NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

Opinion

November 26, 2013

Persecuted Quakers finally find refuge

“The tale is one of an evil time,

When souls were fettered and thought was crime.

And heresy’s whisper above its breath

Meant shameful scourging, and bonds and death.”

— John Greenleaf Whittier

As we enjoy this season of good food and drink, as well as the liberty to choose which local house of the Lord we fancy, we can be thankful that Puritan tyrants no longer patrol our pastures as they did in our ancestors’ day.

In Newbury, the early settlers ran into conflict with Puritan authority over ecclesiastical differences. Quakers especially were in the hot bed, and anyone that harbored the “cursed sect” would feel the fiery fury of local officials. These aggressively “bloodthirsty” and “extremely fanatical” men were not open to compromise. When dealing with dissenters, in the words of John Proctor, Puritan “justice would freeze beer.”

When the Quakers came to the Colonies, they brought with them a spiritual democracy that threatened the Puritan aristocratic system. Their simplistic faith had an absence of clergy, creed and sacrament; moreover, they gave women equality. The head honchos like Endicott and Hawthorne labeled them “dangerous intruders invading our borders” and “wandering vagabonds.” Despite the tenacious efforts of the magistrates who wanted to eliminate the “vile heretics,” which included branding, whipping and cropping, the Quakers just kept coming, and the good folk of Newbury were more than willing to board and support them.

In the summer months of 1658, the farm of Robert Adams played host to two Quaker missionaries, William Brend and William Leddra. The Phelps family of Salem held a secret Quaker meeting, and Adams escorted the guest speakers to the gathering. Unfortunately, word got out and the constables came to break up the assembly and haul in all the “quaking heretics.”

When the law boys arrived, chaos broke out, and perhaps the distraction of finding their wives in the midst of this devil’s den allowed Adams to sneak his guests out and bring them back to Newbury. However, it would not be long before the authorities would track them down. Captain Gerrish and the minister paid a call on their buddy Adams, and despite their best efforts to resolve things amicably, Brend and Leddra were turned over to Salem Court. Adams paid the fines, but his friends faced a different fate.

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