Family Lessons 66: Persecution and Suffering


It would seem that my ancestors were in trouble with the law on account of their faith. They were Townsons of Lancaster and Wyresdale, all Quakers. Henry Townson, my 9x great-grandfather, was buried at Lancaster Friends’ Meeting House in 1701, and his brother John, my 9x great uncle, was buried at Over Wyresdale Friends’ burial ground, in 1688. Their father was called John, also, and the Quaker records for the time do not make clear who is who (the elder John died in 1677). These records were researched and displayed by the Quaker Project, and succinctly describe some of the persecutions and sufferings Friends faced on account of their principles. Although I cannot be certain that the Townsons described are my own, it seems highly probable that they are:

Lancaster, 1659. For refusing to take the oath on several occasions: George Barrow, Thomas Cummin, John Hargreaves, Thomas Leaper, John Minshall, Thomas Green, Richard Hargreaves, John Sagar, Robert Walker, George Stythe, John Smith, William Seaman, John Smith, Richard Weaver, Peter Sharlton and John Townson.

Mid-17th century governments were very fond of public declarations of allegiance to the state sworn on Bibles. Friends’ refusal to treat the Bible as a holy relic, and to ignore the Lord’s direct commands, were often imprisoned for being politically suspect. I suspect that the John Townson above is 10x great-gramps.

Lancaster, 1665. John Berley was fined n/8 for refusing to swear when summoned on a Jury. He had 15 sheep taken for this fine, which cost 3. 5. 4 and John Townson chosen Constable refusing to take the usual Oath had a cow taken value 4.

Choosing a Quaker to be the town constable against his will seems disingenuous and may have been a way of raising a cheap fine for the local magistrates. Had he sworn it and become a constable, he would have spent much of his time rounding up his friends and family, something he was unlikely to want to do. The loss of a cow was quite a forfeit.

Lancaster, 1667. John Townson and John White were imprisoned in Lancaster Castle for refusing to meet the demands toward the Repairs of the Steeplehouse.

‘Steeplehouse’ here is a rather disrespectful term employed by Quakers for parish churches. Not worshipping within them, they failed to see why they should pay for their upkeep. A fair point, but not one appreciated by the local authorities.

Lancashire: 1678. Andrew Lund, Henry Townson and John Townson for trivial demands of tithes were imprisoned in the Fleet at London about four years. Many persons in the County fined to the extent of 74, 17. 4. for absence from the National Worship.

I suspect this is my 9x great-gramps and his brother. Four years in the Fleet prison seems a rather harsh punishment and sending them to London seems excessive too. Quakers refused to pay a tithe (10%) of their produce and income to support the local Anglican cleric whose services they skipped and whose ministry they despised. I imagine they would be released as soon as they agreed to pay their dues.

Seventeenth-century Quakerism I have some respect for; although it downplayed that most glorious of Christian truths, the atonement, many early Quakers, I think, were saved, spiritual folk. Their modern stepchildren are nice people but seem otherwise ignorant of gospel truth. If Christ's people they truly were, then He has more than recompensed them for their losses. If I had but one ounce of their integrity and one pound of their courage, I shall face the gathering storm of persecution in our own day with as much fortitude and patience.

Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong. 2 Corinthians 12:10, NKJV