The Parents' Review
A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture
"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Memories of the Buckinhamshire Quakers
by May Rowland Brown.
Volume 13, April 1902, pg. 241-248
In that small book--Fruits of Solitude--attributed to William Penn, and worthy of notice, if only for the fact that it was much loved by R. L. Stevenson, there is this passage:--"Intimate correspondence and inter-marriage within allowed bounds are the means of keeping up the concern and affection that nature requires from relations."
The truth of this the Quaker people have exemplified; certainly much fruitful knowledge of the secret of serene character, and of the possibilities of strong friendship, may we today gather from their letters and from their diaries, detailing the interests and sympathies of kinship. It is the purpose of this paper to recall memories of those saints of God now resting side by side in a quiet God's acre, to be found within a wooded dell among the beech-clad swellings of the heart of Buckinghamshire. There, apart from the dwellings of the villagers, sheltered by splendid trees from the indifferent gaze of the passer-by on the road to Beaconsfield, is to be found a quaint house, a red-brick farm perhaps one would judge, but, in reality, the famous Quaker meeting-house of Jordans. In the small green meadow beside it are head-stones of the grassy grave mounds, with these names inscribed in bare simplicity:--
William Penn and Hannah, his wife.
Evidently this place has been intended to be set apart for all time from the stir of busy life. So today we can enjoy, as did the Quakers of old, the pleasant sense of repose and stillness, broken only by the ceaseless song nature hums to herself, whilst sending her tireless messengers from flower to flower, who take up the chorus, "like tiniest bells on the garment of silence." Thus today is the same as yesterday of nearly three centuries ago, with this difference--the dignified old Quaker families no longer reside in the country houses round, and the quiet of Jordans is only occasionally broken by First Day meetings.
A day spent in wandering through Quakerland will take a worthy place in the memory. One passes through beech woods yellow with primroses, or bright with the haze of the willow-herb's purple bloom-covered stalks, to the little village of Chalfont St. Giles--still with old-fashioned, half-timbered houses, though much changed from the day when blind Milton walked under the shade of the gigantic elms of the village street to the flower-scented garden beside his cottage-home where he stayed during the plague of 1665. Then one crosses the tiny rill--the river Miss--that feeds the village pond before sauntering on through meadows, as a silver band enclosing the precious stones of the old church. Its old tower was damaged by cannon ruthlessly shot by Cromwell's soldiers, who bivouacked in those same meadows the night after Aylesbury's battle.
Leaving the village, and, if it is springtime, passing orchards massed in cherry blossom, the traveller reaches Chalfont Grange. In the days of the Commonwealth the master of this mansion was the strong-willed Republican, Isaac Pennington, Lieutenant of the Tower, and ex-Lord Mayor of London. About the year 1654 he made over the Chalfont estate to his son Isaac on his marriage with Lady Mary Springett. Henceforward, for many years, the Grange was the home of the younger Penningtons, and the centre of Quaker influence in the district. It forms the background of these lightly-sketched life pictures of those long-buried Quakers at Jordans.
When Isaac Pennington, the younger, brought his beautiful bride to Chalfont, they had only lately joined the Society of Friends. Their union with one another and with the sect had been the peaceful ending of one stage of the journey through the maze of life, and the joyful reaching of the threshold of that serene life only possible to those that know the calm assurance of the Lord.
At this time Mary Pennington had lived through thirty years, full and intense, partly by reason of the conflicting events of the Civil War, partly by the remarkable development of her character, by varying joys and sorrows of her young womanhood, and by the earnest purpose in seeking for the light that had impelled her onward from her childish days. Years later Mary Pennington wrote of herself as "wearily seeking and not finding" all this time, and then of her giving thanks in public for having found spiritual peace. We may picture that memorable day of which she wrote in such glad remembrance.
The courtyard of the Grange was empty, the sound of the children's voices in the old garden was hushed, and a calm seemed brooding everywhere. Was not a Quaker meeting being held within, the first meeting of Friends at the Grange. Let us enter! In the Quaker poet's words:--
"In calm and cool and silence . . . .
But not so--burning words were rising on Mary Pennington's lips in thanksgiving for the "full assurance of acceptance." She wrote, "in that assembly I acknowledged His great mercy and wonderful kindness, for I could then say, 'this is what I have longed and waited for and feared I never should have experience.'" But it was no transient ecstasy, it was a joyful experience that lasted with life, as her writings reveal. This "assurance" gave her that tranquillity of mind and convincing wisdom that made her gracious presence the centre of a home to which many turned in love and veneration. Mary Pennington's story is so human in its ebb and flow of the tide of life. Sometimes pure natural joy welled up in heart and brain, or left them, as she says, "like a parched heath for want of rain." The formative influences brought to bear on the character of this ideal Quaker dame are interesting.
Through the death of her father, Sir John Proude, an officer in Charles I.'s army, she was left at an early age an orphan, and the heiress to valuable Kentish estates.
Mary was a sensitive little thing, having the usual childish fears of the dark, thieves and spirits at bed-time, when she would comfort her lonely little self by lisping the Lord's Prayer as a charm to ward off evil.
Prayer--her need of it, its methods, and the issues of her mental conflict it caused her, formed one of the earliest of the strong influences in her life. Such was the leaven which produced ferment, and yet brought to full beauty her character, The conflict ripened her intellect, and the singleness of purpose to comprehend prayer in its fulness, gave her transparent sincerity. She was only eight, when the text of a sermon, "Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled," gave her a consciousness that God is--an anchorage of conviction so secure that no storms could afterwards unsettle it.
When quite a child she went to live with her guardian. In his mansion there resided an extremely clever young widow, Madam Springett. She had her own apartments for herself and children, whom she brought up to a somewhat Puritanic form of the worship of the Established Church. Her boys were noble youths, always chivalrous to the forlorn child in their midst. William in particular was a charming lad, full of restless energy in all the pursuits that a boy of wealth could indulge in, yet as simple a lad as you could wish.
Little Mary was of a quieter, more reflective disposition; not, however, without energy and a decided will of her own. One day it suddenly flashed upon her with horror that an ungodly man could just as well read the prayers of the Established Church as a godly man could pray them. To her, their intrinsic value was gone, and in a real agony of mind the child flung herself on her bed, crying, "Lord, what is prayer?" It occurred to her next morning to write her own prayers, and these little written prayers of quaint composition comforted her for a while--sometimes they were "pretty large," she says. It had never occurred to her that there was any such thing as extempore spontaneous prayer, till the possibility flashed upon her by some inward light.
[Puritans John Bastwick, William Prynne, and Henry Burton had their ears removed after accusing Archbishop William Laud of secretly being a Catholic.]
He had been sent to Cambridge by his mother, as "being accounted more sober than Oxford," and meanwhile Mary comes in contact with a Puritan minister, and her heart opens to the new method of worship. The extempore prayers attracted her, and she was irresistibly drawn to attend his preaching, though she had to go alone, unattended and on foot, a proceeding which called forth very hard judgment on her from the heads of the family. It hurt the tender-spirited girl to think they entirely misapprehended the cause of her action. Her heart was too absorbed in the great search after Truth to be moved by any of the attentions of the young gallants who were attracted to her home by her beauty and fortune. So, when young Sir Wm. Springett, knighted early, and studying law, heard through his mother how alone the girl was, he forsook his law-books for good, and hurrying home, ardently declared his love and desire to protect Mary as his wife. When she discovered that he shared her religious convictions, she says, her "heart cleaved to him for the Lord's sake." In a few months they were married, just at the beginning of the Civil War. Mary was eighteen, William was not yet twenty-one.
[The English Civil War between the Parliamentary Roundheads and the Royalist Cavaliers began in 1642.]
This young couple, with the ardour of youth, renounced all Church ceremony, and Sir William would not even allow their baby boy to be baptized by any save the Puritan minister before mentioned. There were no sponsors, the father holding the child. The mother writes, "It was a great cross and a new business, which caused much gazing and wonderment for him, a gallant and very young man, to hold the child."
It is remarkable that as far as can be judged he was the first person of quality to refuse the "common mode." It would be interesting to follow Sir William's career closely, but it must suffice to say that he fought gallantly on the side of the Parliament at Edgehill and Naseby, and died in tis service two years later.
His was a very loveable and generous nature, with great power of attracting others, so that without beat of drum he raised a regiment of 800 foot soldiers. He and his undisciplined force was sent to quell a rising in Kent. Anxiously he secured a respite of a few hours from duty, and hastened to his wife whose home was in danger. Promptly he managed to get her and her baby by stage coach to Gravesend, where she went on by barge to London, only to find the city in a state of uproar and alarm. It must have been a stirring anxious time for the young mother. Her husband took part in the continuous fighting, so that she only had occasional glimpses of him--though, whenever the horses were baited, he wrote a hasty note to tell his love and welfare, which he gave to chance travellers on the road to London to be delivered to Mary. His wife relates for the benefit of her grandson Springett many instances of his generous and noble nature, and gives a touching picture of the closing scenes of his life.
He was taken ill at Arundel Castle, which he had just helped to recapture from the Cavaliers, and expressed a wish to see her. His fellow-officer sent her the message. It was the depth of winter, Mary was not strong, but her courage and determination to reach him were undaunted. Snow floods, the upsetting of the coach in the ditches--nothing was too perilous to be overcome, and at last she reached her husband, only to find him semi-delirious with fever. Exhausted as she was, she stayed with him for hours, bending over him for two hours at a time, keeping her cool lips pressed on his fevered ones. He could not bear to let her to go. Towards the end, those who stood near begged her to leave him, for while she stayed "he could not die." To quote her own words, "This word die was so great with horror that I stamped with my foot and cried, Die! die! must he die? I cannot go from him." But in spite of her restraining love, he sank to rest, and passed to his God. The whole story, here told in fragments, is most beautiful and pathetic.
A little daughter came soon after to brighten the young widow of twenty. A name was given her, which united those of her parents, "Gulielma Maria." Since the baptism of their boy, the Springetts had come to the definite and the unusual conclusion at that time, that baptism apart from spiritual regeneration was unscriptural.
[Gulielma is a variant of Wilhelmina, which is a feminine form of William.]
Mary was now alone and found it trying to remain firm to her convictions. She became, she says, a byword among the people of her own rank. Ministers came to persuade, "but I could not do it and be clear." Her answer was, "He that doubts is damned if he do it." I quote the incident to show the sincerity and strength of purpose, which is really marvellous in a young woman quite alone in the religious world.
Mary now lived with her mother-in-law, to whom she was much attached, in London. Madam Springett's remarkable medicinal knowledge of the properties and preparation of herbal medicines, helped to make Mary a notable housewife. The next ten years, however, were full of unrest and secret unhappiness; but still only that period of wandering in the wilderness which heralded a more glorious entry into the land of promise in this life.
She says she changed her ways often and, in fact, went the round of the popular sects of the day, and these were not a few. She deliberately set herself to become acquainted with high religious professors, watched them keenly and critically; watched them at their services, their prayer-meetings, their thanksgivings, their private life, and then turned away heart-sick.
At length she determined to abandon all outward forms, and to rely on the ultimate fulfilment of the promise that those that hungered should be filled--sometime. Disappointed with the religious world--in reality with herself--she next tried to bury her heart's unrest in a round of gay life. She says she was ashamed to be called religious, and she began to "loathe" all professors of religion. She frankly acknowledges the excesses in the vanities in which she indulged--"foolish mirth, carding, dancing, singing."
She took what the world offered. True, it was not the gay life of Charles II.'s profligate court that followed in the Commonwealth; but still it was the world. But yet in the midst of all this "my heart was often sad and pained beyond expression." Then she would rush away into the seclusion of the country with her little daughter Gulielma and give way to her feelings of distress. Her boy had died. At these times she would have gleams of light and trust, gifts that she knew not were from the Holy Spirit, who was leading her through the maze of life till she could boldly enter the Holiest. This period of her life at least gave her breadth of view, and saved her from narrow bigotry.
But throughout this time of stress in the world's stream or out of it, she clung tenaciously to the fact that God was her God as Creator, if she could not know him in his Fatherhood. It was the agony of a strong soul before the day dawn, and she felt she dared not mock God now, when for years she had not knelt in prayer. "I was like a hunted hart longing for water, so great was my thirst after that which I did not know was near."
(To be continued.)
Typed by happi, Apr 2020; Proofread by LNL, Apr 2020
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