Monday, December 08, 2014

Schooldays, witchcraft - and George Fox

Twenty-five miles from here as the crow flies is a hill that can be seen for miles around, when it isn't raining. (A local saying has it that if you can see Pendle it's about to rain, and if you can't see it, it's raining already. A scurrilous statement, that.) I went to school within a mile or two of the hill's Big End, and on Saturdays I climbed its slopes and tramped its length.

It's probably best known for its connection with the Pendle Witches (or the Lancashire Witches, as author Harrison Ainsworth called them). Four hundred years ago, Pendle was considered a wild and lawless region, "fabled for its theft, violence and sexual laxity, where the church was honoured without much understanding of its doctrines by the common people."

Roger Nowell of Read Hall, JP for Pendle, was investigating people failing to attend  the Church of England when he received a complaint that John Law, a pedlar, had been injured by witchcraft. Law appears to have suffered a stroke shortly after an argument with one Alizon Device. Alizon Device, being investigated, made claims about a rival family.

The magistrate's inquiries led to some 11 people being sent to Lancaster Assizes and one to York Assizes in 1612 to answer charges of causing harm by witchcraft, Ten were sentenced to death by hanging. They were apparently poor uneducated people who earned a living by begging, home cures, threats and extortion. Except for one, Alice Nutter, the widow of a prosperous farmer, who is believed to have been a Catholic and it is said may have declined to give evidence in her defence for fear of incriminating other Catholics.

The trial became the best known of all British witchcraft trials, largely because of an account of the trial, The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster, published by the clerk of the court, Thomas Potts.

Fortunately the hill has some more godly associations. George Fox. founder of the Society of Friends, commonly known as Quakers, realised that it took more than going to Oxford or Cambridge to make a minister, and he had scant respect for "steeple-houses," for the church, he said, was the people, and their head was Christ. Born the son of a godly Leicestershire weaver, he was constantly on the move, exhorting people to repentance and "turning people from darkness to light." 

He arrived in Pendle around 1651, when he was about 26 years old. He had already served two periods in prison because of his outspokenness. He writes in his Journal:

"As we travelled we came near a very great hill, called Pendle Hill, and I was moved of the Lord to go up to the top of it; which I did with difficulty, it was so very steep and high. When I was come to the top, I saw the sea bordering on Lancashire. From the top of this hill the Lord let me see in what places he had a great people to be gathered. As I went down, I found a spring of water in the side of the hill, with which I refreshed myself, having eaten or drunk but little for several days before."

Jesus said "Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature" (Mark 16:15).

George Fox was a good example, would you think?

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