This is a story I wrote in November 2013 for The Newburyport Daily News Newburyport, Masschusetts New England Newspaper & Press Association's.
“The tale is one of an evil time,
When souls were fettered and thought was crime.
And heresy’s whisper above its breath
Meant shameful scourging, and bonds and death.”
— John Greenleaf Whittier
As we enjoy this season of good food and drink, as well as the liberty to choose which local house of the Lord we fancy, we can be thankful that Puritan tyrants no longer patrol our pastures as they did in our ancestors’ day.
In Newbury, the early settlers ran into conflict with Puritan authority over ecclesiastical differences. Quakers especially were in the hot bed, and anyone that harbored the “cursed sect” would feel the fiery fury of local officials. These aggressively “bloodthirsty” and “extremely fanatical” men were not open to compromise. When dealing with dissenters, in the words of John Proctor, Puritan “justice would freeze beer.”
When the Quakers came to the Colonies, they brought with them a spiritual democracy that threatened the Puritan aristocratic system. Their simplistic faith had an absence of clergy, creed and sacrament; moreover, they gave women equality. The head honchos like Endicott and Hawthorne labeled them “dangerous intruders invading our borders” and “wandering vagabonds.” Despite the tenacious efforts of the magistrates who wanted to eliminate the “vile heretics,” which included branding, whipping and cropping, the Quakers just kept coming, and the good folk of Newbury were more than willing to board and support them.
In the summer months of 1658, the farm of Robert Adams played host to two Quaker missionaries, William Brend and William Leddra. The Phelps family of Salem held a secret Quaker meeting, and Adams escorted the guest speakers to the gathering. Unfortunately, word got out and the constables came to break up the assembly and haul in all the “quaking heretics.”
When the law boys arrived, chaos broke out, and perhaps the distraction of finding their wives in the midst of this devil’s den allowed Adams to sneak his guests out and bring them back to Newbury. However, it would not be long before the authorities would track them down. Captain Gerrish and the minister paid a call on their buddy Adams, and despite their best efforts to resolve things amicably, Brend and Leddra were turned over to Salem Court. Adams paid the fines, but his friends faced a different fate.
The tragic events that followed were nothing short of extreme cruelty. Confined to the Boston jail, Brend and Leddra were starved and repeatedly beaten with a three-pitched rope until they were on the brink of death. The disapproving sentiment of the public reached Endicott. Knowing he had to intervene, Endicott sent in a surgeon. Russell L. Jackson asserts that the aged Brend, with help from an “unseen Healer,” rose from his sick cot as he still had more light to spread and preach about in New England.
In August 1659, Thomas Macy was prosecuted and fined 30 shillings for hosting four Quakers. Two of his guests, William Robinson and Marmaduke Stephenson, would later be executed upon the gallows on Dec. 27, 1659.
Fed up with the Puritan government, Macy “shook the dust from off his feet” and departed to Nantucket, where the iron hand of these despots did not reach. Thomas left “because he could not in justice to the dictates of his own conscience longer submit to the tyranny of the clergy and those in authority” (Macy Papers). His journey was a spiritual sign of deliverance as he, his family, Isaac Coleman and Edward Starbuck survived a fierce storm that raged like the Furies on their open boat.
Others like Coffin, Swain, Pike and Folger joined Macy on Nantucket. Allen Coffin noted that, while it was not an Elysium, the island was indeed blessed with “plenty’s golden smile” and “a refuge of the free.” Thanks to these brave, forward-thinking men, Nantucket became the first settlement to enjoy complete separation of Church and State.
On March 16, 1663, John Emery was presented to the court at Ipswich and charged with entertaining Quakers. The whole ordeal caused quite a buzz, and Rev. Parker showed up with a posse, demanding some answers. Sarah Emery asserts: “At this period one can scarcely depict the commotion such an incident must have caused in the secluded and quiet settlement of Quascacunquen, on the banks of the winding Parker, or appreciate the courage evinced by John Emery and his wife in thus rising above popular prejudice, and fanatical bigotry, and intolerance.” For this offense, the court fined Emery four pounds, plus costs and fees.
While we are grateful to live with religious freedom, we must also be grateful that our ancestors’ spirit, courage and light was not extinguished despite the tyrannical terror of dark Puritanical forces.
Happy Thanksgiving! Thank You to the Port Library Archives and Cheryl Follansbee.