Thursday, January 17, 2013

Quaker Alphabet Week 3 - B for Samuel Bownas

Samuel Bownas is someone whose life and writings have always spoken to me. He was born into a Quaker family at Shap, Westmoreland in January 1677 and his father Anthony died within a month. Money was short and Samuel and his brother received only a basic education, enabling them to write and to read in English. Samuel had to earn money by working at a variety of jobs, including keeping sheep - which put him off the animals for life. At thirteen he was apprenticed to his uncle, a blacksmith, who mistreated him, and later to Samuel Parat, a Quaker of Sedbergh, Yorkshire.

Samuel's mother made sure that he was educated as a Quaker, but although he followed the traditional forms of dress, speech and worship they meant little to him. Going with his mother to visit Friends in prison he noticed that they wept during worship but could not understand why. All his mother could tell him was that perhaps as he grew he would understand.

When he was an apprentice Samuel went to Quaker meeting regularly but gained little benefit from it except that it kept him out of bad company. In his Journal he confessed that "the greater part of my time, I slept". However one day when Samuel was about twenty he was shaken from his lethargy by a visiting travelling minister, Anne Wilson. She pointed her finger at him and addressed him directly, rebuking him as "a traditional Quaker" who followed the outward forms of his faith but who came to and went from meeting untouched and unchanged.

Briggflatts Quaker meeting near Sedbergh
This time Samuel was both touched and changed. He understood what his mother and other Friends had been trying to teach him 'experimentally' - through his own experience. Quite soon too he felt a call to the ministry which was recognised by his local meeting. While he was still apprenticed he did not venture far afield but after three years he began to travel widely, drawing on the experience and encouragement of many fellow-ministers including the older James Dickinson (1659-1741) and his contemporary James Wilson (1677-1769). They let him know if he was becoming too pleased with his ministry and urged him to be faithful. Another Friend, Joseph Baines, warned him against the snares of popularity saying, "Sammy, thou hast needs take care, Friends admire thee so much, thou dost not grow proud."

Travelling in the ministry was Samuel's main focus but in order to do this he felt it important that he should remain financially independent. He worked in the fields during the hay-harvest and at other enterprises so that he could save money for his keep and to buy his own horse so that he would not be a burden upon the Friends he travelled among.

On a visit to Sherborne in Dorset around 1701 Samuel met Joan Slade his future wife. The couple agreed to defer their marriage as Samuel felt called to travel further afield, to America. He travelled by way of Scotland and set sail for Maryland in 1702.

While in America Samuel was particularly engaged to challenge the preaching of the renegade Quaker George Keith, who had taken Anglican orders. Keith had Samuel prosecuted for preaching and thrown into gaol on Long Island, where he was held for nearly a year. Samuel learned to make shoes in order to earn a living and received visits from, among others, someone who he refers to as an 'Indian King'
St Thomas' church Lymington

After his release in 1703 Samuel continued his travels in America before returning home at the end of 1706. Early the next year he and Joan were married and settled in Lymington. Samuel continued to travel but encountered trouble at home when in 1712 he was gaoled for not paying tithes to the vicar of Lymington. Samuel was soon released as the vicar tricked Joan into paying the money in question, a fault which troubled her greatly until she died seven years later.

In 1722 Samuel married again, this time a widow named Nichols, and went to live with her in Bridport. The partnership lasted until she died in 1746 and Samuel used his wife's capital to set up in business, becoming a prosperous merchant. He also read widely and educated himself, becoming well known as a minister. He is described as "of a grave deportment, and of a tall comely and manly aspect" with a strong clear voice, preaching with "divine authority and majestic innocence."

As he had been encouraged by other ministers in his youth, Samuel came to feel that he had relevant experience to pass on to succeeding generations, so he wrote, and in 1750 published, A Description of the Qualifications Necessary to a Gospel Minister. These qualifications were not to do with academic learning but sprang from experience and from faithfully following one's Inward Teacher. This book was well received, has been reprinted many times and is still, I have found, worth reading today.

Towards the end of his life Samuel felt disillusioned with the Society of Friends as he saw it. He wrote to his old friend and fellow-minister James Wilson, "The Church seems very barren of young ministers to what it was in our youth, nor is there but very little convincement to what was then." Samuel saw convincement as the main point of his ministry and was disappointed by his reception. "'The man spoke well' say they, and that is all I get for my labours."

Samuel became increasingly infirm, "his hands shook and his eyesight failed him", but he continued to attend meetings locally until the end of his life. He died at Bridport on 2 April 1753 aged seventy six. After his death his Journal An account of the life, travels and Christian experiences in the work of the ministry of Samuel Bownas was published, which is also well worth reading today.
Title page of Bownas's journal


Mary said...

Thanks for this Gil. I quoted a book by him as my favourite Quaker writing at the time I was asked. I suspect it still is today though a long time since I read it... pause to look out book! I think the title was "Qualifications for a Quaker Minister".

Anonymous said...

A really interesting post, Gil. I'm always surprised by the detail we have about the lives of some people who lived so relatively long ago. I'm also a little bit fascinated by the 'renegade Quaker' who had taken Anglican orders.