James Parnell was born in Retford, Nottinghamshire, in 1636. During his formative years the country was in a state of great political and religious turmoil; numerous pamphlets promoting different theological ideas were circulating in the country. Dissenters from the established church risked persecution and imprisonment.
Parnell studied the scriptures and became an ardent seeker after spiritual truth. Finding no satisfaction from the priests in his town, like many others of his era, he left home to travel among the many religious sects that met secretly to avoid persecution. He came across a group that 'waited together in silence to become instruments in the hand of the Lord'. He had found the forerunners of the Quakers.
Parnell soon came to hear of George Fox, the founder of the Quaker movement. He was determined to meet Fox, who was then in jail in Carlisle. He walked 150 miles to visit him; little is known of their encounter, but Parnell came away fully committed to the Quaker cause.
He began travelling south, spreading the word to all who would listen. His direct challenge to the church led to several clashes with the authorities. In the summer of 1655 he reached northeast Essex, where he visited several towns. In Colchester he preached in St Nicholas Church and spent a week in discussion and argument; many were convinced but he also met much opposition.
The Church at Coggeshall held a fast to pray against the errors of the Quakers. Parnell answered for his faith after the priest had spoken but he was interrupted and confusion followed. He left the Church but was arrested as he walked through the town and charged with blasphemy and other offences. He was taken to the county jail in Colchester Castle.
During his trial at the Chelmsford Assizes the jury acquitted him of the charges; the Magistrate fined him forty pounds, which he refused to pay, so he was returned to prison. The jailer, Nicholas Roberts, was known for his cruel, corrupt and vindictive ways. Conditions in Parnell's cell were terrible, and the efforts of local Quakers to help were barred. After some months Parnell's health began to fail, worsened by injuries from a fall. By the spring of 1656 he had become weak and for ten days he could take no food. By the morning of 10 April he had died. He was buried in an unmarked grave in the Castle grounds. A plaque commemorating his life has been placed in the Castle, in the cell in which he died.
The spirit of seeking for truth, peace, simplicity and equality are at the core of Quaker thinking today. It is manifest in a commitment to work for peace and justice, and a call to answer that of God in all people. Each Quaker Meeting celebrates this vision.
A room in Meeting House is named after James Parnell through whose preaching and life the Meeting began.
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