John Roe and the Roeite sect

The Roeites, John Roe’s Society or Reformed Quakers (sometimes disparagingly, ‘Deformed Quakers’), were a group of dissenting Protestants, which married and buried its members, as the Quakers did, and which flourished for a while in Calverton.[135] Their original meeting house was a converted barn, close to the junction of Woods Lane and Dark Lane, where a large tree now stands. (53°02′10.432″N 1°05′13.132″W).

John Roe (1725–1820), who founded the sect, may have been of the same family as Robert Roe, the ‘oppressed Quaker’ of Epperstone, who had been in trouble in 1669 for holding illegal religious meetings, and of Richard Roe the clockmaker of the same village.[136]

As early as 1759, John Roe had written about his religious beliefs and of his reactions to the preaching of dissenters who came to Calverton, but it was not until about 1780, when he was in his mid-fifties, that he established his sect.[137] He may well have been prompted by unhappiness with the vicar James Bingham since, in 1778, he had been cited (as John Rooe {sic}, basket-maker) for non-payment of tithes, together with Thomas Hinde, tailor, and Bartholomew Lee, farmer.[138] He must have been encouraged by the provisions of the recently passed Nonconformist Relief Act 1779 which freed dissenting ministers from the need to subscribe to the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, formerly required by the Act of Toleration 1689.[139]

The Roeites’ presence in the village evidently caused a degree of bad feeling, because Calverton schoolmaster Joseph Morley, writing to the Nottingham Journal in 1787, was moved to declare that:

…their religion in short, is a heap of inconsistencies promiscuously jumbled together, and their preaching an invariable compound of railing, absurdity, billingsgate and blackguardism…John Roe, their founder, holds himself as the only true prophet since the days of the Apostles, and he bitterly inveighs against all denominations, and d—ns the world in a bag…and I need not hesitate to aver that the wickedness, blasphemy and abomination delivered from Roe’s pulpit are without parallel.[140]

A peculiarity of the group was the custom of marrying its members after partners had been selected, not by courtship, but by a jury of twelve drawing lots. This was ‘to know precisely the will of Heaven concerning their matrimonial union’ (vide cleromancy).[141] The idea was so extraordinary that even the German poet and philosopher Friedrich von Schiller, in far-away Stuttgart, was moved to write about it, and lamented in a 1781 article, Arme jugend van Calverton!, about the lack of sentimentality and passion in the arrangement.[142] The Roeites however contended that they had the right to marry, as well as to perform any religious duty, under the Act of Toleration 1689.[143] The Marriage Act of 1753 had tightened the existing ecclesiastical rules, providing that for a marriage to be valid it had to be performed in a church and after the publication of banns. However, Jewsand, crucially, Quakers were seemingly exempted from its provisions (Catholics and other dissenting groups were not exempt), and it may be that John Roe believed, for this reason, that this Act did not apply to his ‘Quaker-like’ group.

On 1 May 1780 John Roe went through a marriage ceremony, in the meeting house, with Isabel Morris, of the parish of St Mary, Nottingham. Later Elizabeth Morris (sister to Isabel) was similarly joined with Thomas Bush. On 20 April 1785 the churchwardens of St Wilfrids accused Isabel Morris (using her maiden name, rather than ‘Mrs Roe’), before the Church Court at Southwell Minster, of having three illegitimate children and Elizabeth Morris (‘Mrs Bush’) of having one such child.[144] The ostensible reason must have been that the illegitimate offspring would become a burden on the parish. The two mothers failed to appear at Southwell to answer the charges, and in February 1786 letters of excommunication against them were issued by the vicar, James Bingham.[145] On Sunday 5 March the curate of Calverton, Ephraim Rogerson read out the order in church.[146] As the two women did not apply to have the excommunication lifted within forty days, the Archbishop of York asked the Crown to issue writs of excommunicato capiendo to the Civil Courts to imprison the women, and they were taken to the county gaol, without any prospect of ever being released.[147]

Although no child of the sect seems to have actually become chargeable to Calverton parish, ‘Mrs Roe’ and ‘Mrs Bush’ had effectively, been sentenced to life imprisonment in the Nottingham county gaol. The matter had got out of hand, and reports began to appear in the press which expressed disquiet about the affair and the way in which the animosity between the dissenters and the Established Church was ‘disgraceful in this enlightened age’. It was reported that, in the village, neighbours set fire to the fences of the Roeites, interrupted their services by blowing horns and firing guns, killed John Roe’s cow, ‘broke his trees’ and even threw dirt at the congregation when passing them in the street.[148]

John Roe’s brother William wrote from Farnsfield to Lord George Gordon, of the Protestant Association, appealing for his help (Gordon had himself been excommunicated) and the M.P. John Courtenay, who was later to write Conduct of the Dissenters in England (1790), raised the matter in Parliament, as a general feeling of unease about the issue began to become apparent.[149] A legal counsellor in 1788 gave his opinion that if the writs had been correctly issued, there seemed no possibility of them being released from prison, unless their marriages could be made out to be Quaker, or their Roeite marriages could be made legal by a new Act of Parliament.[150] In August 1790 Lord Kenyon, the Lord Chief Justice said that they could be released if they did penance, but the two sisters were not at all penitent and refused.[151] Eventually, in 1798 after twelve years imprisonment, it appears that ‘Mrs Roe’ and ‘Mrs Bush’ were allowed to escape and return to Calverton, when part of the gaol was being rebuilt.[152]

The Quaker writer William Howitt attended one of John Roe’s services, and described the converted barn amongst the orchards. A very plain chapel with loft, pulpit and seats (not at all like a Quaker meeting house, thought Howitt), and a congregation of thirty slumbering, while Roe, attended by Isabel, provided a ‘droning commentary’ on the transfiguration.[153]

John Roe, a small man with long white hair, combed in flowing locks on his shoulders, continued to preach in the converted barn, and died at the age of 94 on Sunday 2 January 1820.[154] The Roeite sect did not long survive the death of its founder and, although White’s Directory of 1844 reported a ‘small meeting house’, there was no mention of the sect in the Religious Census of 1851.[155]

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