The name ‘Quaker’ was originally an insult. They called themselves (and still do) the Religious Society of Friends. Quakers emphasise direct experience of God and believe that priests and rituals are an obstacle between the believer and God, who can be found in the midst of everyday life, not just in church services. They called churches ‘steeplehouses’, and refused to take off their hats when entering. In the 1650s, many Quaker converts were made in the Army, where they were purged in 1657 because they had a reputation for insubordination.
What made them feared was their challenge to authority. They challenged the notion that one man might have authority over another. They refused to pay tithes, they interrupted sermons, they intervened in the activities of ministers. They refused to acknowledge their elders and social superiors by removing their hats, addressed everyone as thee and thou and acknowledged no distinctions of class. They attracted violent antipathy.
In 1655 some London Quakers undertook a missionary visit to Kent. They started at Dover but were ordered to leave by the Mayor and Corporation. They were then thrown out of the parish church at Folkestone but undeterred and guided by the light of God they made their way to Hythe. One of them, George Rofe, visited St Leonard’s church there during the Sunday service. According to his later complaint to the Cinque Ports Brotherhood and Guestling, he went in just as the final blessing had been delivered by the minster, William Wallace and stood before the pulpit. He was then moved by the Spirit to speak a few words to Mr Wallace. The mayor, Michael Lushington, took this amiss, and apparently said ‘take away this fellow’. Whereupon ‘a great multitude’ dragged Rofe from the church and threw him down the steps of the south porch, kicking and beating him as they went. His blood, he said, ran down into his shoes.
Deciding that Hythe was not ready yet for conversion, the evangelists went on to Lydd, Ashford and Tenterden, where they were welcomed. Their mission ended in being put in the stocks and whipped as vagrants in Maidstone.
Worshippers in Hythe who wanted something different from Anglicanism had not far: to travel during the Interregnum, when a variety of sects flourished, some surviving into the twenty-first century, others not surviving the Commonwealth which allowed them to come into being.
At Canterbury and Sandwich there were Fifth Monarchists, a very short-lived group which was founded in 1649, and believed that the Kingdom of God was imminent. In 1661, about fifty of them tried to take London in the name of ‘King Jesus’. Most of them were killed; the survivors were hanged, drawn and quartered for high treason.
In Ashford, the searcher after truth could find Muggletonians, whose two founders claimed to be the two witnesses referred to in the book of Revelations, and that they had power to pronounce damnation or salvation for eternity. Although it did not evangelise, on principal, the sect survived into the twentieth century.
Biddenden had Brownists, early Congregationalists, believing each church should run its own affairs. In Lydd, Ashford and Tenterden there were small Independent gatherings. it was alleged that Northbourne was full of Anabaptists and Quakers. Anabaptists are Christians who believe in delaying baptism until the believer confesses his or her faith, but during the Interregnum the term was often used to describe any separatist sect. Hythe had its ‘Anabaptists’ but we do not know which, if any of the radical sects they belonged to, only that they included the freemen of the town. In 1659, writing to his kinsman about the Hythe electorate, James Pashley, himself a jurat, said ‘the Anabaptists are in general for you.’
Hythe’s Anglican minister, William Wallace was himself moving towards non-conformism. After the Restoration, when he was removed from his position, he continued for many years as an independent preacher in conventicles, though was never associated with any particular sect. The corporation liked Wallace. In 1649, when parliament had failed to put in place any reliable means of maintaining him, they voted him ten pounds a year at the town’s expense, as he was ‘a well deserving man’. Some of the jurats made additional personal donations, and the mayor, William Gately, left him money in his will. The donations and bequests continued throughout the 1650s.
Wallace had less work to do than his predecessors, because although there was still a state church, no-one was obliged to attend it. People could worship where, and how, and how often they wished. Religious services at burials had already been abolished, and in 1653, marriage also became a civil union, to be witnessed by a J.P. rather than a minister. It no longer had to take place in church, but could be solemnised in the market place, if the couple so wished. The form of words was pared down to the minimum:
I …. do here in the presence of God the searcher of all hearts, take thee ….. for my wedded Wife; and do also in the presence of God, and before these witnesses, promise to be unto thee a loving and faithful Husband
I …..do here in the presence of God the searcher of all hearts, take thee ….. for my wedded Husband; and do also in the presence of God, and before these witnesses, promise to be unto thee a loving, faithful and obedient Wife
So on 13 October 1657, the church registers for St Leonard’s include the following:
Ferdinando Bassett jurat and Mary Smyth maiden were married before John Finch jurat and bailiff elect to Yarmouth; Julius Deedes and William Jenkin gentlemen witnesses.
Similarly, baptisms were no longer recorded, but only births. Wallace may have continued to baptise children whose parent’s wished it, or they may have gone to other parishes, or belonged to sects which practised adult baptism or no baptism at all. We do not know.