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The United States of America: A History
Book 1: Chapter V - The New England Persecutions


The Puritans left their native England and came to the "out- side of the world," as they called it, that they might enjoy liberty to worship God according to the way which they deemed right. They had discovered that they themselves were entitled to toleration. They felt that the restraints laid upon themselves were very unjust and very grievous. But their light as yet led them no further. They had not discovered that people who differed from them were as well entitled to be tolerated as they themselves were. We have no right to blame them for their backwardness. Simple as it seems, men have not all found out, even yet, that every one of them is fully entitled to think for himself.

1631 A.D.

And thus it happened that, before the Pilgrims had enjoyed for many years the cheerful liberty of their new home, doctrines raised their heads among them which they felt themselves bound to suppress. One February day there stepped ashore at Boston a young man upon whose coming great issues depended. his name was Roger Williams. He was a clergyman—"godly and zealous"—a man of rare virtue and power. Cromwell admitted him, in later years, to a considerable measure of intimacy. He was the friend of John Milton—in the bright days of the poet's youth, ere yet "time ever-during dark " surrounded him. From him Milton acquired his knowledge of time Dutch language. He carried with him to the New World certain strange opinions. Long thought had satisfied him that in regard to religious belief and worship man is responsible to God alone. No man, said Williams, is entitled to lay compulsion upon another man in regard to religion. The civil power has to do only with the "bodies and goods and outward estates" of men. In the domain of conscience God is the only ruler. New England was not able to receive these sentiments. Williams became minister at Salem, where he was held in high account. In time his opinions drew down upon him the unfavourable notice of the authorities. The General Court of Massachusetts brought him to trial for the errors of his belief. His townsmen and congregation deserted him. His wife reproached him bitterly with the evil he was bringing upon his family. Mr. Williams could do no otherwise. He must testify with his latest breath, if need be, against the "soul oppression" which he saw around him. The court heard him, discovered error in his opinions, declared him guilty, and pronounced upon him sentence of banishment.

All honour to this good and brave, if somewhat eccentric man, lie of all the men of his time saw most clearly the beauty of absolute freedom in matters of conscience. He went forth from Salem. lie obtained a grant of land from the Indians, and he founded the State of Rhode Island. Landing one day from a boat in which he explored his new possessions, he climbed a gentle slope, and rested with his companions beside a spring. It seemed to him that the capital of his infant State ought to be here. He laid the foundations of his city, which lie named Providence, in grateful recognition of the power which had guided his uncertain steps. his settlement was to be "a shelter for persons distressed for conscience." Most notably has it been so. Alone of all the States of Christendom, Rhode Island has no taint of persecution in her statute-book or in her history. Massachusetts continued to drive out her heretics. Rhode Island took them in. They might err in their interpretation of Scripture. Pity for themselves if they did so. But while they obeyed the laws, they might interpret Scripture according to the light they had. Many years after, Mr. Williams became President of the colony which he had founded. The neighbour- ing States were at that time sharply chastising the Quakers with lash and branding-iron and gibbet. llhode Island was invited to join in the persecution. Mr. Williams replied that he had no law whereby to punish any for their belief "as to salvation and an eternal condition." He abhorred the doctrines of the Quakers. In his seventy-third year he rowed thirty miles in an open boat to wage a public debate with some of the advocates of the system. Thus and thus only could he resist the progress of opinions which he deemed pernicious. In beautiful consistency and completeness stands out to the latest hour of his long life this good man's loyalty to the absolute liberty of the human conscience.

1651 A.D.

And thus, too, it happened that when seven or eight men began to deny that infants should be baptized, New England never doubted that she did right in forcibly  trampling out their heresy. The heretics had started a meeting of their own, where they might worship God apart from those who baptized their infants. One Sabbath morning the constable invaded their worship and forcibly bore them away to church. Their deportment there was not unsuitable to the manner of their inbringing. They audaciously clapped on their hats while the minister prayed, and made no secret that they deemed it sin to join in the services of those who practised infant baptism. For this "separation of themselves from God's people" they were put on trial. They were fined, and some of the more obdurate among them were ordered to be "well whipped." We have no reason to doubt that this order was executed in spirit as well as in letter. And then a law went forth that every man who openly condemned the baptizing of infants should suffer banishment. Thus resolute were the good men of New England that the right which they had come so far to enjoy should not be enjoyed by any one who saw a different meaning from theirs in any portion of the Divine Word.

1656 A.D.

Thus, too, when Massachusetts had reason to apprehend the coming of certain followers of the Quaker persuasion, she was smitten with a great fear. A fast-day was  proclaimed, that the alarmed people might "seek the face of God in reference to the abounding of errors, especially those of the Ranters and Quakers." As they fasted, a ship was nearing their shores with certain Quaker women on board. These unwelcome visitors were promptly seized and lodged in prison; their books were burned by the hangman; they themselves were sent away home by the ships which brought them. All ship-masters were strictly forbidden to bring Quakers to 'the colony. A poor woman, the wife of a London tailor, left her husband and her children, to bring, as she said, a message from the Lord to New England. Her trouble was but poorly bestowed; for they to whom her message came requited her with twenty stripes and instant banishment. The banished Quakers took the earliest opportunity of finding their way back. Laws were passed dooming to death all who ventured to return. A poor fanatic was following his plough in distant Yorkshire, when the word of the Lord came to him saying, "Go to Boston." He went, and the ungrateful men of Boston hanged him. Four persons in all suffered death. Many were whipped. Some had their cars cut off. But public opinion, which has always been singularly humane in America, began to condemn these foolish cruelties.

1661 A.D.

And the Quakers had friends at home—friends who had access at Court. There came a letter in the King's name directing that the authorities of New England should " forbear to proceed further against the Quakers." That letter came by the hands of a Quaker who was under sentence of death if he dared to return. The authorities could not but receive it—could not but give effect to it. The persecution ceased; and with it may be said to close, in America, all forcible interference with the right of men to think for themselves.

The Quakers, as they are known to us, are of all sects the least offensive. A persecution of this serene, thoughtful, self- restrained people, may well surprise us. But, injustice to New England, it must be told that the first generation of Quakers differed extremely from succeeding generations. They were a fanatical people - extravagant, disorderly, rejecters of lawful authority. A people more intractable, more unendurable by any government, never lived. They were guided by an "inner light," which habitually placed them at variance with the Jaws of the country in which they lived, as well as with the most harmless social usages. George Fox declared that "the Lord forbade him to put off his hat to any man." his followers were inconveniently and provokingly aggressive. They invaded public worship. They openly expressed their contempt for the religion of their neighbours. They perpetually came with "messages from the Lord," which it was not pleasant to listen to. They appeared in public places very imperfectly attired, thus symbolically to express and to rebuke the spiritual nakedness of the time. After a little, when their zeal allied itself with discretion, they became a most valuable element in American society. But we can scarcely wonder that they created alarm at first. The men of New England took a very simple view of the subject. They had bought and paid for every acre of soil which they occupied. Their country was a homestead from which they might exclude whom they chose. They would not receive men whose object was to overthrow all their institutions, civil and religious. It was a mistake, but a most natural mistake. Long afterwards, when New England saw her error, she nobly made what amends she could, by giving compensation to the representatives of those Quakers who had suffered in the evil times.


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