Saturday, 9 November 2013

Finding the source of a quotation on
a sign in an old archway in Lichfield

Bless us O Lord, in our coming in and in our going out (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Some years ago, I wrote about a curious sign in the archway leading from Saint John Street into Saint John’s Hospital in Lichfield. This wise old sign reminds those coming in and going out:

It is admirable
to consider, how many millions
of people, come into & go out of
the world, ignorant of themselves
& of the world they have lived in.

At the time, I pointed out with humour that wise sign writer never considered telling the many passing people who had said this. And I mused at the time: “Perhaps he thought we were not so ignorant of the world we live in after all.”

I was looking at the sign again when I visited Saint John’s last week, and was later reminded that these words were written by William Penn (1644-1718), the Quaker founder of Pennsylvania, in Some Fruits of Solitude In Reflections And Maxims (1682).

Robert Spence (1871-1964), “Woe to the Bloody City of Lichfield,” depicts George Fox preaching barefooted in the Market Square in Lichfield 1651 (Lichfield Heritage Centre)

as far as I know, William Penn never visited Lichfield, unlike the founding Quaker, George Fox, who trudged barefoot through the snow-covered Market Square in 1651, crying out: “Woe to the Bloody City of Lichfield.”

Penn, the son of Sir William Penn, a distinguished Admiral, was born in 1644. He was expelled from Oxford for nonconformity, and later travelled through Continental Europe, spent some time in the navy and studied law.

His father’s first estate in Ireland was Macroom Castle and Manor, Co Cork. However, this was returned to the MacCarthy family of Muskerry at the restoration of Charles II, and Penn was compensated with the castle and lands of Shanagarry, near Cloyne, also in Co Cork.

While Penn was visiting his father in Cork in 1667, he became a Quaker. He was imprisoned in the Tower of London a year later for attacking the orthodoxy of the day, and while he was a prisoner he wrote his well-known treatise on self-sacrifice, No Cross, No Crown.

But Penn prospered, and planned a colony in America that would be a safe refuge for persecuted Quakers and others suffering for their religious beliefs. In 1682, the same year he penned those lines quoted on the sign in Saint John’s archway and a generation after George Fox’s bare-footed visit to Lichfield, Penn was granted a charter making him the proprietor and governor of East New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

He drew up a constitution for the colony on the basis of religious toleration, and sailed for his new province. He died in England till his death in 1718.

Penn’s voluminous writings are largely polemical and controversial, and often deal with issues we longer consider no longer vital. His book Some Fruits of Solitude, from which this plaque in Saint John’s derives its words, is a mine of pithy comments on human life.

Penn’s Some Fruits of Solitude opens:


1. It is admirable to consider how many millions of people come into, and go out of the world, ignorant of themselves, and of the world they have lived in.

2. If one went to see Windsor Castle, or Hampton Court, it would be strange not to observe and remember the situation, the building, the gardens, fountains, &c. that make up the beauty and pleasure of such a seat? And yet few people know themselves; no, not their own bodies, the houses of their minds, the most curious structure of the world; a living walking tabernacle: nor the world of which it was made, and out of which it is fed; which would be so much our benefit, as well as our pleasure, to know. We cannot doubt of this when we are told that the invisible things of God are brought to light by the things that are seen; and consequently we read our duty in them as often as we look upon them, to him that is the Great and Wise Author of them, if we look as we should do.

So, Penn’s words are not merely a witty aphorism, but a reminder to attend to the way we encounter God’s leadings in the world around us.

But then, in my going in and in my coming out of Lichfield – and of Saint John’s Hospital and its chapel – I have always been blessed.

Going in and out of Saint John’s Hospital and its chapel in Lichfield, I have always been blessed (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

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