Several Quakers seeking religious liberty in the Massachusetts Bay Colony suffered torture, and even the scaffold, at the hands of the Puritans. Absence from local parish services typically resulted in a summons, the consequences of which included heavy fines, whippings or banishment. Quakers were seen as “dangerous social outlaws.”
One Quakeress, Lydia Perkins Wardwell, made a stark declaration of protest in response to her summons, appearing skinclad in Newbury as a “sign” of the spiritual nakedness of her persecutors.
Yes, it’s true. Newbury can boast of its very own Lady Godiva. Unfortunately, she could not pull off her impromptu burlesque show in a house of worship without getting the strap.
Though most historians question her sanity, Lydia’s motives for disrobing resembled the signs acted out by Hebrew prophets, a doctrine taken very seriously by both the Puritans and the Quakers. Her bold act was no doubt driven by the heinous punishments and torture inflicted upon her family and friends.
Lydia’s husband, Eliakim Wardwell of Hampton, N.H., was repeatedly harassed and stripped of his assets because of his Quaker faith. He endured the stocks on more than one occasion, and records note in April1662, he was fined for his absence from church. The Wardwell home was also the scene of a conflict while the couple harbored Wenlock Christison, a notable Quaker who was jailed in Boston with Mary Dyer and William Leddra. Though he escaped the scaffold, Christison was banished from the Colony.
Christison was on the colony’s 10-most-wanted list, and the Rev. Seaborn Cotton felt it his duty to “keep the wolves from his sheep.” Cotton, with “truncheon in hand, led a party of order-loving citizens” to the house of Wardwell, seized Christison and shuffled him off to jail. Christison moved to safer territory, settling in Talbot County, Md. He was elected to the lower house of the Maryland General Assembly and later inspired Longfellow’s hero in “John Endicott,” a poem in “New England Tragedies.”