“My friends … going over to plant, and make outward plantations in America, keep your own plantations in your hearts, with the spirit and power of God, that your own vines and lilies be not hurt.”
IN 1681, when William Penn received his charter for Pennsylvania from Charles II, many features of Quakerism seemed to suit it for a New World mission. The Quakers possessed a set of attitudes which fit later textbook definitions of American democracy.
Belief in Equality. No Christian sect was more insistent on a belief in equality. John Woolman complained in a sermon in Maryland (1757) “that Men having Power too often misapplied it; that though we made Slaves of the Negroes, and the Turks made Slaves of the Christians, I believed that Liberty was the natural Right of all Men equally.”
Informality. They believed in simplicity and informality in dress and language, and opposed ceremoniousness of all kinds. We cannot discover their teachings from any formal creed.
Toleration. Believing all men essentially good, the Quakers were less disturbed than most other people by doctrinal differences. William Penn’s Frame of Government in 1682 guaranteed religious freedom to all “who confess and acknowledge the one Almighty and Eternal God … and hold themselves obliged, in conscience, to live peaceably and justly in civil society.” While the Puritans believed the Indians to be cohorts of the devil and had no patience with any people who differed in the slightest from their doctrine, the Quakers were impressed by the extent to which the Indian religion resembled their own. They welcomed men of all sects.
The Quakers lacked neither courage nor energy. It was not so much the actual content of their creed as the uncompromising obstinacy with which they hung on to it, and their attitude toward themselves, that were decisive. The two flaws fatal to the influence of this remarkable people on American culture were, first, an urge toward martyrdom, and a preoccupation with the purity of their own souls; and, second, a rigidity in all their beliefs. The first led their vision away from the community and inward to themselves; the second hardened them against the ordinary accommodations of this world. Neither the martyr nor the doctrinaire could flourish on American soil.
TO THE PILGRIMS, the Puritans, and the Quakers, America seemed an opportunity to create a society according to plan. Their escape from persecution was perhaps less significant to them than their ascent to rule. America was not merely a way out of prison; it offered a throne in the wilderness. Such swift changes of fortune have always strained the characters of men, and never were changes more dizzying than those which occurred on American soil in the earliest colonial years.
The Puritans, by building institutions in New England, had nourished a worldly human pride which diluted their sense of providence and their faith in the omnipotence of God. The Puritan success was accompanied, if not actually made possible, by the decline of American Puritanism as an uncompromising theology. Quaker success offers a dramatic contrast, for when the opportunities of governing came to them, they preferred to conserve a pure Quaker sect rather than build a great community with a flavor of compromised Quakerism.
English Quakerism had begun as a protest movement. The Quakers believed, in George Fox’s classic phrase, “that every man was enlightened by the divine Light of Christ” but that theology, like most other human knowledge, simply obscured men’s vision. Fox, the founder of English Quakerism, said in his Journal:
These three,—the physicians, the priests, and the lawyers,—ruled the world out of the wisdom, out of the faith, and out of the equity and law of God; one pretending the cure of the body, another the cure of the soul, and the third the protection of the property of the people. But I saw they were all out of the wisdom, out of the faith, out of the equity and perfect law of God.
In England Quakers remained a minority, raising an accusing and critical voice. In America the earliest Quaker voices had much the same sound. While others saw an opportunity here to pursue their orthodoxy unmolested, the Quakers engaged in a relendess quest for martyrdom. Their spirit was expressed by William Dewsbury, a leading English Quaker who helped ship immigrants to America, when he said that he “as joyfully entered prisons as palaces, and in the prison-house, I sang praises to my God and esteemed the bolts and locks upon me as jewels.” From this point of view the earliest Quaker immigrants to the American colonies sought, and found, adornment aplenty. In colonial Rhode Island, where the rulers refused to persecute them, Quakers were unwilling to stay. “We finde that in those places where these people aforesaid, in this coloney, are most of all suffered to declare themselves freely, and are only opposed by arguments in discourse,” observed the Rhode Island Court of Trial, “there they least of all desire to come.”
The story of earliest Quaker activities in America is puzzling to anyone unacquainted with the mystic spirit and the character of the martyr. It is not merely that these men and women preferred “to die for the whole truth rather than live with a half-truth.” One after another of them seemed to lust after hardships, trudging thousands of wilderness miles, risking Indians and wild animals, to find a crown of martyrdom. Never before perhaps have people gone to such trouble or traveled so far for the joys of suffering for their Lord. The courage and persistence shown by 17th-century American Quakers in seeking out the whipping-post or the gallows is equaled only in Cortes’ quest for the treasure of the Aztecs or Ponce de León’s search for the Fountain of Youth. Never was a reward sought more eagerly than the Quakers sought out their crown of thorns.
The English “Friends” (as the Quakers called themselves) were proud of the abuse willingly suffered by American Quakers at the hands of the New England Puritans. As early as 1659, Humphrey Norton’s New England’s Ensigne made a by-word of their suffering. And George Bishop, also in England, prepared a Book of Martyrs, first published in 1661, and later several times reprinted, under the title New England Judged by the Spirit of the Lord. In this thick volume he collected harrowing tales of the punishment of Quaker visitors to Massachusetts Bay.
A few examples will give a hint of the Friends’ bizarre and dauntless spirit. In 1658, Sarah Gibbons and Dorothy Waugh left Rhode Island, where they were not being molested, and traveled mostly on foot from Newport to Salem in Massachusetts. Groping through March blizzards and sleeping in the woods, they eventually reached their destination, and they preached undisturbed for about two weeks. Then they “felt moved” to go to Boston, where they received the expected barbaric whipping before being sent packing back to Rhode Island. In the summer of the same year Josiah Coale and Thomas Thurston traveled even farther to suffer for the Truth. They walked from Virginia to New England “through Uncouth Passages, Vast Wildernesses, Uninhabited Countries.” The Susquehanna Indians took pity on them, guiding them to New Amsterdam and nursing Thurston when he was critically ill. Like so many others, these two men felt what the Quakers called “the fire and the hammer” in their souls. Finally reaching New England, they preached, first to the Indians and then to the white colonists, until they were committed to prison and driven at last from the colony.
One of the most persistent of the martyrs was Christopher Holder, “valiant apostle of New England Quakerism,” who had arrived in 1656 from England to preach the gospel of his sect. In Salem, one Sunday morning in September 1657, he was bold enough to speak a few words after the minister had done. He did not get very far before someone seized him by the hair, and “His Mouth violently stopp’d with a Glove and Handkerchief thrust thereinto with much Fury, by one of your Church-Members And Commissioners.” Although he had already been at least once expelled, he and his companion had continued their preaching. They were conveyed to Boston, where the exasperated Governor and Deputy-Governor of the colony inflicted on them a brutal punishment which went even beyond all existing laws. Merely reading the account is strong medicine, but it contributes to our understanding of the price the Quakers sought to pay for their Truth. First the two Quakers were given thirty stripes apiece with a three-cord knotted whip, during which one of the spectators fainted. Then they were confined to a bare cell, without bedding, for three days and nights without food or drink. After that they were imprisoned during nine weeks of the New England winter without any fire. By special order the prisoners were whipped twice each week, the first time with fifteen lashes and each succeeding time by three additional. Having miraculously survived this ordeal, Holder took ship for Barbados, where he spent the remainder of the winter before returning to Rhode Island to preach his gospel without molestation. But this did not satisfy him. In August 1658 he was arrested in Dedham, Massachusetts, and again taken to Boston, where one of his ears was cut off.
The New England Puritan leaders were not sadists. But they too were single-minded men; they had risked everything and traveled three thousand miles for their own opportunity. They wanted to be let alone to pursue their orthodoxy and to build Zion according to their model. What right had the Quakers (or anyone else) to interfere? The Puritans had not sought out the Quakers in order to punish them; the Quakers had come in quest of punishment. Why could not these zealots stay in Rhode Island where they were tolerated, and allow the Puritans to go about their business? Or, as a Puritan minister said in defending the 117 blows with a tarred rope which had brought the Quaker William Brend near to death, he “indeavoured to beat the Gospel ordinances black and blew,” and it seemed but just to beat him black and blue.
In trying to keep the Quakers away, the governors of Massachusetts Bay were at their wits’ end. They showed how little they understood the problem by increasing the legal penalties against intruders. Had they known the Quakers better they might have foreseen that this could only make their colony more attractive to seekers of martyrdom. There was very little popular enthusiasm in Massachusetts Bay for the death penalty against Quakers, but it was enacted in 1658, having passed the House of Deputies by a majority of only one vote.
It was not long before another group of Quakers, inspired by what their own historian called an unquenchable fire, departed from the safety of Rhode Island and arrived in Boston. They were “commissioned” by God; they came to “look your Bloody Laws in the Face.” Unflinching before the threat of death, they came prepared. Alice Cowland even brought linen for wrapping the dead bodies of those who were expected to be martyred. One of these unwelcome visitors, William Robinson, wrote in the Boston jail late in 1659:
In Travelling betwixt Newport in Rhode Island, and Daniel Gold’s House, with my dear Brother, Christopher Holder, the Word of the Lord came expressly to me which did fill me immediately with Life and Power, and heavenly love, by which he constrained me and commanded me to pass to the Town of Boston, my life to lay down in His will, for the Accomplishing of his Service, that he had there to perform at the Day appointed. To which heavenly Voice I presently yielded Obedience, not questioning the Lord how He would bring the Thing to pass … and willingly was I given up from that time, to this Day, the Will of the Lord to do and perform, what-ever became of my Body…. I being a Child, and durst not question the Lord in the least, but rather willing to lay down my Life, than to bring Dishonour to the Lord.
The story of Mary Dyer, who left her husband in Newport to court danger and defy evil in Boston, demonstrates both the uneasiness of the Puritans in crowning the Quaker martyrs and the persistence of the Quakers in earning that crown. Her story, one of the most impressive in all the annals of martyrdom, is worth recounting. Shortly after arriving in Boston in the early fall of 1659, she and her companions (including an eleven-year old girl, Patience Scott) were banished on pain of death. After only a brief stay in Newport, she returned to Boston. “Your end shall be frustrated, that think to restrain them, you call Cursed Quakers, from coming among you, by any Thing you can do to them,” she explained, “Yea, verily, he hath a Seed here among you, for whom we have suffered all this while, and yet Suffer.” She was tried on October 19, 1659, along with William Robinson and Marmaduke Stephenson, who had shared her mission. The next day, after a sermon cursing them, Governor Endicott pronounced their death sentence. “The Will of the Lord be done,” Mary Dyer replied, and as the marshal took her away, she stolidly remarked, “Yea, joyfully shall I go.”
A week later the three Quakers were to be executed. Mary Dyer marched to the gallows between the two young men condemned with her, while drums beat loudly to prevent any words they might preach on the way from being heard by the watching crowd. When an official asked Mrs. Dyer if she did not feel shame at walking publicly between two young men, she answered, “It is an Hour of the greatest Joy I can enjoy in this World. No Eye can see, No Ear can hear, No Tongue can speak, No Heart can understand the sweet incomes and refreshings of the Spirit of the Lord which I now enjoy.” Still the Puritan officials tried to deprive her of the martyr’s ecstasy. The two men were executed, and Mary Dyer was mounted on the gallows, her arms and legs bound and her face covered with a handkerchief as the final preparation for hanging. Then, as if by a sudden decision, she was reprieved from the gallows.
This barbarous proceeding, as we now know, had been planned in advance. During Mary Dyer’s trial, the Massachusetts General Court had secretly recorded their judgment that she be banished; but they had also provided that she be present at the execution of the others and be prepared as if for her own hanging. Her reprieve was surely due, in part, to the uneasiness of citizens who still recalled their own sufferings in England.
Mary Dyer’s response to this act of grace was thoroughly in character. She refused to accept the reprieve unless the law itself was repealed. But the determined judges sent her off on horseback in the direction of Rhode Island. If they thought they could so easily be rid of Mary Dyer, they were mistaken. “She said,” records John Taylor, one of her fellow Quaker missionaries, “that she must go and desire the repeal of that wicked law against God’s people and offer up her life there.” On May 21, 1660, less than a year after her banishment from the colony, the irrepressible Mary Dyer returned to Boston and once more heard her sentence of death. But now, insisted Governor Endicott, it was to be executed. Again there were pleas for her life. And again, as she stood on the ladder of the gallows, she was offered her life if she would just leave the colony. But this time she was not to be thwarted. “Nay,” she declared, “I cannot…. In obedience to the will of the Lord God I came and in his will I abide faithful to death.” And she was hanged.
However hard we may find it to understand the motives of the Quakers in their American quest for martyrdom, we must admire their courage. As William Brend wrote:
I further Testify, in the Fear of the Lord, and witness God, with a Pen of Trembling, That the Noise of the whip on my Back, all the Imprisonments, and Banishing upon pain of Death … did no more affright me, through the Strength and Power of God in me, than if they had threatened to have bound a Spider’s Web to my Finger.
Even the sympathetic Quaker historian Rufus Jones describes as an “almost excessive Quaker frankness” the spirit which moved Josiah Southwick after his successive whippings to tell his persecutors that “it was no more terrifying unto him, than if ye had taken a Feather and blown it up in the Air, and had said, Take heed it hurteth him not.”