A dramatisation of the story surrounding the death by hanging of the Quaker Mary Dyer in 1660

Another view of the period - seen from both sides

True spirituality, in the light of our so obvious failings, allow few of us to claim access to knowledge of moral certainties, less so spiritual absolutes.

Yet, as in all religious confrontations, each side, Puritan and Quaker in Massachusetts, claimed God on their side. What they undertook was right and proper and according to God’s laws, they claimed. The Colony’s leaders also stood firm on the authority of their civil laws.

The Colony’s Puritan leadership, civil and ecclesiast, had always been stern. First-Day service missed resulted in enquiry, even ‘inquisition’, and maybe a fine resulting. Banishment, from the “company of the Elect”, was seen by all as a drastic step, for individual and family.

Even as resident-settlers were moved to become Quaker, the fine was imposed, as a start. Residents, being of fixed abode and good local reputation, were often left alone, or incurred only fines, as they sustained their faith quietly and were “less visibly challenging.”

Of the estimated 20-43 Quakers who ‘invaded’ Massachusetts, a few went quietly and persuasively about their aim of first living this new Life and then of converting others.

In considering reports about the most boisterous of the Colony’s unwelcome visitors, the Puritan leadership believed that hiding behind religious sentiments, the invading core of Quakers intended only to foment civil and social disorder.

Perhaps while disorder, sedition, rebellion were not their serious intentions, the aim of the more extreme of the Quakers was to ensure the surrender, capitulation, by the Colony’s General Court - repeal of the laws of banishment on those professing to be and acting as Quakers. If that were achieved, freedom of religious expression and worship might well follow – without punishment.

From 1656 into the 1660s and beyond, hundreds of resident-settlers and some members of their families saw the truth of the Quaker message and became converts. That put them on the path to the core of the spiritual message: to join with the Inward Light, the Light of Christ, living as best one’s intellect and heart can, according to much higher principles.

In the fuller picture available from official records, the Puritan magistrates of the General Court of the Colony can be seen in a more sympathetic light. They were not “the cold and calculating, unfeeling and inhumane, self-righteous and legalistic persecutors of the Quakers” which the conventional story, around the hanging of four Quakers, seems to present.

The Quakers, as preachers and missionaries, saw their activities as their religious idealism in action – the Puritans recognised only fanaticism and intent to disrupt.

Mary Dyer is recorded only as preaching in public; but others among these early Quaker ‘invaders’, attempted and seemingly succeeded in interfering with and causing consternation and anger in orthodox Puritan church services in many parts of the Colony. They berated Ministers before their congregations, and outside they claimed that magistrates’ powers were ungodly and unrighteous and could be disobeyed.

The Puritan leadership reacted by demanding the use of civil powers as they recognised that ecclesiastical solutions could not be effective. Yet those in seats of power were also divided: they had fled religious oppression in old England – were they now not taking the same path?

One report says that even hard old pioneer Endecott was somewhat conciliatory in the early days of the confrontation. Maybe recognising that ultimate power was politically a mirage, he visited Quakers under arrest and pointed out to them they could not win against General Court and the laws carrying banishment; other Quakers had been given the chance to leave, unharmed, and had done so. Why not them? Immovable religious mysticism answered him.

Endecott, later, even sent his son, a physician, to treat one over-whipped and seriously ill Quaker.

What exactly did the leadership say about these troublesome Quakers?

“Under the call to conscience, Quakers act on wild ungovernable passions and delusions. They mislead others into degenerate social irresponsibility even blasphemy.”

For example, mystical grace, to the Puritans, became opaque understanding even blasphemy when “Some Quakers believe they are perfect, without sin. Some believe they are Christ and God”.

They saw Quakers as making ‘unusual and extreme departures from true scriptural guidance.’ And, “Their pride results in delusions that they are among the Elect.”

“They demonstrate false spiritual pride in claiming to themselves knowledge of God’s Will.

Affecting and infecting the whole of the Colony, “Their arrogance results in lack of spiritual disciplines, lack of moral restraint, leading to heresies, moral abominations and anarchy.”

A brief summing up: The Puritan leadership made their stand on banishment on pain of death of those intent on demanding what was not theirs to demand: freedom of worship according to their specific views of religion.

The Colony’s leadership insisted: the Quakers had freedom – to stay out of a religious environment whose fundamental objectives were not theirs. The Colony’s leadership defended its right to leadership – and mercy: even the most determined of Quakers if convicted had their sentence of hanging suspended – if they would promise to leave the Colony and not return.

Four Quakers refused and paid a heavy price, the concept of martyrdom notwithstanding. Others, too, came very close to being hanged, the Colony’s leadership relenting on several occasions for several reasons.

Resident-settlers throughout the Colony, who became, for the most part, quiet-Quakers, were the leavening, catalyst, suffused influence.

It took a time, decades, but freedom of conscience within religion, hard-earned, became everyone’s right. In the Colony, which, marvellously, spiritually, sought to build “A Citie on a Hill” dedicated to God.

The heart weeps, for Man’s ignorance
which leads to the world’s misery,
and covers the eternal bliss

- anonymous

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