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The Great Republic by the Master Historians
The Persecution of the Quakers
by Bancroft, Hubert H.


[The history of Massachusetts during the latter half of the seventeenth century presents several occurrences of particular interest, such as the Quaker persecution, King Philip's Indian war, and the witchcraft delusion. The first of these now calls for attention. We may premise with a brief statement of preceding events. One of these was an effort in England to prevent Puritan emigration, which is said to have had the effect to retain John Hampden and Oliver Cromwell in that country. If so, the king in this committed an error which in the end proved fatal to himself. In 1638, John Harvard, a minister of Charlestown, left something over three thousand dollars in support of a school previously founded by the colony. This was the origin of Harvard College. In 1643 the four colonies of Plymouth, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire formed a confederacy, under the title of THE UNITED COLONIES OF NEW ENGLAND. Rhode Island was, at a later date, refused admission into the confederacy, which continued in existence for over forty years. Each colony was to contribute men and money to the common defence, while two commissioners from each colony formed an annual assembly for the settlement of all questions relating to the confederacy.

The religious dissensions which had formerly agitated the colony were renewed by the emigration of persons of other sectarian views, who were little disposed to submit to the intolerance of the Puritan churches and tribunals. In 1651 a party of Anabaptists reached Massachusetts. The doctrines they advocated raised a storm of opposition in the colony; they were arrested, tried, fined, and one of them severely flogged, and a law was passed banishing from the colony any one who should oppose the dogma of infant baptism. The treatment received by the Quakers was of sufficient severity and importance to demand special consideration, and we therefore select a description of it from James Grahame's "History of the United States."]

The treatment which the Quakers experienced in Massachusetts was much more severe [than that of the Anabaptists], but certainly much more justly provoked. It is difficult for us in the calm and rational deportment of the Quakers of the present age to recognize the successors of those wild enthusiasts who first appeared in the north of England about the year 1644 and received from the derision of the world the title which they afterwards adopted as their sectarian denomination.... When the doctrines of Quakerism were first promulgated, the effects which they produced on many of their votaries far exceeded the influence to which modern history restricts them, or which the experience of a rational and calculating age finds it easy to conceive. In England, at that time, the minds of men were in a state of feverish agitation and excitement, inflamed with the rage of innovation, strongly imbued with religious sentiment, and yet strongly averse to restraint. The bands that so long repressed liberty of speech being suddenly broken, many crude thoughts were eagerly broached, and many fantastic notions that had been vegetating in the unwholesome shade of locked bosoms were abruptly brought to light: and all these were presented to the souls of men roused and whetted by civil war, kindled by great alarms or by vast and indeterminate designs, and latterly so accustomed to partake or contemplate the most surprising changes, that with them the distinction between speculation and certainty was considerably effaced..

It was the wildest and most enthusiastic visionaries of the age whom Quakerism counted among its earliest votaries, and to whom it afforded a sanction and stimulus to the boldest excursions of unregulated thought, and a principle that was adduced to consecrate the rankest absurdity of conduct.... The unfavorable impression which these actions created long survived the extinction of the frenzy and folly that produced them.

While, in pursuance of their determination to proselytize the whole world, some of the Quakers travelled to Rome, in order to illuminate the Pope, and others to Constantinople, for the purpose of converting the Grand Turk, a party of them embarked for America and established themselves in Rhode Island, where persons of every religious (Protestant) denomination were permitted to settle in peace, and no one gave heed to the sentiments or practices of his neighbors. From hence they soon made their way into the Plymouth territory, where they succeeded in persuading some of its inhabitants to embrace the doctrine that a sensible experience of inward light and spiritual impression was the meaning and end of Christianity and the essential characteristic of its votaries, and to oppose all regulated order, forms, and discipline, whether civil or ecclesiastical, as a vain and Judaizing substitution of the kingdom of the flesh for the kingdom of the spirit.

On their first appearance in Massachusetts (July, 1656), where two male and six female Quakers arrived from Rhode Island and Barbadoes, they found that the reproach entailed on their sect by the insane extravagance of some of its members in England had preceded their arrival, and that they were regarded with the utmost terror and dislike by the great bulk of the people. They were instantly arrested by the magistrates, and diligently examined for what were considered bodily marks of witchcraft. No such indications having been found, they were sent back to the places whence they came, by the same vessels that had brought them, and prohibited with threats of severe punishment from ever again returning to the colony. A law was passed at the same time, subjecting every shipmaster importing Quakers or Quaker writings to a heavy fine; adjudging all Quakers who should intrude into the colony to stripes and labor in the house of correction, and all defenders of their tenets to fine, imprisonment, or exile..

The penal enactments resorted to by the other settlements [than Rhode Island] served only to inflame the impatience of the Quaker zealots to carry their ministry into places that seemed to them to stand so greatly in need of it; and the persons who had been disappointed in their first attempt returned almost immediately to Massachusetts, and, dispersing themselves through the colony, began to proclaim their mystical notions, and succeeded in communicating them to some of the inhabitants of Salem. They were soon joined by Mary Clarke, the wife of a tailor in London, who announced that she had forsaken her husband and six children in order to convey a message from heaven, which she was commissioned to deliver to New England. Instead of joining with the provincial missionaries in attempts to reclaim the neighboring savages from their barbarous superstition and profligate immoralities, or themselves prosecuting separate missions with a like intent, the apostles of Quakerism raised their voices in vilification of everything that was most highly approved and revered in the doctrine and practice of the provincial churches. Seized, imprisoned, and flogged, they were again dismissed with severer threats from the colony, and again they returned by the first vessels they could procure. The government and a great majority of the colonists were incensed at their stubborn pertinacity, and shocked at the impression which they had already produced on some minds, and which threatened to corrupt and subvert a system of piety whose establishment, fruition, and perpetuation supplied their fondest recollections, their noblest enjoyment, and most energetic desire. New punishments were introduced into the legislative enactments against the intrusion of Quakers and the profession of Quakerism (1657) and in particular the abscission of an ear was added to the former ineffectual severities. Three male Quaker preachers endured the rigor of this cruel law.

But all the exertions of the provincial authorities proved unavailing, and seemed rather to stimulate the zeal of the obnoxious sectaries to brave the danger and court the glory of persecution (1658). Swarms of Quakers descended upon the colony; and, violent and impetuous in provoking persecution, calm, resolute, and inflexible in sustaining it, they opposed their power of enduring cruelty to their adversaries' power of inflicting it, and not only multiplied their converts, but excited a considerable degree of favor and pity in the minds of men who, detesting the Quaker tenets, yet derived from their own experience a peculiar sympathy with the virtues of heroic patience, constancy, and contempt of danger.. It was by no slight provocations that the Quakers attracted these and additional severities upon themselves.. In public assemblies and in crowded streets, it was the practice of some of the Quakers to denounce the most tremendous manifestations of divine wrath on the people, unless they forsook their carnal system. One of them, named Faubord, conceiving that he experienced a celestial encouragement to rival the faith and imitate the sacrifice of Abraham, was proceeding with his own hands to shed the blood of his son, when his neighbors, alarmed by the cries of the lad, broke into the house and prevented the consummation of this blasphemous atrocity. Others interrupted divine service in the churches by loudly protesting that these were not the sacrifices that God would accept; and one of them illustrated his assurance by breaking two bottles in the face of the congregation, exclaiming, "Thus will the Lord break you in pieces!" They declared that the Scriptures were replete with allegory, that the inward light was the only infallible guide to religious truth, and that all were blind beasts and liars who denied it.

The female preachers far exceeded their male associates in folly, frenzy, and indecency. One of them presented herself to a congregation with her face begrimed with coal-dust, announcing it as a pictorial illustration of the black pox, which Heaven had commissioned her to predict as an approaching judgment on all carnal worshippers. Some of them in rueful attire perambulated the streets, proclaiming the speedy arrival of an angel with a drawn sword to plead with the people; and some attempted feats that may seem to verify the legend of Godiva of Coventry. One woman, in particular, entered stark naked into a church in the middle of divine service, and desired the people to take heed to her as a sign of the times, and an emblem of the unclothed state of their own souls; and her associates highly extolled her submission to the inward light, that had revealed to her the duty of illustrating the spiritual nakedness of her neighbors by the indecent exhibition of her own person. Another Quakeress was arrested as she was making a similar display in the streets of Salem. The horror justly inspired by these insane enormities was inflamed into the most vehement indignation by the deliberate manner in which they were defended, and the disgusting profanity with which Scripture was linked in impure association with notions and behavior at once ridiculous and contemptible. Among other singularities, the Quakers exemplified and inculcated the for-bearance of even the slightest demonstration of respect to courts and magistrates; they declared that governors, judges, lawyers, and constables were trees that cumbered the ground, and presently must be cut down, in order that the true light might have leave to shine and space to rule alone; and they freely indulged every sally of distempered fancy which they could connect, however absurdly, with the language of the Bible..

It has been asserted by some of the modern apologists of the Quakers that these frantic excesses, which excited so much attention and produced such tragical consequences, were committed, not by genuine Quakers, buy by the Ranters, or wild separatists from the Quaker body. Of these Ranters, indeed, a very large proportion certainly betook themselves to America.... It is certain, however, that the persons whose conduct we have particularized assumed the name of Quakers, and traced all their absurdities to the peculiar Quaker principle of searching their own bosoms for sensible admonitions of the Holy Spirit, independent of the scriptural revelation of divine will. And many scandalous outrages were committed by persons whose profession of Quaker principles was recognized by the Quaker body, and whose sufferings are related, and their frenzy applauded, by the pens of Quaker writers.

Exasperated by the repetition of these enormities, and the extent to which the contagion of their radical principle was spreading in the colony, the magistrates of Massachusetts, in the close of this year (1658), introduced into the Assembly a law denouncing the punishment of death upon all Quakers returning from banishment. This legislative proposition was opposed by a considerable party of the colonists; and various individuals, who would have hazarded their own lives to extirpate the heresy of the Quakers, solemnly protested against the cruelty and iniquity of shedding their blood. It was at first rejected by the Assembly, but finally adopted by the narrow majority of a single voice. In the course of the two following years (1659, 1660) this barbarous law was, carried into execution on three separate occasions,--when four Quakers, three men and a woman, were put to death at Boston. It does not appear that any of these unfortunate persons were guilty of the outrages which the conduct of their brethren in general had associated with the profession of Quakerism. Oppressed by the prejudice created by the frantic conduct of others, they were adjudged to die for returning from banishment and continuing to preach the Quaker doctrines. In vain the court entreated them to accept a pardon on condition of abandoning foreever the colony from which they had been repeatedly banished. They answered by reciting the heavenly call to continue there, which on various occasions, they affirmed, had sounded in their ears, in the fields and in their dwellings, distinctly syllabling their names and whispering their prophetic office and the scene of its exercise. When they were conducted to the scaf-fold, their demeanor expressed unquenchable zeal and courage, and their dying declarations breathed in general a warm and affecting piety.

These executions excited much clamor against the government; many persons were offended by the exhibition of severities against which the establishment of the colony itself seemed intended to bear a perpetual testimony; and many were touched with an indignant compassion for the sufferings of the Quakers, that effaced all recollection of the indignant disgust which the principles of these sectaries had previously inspired. The people began to flock in crowds to the prisons and load the unfortunate Quakers with demonstrations of kindness and pity.

[This feeling finally became so strong that the magistrates dared no longer oppose it. After the condemnation of Wenlock Christison, who had defended himself with marked ability, the magistrates felt it necessary to change the sentences of the condemned Quakers to flogging and banishment. As the demeanor of the Quakers grew more quiet and orderly, the toleration of them increased, and the flogging of Quakers was soon after prohibited by Charles II.]

The persecution thus happily closed was not equally severe in all the New England States: the Quakers suffered most in Massachusetts and Plymouth, and comparatively little in Connecticut and New Haven. It was only in Massachusetts that the inhuman law inflicting capital punishment upon them was ever carried into effect. At a subsequent period, the laws relating to vagabond Quakers were so far revived that Quakers disturbing religious assemblies, or violating public decorum, were subjected to corporal chastisement. But little occasion ever again occurred of executing these severities, the wild excursions of the Quaker spirit having generally ceased, and the Quakers gradually subsiding into a decent and orderly submission to all the laws, except such as related to the militia and the support of the clergy,--in their scruples as to which the provincial legislature, with reciprocal moderation, consented to indulge them.

James Grahame

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