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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VIII. The Age of Dryden.

IV. The Early Quakers

§ 4. Thomas Ellwood’s History of his Life

Thomas Ellwood, son of an Oxfordshire squire, was a man of liberal education, who, though he moved in good society, was constrained in early years to throw in his lot with the despised “people of God.” He was an intimate friend of William Penn and Isaac Penington; and, through the good offices of the latter, he was for some years engaged as reader to the poet Milton in his blindness. It was Ellwood, according to a doubtful tradition who, after reading with delight the manuscript of Paradise Lost, suggested to Milton the theme afterwards worked out in Paradise Regained.

The History of the Life of Thomas Ellwood, written by his own hand, gives a very lively picture of his early life and home surroundings, of inward struggles, of “passive resistance” to the monstrous tyranny of his father, and of his share in the persecutions to which all his people were subjected. His description of prisons and prison life in the seventeenth century is of great historical value. He writes in a vivid, racy style, the interest of which rarely or never flags. He hits off, in a fashion worthy of Bunyan, the characters alike of friends and persecutors; and (also like Bunyan) he intersperses his prose narrative with verses which he mistakes for poetry.

Take, for illustration, the story of John Ovey, the fellmonger magistrate “accustomed to ride upon his pack of skins,” “greyheaded and elderly,” who had been a preacher among the baptists or independents and had been drawn towards Friends. Ellwood took him to a meeting at Isaac Penington’s, which was unexpectedly broken up by a troop of horse:

  • We all state still in our places, except my companion John Ovey, who state next to me. But he being of a profession that approved Peter’s advice to his Lord, to save himself, soon took the alarm, and with the nimbleness of a stripling, cutting a caper over the form that stood before him, ran quickly out at a private door (which he had observed) which led through the parlour into the gardens, and from thence into an orchard; where he hid himself in a place so obscure, and withal so convenient for his intelligence by observation of what passed, that no one of the family could scarce have found a likelier.
  • Several of the party are hurried away four miles to a magistrate, but are released:

  • Back then we went to Isaac Penington’s. But when we came thither, O the work we had with poor John Ovey! He was so dejected in mind, so covered with shame and confusion of face for his cowardliness, that we had enough to do to pacify him towards himself.