notice; coupled as it is with the important fact, that he learned this truth, as to his own particular, from those powerful and deep impressions secretly made upon his mind, without the intervention of the ordinary means of religious instruction. Of this fact, he never appears to have entertained a doubt; nor do I apprehend that it would be consistent with sound experience to question it. In the succeeding pages the reader will be furnished, I trust, with ample reason for concluding, that those evidences of immediate communication to his mind, which he esteemed to be divine, and under which his faith was exercised from first to last, fully warranted the strong language which he mostly employed, in describing his views of the work of God on the soul, and in conveying religious counsel, whether reference he made to his early days or to the more advanced periods of his career.
For thus conveying their own experience with regard to inward, immediate revelation, Friends were subjected to a load of unjust censure, and the floodgates of controversy were opened upon them from almost every quarter, exposing them to unmerited ridicule and abuse. Many, even in this day, entertain mistaken notions as to the views of the Society of Friends on this point, which have led to the supposition, that the doctrine is unsupported either by Scripture or by facts. They however assert it to be founded on both: and what their belief really is, may be stated without fear of contradiction from those, who have been spiritually instructed in divine things. For in the progress of the work of regeneration, which is not less a real and effectual, than an inward and mysterious work, an understanding is given, in and by which the "new creature" is enabled to receive the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven. Not however in their own wills, and at all times when they sit down to search the Holy Scriptures; but as those writings are opened to the mind and brought to their remembrance, by Him who knows their state of growth, what it stands in need of, and what it is able to bear.
It was in this way, as they were found walking in the obedience of faith, that such men as William Dewsbury and many among the early Friends, became well instructed in the things of God. They found it needful for them to lay aside all their attempts to acquire religious knowledge, by the ordinary cultivation of their reasoning faculties alone. They had no liberty to heap up their stores, even of Scriptural knowledge, according to the common practice of others; on the contrary, in various instances, they found it to be required of them, to renounce the knowledge they had so gained, to unlearn Scripture as they had previously been taught it, and to wait, in great self-abasement as at the feet of Jesus, which they did patiently and diligently, to receive such an understanding as the natural man does not possess, and in which alone, spiritual things, as testified about, can be correctly understood.
These views however did not prevent Fox, Penn, Penington, Dewsbury and the body of Friends in the early times, from placing an equally high value on the Holy Scriptures with their contemporaries. They accepted these writings, no less than the high professors of their day, as "given by inspiration of God," and profitable to those ends for which they were designed, namely, "for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness; that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works." And they believed them “able to make wise unto salvation, through faith that is in Christ Jesus." But faith, in this sense, is a very comprehensive term. Thus, William Dewsbury, in reply to one who was his opponent in a controversial pamphlet, says, "For the sake of the simple, we do declare that which is witnessed by all the children of light,— that the word of faith is in the heart and in the mouth, and those who are guided by it, are kept pure. Faith purifies the heart, whether they have the outward declaration, yes or no. And those who have the outward declaration, though they read it, if they do not mind the Word which is life and light and gave forth the Scriptures, do not live according to the Scriptures; for they who are not guided by the Word, are without faith. Faith comes not by a bare reading of the outward declaration; but is the gift of God to his children, who diligently hearken to his Word, which is life, and the life is the light of men." Again, "None come to the knowledge of the Father by reading the Scriptures, if they come not to Christ, of whom they testify, and in whom the life is;" who said, "You search the Scriptures, for in them you think to have eternal life, and they are they which testify of me;" and he reproves all those, who will not come to Him that they may have life. Again, the Scripture is a true testimony of Him, who is the way to the Father. 'None knows the Father but the Son, and he to whom the Son reveals him.' Christ we own, who "was before the Scriptures, and is the authority of them; for when he spoke them forth, he spoke as one having authority, and according as Christ speaks of the Scriptures, we own them in their place, a true testimony of Him, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and no man cometh to the Father but by Him." The preceding statement of doctrine, taken in conjunction with such practical results, as the reader will meet with in the course of these pages, will I trust convey a clear and correct idea of what the Society of Friends understand, when they assert the continuance of inward, immediate revelation. I will therefore proceed without further delay to the subjects of another chapter.
1646. William Dewsbury’s inclination to preach – He is admonished to wait until 1652 – Further spiritual exercises – His declaration respecting the law of the Spirit of Life in Christ Jesus, its power and efficacy in his own case – Remarks on William Dewsbury’s qualification for the ministry.
By this time, 1646, William Dewsbury, having experienced in himself the efficacy of the one saving baptism,* had begun to feel a strong engagement of mind, inclining him to declare to others what the Lord had done for his soul; and was, in fact, freely given up to proceed at once, when and as the Lord should order him, upon the work of a preacher of the Gospel. It however appears clear, that he had not then received the necessary commission, which was to be communicated in due time. For, as he was revolving the subject in his thoughts, it is a circumstance no less remarkable than some which have been already related, that, by the influence of the holy Spirit upon his understanding, he was commanded to stay until the year 1652. This lively impression was accompanied by a prophetic intimation, that, at the time appointed, there would be more hungering and thirsting raised in the hearts of people after the Lord, than was then the case. In the obedience of faith, following these directions, the nature of which he had by this time learned, he continued for several years in the pursuit of his trade. He also held religious meetings in his own house, and in the neighborhood where he was situated, until the appointed time arrived. Meanwhile, it does not appear, from information which has come down to us, that he was in the practice of exercising any vocal gift, either at the said meetings or elsewhere.
While, however, in this state of suspense and dependence, as he informs us, and before he was known to George Fox, he had to pass through various tests and trial, and was deeply proved, for the trial of his faith, which he had received of the Lord Jesus. All this, no doubt, tended more fully to prepare him for the great work and service, to which he was appointed. The following are his own words on this point of his history:
The testimony, from which the foregoing narrative of his spiritual progress is chiefly taken, was written, as before stated, from Northampton jail in the year 1655, after he found himself united to a people whom the Lord had raised up. To these, his friends in Christ, he thus impressively addresses himself at the close of the above piece. –
The reader will now feel himself under no difficulty in forming a judgment, both as to the view of Christian doctrine, and the degree of religious experience, with which William Dewsbury entered upon the important and arduous service of a minister of the Gospel. It is evident that his fitness for such an office depended not on education of artificial attainments; on the peculiar bent of his mind, on the force of his genius, but on the preparation the whole man had undergone, while he lay as clay upon the wheel of the Great Potter. Having, in that condition, fully known in himself the utter impossibility of attaining to peace with his Creator, so as to enjoy communion with him, without the mediation of a Savior, who as advocate with the Father, could plead his own most precious blood as the price paid for the ransom of souls; and impressed with the high importance of obtaining the possession of the good things thus provided, which are variously set forth in the Holy Scriptures, and in testimony to the real enjoyment of which, they afford so great a cloud of witnesses. He was indefatigable in the pursuit of this one great object. Christ! Christ, was the incessant cry in the secret of his soul. Christ the bread of life, the fountain of living waters! It was not enough for him to be told, even in the language of Holy Writ, that Christ was his Savior and Redeemer, that he had tasted death for every man,— that he is the propitiation for the sins of all,— that he was manifested to take away our sins, and that he had actually borne our sins in his own body on the tree; -he could see there was no inheritance of the promise for the first birth, that corrupt nature which attaches to Adam and all his children in the fall, under which he groaned, and out of which he saw that Christ the Deliverer came to redeem us, and to set us free. In consistency with this view, and deeply sensible of another Gospel truth, too little accepted in its real and full import, that "unless a man be born again he cannot see the kingdom of God,” — he could take no comfort to himself short of a sensible evidence, ministered to and received in that faith, which is “the substance of things hoped for," that this work of righteousness was measurably brought about and making progress in his soul.
When, at length, this was felt to be the case, which was not until after an intense struggling of corrupt nature, the carnal mind, to preserve its own life, he was the more encouraged to wait in the light which had manifested his real condition. He found the deceiver to ever flattered his conscience into a delusive slumber, under the false apprehension, that to believe in the outward testimony respecting Christ, to rely upon his merits, and to take up with the form of a holy, life, without feeling the powerful virtue of his spirit, was sufficient, or would make him one of the redeemed of the Lord. He therefore waited, under a deep and obedient attention, for the further unfoldings of this divine light, which, in his experience, he found to be no other, than the grace of our Lord our Christ. There is nothing however in these views, that will warrant an apprehension, that William Dewsbury set a low value on any branch of Christian doctrine, especially that of the price paid for the ransom of souls. On the contrary, we have already seen, that there is every reason for concluding, he felt with more than ordinary conviction, the full force of those passages of Holy Scripture, which most plainly set forth the one great offering for sin. But, although he arrived at the clear and unquestionable evidence in his own mind, that remission of sins through the blood of Jesus Christ was and is to be preached everywhere, yet, with equal truth to support him in the conclusion, he was constrained to bear witness, that none can become partakers of the benefits of Christ's death, but as they are leavened into a measure of his life; which takes place in the obedient mind, consistently with the testimony of John in his first epistle, If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanses us from all sin.
There can be no doubt, that the reason why so many professors of the Christian name experience this cleansing only in a small part, if at all, and therefore reject the doctrine of perfection,— a perfect cleansing and a perfecting of holiness – is because this doctrine, which includes the daily bearing of the cross, and the denial of self in all its deceitful workings, is so much lost sight of. This, William Dewsbury, in common with the early Friends, not to the exception of many at the present day, clearly saw; and I believe there is a conviction of his truth on the minds of many persons, who have not yet fully entered into that rest which is prepared for the people of God. On this ground, it was the constant endeavor of this Friend, and the burden of his mind, to direct people, in the exercise of his ministerial gift, whether by word or writing, to the only one way by which man can become a partaker of the inheritance of the saints in light. He knew well, not as one who looked only into the perfect law of liberty, but as one who continued in it, and was a doer of the work; that obedience to the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus, is the indispensable condition of discipleship. And, not daring to limit, as the reasoning mind is as apt to do, the Spirit of the Lord, he knew that no required sacrifice of the corrupt will or inclinations of the mind, however unaccountable to the creature, in relation to its nature or magnitude, could be rejected, without obstructing the work of righteousness and entailing the forfeiture of peace; because it was not new for the foolish things to become the means of confounding those which are esteemed wise in this world, nor for the weak things to be employed to bring down the things that are mighty. Of this William Dewsbury and the early Friends had large experience.
Thus prepared, and having first received the gift, and a distinct call to the work, he went forth as a minister of the everlasting Gospel, being enabled from his own knowledge of the word of Eternal Lire, to report to others how great things the Lord had done for his soul; and the succeeding portion of our narrative, will become the best comment on the degree of his qualification for this solemn engagement.
1649. His marriage – His faith proved – Assurance of support granted him – George Fox and he meet and unite – Is called to, and enters the ministry – Previous prediction – Thomas Thompson’s testimonial of him as a powerful minister.
William Dewsbury appears to have entered into the marriage covenant at an early period of his life; and although I have not succeeded in meeting with many particulars relative to this event, from the best calculation I have been able to make, I suppose it to have occurred about the twenty-sixth year of his age, two or three years earlier than the date 1649, at which we have now arrived. The facts which have come before me on this subject, may be related as follows.
Some time after William Dewsbury had entered into the army, he had accidentally heard of a young woman of York, who, like himself, had suffered greatly from sorrow and distress concerning the state of her immortal soul; so much so, that, as he was given to understand, she was ready to despair of the Lord's mercy. After due deliberation, it having arisen in his heart to pay her a visit, he concluded to do so, and went. In the course of conduct, they came to understand each other's spiritual condition, which proved to be very similar, they having passed through the like exercises, so that they found themselves nearly united in mind and judgment, “as in water face answers to face." They parted. The narrative goes on to state, that some time after this, William Dewsbury married, but fails in informing us, whether the young woman in question was actually the object of his choice. But, as the circumstances are related so closely in connection with each other, and the marriage ceremony took place at York, we may with some safety conclude in the affirmative. The union was accomplished at a meeting of the Annbaptists, with whom the young woman was associated in religious profession. It is related to have been a season of divine regard; their children, who are the historians in this instance, having often heard their father say, that the hearts of those who attended the ceremony were so overcome by a sense of the Divine presence, that there were but few dry eyes in the room.
A circumstance, which immediately followed this interesting event, and which proved a close trial of his faith, seems to show, that when he took this important step his outward circumstances were by no means affluent. His wife appears to have been a woman of considerable property in land, of which she was unjustly deprived by her brother. And although everything is said to have been clear respecting the proceedings, and the case was submitted to trial, yet the decision was against him,— the judge would not let him have the property. As he was going home he met with the buffetings of the enemy, who insinuated into his mind some misgivings for having married a well-bred woman, whom he was now likely to bring to poverty. In humiliation and lowliness of mind before the Lord, without yielding to the tempter, he desired the Lord to make him content to be what he would have him to be; and, in a moment, he was so filled with the presence of the Lord, that he was not able to bear the weight of the glory that was upon him; and he desired the Lord, if he had any service for him to do, to withdraw, or he could not live; and he heard as it were a voice say, "You are mine, all in heaven and in earth is mine, and it is yours in me; what I see good I will give unto you, and unto your wife and children."
Where he settled upon this consummation of his wishes, does not appear; but in 1655, when brought before Judge Hale, as will he related hereafter, his residence was at Wakefield, and he then had a family of three children."
It was in the year 1651, that William Dewsbury first met that eminent minister and servant of Christ, George Fox. who may be said to have been the chief instrument in gathering the Society of Friends.
The first interview which took place between them, occurred at the house of lieutenant Roper, at Synderhill Green, Dear Balby in Yorkshire, where George Fox was holding meetings, soon after his liberation out of the dungeon of Derby jail. There he had been cruelly and most unjustly confined for six months, and for the previous six months in the house of correction; in all twelve months close imprisonment. He had however by that time been so successful in his preaching, as to make many converts to his doctrine; and from Derby, after his discharge, he passed through numerous places in the adjacent counties, visiting his friends, and preaching repentance and the word of life to the people; and many more were convinced. Coming to Balby, where several of his friends resided, William and Ann Dewsbury heard him preach at lieutenant Roper's; where he was also met by Thomas Goodaire, James Naylor, Richard Farnsworth, and others.
"At an evening meeting there," says George Fox," William Dewsbury and his wife came and heard me declare the Truth. And after the meeting, it being a moonlight night, I walked out into the field: and William Dewsbury and his wife came to me into the field, and confessed to the Truth and received it; and after some time, he did testify to it."
At the same time, I apprehend, we are not to understand from this, that George Fox had much, if anything, to do with bringing over these Friends to the principles which he preached; because the husband, at least, was of the same belief before they met; of which possibly George Fox, when he wrote his account, was not fully aware. The interview may be said to have afforded the parties an opportunity of ascertaining the grounds of true fellowship. For it clear that William Dewsbury had been previously instructed in the same school, and by the same Divine Teacher. Sewel* informs us that "he was one of those who had already been immediately convinced, as George Fox himself was; who, coming to him found himself in unity with him."
The time was now approaching, for William Dewsbury to enter upon more active and public duties; he had for a period perhaps of six years been living in the seclusion of domestic life. He had married, had become a father, and there was every reason why he should be desirous of "providing things" needful and "honest in the sight of all men." With regard to his call to the work of the ministry, there is no reason to believe that he received any commission on that behalf until the latter part of 1652. "I waited," he says, " in the counsel of my God, in the calling where I was placed, until the year 1652. And in the eighth month of the year, the word of the Lord come to me, saying, 'The leaders of my people cause them to err, in drawing them from the light in their consciences, the anointing within, which the Father has sent to be their Teacher, and would lead them into all truth, to seek the kingdom of God in observations, where it is not to be found. Some people perish for want of bread: freely you has received, freely give and minister: and what I have made known unto you in secret, declare openly.' - Which word constrained me, by the power of it, to leave my wife and children, and to go to declare to souls, where their Teacher is, the Light in their consciences; of which the Lord has given to every one a measure to profit withal, for the exercise of the conscience towards God and men. Waiting in the light for the power of Christ, he would lead them up to the living fountains of waters, where their souls would find refreshment in the presence of the Lord; and their bread would he sure, and their water never fail,— as the Lord has made manifest to my soul."
It will no doubt he remembered, that when William Dewsbury was commanded, as already related, to delay his entering upon the work of the ministry until 1652, the reason deigned to him was, that at that time, there would be a greater hungering and thirsting in hearts of the people after the Lord. That this was really the case, may be in part concluded from the fact, of the great success which had attended the ministry of George Fox and other Friends, who had begun, some time previous to that date, as ministers of the Gospel, to exercise their several gifts. As early as 1647 the doctrines of Friends began to be spread through Leicestershire, George Fox's native county, and by the year 1648 through Warwickshire, Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, and the adjacent counties; in Yorkshire in 1651, the date of George Fox and William Dewsbury's first interview; in Lancashire and Westmoreland in 1652; in Cumberland, Northumberland in 1653; and in London and most parts of the United Kingdom in 1654. John Whiting, in reference to the City of London, at the date last mentioned, which was the first year that James Naylor and others visited it, says, "There was much running around, and an increase of knowledge, and a thirsting among many thousands the breaking forth of the day of salvation and fulfilling of the promises."
It is an interesting circumstance, that I am able to lay before the reader, so early a testimonial of the power and efficacy of William Dewsbury's ministry, as we are furnished with under the hand of Thomas Thompson, who was one of his first converts, and who soon became, as the account goes on to state, a minister of the same word. The circumstance is related as follows:-
The circumstances above related, appear to have occurred in part, at the period immediately preceding that which has just been noticed as William Dewsbury's first journey into the northwestern counties.
1652-3. William Dewsbury’s first journey – Suffers abuse with other Friends – Is almost killed at Sedbergh – Occurrences there – Epistle on church discipline.
It is uncertain whether William Dewsbury had settled with his family at Wakefield as early as the year 1652, or continued for a few years after his marriage at Allerthorpe. But as Brigham and Frodingham, the scene of occurrences mentioned by Thomas Thompson, at the close of the preceding chapter, are neighboring villages to the latter place, the probability seems on the side of this conclusion; and the more so as no mention is made of Wakefield until the year 1655, when it had become the place of his residence. His first journey on a religious account as a minister, beyond this vicinity, appears to have been in the latter months of the year 1652, when he traveled into Westmoreland, Cumberland, and Lancashire; and shared the common lot of other Friends in those days, who were subjected to great sufferings for the truth's sake.
Our early Friends believed themselves required* of the Lord, at times to bear their testimony boldly against an unscriptural ministry and its fruits, in the public national places of worship. The following statement of facts from the pen of George Fox, in which William Dewsbury's name occurs among others, will give but a faint idea of the cruelty, the abuse, and the persecution Friends at that time endured from this cause. He says, "After I was set at liberty," (that is, from Carlisle jail),— a memorable instance of the triumph of truth over wickedness, cruelty and falsehood, occurred. I went to Thomas Bewley's, where a Baptist teacher came to oppose me; and he was convinced. Robert Widders, who was with me, was moved to go to Coldbeck steeple-house; and the Baptist teacher went along with him the same day. The people fell upon them, and almost killed Robert Widders! They took the Baptist's sword from him, and beat him sorely. This Baptist teacher had the inheritance of an impropriation of tithes, and went home and gave it up freely. Robert Widders was sent to Carlisle jail; where having stayed awhile, he was set at liberty again. William Dewsbury also went to another steeple-house, nearby; and the people almost killed him, they beat him so. But the Lord's power was over all, and healed them again. At that time many Friends went to the steeple-houses, to declare the truth to the priests and people, and they underwent great sufferings; but the Lord's power sustained them."
It was in the course of this journey, of which no further particulars have been preserved, that he was at Sedbergh, as we are informed by George Whitehead; an eminent minister, a voluminous writer in the controversies of those days, and a zealous and diligent fellow-laborer with George Fox, William Penn, and others. He tells us, that at Sedbergh in Yorkshire, on a market day, about the year 1653, as William Dewsbury was publishing the truth at the market-cross, and warning the people to turn from the evil of their ways to the grace of God, the light of Christ in their consciences, some rude persons endeavored with violence to push him down. Setting their backs against the high stone cross, most likely not aware of its tottering condition, with their hands against him, the cross gave way, and in its fall broke in pieces. George Whitehead was at this time about sixteen years of age, having been himself convinced of the truth of the doctrines preached by Friends about a year before; and he relates this occurrence as one which was noticed at the time as remarkable instance of the special providence of God attending William Dewsbury in his labors; for despite the multitude of people collected to listen to him, not one was killed or even injured by the accident.
The numbers who attached themselves to the new Society, being now rapidly on the increase, it appears from the tenor of William Dewsbury's early epistles, that circumstances soon arose among the first converts to the doctrines preached by him and his fellows, which proved the necessity of some kind of discipline for the mutual help of the members, for the presentation of unity and good order for the churches, and for the establishment of meetings, as the truth spread over new districts.
The two following addresses may serve, the one to illustrate the fact, and the other to point out the manner in which he was led to supply this need. The latter of the two only, is in his collected works, where it stands the first in order of his epistles, having the date of 1653. It contains, I apprehend, the first outline on record of an attempt at a system of religious discipline among Friends; and it shows some considerable analogy to what was many years afterwards introduced by George Fox in a form much amplified, and which has continued in operation in the Society to the present day. In the introduction to the new edition of the "Rules of discipline of the religious Society of Friends with Advices," I find the following statement, which bears directly on this point, and gives countenance to the supposition which I had entertained in regard to the epistle in question.- "Previous to the establishment of that regular system of discipline, and of that mode of representation in the meetings for conducting it, which now exists, there had been many general meetings held in different parts of the nation, for the purpose of providing for the various exigencies of the Society before these meetings were constituted.” The laborers in the Gospel, by whose instrumentality the church had been gathered, appear to have taken the most prominent part in the proceedings of these meetings.
The first sentence in the letter below indicates the measure of Christ's Spirit by which William Dewsbury spoke and wrote. It is as follows:
The other epistle to which allusion been made, is dated 1653, and was printed in London in 1654, as a tract, with three epistles of other Friends; and appears to have been one of the first pieces circulated in the metropolis. No reader will doubt its discovering strong symptoms of the need of oversight and care among those to whom it was addressed.
Site Editor's Comments: Written from jail, Dewsbury was obviously visiting the meetings in spirit, and viewing the conditions of the hearts of the friends referenced in spirit; just as Paul was present with the Corinthians, but absent in body. This is a strong testimony to Dewsbury's measure of Christ being far above what most can imagine as possible.