Passionate and persevering, Elizabeth Hooton played a key role in the birth of Quakerism. Her story, one that both inspires and challenges Friends today, deserves to be better known. She is mentioned in the earliest histories of Quakers and in George Fox’s Journal; many facts of her life, travels, and sufferings are known. Elizabeth Hooton: First Quaker Woman Preacher (1600- 1672), written by Emily Manners, pulls together many little-known documents related to her life. The full nature of her important role, however, must be read between the lines.
Born in 1600 in Elizabethan England, she was probably named for the beloved queen who proved that females could excel in capacities formerly considered only the province of males. In the little village of Skegby, she did not find her spiritual needs met by the established Church of England. It was an age of religious ferment, and she tried out several Puritan groups before joining with the General Baptists, a radical sect that allowed the ministry of lay preachers in their meetings, even women. When the ravages of the English Civil War and the failures of the new Puritan government dashed the hopes of many, her Baptist group shattered. She gathered the remnants of her church, which began to meet in her home—much to the dismay of her husband, Oliver, who did not approve of his wife’s radical religion.
At the age of 47, Hooton befriended a traveling stranger, 22-year-old George Fox. Their meeting would change both their lives. The young man had been a solitary wanderer for three years, seeking out numerous noted priests and preachers for spiritual guidance; none had been able to speak to his condition. Wrestling with inner demons, the ardent seeker had often felt that darkness might overcome him. After finally giving up seeking guidance from outside himself, he received a series of important spiritual "openings." Elizabeth Hooton, the mature mother and Baptist minister, listened perceptively to his story, perhaps understanding the young man’s spiritual condition better than anyone had before. She heard the authority that comes from direct experience of the Divine and gladly welcomed him at the meetings in her house. In his Journal he described her as a "very tender woman."
George Fox told the group meeting at Elizabeth Hooton’s house that they, too, could be taught directly, inwardly, by the Spirit of Christ. They had been seeking in the printed words of the Bible to learn what God wanted of them, but he urged them to heed the living Word that they could find in their own hearts. The group experienced the presence of God among them and welcomed him back again and again. In a history he wrote of this group, Oliver Hooton Jr. reported that the "mighty power of ye Lord was manifest" in these gatherings. The members of this group began to call themselves "Children of the Light."
Fox continued his wandering ministry, preaching in churches, in marketplaces, and at country fairs. Although some were beginning to respond to his message, he was often treated harshly—sometimes beaten or stoned, thrown out of churches, and dragged to jails. At times the truth of his direct connection to God and Christ was evident, but at other times he was still tempted to doubt and despair. Over the next years he returned to the Nottinghamshire Children of Light often. Most likely, Elizabeth Hooton welcomed him at her table with her family, giving him human consolation for the difficulties of his hard, solitary preaching.
Hooton continued to preach in the meetings in her home. The power in her ministry forever convinced George Fox, who had been raised by a devout mother, that God anointed women for ministry as well as men. Henceforth he argued with strong conviction against the common belief that women were spiritually inferior to men, maintaining that members of his new movement had returned to the state of equality known by Adam and Eve before their sin, when they were "helpsmeet" to each other. Elizabeth Hooton was a helpsmeet to George Fox in the years after they met. When we imagine their relationship, it seems likely that his interactions with this spiritual mother helped him clarify the faith that was emerging through him. This faith would share many of the beliefs and practices of the General Baptists, including the strong conviction that salvation is possible for all. Like the Baptists, Fox would also preach against paying tithes to the state church and witness against a "hireling ministry."
The meetings of The Children of the Light at Elizabeth Hooton’s house were a place where the power of the Spirit in early Quakerism became evident to others. In a testimony he later wrote of her, Fox said, "She had Meetings at her house where the Lord by his power wrought many Miracles to the Astonishing of the world and Confirming People of the Truth which she there Received about 1646." One healing in particular convinced many skeptics. Fox had been sought out by a woman who had suffered for 32 years from what seemed to be an evil spirit that possessed her. The prayers, fasting, and rituals performed for her by priests of the Church of England had failed to help. At a meeting in Mansfield, the woman behaved in such a disruptive way that she frightened people away, and some accused Fox of being a false prophet. He felt inspired to hold a meeting at Elizabeth Hooton’s house. At this meeting, too, many were overwhelmed by the woman’s disturbing behavior, but they nonetheless welcomed her back. In the second meeting at Elizabeth Hooton’s house, a transformation came over the woman; she became calm and sane. The Children of the Light kept her with them two more weeks before sending her home, demonstrating that her cure was lasting. Many saw this healing as a sign of the authenticity of Fox’s message. By 1648, two years after Elizabeth Hooton became his first convinced follower, George Fox came fully into his charismatic gifts. More and more people began to respond to his message.
In spite of opposition from her husband, Elizabeth Hooton was the first Quaker woman known to preach outside her own home. In 1651 she was locked in a prison in Derby when a priest she had reproved asked the local magistrate to punish her. George Fox was already in this same jail. A letter she wrote to the mayor of Derby is one of the earliest written documents of the fledgling Quaker movement. In this letter she explains the injustice of her imprisonment and urges the mayor to do justice and act with mercy. George Fox carefully copied this letter by Hooton, signing his copy with his own name, and sent it to the mayor, too, perhaps in the same way that we might copy someone else’s letter to a member of Congress when writing about a political matter.
After her release from Derby prison, Hooton was glad to return home to her family, farm, and the community of the Children of the Light. Around this time her husband Oliver became convinced of the truth of Quakerism. Husband, wife, and children were now all united in this faith.
She next was arrested for interrupting a service to preach in the church at Rotherham and was imprisoned in 1652 in York Castle for 16 months. Prison conditions in England were terrible at the time; prisoners were kept in the slimy holds of castle dungeons, where the floors were often cold, wet, and muddy. They were given little or no bedding, and minimal provisions for sanitation. Sometimes men and women were locked up together. Prisoners were expected to pay for or provide their own food; those without money, friends, or family sometimes starved to death. From York Castle prison, Hooton wrote a lengthy letter to Oliver Cromwell, leader of the Puritan government, detailing many injustices and corrupt practices in the court and prison system that sometimes allowed rich people to go free for serious crimes while poor people sometimes starved for small crimes or even things that weren’t criminal.
Many Quaker men and women joined in spreading the message. On foot and on horseback, often in pairs like the disciples of Jesus, they traveled the roads of England, preaching, calling meetings, prophesying in public places, writing tracts, talking to individual seekers, and condemning injustice wherever they found it. Many of these Quaker evangelists were thrown into prison. Four joined Elizabeth Hooton during the time she spent in York prison. In spite of physical deprivation, confinement together had some advantages. They gave each other great spiritual support. In prison they worshiped and sang together, and read and discussed the Bible. Telling each other about their spiritual experiences and travels in the cause of Truth, they educated and strengthened each other in their faith and witness. Being imprisoned with other traveling ministers could provide something like a seminary education. It is not surprising that the spiritual radiance that exuded from these groups of imprisoned Quakers often reached out into the community. Thomas Aldam, a fellow prisoner in York, wrote, "We have great friendship and love from the governor of the Town, and many of the Soldiers are very solid & loving."
When brought to appear before the magistrates, they encouraged each other to speak boldly. Mary Fisher, in her 20s and illiterate, was one of the traveling ministers brought to York Castle prison while Hooton was there. She was taught to read and write by her fellow Quakers. Her first written sentence is of the sort found often in the letters of Elizabeth Hooten: "Woe now to the unjust judge."
When Elizabeth Hooton was released from York prison after 16 months, she was tempted to stay within the comfortable orbit of her home and family. A voice inside whispered that she had done enough, suffered enough already. Another inner voice told her to persevere. In a letter, she wrote: "O dear friends, when the Lord that set you free and brought you into joy, then you think you have overcome all, but there is a daily Cross to be taken up while the fleshly will remaineth. . . . [T]he lord hath exercised me, but there is no way but sit down and submit to his will & there is rest and peace." It was not the will of Hooton to risk again the horrors of prison and long separation from her family, but she felt it was the will of God. She was willing to take up her cross and follow Jesus. An outspoken woman, she attracted the animosity of those she challenged. One spring day while she was walking peacefully in her home district, a local priest attacked her, beat her, knocked her down, and threw her into a body of water.
She was one of several Friends who accompanied George Fox to preach in Lincolnshire, and in the fall of 1654 was imprisoned in Lincoln Castle for six months. After her release, she returned to and spoke in the same church where she had been arrested before, and was sent back to prison for several more months. It was an even more unpleasant place than York Castle, and without the consolation of any fellow Quakers. There she wrote a passionate letter pleading for prison reform.
Oliver Hooton died in 1657. Fined for nonpayment of tithes, Elizabeth Hooton’s farm was sold at considerable loss. Her children were grown, and she was at liberty to travel further. Friends had been feeling called to bring the Quaker message to the New World, including the colony of Massachusetts, which had been harshly persecuting every Quaker who landed on its shores. Three had recently been hanged in Boston. Though nearly 60 years old and considered "ancient," Hooton now felt a call to go and challenge the unjust laws in Massachusetts. After a fourth Quaker was hanged, the death penalty was revoked upon order of the King of England, but the government of Massachusetts created other cruel ways to punish Quakers. In various places Hooton and her traveling companion, another mature woman, were imprisoned for days without food, repeatedly beaten with a knotted whip, and put in the stocks. Once, after receiving beatings in three towns, they were taken to the wilderness and left there, surviving only by following wolf tracks in the snow to a settlement.
Once back in England, Elizabeth Hooton petitioned King Charles II to stop the persecution in Massachusetts. She followed him around when he went to play tennis. People who saw her were shocked that she didn’t kneel to the king, but walked beside him like an equal. In spite of her shocking boldness in the royal presence, King Charles II seemed to have some respect for her. He gave her a document authorizing her to buy land anywhere in Massachusetts and to build a home there. She hoped to make this house a safe haven for Quakers traveling in the colony, as well as a place to hold meetings for worship. She returned to Massachusetts accompanied by her daughter Elizabeth. In spite of the royal seal on her letter, however, the authorities in the colony would not allow it. Like many other Quakers, both male and female, who entered Massachusetts, she was punished several times under the terrible "Cart and Tail Law." Stripped to the waist, tied to an ox-cart, and led through many towns where she and other Quakers were brutally whipped, she was then again left, cold and bloody, in the wilderness.
Looking back from the vantage point of our comfortable age, we take for granted our freedom to worship in the Quaker manner, a freedom for which Elizabeth Hooton and many Friends of another age suffered harsh punishments. We may wonder if God really led her to keep risking all the imprisonment and physical abuse she encountered. However, she testified that love impelled her to do what she did, and that God gave her consolation to endure her punishments. Joseph Besse, in Sufferings of Early Quakers, quotes her as declaring that "the Love I bear to the Souls of all Men, makes me willing to undergo whatever can be inflicted on me."
A veteran transatlantic traveler, Hooton accompanied George Fox in the last months of her life on his first and only visit to the colonies. He was stiff from years of the punishing imprisonments he had endured, and his wife, Margaret Fell, was in prison. Though nine other men and one woman made the journey with him, Elizabeth Hooten, now in her 71st year, felt compelled to go along to take care of him. In her heart, he remained one of her sons. When their ship landed in Jamaica, George Fox was very seriously ill. Her care for him during the harsh sea voyage may have helped him survive. She would not accompany him any farther, except in spirit. She died in Jamaica just a week after their arrival. She was healthy one day and died "in peace like a lamb" the next night, her long and courageous ministry finally complete.