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The First Execution for Religion on American Soil

Tags Free MarketsU.S. HistoryInterventionism

08/07/2012Murray N. Rothbard

[This article is excerpted from Conceived in Liberty, chapter 29, "Suppressing Heresy: Massachusetts Persecutes the Quakers." An MP3 audio file of this article, narrated by Floy Lilley, is available for download.]

The first Quakers to arrive in America came to Boston in July 1656. They were two Englishwomen, Ann Austin and Mary Fisher. Although no law had yet been passed in Massachusetts prohibiting the arrival of Quakers, the two women were immediately imprisoned and searched carefully for "witch-marks." Deputy Governor Richard Bellingham sent officers to the ship, searched the ladies' baggage, seized their stock of Quaker literature, and had it summarily burned. The women were imprisoned for five weeks, during which time no one was allowed to visit or speak to them. No light or writing material was allowed in their cell, and the prisoners were almost starved to death. At the end of this ordeal, they were shipped back to Barbados.

Bellingham denounced the two Quakers as heretics, transgressors with "very dangerous, heretical, and blasphemous opinions" and "corrupt, heretical, and blasphemous doctrines." Bellingham's litmus test for deciding if the ladies were Quakers was brusque indeed; one of them happened to say "thee," whereupon Bellingham declared that "he needed no more; now he knew they were Quakers."

Governor Endecott's only criticism of Bellingham's treatment of the two Quaker ladies was to say that if he had been present, the prisoners also would have been "well whipped."

A few days after the Austin-Fisher "threat" had been disposed of, nine more Quakers arrived in Boston. They were summarily arrested, imprisoned for eight weeks, and then shipped back; the master of the ship that brought them was also jailed, no doubt as an instructive moral lesson to future ship captains. If the existence of the two ladies had driven the Massachusetts authorities to fury, this was nothing compared to the effects of the new goad. Governor Endecott, repeatedly haranguing the hapless prisoners, kept threatening to hang them; for example: "Take heed ye break not our ecclesiastical laws for then ye are sure to stretch by a halter." Since it was very difficult for a Puritan in good standing, let alone a Quaker, not to break some ecclesiastical law, the halter was close indeed. It is no wonder that Mary Prince, one of the prisoners, was impelled to denounce Endecott as a "vile oppressor" and "tyrant," and the Massachusetts ministers as "hirelings" and "Baal's priests." At their trial the Quakers had the impudence to ask for a copy of the laws against them, which request Endecott angrily refused — causing a murmur of sympathy in the audience for the prisoners. For, it was openly asked, "How shall they know when they transgress?"

From this point on, the persecution of Quakers was savage and fanatical, but the determination of the Quakers to keep coming and spreading their Gospel remained remarkably steadfast. In October the General Court passed a law providing for the fining of any shipmaster bringing a known Quaker to Massachusetts; the Quaker was to be imprisoned, severely whipped, "kept consistently to work" and not permitted to speak to anyone. Any existing resident of Massachusetts who dared defend any Quaker opinion was to be fined and banished on the third offense; any criticism of a magistrate or minister was to be met with a whipping and a heavy fine. Thus, not only the Quakers but anyone presuming to defend their rights or to criticize the brutally repressive acts of the authorities was to be dealt with as a criminal. An early example was Nicholas Upshall, a weak old man who had bribed the jailer to give Ann Austin and Mary Fisher some food while they were starving in prison. Upshall protested against the oppressive anti-Quaker law, and for this offense he was fined, imprisoned, and banished from the colony. From Plymouth, old Upshall was forced to walk to Rhode Island in the winter snows. The old man was given shelter by an Indian who exclaimed: "What a God have the English who deal so with one another about the worship of their God!" Upshall finally found sanctuary in Warwick.

In succeeding years, Quakers were repeatedly stripped (to be searched for witch marks) and whipped, the ears of the men were cut off, and mere attendance at a Quaker meeting was deemed by the authorities as automatic proof of Quaker belief. In 1661 the Cart and Whip Act decreed that all Quakers, men and especially women, were to be stripped, tied to a cart's tail, branded on the left shoulder, and then whipped through every town until they had reached the borders of the colony.

Later apologists for Massachusetts Bay have maintained that all this was nothing more than a perhaps overzealous means of enforcing immigration restrictions. Among other things, this overlooks the fact that the persecutions were conducted as much against "native" converts to Quakerism as against new arrivals. Thus the Southwick family in Salem, converts to Quakerism, were repeatedly persecuted. Edward Batter, the treasurer of Salem and indefatigable Quaker hunter, had two children of Lawrence Southwick sold into servitude to Virginia and Barbados, in order to satisfy fines levied for aiding the Quakers.

Massachusetts lost no time after the first Quaker arrivals in urging the United Colonies to pass a general regulation prohibiting any "such pests" from being admitted into any New England colony. Generally, the sister colonies enthusiastically complied. New Haven, as we might imagine, was especially eager, and its torture methods were a match for Massachusetts Bay's. Plymouth and Connecticut followed some distance behind. In 1658 the commissioners of the United Colonies urged the several colonies to decree the death penalty for all Quakers who dared return after banishment. Only Massachusetts, however, followed this advice. Plymouth, though not passing the death penalty, was hardly reluctant to persecute the Quakers, and one of its magistrates was deposed for being willing to tolerate the Friends. Most reluctant was Connecticut, Governor Winthrop virtually begging the Massachusetts magistrates not to enforce the death penalty. Connecticut did, however, outlaw heresy, but left it to the magistrates or elders to determine if heresy existed, and if so, what punishment was to be meted out.

Of all the New England colonies, we might expect that if any gave haven to the Quakers it would be doughty little Rhode Island, and this was the case. Rhode Island was happy to receive the Quakers, the first of whom arrived at Newport in 1657. On the Quakers' arrival, the commissioners of the United Colonies immediately wrote to the Rhode Island government, demanding that it follow the "prudent" course of Massachusetts and banish all the present Quakers and prevent any new arrivals, so that this "devilish contagion" might not spread. Finally, the commissioners darkly threatened intervention if Rhode Island failed to comply. Interestingly, Massachusetts also warned that the Quakers were not only seditious but also "anarchistic"; their doctrines "turned the hearts of the people from their subjection to government."

Rhode Island's reply reasserted its religious freedom: "As concerning these Quakers … we have no law among us, whereby to punish any for only declaring by words, etc., their minds and understandings concerning the things and ways of God.…" The General Assembly of Rhode Island also replied that freedom of conscience was the keystone of their charter, "which freedom we still prize as the greatest happiness that men can possess in this world." The assembly pointedly added that Quakers were being allowed their freedom in England. The United Colonies answered by threatening to embargo all trade to and from Rhode Island.

Quakerism found in Rhode Island not only a refuge, but also a ripe field for conversion. Its individualism made a deep impress on the colony, and in a decade it had even secured a majority. The Newport leaders — William Coddington and Nicholas Easton, and others — were converted and Quakerism completely dominated that town. The redoubtable Catherine Scott and many others of the numerous Baptists were now converted to the Quaker faith. William Dyer, one of the leading Quakers, soon became the secretary of Rhode Island.

As Massachusetts had fearfully predicted, the Quakers used Rhode Island as the base of their missionary operations in Massachusetts. As the Bay Colony had warned in its message to Rhode Island, the Quakers were using the base to "creep in amongst us" and to "infuse and spread their accursed tenets."

The Quaker influx was met, predictably, by an accelerating ferocity. The Puritan divines were the zealous theoreticians of the persecution. The Reverend Urian Oakes denounced the Quaker principle of liberty of conscience as a "liberty of perdition" and "the firstborn of all abominations." And just as many former Hutchinsonians were becoming Quakers, so the Massachusetts campaign of suppression drew echoes of the old Hutchinsonian battles. In the forefront of the Quaker hunt was none other than the fiery Rev. John Wilson, leading persecutor of Anne Hutchinson. Wilson thundered in a typical sermon that "he would carry fire in one hand and faggots in the other, to burn all the Quakers in the world."

After the expulsion of old Nicholas Upshall, the next important Quaker case was Mary Dyer, wife of the secretary of Rhode Island. Two decades earlier, the beautiful young Mary had walked down the aisle with Anne Hutchinson when Anne was condemned. Now a determined Quaker, Mary arrived in Massachusetts and was quickly banished to Rhode Island. Mary Clark, entering Massachusetts on her Quaker mission, was given 20 lashes "laid on with fury," was imprisoned for three months, and then banished in the snows of midwinter. Yet, alarming Quaker inroads were being made in Salem, led by Christopher Holder and John Copeland, who were seized by the authorities and lashed very severely. Thomas Harris, entering from Rhode Island, was denounced by the deputy governor of Massachusetts as deserving of being hanged, and was lashed unmercifully before being expelled.

The culmination of this first, pre-death-penalty phase of the Quaker persecutions was the torture of the venerable William Brend. Brend had landed at Newport in 1657 and became one of the leading Quakers in Rhode Island. He went to Salem in 1658. Along with other Quakers, Brend was imprisoned. At this point, the Quakers put into practice the now famous technique of nonviolent resistance, of refusing to cooperate with injustice, of refusing to grant to the oppressor the sanction of the victim. Commanded to work in prison, Brend and the others refused. To force them into submission, the authorities proceeded to a frenzy of torture against Brend. The old man was kept four days without food, then whipped ten lashes, starved again, then put into irons and starved for over a day, and finally given 117 blows with a pitched rope. And yet, despite this fever pitch of brutality, the weak and old Brend heroically refused to yield.

The people of Massachusetts had been getting increasingly restive at the reign of terror against the peaceful Quakers, but this treatment was, for many, too much to bear. Protests swelled; a large and angry crowd gathered outside the jail and began to storm the building, calling for the punishment of the jailer. At this point, the incipient revolt was quieted by the eminent theoretician of the anti-Quaker terror, Rev. John Norton. Stretching a metaphor, Norton declaimed: "William Brend endeavored to beat our gospel ordinances black and blue, and if he was beaten black and blue, it was just upon him."

Soon, the Massachusetts authorities pressed on to mutilation of the Quakers. When in the summer of 1658 Christopher Holder and John Copeland were arrested, the magistrates ordered the cutting off of one ear each. Governor Endecott, however, was less successful at besting the Quakers at public argument than in using his superior force to mutilate them. Endecott denounced the Quakers for their custom of keeping their hats on in court and for addressing him by name instead of by title, and thus showing contempt for constituted authority. The Quakers quickly replied that the only honor due to all men is love, and that the Bible never required people to take off their hats before magistrates.

Witness to the mutilation of her friends was none other than Catherine Scott, the sister of Anne Hutchinson and future mother-in-law of Holder. For making critical comments at the execution, Mrs. Scott herself was seized and given ten lashes, and then warned by Endecott that she might be hanged if she returned: "We shall be as ready to take away your lives as you will be to lay them down."

Since even mutilation could not stop the intrepid Quaker missionaries, the Massachusetts authorities decided to accelerate further their campaign of terror. After the Brend case, the Reverend Mr. Norton, the other divines, and the magistrates, decided to react to the popular resistance by decreeing the death penalty should any Quaker return after banishment. Norton instigated a petition signed by 25 citizens, urging banishment for all Quakers and death upon return, for the second "offense" of being a Quaker in Massachusetts. Resisting the oligarchy of magistrates and divines was the more democratic House of Deputies, which finally consented to the new law in October, by a hairline majority of one. To make sure that the death penalty would be enforced without shilly-shallying, the bill removed the right of a trial by jury, and left Quaker cases to the not too tender mercies of a court of three magistrates, two of whom would suffice for imposing the death penalty.

To defend the new law against rising popular opposition the General Court appointed the colony's leading divine, and the foremost champion of the Quaker hunt, Reverend John Norton, to write its definitive apologia. The following year, 1659, Norton published his findings in The Heart of New England Rent at the Blasphemies of the Present Generation — a revealing title. Norton warned that the Quaker claim of individual divine inspiration made the authority of ministers and magistrates equally unnecessary — thus challenging the basic rule of church and state. And the temptation held out by the prospect of such overthrow was bringing many converts to the Quaker creed. Religious liberty, to Norton, was simply "a liberty to blaspheme, a liberty to tell lies in the name of the Lord." Norton concluded that the Bible pointed to the proper path: "And he that blasphemeth the name of the Lord, he shall surely be put to death, and all the congregation shall certainly stone him."

With the persecution of the Quakers mounting to a critical pitch, the stage was now set for the tragic climax: murder. No one had long to wait. Defying the death-penalty threat, Mary Dyer returned to Boston and was imprisoned, and was there joined by William Robinson, a merchant from London, and Marmaduke Stevenson, two Quakers who had crossed the border from Rhode Island. The three were released and ordered again to leave the colony on pain of death. Robinson and Stevenson refused to bow to oppression and remained. Mary left but returned again to comfort the imprisoned Christopher Holder.

Seized again, the three defiant Quakers were hauled into court in October 1659. Robinson asked permission to read a statement explaining their defiance of Massachusetts law but the fiery Governor Endecott thundered: "You shall not read it!" Endecott charged that "neither whipping nor cutting off ears, nor banishment upon pain of death will keep ye from among us." He therefore sentenced them to hang. The death penalty had now passed from threat to reality. Marmaduke Stevenson retorted: "The Lord hath said … the same day ye put his servants to death shall … you be curst forevermore.… Therefore in love to you all I exhort you to take warning before it be too late."

Nine days later, on October 27, the three condemned Quakers were led to their public hanging — the first execution for religion on American soil. It was a dramatic day on Boston Common and angry opposition among the people led the authorities to bring out a hundred armed soldiers to stand guard over the proceedings. When the condemned trio were led out of the prison, the soldiers deliberately drowned out the prisoners when they attempted to address the restive crowd. Reverend John Wilson contributed to the day's festivities by taunting Robinson. As Robinson and Stevenson were about to be hanged, the former addressed the throng: "We are not evil doers," he cried, "but witnesses to the truth and to the inner light of Christ." Vigilant to the end, the Reverend Mr. Wilson shouted: "Be silent, thou art going to die with a lie on thy mouth." "Hang them or die!" Wilson exhorted and the two Quakers were duly killed. Mary Dyer had gained a reprieve, but with calculated brutality the authorities did not tell her this until the halter was around her neck.

Driven back to Rhode Island, Mary Dyer remained undaunted, and again went back to Massachusetts Bay. Again condemned to death, Mary denied the validity of the law and declared that she had returned to bear witness against it. Upon refusing to agree to return to Rhode Island to stay, Mary Dyer was hanged on June 1, 1660. Perhaps the contemporaneous Quaker historian George Bishop was right and Mary Dyer indeed had the last word. For Bishop wrote, addressing the Massachusetts Bay: "Your bloody laws were snapped asunder by a woman, who, trampling upon you and your laws and your halter and your gallows and your priests, is set down at the right hand of God."


Murray N. Rothbard

Murray N. Rothbard made major contributions to economics, history, political philosophy, and legal theory. He combined Austrian economics with a fervent commitment to individual liberty.