Saturday, March 16, 2013

Quaker Alphabet Week 11 - F for Ruth Follows

Basket makers in 20th century Castle Donnington
Ruth Follows was born on 7 January 1718 in Weston, Nottinghamshire, the sixth of the seven children of  Quaker parents, Richard Alcock (d. 1757), and his wife Ruth (c.1687-1738). Although brought up as a quaker, Ruth was thrown off balance for a while after her mother’s death. As she puts it, 'I left her counsel behind me, trod her testimony under my feet and took a large swing at vanity’ but soon realised her fault and returned to the fold. Her reformation was aided by her marriage, aged about 23, to George Follows (c1717-1803), who she calls ‘a young man far more worthy than myself’. They lived in Castle Donnington, Leicestershire where together they struggled to gain a basic living at George’s trade of making baskets out of osiers (rushes) and Ruth gave birth to four sons.  

A family works at stripping osiers
Gradually it became clear to Ruth that she was being called to become a Quaker recorded  minister, as her mother had been before her. She struggled against this conviction both because her children were still young and because she knew that few working-class Quakers of very limited means like herself travelled in the ministry, but eventually she accepted the responsibility at the age of thirty.

Osier basket
For much of the next forty years Ruth travelled extensively throughout Great Britain, often leaving her children in the care of her always supportive husband and writing long and affectionate letters home. She usually travelled with younger women ministers who derived much support from her company. In 1761-2 and again in 1782-3 she visited Ireland and was particularly troubled by what she saw as Friends’ excessive worldliness there.

Ruth’s ministry sometimes lay in silence, directing those who came to hear her back within themselves to dependence on Christ the Inward teacher rather than on human ministry. On other occasions, when she perceived a fault, Ruth spoke out as ‘a sharp instrument in the Lord’s hand’, although she was always encouraging to the faithful.  

18th century Newfoundland
Two of Ruth’s sons, George (1742-1766) and Joseph (1751-1809), gave her considerable cause for anxiety by their youthful wildness, keeping bad company and drinking heavily, but both reformed under the steadying influence of Friends. Joseph worked for three years for a Quaker master in Newfoundland and on his return to England settled down in the family business. He became a Quaker minister himself and in 1793 accompanied his mother on one of her last journeys in the ministry.

Castle Donnington in the 19th century
Towards the end of her life Ruth became increasingly infirm and after a journey to Yearly Meeting in London in 1795 remained at home, receiving visiting Friends and faithfully attending local meetings. She had a wide network of friends who valued her and her name is often mentioned in their correspondence and journals. James Jenkins, not known for his charitable judgments on his fellow Quakers, described Ruth as ‘highly esteemed both as a minister and as a woman extremely amiable in private life'. He also says that she ‘was one of the most musical preachers I have ever heard - even in old age she used to exalt a clear strong voice into strains of delightful melody.’ George Follows died in 1803 and five years later, on 3 April 1808, Ruth died, aged 90, and was buried in the Quaker burial ground at Castle Donnington.

Ruth Follows’ spiritual autobiography and letters were assembled after her death and published twenty years later, in 1829, at the instigation of those who still valued her memory as Memoirs of Ruth Follows. Extracts from this book and some unpublished letters can be found in the anthology Strength in Weakness.

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