I would carry fire in one hand and faggots
in the other to burn all the Quakers in the world.
–Boston preacher John Norton
This is the time of year to honor a small band of persecuted English Christians, who first sought refuge in Holland and then decided to set sail for the New World. With the aid of friendly Indians they were able to survive their first year in America.
We celebrate the Pilgrims of Plymouth because of their yearning for religious liberty and their desire to worship freely in their own way. What we don’t always recognize, however, is the fact that they denied that freedom to those with whom they disagreed.
All residents of the Plymouth colony had to pay a church tax and attend the established church every Sunday. Because Quakers refused to do this, their males were not “admitted as free men” and could not “be employed in any place of trust.”
Quakers believed that they were not subject to civil authorities, and they refused to take oaths or serve in the military. They also rejected all religious dogma, preferring to follow the internal light of Christ than a literal reading of the Bible.
In 1658 eight Quakers were arrested on a ship arriving in Boston Harbor. Their leader, Christopher Holder, stumped the Puritan magistrates when he pointed out that they had no law proscribing Quaker belief.
Laws were quickly passed with increasing severity: the first offense was to have one ear cut off, and offending a second time would cost Quaker males the other ear. Quaker women were to be whipped instead. If Quakers, male and female, had not their lesson by the third time, “their tongues would be bored through with a hot iron.”
Christopher Holder kept coming back to Boston to preach and to debate Puritan leaders, so on July 17, 1658 Holder and two other Quakers had their ears cut off and whipped twice a week for nine weeks before they chose to return to England.
Five Quaker women left the safety of Rhode Island, where Roger Williams had established religious liberty in America for the first time, and came to Boston to support their oppressed comrades. As soon as they arrived they were thrown in jail with the others.
The Bay Colony Puritans concluded that Satan had sent this Quaker scourge, so on October 19, 1658 the General Court of Boston passed a law stating that any Quaker refusing banishment would be executed. The result was that Quakers kept coming back to Boston with more zeal than ever.
Mary Dyer, one of the women from Rhode Island, and two men were tried under the new law and they were convicted. The men were hanged but Mary Dyer was rescued by her son riding on a white house (yes, it’s true) with a reprieve from the governor in his hand.
When Mary Dyer learned that the Boston Puritans were boasting to the English Parliament about their mercy in her case, she was determined to confront them and she returned to demand that the laws against Quakers be appealed.
It was decided that no new trial was necessary, and after refusing to recant, Dyer was led to the gallows once again and she died there on June 1, 1660. One more Quaker would be hanged before a new charter from England forced the Boston Puritans to protect all Christians except Catholics.
I was raised in an evangelical Quaker church in Medford, Oregon, and their peaceful meditative Christianity had a profound influence on my life. I was recruited but declined to attend George Fox College, now a reputable small University in Oregon’s beautiful Willamette Valley. Every spring the religious scholars of the Pacific Northwest meet, and the George Fox faculty always present excellent papers.
American Quakers are now a small but widely respected part of the nation’s spiritual life. The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) has an international reputation for aiding people in need and insisting on nonviolent solutions to international problems. Their early American predecessors would definitely have been surprised, if not shocked, to learn that the AFSC now supports gay and lesbian rights.
Barack and Michelle Obama have also chosen a Quaker school in Washington, DC for their two daughters. I’m sure that they will receive the same character education that I did as a young boy at the Medford Friend’s Church.
Nick Gier taught religion and philosophy at the University of Idaho for 31 years. Read his other columns at www.NickGier.com.