As one passing out of the body: Introduction to Richard Hubberthorne

As explained in “The scandal of early Quaker studies”, I want to start putting some of the out-of-print writings of the earliest Quakers online. I’m starting with a Friend named Richard Hubberthorne (1628-1662).


I am drawn to Hubberthorne in particular because he was an average, ordinary member of a remarkable group. One historian includes him among the “heroic pioneers of the new movement”1 – but puts him last, and later describes his writing as having “no distinction either of style or matter.”2 Perhaps this will make it easier to see what the basics of early Quakerism were for him – less chance of being distracted by the larger-than-life quality of someone like Fox or the dramatic escapades of someone like James Nayler.

And on a more practical note, Hubberthorne’s collected works3 are only about 300 pages long – much fewer than Edward Burroughs‘ 900, for example, or Fox’s thousands – so reading and republishing online everything he wrote seems feasible.

But first, more about Hubberthorne himself, according to Edward Burroughs’ testimony about him.

Hubberthorne the Seeker

He was born in Lancashire, the only son of a yeoman and his wife. His childhood is reminiscent of Fox’s – Burroughs describes him as being “inclinable from his youth upwards to Religion and to the best way, always minding the best things,” though unlike the headstrong young George, his disposition was “meek and lowly,” and he “loved peace among men”. Apparently only up to a point, however, because around age 20 he joined the army and fought in the English Civil War, as Burrough reports without disapproval.4

After the war ended, he apparently was in the company of the large group of disaffected radical Puritans known as “Seekers” in the Westmorland area.5 The Seekers were already, it should be noted, close to a number of “Quaker” positions and practices: their official minister refused to accept payment from the compulsory tithes, for example, and after he left the group held some of their meetings in silence.6

From Seeker to Quaker

But the spark that lit a fire under the Westmorland Seekers was the arrival of George Fox in June of 1652. Burrough, who was also one of them, recounts Hubberthorne’s conversion experience in this fascinating way:

And when it pleased the Lord God everlasting to raise us up to be a People in the North parts, … This same Person was one among the first of us whose heart the Lord touched with the sense of his Power and Kingdom; and amongst us he had the mighty operation of the Power of God experienced in his heart; Great afflictions and tribulations for many weeks was he exercised in … he was in that state, and while therein exercised for many days, a wonder to all that beheld him, as one passing out of the body, as one under the deep sense of the hand of the Lord, under the operation of his Power; thus it was with many of us, and particularly with him …7

I’ve emphasized what are to me the most striking details. To restate them,

  1. Hubberthorne’s conversion was a dramatic psychological event – consisting of “Great afflications and tribulations”, making him look like someone “passing out of the body”.
  2. It took place in a short span of time – not instantaneous, not years, but “weeks”.
  3. This was normal for that time – “thus it was with many of us” – as I was claiming in the post “Revolution and Quakers that Friends aren’t” (and in the comments), though I couldn’t remember a specific example at the time.

I don’t think modern Friends have to be just like early Friends. But I do wonder – when and why did this stop being the norm, when and why did it all but die out, and what do these developments say for our spiritual practice today?

1. The beginnings of Quakerism (1912) by William Braithwaite, p. 86.
2. BQ p. 303. The comments are also directed at George Whitehead’s writings.
3. A volume of his collected works were published in 1663, a year after his death, and titled A collection of the several books and writings of that faithful servant of God, Richard Hubberthorn, who finished his testimony (being a prisoner at Newgate for the truths sake) the 17th of the 6th month, 1662 (phew). I’m working from a scanned copy I downloaded from Early English Books Online in March 2005. Not everything he wrote appears to be included, however, because another recent book (Walking in the way of peace by Meredith Baldwin Weddle) refers to a pamphlet of his called “The good old cause briefly demonstrated”, published in 1659, which isn’t in the Collection.
4. Collection pp. vi-vii.
5. BQ p. 92.
6. BQ p. 80 on tithes and 82 on silence.
7. Collection pp. vii-viii, spelling modernized. The story continues: “Till such time as the same Power that killed made alive, as wounded also healed, as brought down also raised up …

1 Response to “As one passing out of the body: Introduction to Richard Hubberthorne”

  1. 1 forrest Oct 15th, 2006

    A few years ago our Pendle Hill synoptic gospels class went to the Jewish Renewal synagogue in Philadelphia, as sort of a field trip. We walked in on this group of people chanting praises to God in Hebrew; the tunes were much livelier than typical Christian hymns, with more of that spooky minor-key oompth and it didn’t hurt to hear it in a language we didn’t know… but mainly it was powerful and very, very right. Several of us were in tears, one Unitarian woman had such a powerful experience that the Rabbi took her under her wing for about an hour until she was ready for the so-called real world again.

    Anne and I went back to this place every week for the next several months, Anne primarily for the chanting and me for the Torah study. The woman who’d had the really profound experience wasn’t particularly interested in returning, although the effects colored her life (positively) for the rest of her stay. What I think made the experience so overwhelming was that she’d always been the cold-minded, skeptical, disinterested one–and she flipped abruptly into fervent devotional mode. (The content of her devotions, she said, was not specifically Jewish, but largely Christian.)

    For everyone, there’s always some risk that Beauty will strike again and knock us on our butts. But those experiences that give off the most sparks are discontinuities, times when we’re snatched abruptly from “here” and dumped splat down in the middle of HERE! It doesn’t necessarily take us anyplace unfamiliar.

    If you’re utterly dissatisfied with the typical state of things, there’s a lot of appeal to the idea of getting off in a real catclymic screamer. If it were to happen to the people we know who seem to need it most, it would do us a world of good!

    But the size of the Earthquake is not a measure of how well we’ve landed, but of how far away we were when we started falling.

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