When young Thomas Rickman boarded the London to Liverpool coach on a dark December morning 1807, he faced an instant dilemma. What words should he use? Did he greet his fellow travellers as ‘you’? Or ‘thee’ and ‘thou’?
His allegiance to the Society of Friends dictated the latter. But the temptation to use the pronoun everyone else regarded as normal was almost overwhelming. When settling in for a long journey, the inside travellers were always quick to assess the company they’d be keeping during the long day ahead. Coach travel was made or marred by one’s companions. Thomas’s clothes already marked him out as an oddity: the wide-brimmed hat, breeches and antiquated coat that Quakers still wore in the early nineteenth century – did he have to compound his outsider status by the way he spoke?
His concern is surprising for two reasons. Firstly, he was not technically even a member of the Society of Friends: he had been disowned three years before because of his marriage to his first cousin Lucy, a woman he’d loved from boyhood. First cousin marriage was common in nineteenth century England – Charles Darwin and Queen Victoria both married first cousins and no one batted an eyelid. But Quakers followed their own rules, and Thomas and Lucy had faced fierce opposition from family and friends. Still, disownment did not mean the kind of never-darken-my-doors-again severance the word implies. They continued to attend meeting and to be supported by the same family and friends who had earlier discouraged their marriage.
But in December 1807 Thomas and Lucy’s hopes for a life together had been torpedoed. His corn factor business had failed and as a bankrupt he had no way to support his wife. Three days earlier he’d seen her leave on the Lewes coach to go back to her parents. That evening he had written in his journal ‘Sat down very solitary to my Dinner my tears flowed oh Lucy how has thou felt this Day many feelings rushed on me’ – (Punctuation was never Thomas’s thing.)
With his life in freefall, one might assume he was too stressed to bother about the opinion of his fellow travellers on the Liverpool coach. Not so. On arrival in Liverpool he noted with relief, ‘To bed early with some Gratitude for the support experienced thro’ the Day and having been favour’d to keep the plain Language thro’ the Journey and while here’.
To be a Quaker in the early nineteenth century was to be ‘other’. The early years of bitter persecution had long gone, imprisonment and even death were no longer the price to be paid for membership of ‘our society’. Now Quakers had to endure a less obvious and often underestimated trial: embarrassment. To wear odd clothes, to refuse to take your hat off (men), to insist of odd quirks of speech – all this marked you down as seriously weird. And young Quakers had the same longing to fit in with their peers as anyone else. Some years later, Thomas Rickman’s nephew Burwood Godlee, always regarded as the epitome of the conformist Lewes Quaker, wrote to his brother who was starting a new career as a barrister in London encouraging him to stick to the Quaker ways, however hard that might be. He admitted that ‘the peculiarities of Quakerism’ had been a ‘scene of contest my whole life from a boy’. Even for Burwood, who never ventured far beyond the safe world of his tight knit Lewes circle, the temptation to avoid social embarrassment was ever present.
I sympathise. In this ‘post-religious’ age, to admit to being part of a Christian community is to invite scorn, bafflement, derision or – perhaps worst of all – pity. You’re religious? Really? After Darwin and Dawkins, after the endless scandals of abuse and persecution? When large chunks of the Christian hierarchy appear to be obsessed with what people do with their sexual organs? and now even undoing all the progress that’s been made in terms of equality and generosity towards all people? You really identify with all of that?
By a twist of history, to be Quaker is to escape much of the contempt. I attend an Anglican church but I only have to mention my roots in the Society of Friends, to trigger instant relief: ‘Oh yes, Quakers. I have a lot of respect for them’.
Whenever I mention the embarrassments of religion to fellow worshippers there is immediate recognition. Lots of people take care to distinguish between being religious and being spiritual. Latter ok, former suspect. Same with prayer. Tell people you are meditating for half an hour every morning and they accept it easily. Tell them you’re praying and most look away, embarrassed in their turn, as if you’d admitted to something one really doesn’t speak about in polite – or ‘cool’ – society.
Which is why, I suppose, the embarrassments of religion are so seldom discussed. Because they are … well, embarrassing. So what is the solution? Talking about it is a start. Beyond that, for me anyway, it’s a work in progress.
And what of Thomas and his Lucy? A week after his arrival in Liverpool, he noted in his diary that he had been seized with anxiety and ‘in a fear of something happening to my Lucy’. Her health had been precarious since childhood and any kind of stress was liable to precipitate an attack of erysipelas. She had been unwell for several days and died in her sleep on the night of 13th December 1807, having finished a letter to her husband ‘believe me as ever, most tenderly thine,’ before turning in for the night.
Thomas’s journal is a blank for a week after he got the news, and for several days it was barely coherent.
Alone and practically destitute in Liverpool, he got through his grief by tireless walking whenever he had the chance, and often during his lonely walks he paused to sketch the churches in the area. In time, his study of church architecture led to the publication of An Attempt to Discriminate the Styles of English Architecture from the Conquest to the Reformation in 1817. He divided medieval architecture into Norman, Early English, Decorated and Perpendicular, a system of classification that has been used ever since. He’s remembered now as one of the leading Gothic architects of the day.
He gradually drifted away from the Society of Friends and became an Anglican, though he remained close to his Quaker cousins. Who continued, as I do now, to sometimes struggle with the embarrassments of religion.
This article first appeared in The Friend, 2023