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Quakers fight for religious freedom in Puritan Massachusetts, 1656-1661
The Massachusetts Bay Colony of the New World was a Puritan theocratic state in the early 1650s. Puritan leaders did not have much tolerance for people of other religions, and as a result, the Puritan government often persecuted and banished religious outsiders who tried to enter and live in their Puritan towns. A fear was embedded in the Puritan society that if they started to admit outsiders, they would lose their political and religious control of the colony.
Beginning in 1656, members of the newly formed Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) started to arrive in the Massachusetts colony on ships from England, where Quakerism had recently emerged. The Quakers who arrived in Boston's harbor demanded that they be allowed to live in Massachusetts and practice their own religion freely. They were greeted by intense hostility and were often forced to board the next ship out.
The first known Quakers to arrive in Boston and challenge Puritan religious domination were Mary Fisher and Ann Austin. These two women entered Boston's harbor on the Swallow, a ship from Barbados in July of 1656. The Puritans of Boston greeted Fisher and Austin as if they carried the plague and severely brutalized them. The two were strip searched, accused of witchcraft, jailed, deprived of food, and were forced to leave Boston on the Swallow when it next left Boston eight weeks later. Almost immediately after their arrival, Fisher and Austin's belongings were confiscated, and the Puritan executioner burned their trunk full of Quaker pamphlets and other writings. Shortly after they arrived in Boston, eight more Quakers arrived on a ship from England. This group of eight was imprisoned and beaten. While they were in prison, an edict was passed in Boston that any ship's captain who carried Quakers into Boston would be fined heavily. The Puritan establishment forced the captain, who had brought the group of eight Quakers to Boston, to take them back to England, under a bond of £500.
Despite the intense persecution of Quaker newcomers by Massachusetts' Puritans, Quakers continued to come to Boston in increasing numbers and attempted to spread their message by whatever means possible. They came by ship from England and Barbados and by foot from Rhode Island, Pennsylvania and Virginia. Once in Massachusetts, they rose to speak following Puritan sermons and during trials and shouted from jail cell windows. They published pamphlets and held illegal meetings. They refused to pay fines to the Puritan government and refused to work in jail, with the latter often resulting in their jailers depriving them of food.
The Massachusetts Puritan government soon passed other laws aimed at stopping Quakers from entering and disrupting their status quo. Ship captains, learning of the fines, often refused passage to Quakers intending to sail to Boston. One Englishman, Robert Fowler, from Yorkshire, however, felt called to build a ship to transport Quakers from England to Massachusetts. He built the Woodhouse and set sail from England with eleven Quakers. One of the eleven was Dorothy Waugh, a farm servant from Westmorland who said she had been called by the Lord to come to America and share the Quaker message.
In all, from 1656 to 1661, at least forty Quakers came to New England to protest Puritan religious domination and persecution. During those five years, the Puritan persecution of Quakers continued, with beatings, fines, whippings, imprisonment, and mutilation. Many were expelled from the colony, only to return again to bear witness to what they believed. One of them, 60-year-old Elizabeth Hooten, returned to Boston at least five times. The Boston jails were full of Quakers, and four known executions of Quakers took place in Massachusetts during those five years.
As is evident, the Quakers were not a quiet group in Puritan New England. From their speeches in the courthouse, the church, and from jail cell windows, they attracted a number of supporters and converts. Locals would often give money to jailers to feed the otherwise starved inmates, and the Quakers' unflinching commitment to speaking their truth touched many. There is evidence to suggest that the Puritan hatred towards Quakers was not omnipresent within the Puritan community. For example, the law banishing Quakers from the colony on pain of death was only passed by a one-vote majority. John Norton was the most outspoken critic of the Quakers and is credited with spreading much of the anti-Quaker bias.
Perhaps the most notable Quaker to be brutalized and eventually executed by the Massachusetts government for being a Quaker was Mary Dyer. Dyer originally came to Massachusetts in 1633 and settled there with her husband. In 1652, Dyer returned to England, where she was exposed to Quakerism and accepted Quaker ideals. Five years later, on her way to rejoin her family who had since moved to Rhode Island, she landed in Boston, along with two fellow Quakers, William Robinson and Marmaduke Stephenson. The three were at once jailed for being Quakers and were banished from the colony. Dyer left for her family in Rhode Island, but Robinson and Stephenson stayed. Two years later, in 1659, when Robinson and Stephenson were jailed again, along with several other Quakers, Dyer returned to Boston to visit them in jail. She was arrested upon entry and all were held for two months without bail. Upon their release, they were banished from the colony under penalty of death, but Robinson and Stephenson refused to leave.
In October of that year, Dyer returned to Boston once again to visit another imprisoned friend. This time Dyer, Robinson, and Stephenson were all jailed and sentenced to death. On October 27, the three were led to the gallows, and Dyer watched as her two friends were hung. When it came to her turn, she was granted a last minute reprieve but refused to climb down from the scaffold until the law banning Quakers was changed. She had to be carried down and was forcibly removed from the colony.
Dyer spent the winter in Rhode Island and Long Island but insisted on returning to Boston the following spring. On May 21, 1660, she entered Boston and was immediately jailed. She was quickly tried, and on June 1, 1660, she was hung on Boston Commons.
It was not too uncommon that when a Quaker was being tried and prosecuted under threat of death, another Quaker would openly walk into the courthouse and disrupt the proceedings. Wenlock Christison did just this at the trial of William Leddra in 1661. Christison, himself, who had been banished from the colony under pain of death, burst into the courthouse crying out that for each “servant of God” that the Boston government hung, five more would rise up to take their place. Christison was arrested but never had to face the gallows.
The citizens and magistrates of Boston began to grow tired of having to punish the Quakers and Leddra was the last Quaker to be executed by the Puritan government. A messenger had gone to England to ask for a missive from the king. King Charles II, a Catholic supporter, wanted to provide a missive for the Catholics of the New World who were also being persecuted. When a Quaker messenger came asking the king to also provide sanctuary for the Quakers, he agreed. The “King’s Missive” did stop the executions, but punishment of the Quakers by the Boston government still continued, though it was less harsh. As more diverse groups of people landed on the shores of the New World, the persecution of the Quakers by the Puritans gradually faded. By 1675, Quakers were freely and openly living and worshiping in Boston.