Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Edmundson, William

EDMUNDSON, WILLIAM (1627–1712), quaker, whose father was a wealthy yeoman, was born at Little Musgrove, Westmoreland, in 1627. He lost both parents when very young, and was brought up by a cruel uncle. About 1640 he was apprenticed to a carpenter in York, and suffered from religious melancholy. As soon as his apprenticeship was over he joined the parliamentary army, and in 1650 accompanied Cromwell to Scotland, and in the following year took part in the battle of Worcester and the siege of the Isle of Man, and afterwards was quartered at Chesterfield, where he first met with the quakers, taking part in their defence in a disturbance. During 1652 he was engaged in recruiting for the Scotch army. After conducting the recruits to Scotland he obtained his discharge, and having married was persuaded by a soldier brother quartered at Waterford to settle there as a merchant. On arriving in Dublin he found that his brother's troop had been removed, so he followed it to Antrim, where he settled and opened a shop. Offers were now made him to rejoin the army, but although he was to be exempted from duty entirely his religious principles forbade his accepting it. During a visit to England in 1653 he again met with quakers and embraced their creed; in his ‘Journal’ he states that the first effect this had was that he declined to avail himself of an opportunity of getting his goods into Ireland duty free because he could not swear to his bill of lading. The following year he went to Lurgan, where he commenced a quakers' meeting, which speedily reached considerable dimensions. As he suffered much from religious depression, he visited England in 1655 and sought out George Fox with good effect. Edmundson now gave up his business and took a farm, that he might be more free to go on preaching expeditions. During these journeys he met with much rough usage, was imprisoned for a short time in Armagh and at Belturbet, was put in the stocks for holding a religious meeting, from which he insisted on being forcibly removed, as it was proved he had broken no law. A year or so later he was imprisoned for fourteen weeks, to the great detriment of his health, at Cavan, but was released as innocent at the assizes, and shortly after was imprisoned at Londonderry for having interfered to prevent some acting and rope dancing. About this time he removed to a farm at Rosenallis, and underwent considerable persecution from neighbouring presbyterians. In 1661 he, together with a number of other Friends, was imprisoned at Maryborough, but after a few weeks he obtained permission to leave the prison for twenty days, when he went to Dublin and by soliciting the lords justices obtained liberty for himself and the other quakers in gaol. Several of these, however, were again seized, when Edmundson, having obtained evidence that this was merely for fees, obtained an order for their unconditional release. From this time he was recognised as the leader of the quakers in Ireland, and his house became practically the headquarters of the sect. In 1665 he was excommunicated for not paying tithes, and the minister of the parish, one Clapham, attempted to prevent the people dealing with him until Edmundson again went to Dublin and persuaded the primate to send for the minister and severely reprove him. The minister in revenge now summoned Edmundson for not paying tithes and had him apprehended, but the Earl of Mountrath, one of the lords justices, interfered, and at the assizes the indictment was quashed. Clapham, however, continued to persecute him until the law-courts decided that his action was illegal. In 1671 Edmundson went to the West Indies with George Fox, and after labouring there for a month proceeded to Virginia, where he had a serious illness. On his recovery he took part in the dispute the quakers had with Roger Williams at Newport, Rhode Island, in 1672, and Williams complains that ‘Edmundson was nothing but a bundle of ignorance and boisterousness; he would speak first and all.’ Shortly after this dispute Edmundson returned to Ireland, and claims to have prophesied the famine which subsequently took place. Till 1682 he was occupied with a number of preaching excursions, but in the latter year he was again summoned for not paying tithes, excommunicated, and imprisoned. After he had lain in prison for some time he procured an interview with the Bishop of Kildare, who ordered the sheriff to discharge him. During the wars which followed the accession of William III the Irish quakers suffered much from the rapparees, and Edmundson, who was a sufferer himself, appealed to the Earl of Tyrconnel, who exerted himself on their behalf without much success. Edmundson also had several interviews with James II when he was in Ireland in 1689 regarding the persecution of the Irish protestants. After the battle of the Boyne Edmundson's house was plundered by some of the retreating Irish army, but when the English army commenced to make reprisals he exerted himself to save the lives of several members of the Irish party, and to preserve their cattle allowed them to be turned into his fields. During the autumn of 1690 the rapparees set fire to his house and carried him and two of his sons away prisoners, threatening their lives, although acknowledging that Edmundson had protected the lives and property of the Irish Jacobites at the risk of his own. In the end he was thrown into prison at Athlone, where he suffered much from the cold, as he had been carried off in the middle of the night and his captors would not supply him with clothing. His wife, however, fared worse, as the ruffians stripped her quite naked and in this condition forced her to walk a couple of miles, from which exposure she contracted a chill which resulted in her death some seven months later. After his liberation Edmundson found himself reduced to comparative poverty, besides being the object of much persecution, but he nevertheless managed to travel to the various meeting-places and reconstruct the societies which had been dispersed by the rebellion. In 1691 he attended the yearly meeting of the quakers in London, and during his absence his wife died. In 1695 Edmundson spent a considerable time in Dublin opposing an act the Irish clergy were endeavouring to obtain to enable them to recover their tithes in the temporal courts. His agitation met with moderate success. After spending two years in visiting the various meetings in England and Ireland he married Mary Strangman, a quakeress of Mountmellis, and a few weeks later was the leader of a deputation to the lords justices to oppose several laws relating to the collection of tithes. From this time his health broke down, and his ministerial journeys were only performed at the cost of much pain, but he nevertheless continued actively engaged in the work of the society until 1711. In June of the following year he was present at the Dublin yearly meeting, and on his return home was taken ill and died, after extreme suffering, on 8 Nov. 1712. He was buried in the quaker burial-ground at Tineel, near his residence.

Edmundson was a man of earnest piety, sound common sense, and unusual self-denial, besides which he was charitable to a fault and possessed considerable, although rough, eloquence. His ‘Journal’ and other works are written in a simple, unaffected way which make them very pleasant reading, and they are still among the most popular works on quakerism.

His principal writings are:

  1. ‘A Letter of Examination to all you who have assumed the Place of Shepherds, Herdsmen, and Overseers of the Flocks of People,’ 1672.
  2. ‘An Answer to the Clergy's Petition to King James,’ 1688.
  3. ‘An Epistle containing wholesome Advice and Counsel to all Friends,’ 1701.
  4. ‘A Journal of the Life, Travels, Sufferings, and Labours of Love in the Work of the Ministry of that Worthy Elder, William Edmundson,’ 1715.

The last has been frequently reprinted in England and America.

[Besse's Sufferings, &c., of the Quakers; Bickley's George Fox and the Early Quakers; Swarthmore MS.; George Fox's Journal (ed. 1763); Rutty's History of the Quakers in Ireland; Sewel's History of the Rise, &c., of the Society of Friends; Smith's Catalogue of Friends' Books.]

A. C. B.