Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Askews, Quakers, and Colonization

I have recently discovered that my ancestors were involved in the Quaker movement from England to the English colony of Virginia.  This is another discovery that possibly illuminates one of the reasons that my ancestors came to Virginia.

First some background on the Quaker movement … originally known as the Religious Society of Friends.  During the English Civil Wars, George Fox pulled together groups of disparate seekers that formed the Religious Society of Friends in 1647. He targeted "scattered Baptists," disillusioned soldiers, and restless commoners as potential Quakers. Confrontations with the established churches and its leaders was inevitable as the Quakers believed that God could speak to average people, through his risen son, without the need to heed churchmen, pay tithes, or engage in deceitful practices. They found fertile ground in northern England in 1651 and 1652, building a base there from which they moved south, first to London and then beyond. Fox also established a more equal role for women, which served both to isolate the opposition and fuel discontent.  Despite the survival of strong patriarchal elements, Quakers believed in the spiritual equality of women, who were allowed to take a far more active role in the church.

Two acts of English Parliament made it particularly difficult. The first was the Quaker Act of 1662, which made it illegal to refuse to take the Oath of Allegiance to the King and country. The second act was the Conventicle Act of 1664, which reaffirmed that holding secret meetings by people who did not pledge allegiance to the country was a crime.

An early leader of the movement was George Fox’s wife, Margaret Askew Fell Fox, also known as the ‘Mother of Quakerism’.   She was born Margaret Askew in Dalton-in-Furness, a small town in the north of England, where the Askew family originated. She had married Thomas Fell in 1632, and became the lady of Swarthmore Hall. Thomas Fell had served as a Justice of the Peace for Lancashire County, England and in 1645 was a member of Parliament. He died in 1658 leaving Margaret Askew a widow.

In late June 1652, George Fox visited Swarthmoor Hall. Margaret stated of George Fox, he 'opened us a book that we had never read in, nor indeed had never heard that it was our duty to read in it (to wit) the Light of Christ in our consciences, our minds never being turned towards it before.' Later, she invited George Fox to preach at their local parish.  Over the next weeks she and many of her household became convinced.  Over the next few years, Swarthmoor Hall became a center of Quaker activity and Margaret served as an unofficial secretary for the new movement.  She wrote many epistles herself, as well as, collected and disbursed funds for those on missions. After her husband's death in 1658, she retained control of Swarthmore Hall, which remained a meeting place for Quakers and haven from persecution, even though it was sometimes, in the 1660s, raided by government forces.

In 1664 Margaret Fell was arrested for failing to take an oath and for allowing Quaker meetings to be held in her home. She defended herself by saying that "as long as the Lord blessed her with a home, she would worship him in it". She was sentenced to life imprisonment and forfeiture of her property. She remained in prison until 1668, during which time she wrote religious pamphlets and epistles. Perhaps her most famous work is "Women's Speaking Justified", a scripture-based argument for women's ministry, and one of the major texts on women's religious leadership in the 17th century. Margaret bases her argument for equality of the sexes on the basic premises of Quakerism that is spiritual equality. Her belief was that God created all human beings; therefore both men and women were capable of not only possessing the ‘Inner Light’ but also the ability to be a prophet.

After her release from prison she married George Fox in 1669. On returning to Lancashire after her marriage, she was again imprisoned for about a year in Lancaster for breaking the Conventicle Act. Shortly after her release, George Fox departed on a religious mission to America, and he too was imprisoned again on his return in 1673. Margaret again traveled to London to intercede on his behalf, and he was eventually freed in 1675.

Margaret spent most of the rest of her life at Swarthmore Hall. After the death of George Fox in 1691, she continued to take an active part in Quaker affairs.  She died at the age of 88.  One has to think that she was probably inspired by the Protestant Martyr, Anne Askew, possibly a distant ancestor of Margret. 
One also has to believe that she was possibly related to the Askew’s that migrated from England to the Isle of Wight in Colonial Virginia during the mid 17th Century.  Studying Isle of Wight history … I have discovered a strong Quaker connection.  The oldest group of Quakers in Virginia settled in the southeast corner of Virginia (e.g. Norfolk, Isle of Wight Co. etc.) and date to the time of arrival of the earliest Askew’s to the Virginia Colony. This group of Quakers spread from Southeast Virginia into the northeast corner of North Carolina. It is also interesting that the Askew family migrated from Southeast Virginia to Northeast North Carolina. 

George Fox visited Isle of Wight in 1672.  From George Fox’s journal, “On the 5th we set sail for Virginia, and in three day’s came to a place called Nancemond … Next day we had a great meeting there of Friends and others.”  He continues, “Another very good meeting also we had at William Yarrow’s at Pagan Creek which was so large that we were fain to be abroad.”  One of the largest meeting houses of the Quakers in Virginia was located at Pagan Creek in Isle of Wight and located near John Askew’s property.  His journal goes on to mention ‘kinsmen’ attending these meetings … could these ‘kinsmen’ have been Askews?
The Quakers were also persecuted in Virginia.  In 1659 the Virginia General Assembly passed a law against the Quakers, fining 100 lbs. sterling to any ship's master who brought in Quakers and prison terms were imposed on Quakers who refused to leave the colony. This caused church members to flee to a colony to other locations such as the Maryland colony.  

In Virginia, the authorities refused to accept Quaker marriages as legal, and they were fined for fornication. For this reason, there are very few records of the first converts to the church. It was not only until 1688 that the Religious Toleration Act was passed.

Due to these acts many of the Quaker’s that remained in the Virginia colony probably held their religious beliefs in secret … which may be why it is difficult to positively identify these early Virginia Askews as tied to the movement; but, considering their possible connection to Margaret Askew Fell Fox, their timeline of arrival in the Virginia Colony, and their close proximity to the Isle of Wight Quakers, it is possible that my ancestors were tied to the Quaker movement as one of their reasons or means for migrating to Virginia in the mid 17th century.

Margret Askew

Society of Friends' burial ground in Sunbrick, Urswick, England Margaret's resting place