Growing Together in the Light

A place for Friends and others to explore Quakerism. A place where, in the Light that comes from God, we may all grow and where we may hope to find a unity that underlies our diversity of language.

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Location: Arlington, Massachusetts, United States

Raised a Friend, I am currently a member of Fresh Pond Meeting in Cambridge, Mass. I am also active in Salem Quarterly Meeting and in New England Yearly Meeting.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Convincement of Thomas Lurting

Now, for a change of pace. I will tell a story. This is the story of the convincement of Thomas Lurting. Thomas Lurting is mostly known for his encounter with pirates off of Algiers told in the children's book Thomas Lurting and the Pirates. I take this information from his account titled The Fighting Sailor Turned Peaceable Christian which is reprinted in Historical Writings of Quakers against War published by Quaker Heritage Press.

Thomas Lurting was 14 when he was first pressed by the Royal Navy in 1646. The major recruitment tool of the Royal Navy at that time and into the 19th century was the press gang. Press gangs would go through the streets and taverns of port cities rounding up sailors and taking them on board navy ships. They would sometimes cut the belts or suspenders of their recruits so they would have to use one hand to hold up their pants, slowing them down if would be inclined to run away.

He seems to have done well because in time he became a boatswain's mate on frigate and had 200 men under his command. One of his responsibilities was to force men to attend the religious services on Sunday. He was in a number of battles in appears to have served fearlessly in them. He recounts a number of deliverances that he had during these battles, including a time when a man sitting beside him in a small boat was shot.

At one point a Scottish soldier was put on board the ship for a short time. This soldier had attended a Quaker meeting in Scotland and during his time on board ship talked with two sailors. About 6 months later, these sailors refused to attend services and hear the priest and refused to take off their hats for the captain. The started meeting together in silence. The changes in them drew attention from the rest of the crew and over time their meeting grew.

The captain and the priest ordered Thomas to beat and persecute the Quakers for not attending services. As he continued in this he was reminded of the times when God had delivered him during battle and found that he could no longer beat the Quakers. God opened his heart and he saw a great difference between the behavior of the priest and the Captain, who was also a Baptist minister, and of the Quakers. He started taking time of retirement and sought after God. He felt God working in him both in judgement and in tenderness. After about 6 months he felt the Lord telling him that he should join the Quakers so he went to Roger Dennis, one of the leaders of the Quakers on board ship, and asked him to his cabin for a talk.

The following First Day he attended the Quaker meeting instead of the worship on deck. When this was found out many sailors left the priests service and came to the Quaker meeting to see what was going on. The captain sent for Thomas and interviewed him with a number of the other officers. Afterwards Thomas told the Quakers, “when I went to the captain, I was scarce half a Quaker, but by their lies and false reports against me they have made me almost a whole Quaker, or at least I hope to be one.” After that he continued to meet with the Quakers.

With Thomas Lurting's convincement, the persecution of Quakers on board ended for a while. Thomas was given back his cabin which he used as a meeting place for the Quakers. A disease spread through the ship and some 40 sailors died. Although none of the Quakers died many of them were taken ill and the other sailors noticed what good care they took of each other while they were sick. Even non-Quakers came to them feeling that they would be well-cared for.

At this point the new Quakers on the ship had no sense of pacifism and fought as bravely as anyone else on board. They were ordered to sail to Barcelona where they were to shell a castle on shore. While the men were preparing the cannons Thomas went on deck to watch the shots so that he could help redirect the aim as needed. As he came on deck he felt God ask him, “how if he had killed a man?” He was struck with such power by this that he put back on his clothes, having been stripped down to his waistcoat for the action, and wandered on deck under a great exercise of mind. When people asked if he was hurt he said, “No, I am under a scruple of conscience on the account of the fighting.”

The next day Thomas Lurting discussed this with the other Quakers. Some had misgivings about fighting but none had as strong a scruple as Thomas did. He felt that since they had been such valiant fighters before, they needed to bear a strong testimony against it. He did not doubt that the Lord would protect him. When one of the Friends went to the captain to request a discharge because he could fight no longer the captain said “He that denies to fight in time of engagement, I will put my sword through his guts.” He then beat the sailor with his fists and cane. It was a standing order on the ships of the Royal Navy that if anyone left their posts during battle, anyone on the ship could kill him.

Some time later – Thomas Lurting dates this as in 1655 – they were sailing and they saw a large ship coming towards them. They supposed it to be a Spanish man-of-war and so the crew began to prepare for battle. The Quakers gathered in Thomas Lurting's cabin for a meeting for worship. In it he was moved to speak about his scruples about fighting but he did not want to lay this on any of the others. If they would respond to the call to quarters, they should do their part to the best of their ability. If they chose not to fight they needed to be careful to not give the captain reason to say that they had deceived him. Then Thomas went and sat on deck in full view of the captain. The other Friends joined him there.

When the lieutenant came and ordered them to their posts they answered that they could fight no more. When the captain heard of this he drew his sword. Thomas Lurting heard the Lord say, “The sword of the Lord is over him; and if he will have a sacrifice, proffer it to him.” He rose to go and Roger Dennis joined him. They walked across the deck and when they were half way up the steps to the half-deck where the captain was the captain turned pale, turned away and called his servant to take away the sword. After a bit Roger said to Thomas, “The captain is gone, let us return to the others.”

The ship turned out to be friendly and so there was no battle. Later the captain sent the priest to Thomas asking that he not be angry with the captain, that he had acted out of passion. Thomas replied that the captain should be careful of his passion lest he kill someone and then seek repentance and not be able to find it. Afterwards Thomas reports that the captain was very kind and respectful to him.

I love this story, partly because it is just such a good story. I also like what it illustrates how the peace testimony came to be. At the time of the battle in Barcelona, Thomas Lurting had been on ship and had not had any contact with any Quakers but the ones who had been convinced on board. They knew that Quakers did not pay honor to social postion and met in silent worship. Their testimony against fighting came to them through God working in their hearts. When this happened, they followed that leading although it could easily mean their lives. It also shows the kind of deliverance that is possible to one acting in full confidence in the power of the Lord to protect them.

This happened a full 5 years before George Fox and others wrote the letter to King Charles that is often referred to as the Peace Testimony. The real testimony was in the lives of ordinary Friends like Thomas Lurting. The testimony of their lives meant that Fox was able to write the words overnight in confidence that he was speaking for Friends in general.

I am also challenged by this story. I don't know that I would have the courage to stand up and walk towards an angry man with a drawn sword. I also don't know that I have the courage to be so single minded in following the Light I have been given in the face of the comforts and distractions of a world that would say, be comfortable, be happy, don't look too closely at the cost of your comfort.

Blessings to all,

Will T


Anonymous Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

Hi, Will!

Here I am posting to your site again. I hope you don't mind!

What startled me was your comment, "their testimony against fighting came to them through God working in their hearts." That is true, but I think we need to add that it is very far from being the whole story.

On thing I, personally, would want to point out is that Lurting et al. were alive in a time when people read the Bible the way they now read the sports pages, and pondered what it said and meant, the way they've spent the last six years pondering George Bush's wars and this year pondering the economy. The worship on deck, that Lurting had been attending before switching to Quakerism, was almost certainly Puritan, and so almost certainly included large chunks of Bible reading and Bible-based preaching.

Another thing I think we need to note is that people's thoughts in those days about what the Bible said and meant were, in turn, endlessly being prodded and shaped by the hot, sometimes mortal debates that had been going on for the previous 138 years, more or less non-stop, between the Catholics, the Reformers and their followers, and fringe groups such as the Anabaptists and the Spiritualists. These debates included specific disagreements over how much of the Bible's ideals could be realized in the everyday world, over Christian pacifism, over classism versus egalitarianism, over the proper mode of Christian worship, and over the limits to public dissent in civil society. It was no easier to be ignorant of these debates in Lurting's England than it is today to be ignorant of debates over free-market economics versus the welfare state, or over Homeland Security versus civil rights.

So what happened in the hearts of Lurting and the other Friends on ship, happened in dialogue with their readings of the Bible and their conceptions of the great figures it portrayed, and in dialogue with these ongoing, society-wide debates. And I think, had the Bible and the debates been absent, Lurting and his friends might have become no more pacifistic than, say, a shipboard group of Japanese samurai warriors and other travelers who shared a keen common interest in Zen.

All the best —

June 26, 2008 10:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for posting this, Will. Lurting's story is very precious to me, partly because it allows me to tell the ill-informed just where Friends' peace testimony came from: _not_ from George Fox's theological reasonings and his followers' blind acceptance of a "party line" but out of the experience of many who found themselves told directly by God - before there was a "peace testimony" at all - to put down their carnal weapons: Lurting and Dewsbury stand out in my memory, though I know there were others.

I was struck by your wondering out loud whether or not you'd have the courage to stand up to an angry captain with his sword drawn. I often query myself about such things. We're asked to be faithful unto death, and to lay down our lives for one another Revelation 2:10, 1 John 3:16); if it comes to the crunch, will I be faithful? Have I the courage? But experience has taught me that God gives us the courage when we need it, no matter how cowardly we may be by natural inclination.

Thomas Lurting heard the Lord say, “The sword of the Lord is over him; and if he will have a sacrifice, proffer it to him.” Hey, if the Lord is talking to me that directly, and is also giving me the power and courage to obey, how can I refuse? How could any of us? Hearing the Lord's voice is something precious enough to die for, in and of itself.

Thy Friend John
New York City

June 26, 2008 5:08 PM  
Blogger Will T said...

You are welcome to comment on my blog whenever you want. How boring it would be if no one commented or if they were all simple agreement. I enjoy the opportunity for discussion.

You are absolutely right that Quaker movement happened at a time when almost all public conversation happened in terms of the Bible. That Biblical study may have prepared the ground but remember he was surrounded on ship by hundreds of men who were likewise familiar with the Bible but who were engaged in the business of war. It was not Biblical study that turned Thomas Lurting around, it was the voice he heard that asked, "What if you had killed a man."

The larger point I was making was the one echoed by John from New York, that the peace testimony rose up from the grass roots of the Quaker movement. Similar sorts of messages and leadings came to many Friends. Thomas Lurting is a great example of this because he was so isolated from other Friends. He became a pacifist before he knew that any other Friends held the same scruples.

Will T

June 26, 2008 8:48 PM  

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