Puritan Cruelty and Quaker Suffering

Puritan Cruelty and Quaker Suffering August 2, 2018

In the fall of 1658, Massachusetts passed a law that threatened banished Quakers with death. Over the next three years, the colony executed four Friends — including Mary Dyer — who violated that law. Alongside the Salem Witch Trials, Massachusetts’s executions of Quakers have done much to cement the reputation of New England puritans for cruelty.

In addition to the executions, several of the New England puritan colonies whipped Quakers. In 1661, Massachusetts enacted a law according to which “vagabond” Quakers were to be stripped from the waist up, tied to a cart, and then whipped through several towns. In the winter of 1662-1663, a magistrate imposed the penalty on three Quaker women — Mary Tomkins, Alice Ambrose, and Ann Coleman — who had returned to the town of Dover in present-day New Hampshire. According to a Quaker publication, he did so at the instigation of a “priest” named John Rayner. “The crimson Blood, the black Dirty, and the white Snow, and the tender Women traversing their way through all,” wrote George Bishop, an English chronicler of the Friends’ suffering, “was a hard spectacle to those who had in them any thing of tendernesse.” According to Bishop, Rayner had no tenderness in him. He watched and laughed.[1]

Thus, not only did the Puritans kill, maim, and whip Quakers, but they enjoyed it. Ministers such as John Rayner took pleasure in Friends’ suffering.

Massachusetts Bay was unique among the four puritan colonies of New England in executing Quakers. New Haven branded Humphrey Norton, New Plymouth whipped Quaker missionaries, and Connecticut did its best to discourage them by less harsh methods.

The Quakers were not welcome anywhere, not in Virginia, not in Barbados, not in the Dutch Republic, not in New Netherland. Rhode Island tolerated them, but Roger Williams deemed them heretics and dissemblers (with the exception of Norton, whom he praised as a more straightforward heretic).

Although King Charles II discouraged New England’s magistrates from further executions, the Quakers also suffered terribly in Restoration England. Thousands were jailed, and those prisons were noxious compared to New England’s jails. Several leading Friends died while imprisoned in the 1660s. It was not just magistrates, judges, and royal officials, moreover. Ordinary people sometimes smeared Friends with feces and stoned them out of town.

Narrated in a vacuum, the magistrates of Massachusetts Bay (and their counterparts in New Haven and New Plymouth) seem remarkably cruel for their willingness to mutilate and execute Quakers. It is a grisly history, but largely unremarkable when set in the context of seventeenth-century English history.

“Puritanism” does not explain why Massachusetts Bay executed Quakers or severed Quaker ears, just as Arminianism and ceremonialism do not explain why Archbishop Laud severed puritan ears in the 1630s. A shared commitment to religious uniformity, coupled with an insistence that heresy was dangerous and seditious, led large numbers of ecclesiastical and civil officials to support punishments that seem barbaric.

By the time Quaker missionaries reached the American colonies, that commitment to religious uniformity was beginning to fray, both in New England and old. In all of the puritan colonies of New England, harsh measures against Quakers produced internal divisions and debate. Or more accurately, they reopened internal divisions. In New Plymouth, for instance, the general court in the mid-1640s had nearly embraced a Rhode Island-style toleration. William Bradford squelched the effort, but with Bradford dead and Quaker missionaries convincing inhabitants several towns, those old divisions reemerged. New Plymouth’s governor, Thomas Prence, shared the Bay Colony’s view of the problem. Prence wanted his colony to enact the same law that enabled the execution of returned Quakers in Massachusetts Bay. Other magistrates, though, disagreed with any persecution of men and women for their religious beliefs. The eventual result was that New Plymouth’s anti-Quaker laws were repealed or allowed to lapse in the early 1660s, though some towns fined and jailed Quakers who refused to pay the ministerial rates.

There was no stark divide between intolerant Massachusetts Bay and more tolerant New Plymouth (or New Haven or Connecticut). John Rayner, the minister who allegedly laughed while naked Quaker backs bled, had spent two decades in the town of Plymouth before moving north.

The Quakers posed a persistent and sharp challenge to the puritan colonies of New England, and each colony navigated these issues somewhat differently depending on the strength of its religious establishment, the number of dissenters among its inhabitants, and the opinions of magistrates and freemen. A key task for historians is to document the local circumstances that led to various forms of persecution and toleration.


[1] Bishop, New England Judged, The Second Part (London: n.p., 1667), 61.

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