by Nick Gier, Professor Emeritus, University of Idaho


I would carry fire in one hand and faggots

in the other to burn all the Quakers in the world.


--Boston preacher John Norton



Two Quakers Hung, but Mary Dyer is Freed, Boston, 1658

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          This is the time of year to honor a small band of persecuted English Christians, who first sought refuge in Holland and then decided to set sail for the New World.  With the aid of friendly Indians they were able to survive their first year in America.  We celebrate the Pilgrims of Plymouth because of their yearning for religious liberty and their desire to worship freely in their own way.  What we don't always recognize, however, is the fact that they denied that freedom to those who disagreed with them.


          The English Puritans took very seriously the Apostle Paul's commandment that Christians were obligated to "be separate from them," interpreted as unbelievers and civil authorities, and "tough nothing unclean" (2 Cor. 6:17). Quakers believed that this separation meant that true Christians were not subject to magistrates, including taking oaths or serving in the military. They also rejected all religious dogma, preferring to follow the internal light of Christ than a literal reading of the Bible. The leaders of the Plymouth colony required that all residents pay a church tax and attend the established church every Sunday.  Because Quakers refused to do this, their males were not "admitted as free men" and not allowed to "be employed in any place of trust."


In 1656 two Quaker women, Ann Austin and Mary Fisher, landed in the Bay Colony.  Quakers believed in the equality of men and women, and they believed that women had a right to preach.  Fisher and Austin were arrested as "blasphemous heretics" and their books were burned.  They would have died of starvation in jail if sympathetic people bearing food had not bribed the guards. Later the same year eight Quakers were arrested on a ship arriving in Boston Harbor.  Their leader, Christopher Holder, stumped the Puritan magistrates when he pointed out that they had no law proscribing Quaker belief. 


Laws were quickly passed with increasing severity: the first offense would be to have one ear cut off, and offending a second time would cost Quaker males the other ear.  Quaker women were to be whipped instead.  If Quakers, male and female, had not their lesson by the fourth time, "their tongues would be bored through with a hot iron." Christopher Holder kept coming back to Boston to preach and to debate Puritan leaders, so on July 17, 1658 Holder and two other Quakers had their ears cut off, whipped twice a week for nine weeks before they agreed to return to England.


Mutilation of religious rebels was commonplace in England and the cutting off of body parts was not original with the Boston magistrates. The first turning point in Roger Williams' life was the day that he witnessed the mutilation of a Puritan in London. During his time in the pillory, this alleged "Sower of Sedition" lost both his ears and his nose.  The letters "SS" were burned into his forehead and he spent the rest of life in prison.


Five Quaker women left the safety of Rhode Island, where Williams had established religious liberty in America for the first time, and came to Boston to support their oppressed comrades. As soon as they arrived they were thrown in jail. Each of the jailed women were stripped and checked for bodily signs of witchcraft, specifically a third teat by which a "familiar" was nursed. Thirty-four years later, a special Puritan court would execute 20 male and female witches, many with Quaker lies, in an unprecedented superstitious frenzy.


The Bay Colony Puritans concluded that Satan had sent them this Quaker scourge, so on October 19, 1658 the General Court of Boston passed a law stating that any Quaker refusing banishment would be executed.  The result was that Quakers kept coming back to Boston with more zeal than ever. After returning to Boston, Mary Dyer, one of the women from Rhode Island, and two men were tried under this law and were convicted.  The men were hanged but Mary Dyer was rescued by her son riding on a white house (yes, it's true) with a reprieve from the governor in his hand.


When Mary Dyer learned that the Boston Puritans were boasting to the English Parliament about their mercy in her case, she was determined to confront them and she returned to demand that the laws against Quakers be appealed. It was decided that no new trial was necessary, so after she refused to repent, she was led to the gallows once more on June 1, 1660.  When someone in the crowd called out "Did you say that you have been in Paradise?" Dyer answered: "Yea, I have been in Paradise several days and now I'm about to enter eternal happiness." Dyer happily mounted the scaffold and after her neck broke, General Atherton broke the silence: "She hangs like a flag for others to take example from." One more Quaker would be hanged before a new charter from England forced the Boston Puritans to protect all Christian sects except Catholics.


Before her execution Dyer suffered extreme humiliation because of her stillborn child. She tried her best to hide her misfortune, and one of the Boston pastors actually helped her secretly bury the child. Word, however, leaked out and Governor John Winthrop ordered that the body be exhumed.  It was publicly described as a monster, and Dyer was then accused of being a witch as well as a heretic.  Many people arrested during the later witch hunts were Quakers or had Quaker associations.


I was raised in an evangelical Quaker church in Medford, Oregon, and their peaceful meditative Christianity had a profound influence on me. I was recruited but declined to attend George Fox College, now a reputable small University in Oregon's beautiful Willamette Valley. Every spring the religious scholars of the Pacific Northwest meet and the George Fox faculty always present excellent papers.


American Quakers are now a small but widely respected part of the nation's spiritual life.  The American Field Service Committee (AFSC) has an international reputation for aiding people in need and insisting on nonviolent solutions to international problems. Their early American predecessors would definitely have been surprised, if not shocked, to learn that the AFSC now supports gay and lesbian rights.


Barack and Michelle Obama have also chosen a Quaker school in Washington, DC for their two daughters. I'm sure that they will receive the same strong character education that I did as a young boy at the Medford Friend's Church.