THE first settlers of the New England states, as is pretty well known, were men who fled from civil and religious persecution in England in the early part of the seventeenth century. As they had felt in their own persons and fortunes the sorrows of oppression for conscience sake, it might naturally be expected that they would have had some sympathy for others in like circumstances. In this respect, however, the Pilgrim Fathers, as they have been termed, were no better than the men before whom they had fled. A volume might be written of their doings in the way of intolerance, but the following short chapter may suffice:

In the year 1656, when the colonist of Massachusetts were complacently congratulating themselves on having established a vigorous system of uniformity in religious matters, and expressing great thankfulness for having escaped from the troubles which had lately agitated England, they were very much surprised that two women of the sect which had begun to be called Quakers were arrived at Boston from Barbadoes. There was no law in the colony against such persons; but that was considered unimportant; it was easy to make a little law for the occasion, or easier still to act without any law at all. This last alternative was adopted. The two unfortunate women against whose character there was no reproach, were seized and put in prison; a few books found in their trunks were burnt by the hangman; and after suffering various indignities, they were turned out of the country. Persecution requires only a little spark to kindle it into a great flame. It would almost seem as if the misusage of the two women caused a flocking of the Quakers from all points of the compass to Boston, only for the sake of getting ill-treated. In a short time eight made their appearance, and they in like manner were imprisoned and banished. Thinking it now time to have a little law to regulate proceedings, a local court passed an enactment, declaring that any Quakers who should hereafter arrive in the colony should be severely whipped, and confined at hard labor in the house of correction. Immediately afterwards several came, were whipped, confined, and dismissed; and others took their place. It was evident the law was too lenient, so a fresh enactment was passed. Fines were imposed on every person who gave house room to Quakers, or who attended their meetings, or otherwise sanctioned their pernicious opinions. Every Quaker after the first conviction, if a man, was to lose one ear, and the second time the other; if a woman, she was each time to be severely whipped; and for the third offence, both men and women were to have their tongues bored through with a red hot iron. Quakers now arrived in the colony in great numbers. Glorying in their sufferings, the more they were persecuted, the more they came to testify their sincerity in their belief. Whippings, confinements, hard labor, fines, cutting off the ears, and boring the tongue being thus found ineffectual, a new law was passed in 1668, declaring that in future all Quakers who intruded themselves into Massachusetts should be banished on pain of death. Three Quakers forthwith offered themselves as the first victims; they had returned from banishment. Their names were Mary Dyer, Marmaduke Stephenson, and Wìlliam Robinson. From their defence at their trial, nothing is more plain than they were persons in a state of frenzy: their general argument was, that by means of visions they were induced to come to Massachusetts and brave the worst that could be done to them. Mary Dyer saw her two brethren die before her eyes; and she was on the point of meeting the same dreadful doom, the rope being already around her neck, “when a faint shout was heard in the distance, which grew stronger and stronger, and was soon caught and repeated by a hundred willing hearts. ‘A reprieve, a reprieve!’ was the cry, and the execution was stopped; but she whose mind was intently fastened on another world, cried out that she desired to suffer with her brethren, unless the magistrates would repeal their wicked law.

“She was saved by the intercession of her son, but on the express condition that she should be carried to the place of execution, and stand upon the gallows with a rope about her neck, and then be carried out of the colony. She was acrdingly taken to Rhode Island; but her resolution was still unshaken, and she was again moved to return to the ‘bloody town of Boston,’ where she arrived in the spring of 1650. This determination of a feeble and aged woman, to brave all the terrors of their laws, might well fill the magistrate with astonishment; but the pride of consistency had already involved them in acts of extreme cruelty, and thought it impossible now to recede. The other executions were considered acts of stern necessity, and caused much discontent; a hope was entertained until the last moment that the condemned would consent to depart from jurisdiction: and which Mary Dyer was sent for by the court, after her second return, Governor Endicott said, ‘Are you the same Mary Dyer that was here before?’ giving her an opportunity to escape by a denial of the fact, there having been another of the name returned from England. But she would make no evasion. ‘I am the same Mary Dyer that was here at the last general court.’ ‘You will own yourself a Quaker, will you not?’ “I own myself to be reproachfully called so;’ and she was sentenced to be hanged on the morning of the next day. ‘This is no more than thou saidest before,’ was her intrepid reply, when the sentence of death was pronounced. ‘ But now,’ said the Governor, ‘it is to be executed, therefore prepare yourself, for to-morrow at nine o’clock you die.!’ ‘I came,’ was the reply, ‘in obedience to the will of God, to the last general court, desiring you to repeal your unrighteous law of banishment on pain of death, and the same is my work now, and earnest request; although I told you if you refused to repeal them the Lord would send others of his servants to witness against them.’

“At the appointed time on the next day she was brought forth, and, with a band of soldiers, led through town about a mile to the place of execution, the drums beating before and behind her the whole way. When she was on the gallows, it was told her if she would return home she might come down and save her life; to which she replied, ‘Nay, I cannot, for in obedience to the will of the Lord I came, and in his will I abide faithful unto death.’ Another said that she had been there before; she had the sentence of banishment upon pain of death, and had broken the law in coming again now, and therefore she was guilty of her own blood. ‘Nay,’ she answered, ‘I came to keep blood guiltiness from you, desiring you to repeal the unrighteous and unjust law of banishment upon pain of death, made against the innocent servants of the Lord; therefore my blood will be required at your hands, who willfully do it; but for those who do it in the simplicity of their hearts, I desire the Lord to forgive them. I came to do the will of my Father, and in obedience to his will I stand even till death.’ A minister who was present then said, ‘Mary Dyer, repent, oh repent, and be not so deluded and carried away by the deceit of the devil!’ But she answered, ‘Nay, man, I am not now to repent.’ She added that she desired the prayers of all the people of God. ‘Perhaps,’ said one, scoffingly, ‘she thinks there is none here.’ Then, looking around, she said, ‘I know but few here.’ Being again asked to have one of the elders pray for her, she said, ‘Nay, first a child, then a young man, then a strong man, before an Elder in Christ Jesus.’ She spoke of the other world and of the eternal happiness into which she was about to enter; and ‘in this well disposed condition was turned off, and died a martyr of Christ, being twice led to death, which the first time she expected with undaunted courage, and now suffered with christian fortitude.’ ‘ She hangs as a flag for others to take example by, said a member of the court, as the lifeless body hung suspended from the gallows.”

Intead of being a warning, her death was only an encouragement. Another Quaker, named William Leddra, soon made his appearance, and after a tedious imprisonment, during which he was chained to a log of wood, he was brought to trial on the usual charge of returning from banishment. There was a dash of the ludicrous in the proceedings. One of the charges against him was that he refused to take off his hat in court, and another was that he persevered in saying “thee” and “thou.” “Will you put me to death,” he asked, “ for speaking good English, and for not putting off my clothes!” “A man may speak treason in good English,” was the reply. “Is it treason to say ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ to single persons?” No good rejoinder could here be made by the judges, and while they were trying to stop his mouth by a few more questions, to their exceeding dismay another Quaker, named Winlock Christison, who had also returned from banishment, entered the court and placed himself beside the prisoner. The case of Leddra was at first despatched, by condemning him to be executed, and this atrocity was committed on the 14th of March. Christison at a second appearance, before ‘the court, received a like sentence, but leaving, him the choice of voluntary banishment, and this latter alternative he appears to have embraced. The next culprits of the same class were Judah Browne and Peter Pierson, who, for no offence that we can perceive but that of being Quakers, were condemned to be tied to a cart’s tail and whipped through several towns in the colony. Immediately after, as appears from the records of the court, a day of thanksgiving was appointed to be kept in acknowledgement of the many mercies enjoyed for years past “in this remote wilderness.”

According to Mr. Cliaudler,* from whose interesting work we have derived these in melancholy details, the persecutions in Massachusetts gave offence to Charles II., who had other reasons to be dissatisfied with the colonists. He therefore enjoined all the governors of New England to proceed no farther with corporal punishments against Quakers, but to send them to England with their respective crimes specifically set forth, in order that they might be disposed of according to law. The Quakers in London immediately chartered a vessel, and the mandamus being committed to Samuel Shattock, who had been banished from Massachusetts on pain of death, he arrived in the harbor of Boston in six weeks. The king’s messenger and the commander of the ship landed on the day after their arrival, and proceeded directly to the governor’s house. Admitted to his presence, He ordered Shattock’s hat to be removed, but, after perusing the letters, restored it and took off his own. After consultation with the deputy-governor, he informed the messenger that they should obey the king’s command. In the evening the pasengers of the ship came on shore, and, with their friends in the town, held a meeting, “where they returned praises to God for his mercy, manifested in their wonderful deliverance.”

The colonial laws against Quakers were now abolished, and there were no more executions of this unhappy class of persons; but the magistracy were hostile to the sect, and for years afterwards they contrived to whip and otherwise maltreat any Quakers who fell into their hands; it would indeed seem doubtful whether the tortures and indignities they occasionally inflicted, particularly on the persons of females, were not worse than death. The authority to which we have referred observes with justice that the Quakers who exposed themselves to these seventies were not by any means blameless. Unlike the orderly society of Friends in the present day, they appear to have taken a delight in annoying the constituted authorities, and disturbing the public peace. Much of this, however, was produced by their sufferings in the first instance; and the more violent amongst them, from a variety of causes, were evidently wrought up to a state of religious insanity. Allowing that the were as troublesome as their worst enemies can possibly represent them, there can now be but one sentiment respecting their treatment – unqualified condemnation of their oppressors. It is true there were laws equally severe against Quakers in Virginia and elsewhere; but this does not lessen the crime of the magistracy of Massachusetts. Descendants of the Pilgrim Fathers who fled to the wilderness from persecution, if not themselves refugees, they ought to have sympathized in the eccentricities Or convictions of others when placed in similar circumstances. How true is the remark of our author that “Religious intolerance was the mistake of that age!”

*American Criminal Trials, by P.W., Chandler, two vols. 1840 – Chambers’ Edinburgh Journal.

New Vernon, N.Y.,
September 1, 1845

Elder Gilbert Beebe
Editorials Volume 2
Pages 580 – 587