George Fox (1624–1691) Describes the Disgusting Prison Conditions He Endured

George Fox refusing the oath, from a painting by John Pettie R.A. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

George Fox was founder of the Quakers, so called because they trembled before God. In opposition to the obvious coldness and corruption of the church of his day, Fox chose to be guided by the inward light of Christ (fed by continual immersion in the Bible) and rejected the trappings of formal religion and any undue respect to mere men, whatever their elevation. For this he suffered many imprisonments. Under tyrants, prisons become places of terrible retribution and injustice. The following excerpt from his journal describes what may be some of the nastiest prison conditions recorded in Christian history.

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Journal Excerpt, 1656

The assizes being over, and we settled in prison upon such a commitment that we were not likely to be soon released, we broke off from giving the jailer seven shillings a week apiece for our horses, and seven shillings a week for ourselves, and sent our horses into the country. Upon which he grew very wicked and devilish, and put us down into Doomsdale, a nasty, stinking place, where they used to put murderers after they were condemned.

The place was so noisome [smelly] that it was observed few that went in did ever come out again in health. There was no house of office [restroom] in it; and the excrement of the prisoners that from time to time had been put there had not been carried out (as we were told) for many years. So that it was all like mire, and in some places to the tops of the shoes in water and urine; and he would not let us cleanse it, nor suffer us to have beds or straw to lie on.

At night some friendly people of the town brought us a candle and a little straw; and we burned a little of our straw to take away the stink. The thieves lay over our heads, and the head jailer in a room by them, over our heads also. It seems the smoke went up into the room where the jailer lay; which put him into such a rage that he took the pots of excrement from the thieves and poured them through a hole upon our heads in Doomsdale, till we were so bespattered that we could not touch ourselves nor one another. And the stink increased upon us; so that what with stink, and what with smoke, we were almost choked and smothered. We had the stink under our feet before, but now we had it on our heads and backs also; and he having quenched our straw with the filth he poured down, had made a great smother in the place. Moreover, he railed [spoke bitterly] at us most hideously, calling us hatchet-faced dogs, and such strange names as we had never heard of. In this manner we were obliged to stand all night, for we could not sit down, the place was so full of filthy excrement.

A great while he kept us after this manner before he would let us cleanse it, or suffer us to have any victuals [food] brought in but what we got through the grate. One time a girl brought us a little meat; and he arrested her for breaking his house, and sued her in the town-court for breaking the prison. A great deal of trouble he put the young woman to; whereby others were so discouraged that we had much ado to get water, drink, or victuals. Near this time we sent for a young woman, Ann Downer, from London, who could write and take things well in shorthand, to buy and dress our meat for us; which she was very willing to do, it being also upon her spirit to come to us in the love of God; and she was very serviceable to us.

The head-jailer, we were informed, had been a thief, and was burnt [branded] both in the hand and in the shoulder; his wife, too, had been burnt in the hand. The under-jailer had been burnt both in the hand and in the shoulder: his wife had been burnt in the hand also. Colonel Bennet, a Baptist teacher, having purchased the jail and lands belonging to the castle, had placed this head-jailer there. The prisoners and some wild people would be talking of spirits that haunted Doomsdale, and how many had died in it, thinking perhaps to terrify us therewith. But I told them that if all the spirits and devils in hell were there, I was over them in the power of God, and feared no such thing; for Christ, our Priest, would sanctify the walls of the house to us, He who had bruised the head of the devil. The priest was to cleanse the plague out of the walls of the house under the law, which had been ended by Christ, our Priest, who sanctifies both inwardly and outwardly the walls of the house, the walls of the heart, and all things to his people.

By this time the general quarter-sessions drew nigh; and the jailer still carrying himself basely and wickedly towards us, we drew up our suffering case, and sent it to the sessions at Bodmin. On the reading thereof, the justices gave order that Doomsdale door should be opened, and that we should have liberty to cleanse it, and to buy our meat in the town. We also sent a copy of our sufferings to the Protector [Oliver Cromwell], setting forth how we had been taken and committed by Major Ceely; and abused by Captain Keat as aforesaid, and the rest in order. The Protector sent down an order to Captain Fox, governor of Pendennis Castle, to examine the matter about the soldiers abusing us, and striking me.

There were at that time many of the gentry of the country at the Castle; and Captain Keat’s kinsman, that struck me, was sent for before them, and much threatened. They told him that if I should change my principles, I might take the extremity of the law against him, and might recover sound damages of him. Captain Keat also was checked, for suffering the prisoners under his charge to be abused.

This was of great service in the country; for afterwards Friends [Quakers] might speak in any market or steeple-house thereabouts, and none would meddle with them. I understood that Hugh Peters, one of the Protector’s chaplains, told him they could not do George Fox a greater service for the spreading of his principles in Cornwall, than to imprison him there.

And indeed my imprisonment there was of the Lord, and for His service in those parts; for after the assizes were over, and it was known that we were likely to continue prisoners, several Friends from most parts of the nation came in to the country to visit us. Those parts of the west were very dark countries at that time but the Lord’s light and truth broke forth, shone over all, and many were turned from darkness to light, and from Satan’s power unto God. Many were moved to go to the steeple-houses; and several were sent to prison to us; and a great convincement began in the country. For now we had liberty to come out, and to walk in the Castle-Green; and many came to us on First-days [Sundays], to whom we declared the Word of life…

John Lilburne (c. 1614–1657) Writes His Testimony While Incarcerated

John Lilburne, after Unknown artist line engraving, mid 17th century
6 1/4 in. x 3 1/2 in. (158 mm x 88 mm) paper size; Given by the daughter of compiler William Fleming MD, Mary Elizabeth Stopford (née Fleming), 1931. NPG D28981 [CC BY-SA 3.0]

The Englishman John Lilburne was for many years a Puritan. He took the side of Parliament in the English Civil War and fought well for the cause, especially at Maston Moor in 1644. At that time he was a close associate and friend of Oliver Cromwell. Later Cromwell imprisoned him because of his opposition to the Protector’s tyranny. During this imprisonment, Lilburne became a Quaker, claiming that for the first time he developed a real relationship with God.

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It is wonderful how God changes history through people who don’t seem completely glued together. Lilburne’s writing was sometimes half-incoherent and ranting. Yet he has a significant place in the history of personal rights in England and those countries, such as the United States, which derive their understanding of law from it. He claimed every Englishman was born with rights (rights not given by any government, but rather innate human rights) and he agitated for them. Eminent authorities, such as Chief Justice Hugo Black, have cited Lilburne’s arguments as foundational to the United States Constitution.

Here is one of the clearer excerpts from his spiritual testimony, written while he was in prison. The wording and spelling are somewhat modernized to make it more readable.

The Resurrection of John Lilburne, Now a Prisoner in Dover Castle.

From Dover Castle, being a place wherein God has more clearly than ever before, opened the eyes of my understanding, the 4th day of the 10th month, 1655.

[Lilburne explains at length why he did not sign an “engagement” demanded by Cromwell; what Christ is to his soul, how he has overcome fleshly desires, what God and Satan desire of us, spiritual warfare, and the like with many scriptural allusions and quotations]

In all which consideration, I say, I have now the faithful and true witness in my soul, that the Lord himself is become within me the teacher of my soul, and enabler of me to walk in a measure of his pure ways and paths; yes, and so clear a teacher within me, is he already become unto me, as that I with confidence believe my inward teacher shall, never now more be removed into a corner; but is, and shall be as a continual voice speaking in my ears; “This is the way, walk in it:” By which divine teaching I am now daily taught to die to sin, and led up by it into living power, to be raised up, and enabled to live in a pure measure of righteousness; and by which inward spiritual teachings, I am, I say again, led up into power in Christ, by which I particularly can, and do hereby witness, that I am already dead, or crucified, to the very occasions, and real grounds of all outward wars, and carnal sword-fightings and fleshly bustlings and contests; and that therefore I confidently now believe, I shall never hereafter be a user of a temporal sword more, nor a joiner with those that so do.

And this I do … solemnly declare, nor in the least to my old persecution, or for any politic … of my own or in the least for the satisfaction of the … wills of any of my great adversaries, or for satisfying the carnal will of my poor weak, afflicted wife, but by the special movings and compulsions of God now upon my soul, am I in truth and righteousness compelled this to declare, that so I may take away from my adversaries all their fig-leaf covers, or pretences of their continuing of my everyway unjust bonds; And thereby, if yet I must be an imprisoned sufferer, it may from this day forward be for the truth, as it is in Jesus: Which truth I witness to be truly professed and practiced by the savoriest of people called Quakers: and to this my present declaration, which I exceedingly long and earnestly desire to have in print, and for which I know that I can cheerfully and assuredly lay down my life, if I be called to witness the truth of it, I subscribe my outward name,

the new, or inward
spiritual name, no
man knows but he
that has it.

From my innocent, and every way causeless captivity in Dover-Castle, the place of my soul’s delightful and contentful abode, where I have really and substantially found that which my soul many years has fought diligently after, and with unsatisfied longingness, thirsted to enjoy, this present first day of the week, being the 4th of the 3rd month, 1655.

The End

Samuel Rutherford (1600–1661) Admonishes His Congregation from Exile

Rutherford in prison, from J. C. McFeeters’ Sketches of the Covenanters, 1913.

If we remember John Locke for his treatises on government, all the more should we remember Samuel Rutherford who preceded him. His Lex Rex developed a theory of limited, constitutional government, based on laws, not men, with separation of powers. It probably influenced Locke. Because of this book, he was charged with treason. His answer when governmental authorities summoned him to appear on the charge has become a classic quotation: “Tell them I have a summons already before a superior Judge and judicatory, and I behove [ie: find it necessary and fitting] to answer my first summons, and ere your day come I will be where few kings and great folks come.” As he predicted, he died before he could be tried. Thus he escaped the fate of other Scottish Covenanters, who were executed by hanging or in other ways.

In the 17th-century Scottish Covenanters covenanted with God for the good of their people. They fought long and hard for the crown right and prerogatives of Christ over His Church, against the claims of the Kings of England to head the church, with devastating results to themselves.

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A Presbyterian serving in Galloway, Rutherford had criticized cruel Archbishop Laud of the Church of England. This and his political theory, which directly attacked the so-called “divine right of kings,” kept him in continual hot water. He spent many years banished to Aberdeen during the reign of Charles I, and several months under house arrest during the Restoration. These stints of imprisonment robbed his church people of a loving, affectionate and learned pastor. However, he communicated with them in powerful letters which continually pointed them to Christ. Charles Spurgeon, the great Baptist preacher, said of these letters, “When we are dead and gone let the world know that Spurgeon held Rutherford’s Letters to be the nearest thing to inspiration which can be found in all the writings of mere men.”

Rutherford was an active man, always doing good. He wrote many books and helped prepare the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Yet his life was involved in much suffering. In addition to the persecution and banishment he endured, he mourned the loss all but one of his seven children, who died before him. His beloved wife also preceded him in death, after a long and painful illness.

Letter LXXX [80] from The Letters of Samuel Rutherford


My Dearly-beloved Sister, grace, mercy, and peace be to you. I complain that Galloway is not kind to me on paper; I have received no letters these sixteen weeks, but two.

I am well. My prison is a palace to me, and Christ’s banqueting-house. My Lord Jesus is as kind as they call Him. Oh, that all Scotland knew my case, and had part of my feast! I charge you, in the name of God, I charge you to believe. Fear not the sons of men, the worms shall eat them. To pray and believe now, when Christ seemeth to give you a nay-say, is more than it was before. Die believing, die with Christ’s promise in your hand.

I desire, I request, I charge your husband, and that town to stand for the truth of the Gospel. Contend with Christ’s enemies: and I pray you to show all professors [i.e.: those who falsely claim to be Christian] that you know my case. Help me to praise. The ministers here envy me; they will have my prison changed. My mother has borne me a man of contention, and one who strives with the whole earth.

Remember my love to your husband. Grace be with you.

Yours, in the Lord, S. Ru.

Aberdeen, Jan. 3, 1637.

Hugo Grotius (1583–1645) Defends Christianity While in Prison

Grotius Preparing for His Escape from Loevestein, Hamilton Vreeland’s Hugo Grotius the father of the modern science of international law (New York: Oxford University, 1917)

In 1619 the government of the Netherlands imprisoned Hugo Grotius, a brilliant legal thinker who had been a child prodigy. The reason for this traced back to his political affiliations (he was among those who advocated states’ rights as opposed to centralized government) and for his religious views (he defended Arminian theology in opposition to the dominant Calvinism of his homeland).

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The authorities were fairly lenient to Grotius. They allowed him to have books to him in a chest. Consequently, while in prison, Grotius produced dramatic works, poetry, and the original version of The Truth of the Christian Religion. The chest later served him well as a means of escape.

While The Truth of the Christian Religion was not the first apologetic work, it was the first Protestant textbook on apologetics. Grotius did not seek to advance any particular version of Christianity as much as to demonstrate the truth of Christian fundamentals against Atheists, Deists, Jews, and Muslims.

Curiously, this defense of Christianity was originally written in verse. Later, with the help of his wife and maid, Grotius escaped and fled to Paris. While in Paris, he rendered The Truth of the Christian Religion into Latin prose. While not the most famous of his works—his Law of the Sea and Law of War and Peace are much better known—it was highly influential because it answered “modern” attacks on the Gospel. Many scholars translated it into diverse languages. One innovation of the work was the “moral government” theory of the atonement, widely adopted by Arminians and Methodists. This is the theory that Jesus’ sacrificial death occurred in order for the Father to forgive mankind while still maintaining his just rule over the universe. However, it is not Grotius’ theory of atonement we excerpt, but section VI in which Grotius advanced some evidences for Christ’s resurrection. Our version is taken from John Clarke’s translation, published in 1829.

The Resurrection of Christ Proved from Credible Testimony.

Christ’s coming to life again in a wonderful manner, after his crucifixion, death, and burial, affords us no less strong an argument for those miracles that were done by Him. For the Christians of all times and places assert this not only for a truth, but as the principal foundation of their faith: which could not be, unless those who first taught the Christian faith, had fully persuaded their hearers that the thing did come to pass. Now, they could not fully persuade men of any judgment of this, unless they affirmed themselves to be eyewitnesess of it; for, without such an affirmation, no man in his senses would have believed them, especially at that time, when such a belief was attended with so many evils and dangers. That this was affirmed by them with great constancy, their own books, and the books of others, tell us; indeed, it appears from those books, that they appealed to 500 witnesses, who saw Jesus after he was risen from the dead. Now, it is not usual for those that speak untruths to appeal to so many witnesses. Nor is it possible so many men should agree to bear a false testimony. And if there had been no other witnesses but those twelve known first propagators of the Christian doctrine, it had been sufficient.

Nobody has any ill design for nothing. They could not hope for any honor, from saying what was not true, because all the honors were in the power of the heathen and Jews, by whom they were reproached and contemptuously treated: nor for riches, because, on the contrary, their profession was often attended with the loss of their goods, if they had any; and if it had been otherwise, yet the Gospel could not have been taught by them, but with the neglect of their temporal goods. Nor could any other advantages of this life provoke them to speak a falsity, when the very preaching of the Gospel exposed them to hardship, to hunger and thirst, to lashes and imprisonment. Fame, amongst themselves only was not so great, that for the sake thereof, men of upright intentions, whose lives and tenets were free from pride and ambition, should undergo so many evils. Nor had they any ground to hope that their opinion, which was so repugnant to nature, (which is wholly bent upon its own advantages), and to the authority which everywhere governed, could make so great a progress, but from a divine promise. Further, they could not promise to themselves that this fame, whatever it was, would be lasting; because (God on purpose concealing his intention in this matter from them) they expected that the end of the whole world was just at hand, as is plain from their own writings, and those of the Christians that came after them.

It remains, therefore, that they must be said to have uttered a falsity, for the sake of defending their religion; which, if we consider the thing reasonably, can never be said of them; for either they believed from their heart that their religion was true, or they did not believe it. If they had not believed it to have been the best, they would never have chosen it from all other religions, which were more safe and honorable. No, though they believed it to be true, they would not have made profession of it, unless they had believed such a profession necessary; especially when they could easily foresee, and they quickly learned by experience, that such a profession would be attended with the death of a vast number; and they would have been guilty of the highest wickedness, to have given such occasion, without a just reason. If they believed their religion to be true, indeed, that it was the best, and ought to be professed by all means, and this after the death of their Master; it was impossible this should be, if their Master’s promise concerning his resurrection had failed them; for this had been sufficient to any man, in his senses, to have overthrown that belief which he had before entertained. Again, all religion, but particularly the Christian religion, forbids lying and false witness, especially in divine matters: they could not therefore be moved to tell a lie out of love to religion, especially such a religion. To all which may be added, that they were men who led such a life as was not blamed even by their adversaries; and who had no objection made against them, but only their simplicity, the nature of which is the most distant that can be from forging a lie. And there were none of them who did not undergo even the most grievous things for their profession of the resurrection of Jesus. Many of them endured the most agonizing deaths for this testimony.

Now, suppose it possible, that any man in his wits could undergo such things for an opinion he had entertained in his mind; yet for a falsity, and which is known to be a falsity, that not only one man, but very many, should be willing to endure such hardships, is a thing plainly incredible. And that they were not mad, both their lives and their writings sufficiently testify. What has been said of these first, the same may also be said of Paul, who openly declared that he saw Christ reigning in heaven, and he did not lack the learning of the Jews, but had great prospect of honor, if he had trod in the paths of his fathers. But, on the contrary, he thought it his duty, for this profession, to expose himself to the hatred of his relations; and to undertake difficult, dangerous, and troublesome, voyages all over the world, and at last to suffer an ignominious death.

John Donne (1572–1631) Adds an Epigram to Prison Literature

The house Donne and family occupied at Pyrford, by SuzanneKn at English Wikipedia [Public domain], with inset of Donne, from a painting by Isaac Oliver [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Thrown into prison in retaliation for his elopement with Anne More, John Donne wrote one of the most famous epigrams of all time. At a considerably later date, he became Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, London.

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Donne was the most illustrious of the metaphysical poets. His earliest works were often erotic; his later work consisted chiefly of profound religious poetry.

Donne’s Epigram

John Donne, Anne Donne, Undone

Richard Baker (1568–1645) in Debtors Prison

Richard Baker
Sir Richard Baker went to prison for debt

In Sir Richard Baker, we see a Christian prisoner jailed for debt. He had made himself responsible for debts owed by his wife’s family. Unable to pay, he lost his property and died in debtor’s prison (Fleet Prison) on 18 February 1645 after ten years of incarceration. He spent those years in writing meditations on the Psalms and the Lord’s Prayer, as well as a chronicle of English history that went through several editions.

Here are selections from his comments on the Lord’s Prayer.

We may know what it is to do God’s will in earth as it is in heaven: by the which St. John tells of the four and twenty elders, “That they cast down their crowns before the throne of God, saying, Thou art worthy, O God, to receive glory, and honor, and power:” for so we must do by our wills, which are indeed our crowns: cast them down, and resign them up to God; but cast them down, not cast them away; resign them, but yet retain them; for without wills of our own, we can never do God’s will. Unwilling service is never acceptable: as St. Paul saith, “If I do it willingly, I have a reward;” and thus, if we can have wills of our own, and yet not do our own wills, if we can willingly renounce our own wills, and take God’s will in their room, and make it our own will: we shall then do with our wills, as the elders did with their crowns; and then we shall do God’s will as it is done in heaven.

God gives us our bread when He gives the earth strength to bring forth bread: God gives us our bread when He sends seasonable weather to gather in our bread: God gives us our bread when He grants us peace and quiet to eat our bread: God gives us our bread when He gives us health and strength to earn our bread: and if we could reckon up all the ways of God giving us our bread, we should find them to be more than the very grains of corn of the bread we eat.

By this petition then it appears that every man commits sin, because every man is here enjoined to ask forgiveness. But are there not the just? Yes, but they were just before God in His mercy, not in His justice; before God as a father, not as a judge; before God in Christ, not in themselves. And,in a word, to make good David’s words— they are just before God, not by their not committing, but by God’s not imputing, sin unto them. . . . But seeing God hath forgiven our sins already in Christ, what need we to trouble God or ourselves to ask forgiveness again, as though our words could do more than Christ’s deeds? but is it not as when a king proclaims a general pardon to all offenders, yet none shall have benefit by it but only such as sue it forth and fetch it out; so God indeed hath granted a general pardon to all sinners in the merits of His Son, but none shall have benefit by it but such only as sue it forth by the tongue of faith and fetch it out by the feet of charity, and this is the tongue of faith when we say, “Forgive us our trespasses.” These are the feet of charity, when we “Forgive them that trespass against us.”