Imprisonment and Persecution of Quakers
In An Account of the Travels Sufferings and Persecutions of Barbara Blaugdone, Blaugdone describes her experiences as a traveling Quaker minister, most often those of persecution and imprisonment. Imprisonment was not an uncommon occurrence for Quakers, as Blaugdone exemplifies. Traveling from town to town, Blaugdone notes, “I had Prison in all those Places” (12). Although the Quaker ideal of denouncing the clergy was not necessarily uncommon, the Quakers were much more zealous in their pursuit to spread the Truth, therefore much of their persecution was due to their own perseverance (Trevett 18).
A common justification for Quaker imprisonment was blasphemy (Trevett 17). Elizabeth Hooton, a strong female figure in Quakerism, performed many of the same roles that Blaugdone did, and in return, she was imprisoned for merely reprimanding a priest (18). Hooton was arrested numerous times for activities such as public speaking, refusal to swear an oath in court, and disturbing the peace. In Blaugdone’s Account, disturbing the peace seems to be merely stepping foot in town. Numerous laws were also passed that enabled the arrest and persecution of Quakers, including The Blasphemy Act, The Conventicle Acts, The Five Mile Act and The Quaker Act. All of these laws basically prohibited Quakers from disrupting the ministry of the church (18). By challenging priests in their own churches, organizing and attending gatherings, and meeting with and preaching to others on street corners, Quakers broke the law. Blaugdone clearly took part in these ‘unlawful’ activities: “And then I was moved to go to Great Torrington in Devonshire, unto the Steeple-house there, where was a very bad Priest” (Blaugdone 13). Of course her only outcome at talking to the priest was to be once again put in prison.
By 1659, twenty-one Quakers had died in prison due to ill treatment, while countless others were crippled or their health had been permanently damaged (Trevett 18). Blaugdone reveals similar mistreatment in her Account: “and the nest day the Sheriff came with a Beadle, and had me into a Room, and Whipt me till the Blood ran down my Back” (15). Whipping was not the only form of punishment exercised against Quakers. Punishments included public humiliation, pelting, whipping sometimes after being stripped naked, fining family members, and confiscation of property (Trevett 21). Prison conditions were also quite inhuman, and prisoners depended upon either the good nature of guards of bribes. Unlike the segregated and minimalist prisons of today, during the seventeenth century and earlier prisons were chaotic and wild places. Alcohol, sexual exploitation and violence were rampant inside the prisons (19).
While in prison Blaugdone would have encountered numerous people and most likely continued to spread her ministries. Considering the fact that imprisonment was almost inevitable for Quakers, prisons became a sort of gathering places to preach the Quaker tradition (19). Blaugdone, like her contemporaries, would have preached to inmates, guards and other lawmen. It was also common for imprisoned Quakers to write letters (19). Like Blaugdone, Hooton took on the role of author and wrote in letters of her experiences in prison. From these letters we learn about Hooton’s isolation from other prisoners and visiting priests, because she refused to be silent (19). Blaugdone’s narrative is simply an extended version of Hooton’s letters, seeming more like a diary.
An Account of the Travels Sufferings and Persecutions of Barbara Blaugdone is representative of the legal obstacles faced by Quakers in spreading their faith, as well as the conditions and penalties they bore while in prison.
Blaudgone, Barbara. An Account of the Travels Sufferings and Persecutions of Barbara Blaugdone. London, 1691.
Trevett, Christine. Women and Quakerism in the 17th Century. York, England: Ebor Press, 1991.