Overcoming Our Limitations: 18 Year Old Quaker Martyr, James Parnell

Sculpture at Colchester Quaker Meeting Hall depicting Parnell in jail

Sculpture at Colchester Quaker Meeting Hall depicting Parnell in jail

Courageous faith isn’t just for special, brave people. Some of God’s heroes had to overcome serious limitations, even to get started. One such was James Parnell. He was a delicate lad, short for his age and sensitive. He loved Jesus and sensed there must be more than going to the parish church.

In 1653, when he was 16, he heard of George Fox, the leader of the Quakers, who was in prison in Carlisle. Weak as he was, James walked the 150 miles and, fainting with exhaustion, was allowed to visit Fox. We have no record of their conversation, but Parnell was filled with the Holy Spirit and commissioned by Fox to be an evangelist.

He had just two years of life left, but they were amazingly fruitful. A colleague at the time wrote: ‘He was of a poor appearance, a mere youth, coming against giants; yet the wisdom of man was made to bow before the Spirit by which he spoke.’

Disinherited and turned out of home by his parents, Parnell set about the work of the gospel. Sometimes with a partner, sometimes alone, he went from house to house, ‘preaching, praying, exhorting, and turning the minds of all sorts of people to the light of Jesus.’ He was ridiculed for his short stature, and often after preaching he was exhausted. Faith kept him going.

The cell in Colchester Castle where Parnell was held

The cell in Colchester Castle where Parnell was held

Hearing that two Quakers had been whipped at Cambridge, he went there and preached himself. He continued in the east of England, strengthening the Quaker assemblies. Finally, Parnell was arrested and imprisoned in Colchester. “I am committed to be kept a prisoner, but I am the Lord’s free-man,” he wrote. His jailers starved him for days at a time, then let him climb down a rope to get food. The jailer’s wife and daughter used to beat him, and on occasions he was locked outside in mid-winter.

It was too much for his weak constitution. One day he had no strength left to climb the rope but fell to the concrete below, and died of his injuries. He was just 18 years old. He was the first of several hundred Quaker martyrs. His message to all of us is summed up in the last words he sent to the Quaker believers in Essex: Be willing that self shall suffer for the truth, and not the truth for self.”

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About Trevor Saxby

I'm a mentor, friend to many, with a PhD in church history. I love learning from the 'movers and shakers' of the past, as I want to be one today!

2 responses to “Overcoming Our Limitations: 18 Year Old Quaker Martyr, James Parnell”

  1. John MacArthur says :

    Interesting times, apparently. The young man wasn’t afraid of offending people. What I find interesting about the period is the disputatious nature of many of its leading figures. George Fox fell out with a group of Dissenters by alleging that women had souls. We have a tendency to forget that our thinking and doctrinal worldview often stand on the shoulders of innovators willing to swim against the tide.

    • Trevor Saxby says :

      That is both true and helpful, John. Thank you. Regarding disputations, you have only to look at the sheer volume of pamphlets, political and religious, that were churned out in the 17th century. This was the Social Media of the day – disagreements became very public. Some people of wealth with a religious interest collected them, and these became the foundation for private libraries (I remember having to use one, the Fenitzer-Dillherrsche Bibliothek in Bavaria, for my doctoral research).

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