Quakers: Persecution in colonial Massachusetts

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 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.

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.

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.

Return to The Great Republic by the Master Historians (Vol 1)