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Quaker Executions in Early America Settlement Essay

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Updated: Oct 8th, 2021

Introduction

The struggle between the Quakers and Puritans during the early days of America settlement has received some attention. The issues were the struggle between the Quaker sect that wanted to convert members of the Puritan group to their cause. The Puritans saw this as a mischief created by Britain as the Puritans felt that their increasing power and tendency to take independent decisions was upsetting the plans of the British Empire. In a bid to crush this cultural and religious invasion, the Puritans threw out the Quaker prophets from the Massachusetts area and forbade them from entering the area on pain of death. This did not deter the Quakers and they willingly accepted executions in the hope of attaining martyrdom. Between 1659 and 1661, four Quakers were executed. This paper researchers the issue of the executions and the larger politics and struggle for power in the early days of the 16th century.

Who were the Quakers

The Quakers were a group of radical Christian sect that formed in Britain during the English interregnum. The sect member believed that the spirit of God dwelled within them and guided their actions. Given to bizarre acts, they were a hardy lot who believed in extreme acts and were ready to undergo beating, mutilations, beatings and even death in order to preach their concept of Christianity and obtain converts to their cause in the newly settled areas of the present day USA. The settlements of America in the early years of the 16th century, still owed allegiance to their mother country Britain. The majority of settlers in Americas were the Puritans, who were another sect of Christians and had field Britain after being purged from their homelands. The puritans guarded their lands and religion very zealously and regarded with hostility when other groups or nations attempted to upstage them in their homeland. The Quakers had started coming to the Massachusetts region in 1656 and began spreading word about the imminent end of the world so that more people would convert to their sect and they succeeded in their acts of conversion. The Quakers came in New England on a mission from God and they wanted to reform the misguided English settlers. They had firm conviction about the final judgement and looked at their identification with the power of the divine and were ready to face any opponent. These members were not afraid of torture and executions and were of the opinion that dying while spreading the name of the god would help them to gain divine sanctification (Pestana, 1999, pp: 441-442).

How the Puritans dealt with the Quakers

The Puritans suspected that the British Empire was attempting to infiltrate their stronghold and weaken then hold by using the Quakers as an excuse. They also felt that the Quakers were the latest satanic plot to undermine the godly efforts of the Puritans to establish true Churches of Christ in America. This should be considered along with the beliefs of Satanic and dark forces, in which the general population believed in those days. The Salem witch burnings and other religious acts of extremism should be remembered. To counter the threats of Quakers, the Puritans attempted to first imprison the Quakers then started banning them from entering their towns. It should be noted that the Puritans had been driven out of England and they had come to the Americas to escape religious persecution but they themselves were not better than the British when it came to dealing with other religious beliefs. They successively started beating, mutilating and flogging the Quakers to make them desist from spreading their word of God. When such measures failed, the Puritans began executing the Quaker prophets and four were executed in the Massachusetts bay area from 1659 to 1661. But even these executions could not deter the Quakers and later the Puritans stopped this practice since they did not want to incur the wrath of Britain who would not take lightly to its subjects being executed (Pestana, 1999, pp: 441).

What the Struggle between the Puritans and Quakers gave

Over the decades, the execution of the Quaker prophets had different fallout. During the hangings, exchanges and arguments were customary and while the person to be hanged stood on the gallows with a noose around the neck, lawyers in turn argued about the charges and the other parties refuted the charges. The Quaker missionaries of the early period were a vociferous and violent lot who had themselves to blame for their predicament. However, as the years went by, the later day Quaker generations attempted to portray themselves as pacifists and peace loving people who desired nothing more than be allowed to practice their religion. The Puritans on the other hand were depicted as bloodthirsty people who were intolerant of other religions and persisted in using violent methods to strike down those who were opposed to their view. The Quakers used the Massachusetts executions to very good effect and in later years, the Quakers acquired the image of being peace-loving people, who were purged for their religious beliefs. To their credit, the Quakers were better educated and literate, something of a rarity in those early days. So Quaker missionaries such as Hogwill and Norton went about writing many texts in which the extolled the martyred souls and went to compare their the Puritan colonials to Roman Catholic persecutors of Protestant martyrs. So the battle had moved from the streets and the gallows to the written word. Norton wrote a judgemental letter to the Massachusetts governor John Endecott and declared various individuals and groups in the colony as cursed for their mistreatment of the Quakers. He also detailed graphically the fate that God had reserved for the accursed Endecott and compared the persecuted but not yet martyred Quakers with the crucified Christ (p. 445-447).

It is evident from the reports that the Quakers had plenty of time on their hand and they put it to good use, highlighting the tyranny that the Puritans had unleashed and the martyrdom suffered. The executed Quaker leaders had not committed any crime other than preach their religion and in those days, if any person was killed because he chose to die for God, then this was well received by the people. If the Puritans had indeed left the Quakers to their own ends, then probably people would have regarded them as fools with their preaching of doomsday. However, the acts of executions stirred people and gradually, people began to see the Quakers as the religious persecuted and in fact, there were some amount of conversions. One of the newly converted ex-Puritan, John Smith wrote to the governor Endecott saying that while he initially opposed the Quaker movement, he had converted to Quakerism and compared the Quakers to Christ an the Puritan authorities to Jews (p. 447).

How the Martyrdom effected the religious politics

Quaker bishops and ministers attempted very successfully to project the executed Quakers as martyrs and as was the custom in those days, they used fiery rhetoric and bloody language as they promised that the severest retribution awaited the tormentors. One of the Bishops wrote to Price Charles of England where he suggested that the martyrs were innocent lambs that had walked out from the Butchers lair to be slaughtered. The effect of the executions was very much evident and when another colony was being set up in the Plymouth area by the Puritans, the founding members of the colony did not indulge in the behaviour exhibited by their Massachusetts counterparts and allowed religious freedom. Quakers of the next generation attempted to move away from the bloody and violent outpourings of their forefathers and adopted a quiet and pacifist language that was designed to project them as peaceful people. Gone was the talk of judgement day and the fiery retribution for the offenders and instead came the language of peace. The later day Quakers persisted in using the martyrs to further their religion and cause but they refrained from using the language of blood filled divine justice and a reform was in progress. One side wanted the Quakers to reform their ways and avoid the confrontation attitude while another side persisted in using the confrontation and retribution preaching to drive home their cause. In the 1675 war with King Philips, many of the Puritans were killed and new England settlements were decimated. The Quakers were quick to seize this development and pointed out that this was the judgment day that had come to visit the wicked Puritans who had been visited with the divine retribution that had been prophesied all the years (p. 452-453).

Over the years, the writing and preaching of the Quakers underwent a subtle shift and there were attempts to portray the executions as evil while Gods will had been carried out when he punished the New England settlers. By the late seventeenth century, the bulk of Quaker historiography had completed the transition away from the prophetic tradition entering a new phase that of the inoffensive martyr. In these writings, the authors broke cleanlier with the retributive tone of early accounts. They did mention that God had punished New England but they attempted to abstain from interpretations of divine retribution. This was done so that the sect’s belief of pacifism could be retained but it was difficult not to do so. One of the writers Gould, who was imprisoned along with the executed prisoners wrote that ‘God was with them and bore them through with a heavenly cheerfulness and many sweet and heavenly sayings they gave..’ He attempted to depict the executed people as harmless, innocent and peaceful and this tradition continued (p. 453-468).

The Puritans on the other hand initially attempted to justify the executions in the name of religion but later fell to the societal pressures and started writing that the executions had been done for religious and political reasons, but their tone of writing was not apologetic and neither was it accusatory or attempted to justify the acts.

Conclusion

The paper has examined the fight between the Quakers and the Puritans and the consequences that the executions of four Quaker preachers had on society. While initially the Puritans had plenty of support, later along the way, the Quakers attempted to show themselves as peace loving and this legacy continued with history and its versions and interpretations being continued in this manner.

References

Pestana Calra Gardina, September 1999. The Quaker Executions as Myth and History. The Journal of American History. pp: 441 to 469.

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