Quakers Executed in Massachusetts Colony

BY Katie Lambert / POSTED October 27, 2009
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This morning, I found a huge, dead rat in my outside trash can. This dire discovery has set the tone for the day, so I am blogging about something gloomy: martyrs. Specifically, the Boston martyrs.

In 1657, 11 members of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) set sail for the American colonies to spread George Fox’s teachings. They traveled in a ship called the Woodhouse, which a man named Robert Fowler had felt called by a divine power to build, although he’d had no purpose in mind at the time. The ship wasn’t made for the rough ocean voyage, but the Friends felt that a divine hand would guide them, and they made it safely to the New World.

The American colonies were far from being a haven from religious persecution, contrary to the teachings of my elementary school textbook. The Puritans, especially in the Massachusetts colony, wanted nothing to do with the Friends and their message of personal revelation. And the Friends were provocative, bold and vocal in how they chose to bring Fox’s light to the people.

A series of laws were enacted to deter Quakers from entering the colony, sometimes punishing them if they did: Shipmasters could be fined for bringing them, Quakers could be jailed and whipped – even friends of the Friends could be jailed or exiled. At least three Quaker preachers lost an ear for their teachings. One man had a glove shoved in his mouth after standing up at a Salem Meeting to preach. Another, William Brend, was beaten to a pulp with a tarred rope.

None of it worked. The Quakers kept preaching. In 1658, the magistrates of the Massachusetts colony passed a new law: If you’d been banished for your Quaker beliefs and returned, you would be executed. The law wasn’t popular with everyone, but it passed.

In September 1659, four Quakers were found where they weren’t wanted: William Robinson and Marmaduke Stephenson, who had come over on the Woodhouse; Mary Dyer, a fearless acquaintance of Anne Hutchinson; and Patience Scott, an 11-year-old girl. Scott was returned to her parents, but Dyer, Robinson and Stephenson were all banished.

They put the law to the test. Moved by God, all three came back. All three were sent to the gallows. Robinson and Stephenson were killed. Mary Dyer was reprieved, but she returned yet again. She was offered another reprieve if she would only go home and stay there, but she refused and was hanged.

It was the same story for William Leddra of Barbados. He was tortured before he was executed in December 1660. He was charged with saying “thee” and keeping his hat on. He wouldn’t recant.

The executions proved distasteful to the King, as well as many of the colonists, and the torturing and killing stopped. The Friends went on to play an important part in the abolitionist movement.

This story made me think of my favorite martyr, St. Thecla, who I chose as my Confirmation saint because the woman simply wouldn’t die. Who are your favorite martyrs?

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