Quaker and Puritan Interactions in the Massachusetts Bay Colony

Posted by on Aug 14, 2013 | 0 comments

Quaker and Puritan Interactions in the Massachusetts Bay Colony

Puritan and Quaker Interaction: A Tale of Disaster

When studying the Quakers, their interaction with other religions and even other Christian denominations is not the best. Each generation of Quakers were forced to deal with a different set of challenges regarding ecumenism. However, the earliest Quakers, who were quite strict and ‘peculiar,’ would have a very difficult time interacting with another group of peculiar separatists. Many individuals mistake the Puritans and Quakers as the same, but studying how the two groups functioned with one another in the mid to late seventeenth century, there is no mistaking how different these two groups were. Looking specifically at the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the relationship between the Puritans and Quakers is intriguing.

First, it is important to understand how Puritan Boston functioned. The Puritans were a very strict group that used the government to their advantage in hopes of maintaining a pure “City on a Hill.” “On the eve of the Quaker invasion of Massachusetts Bay, Puritans believed that they had developed an effective balance between ecclesiastical and temporal power in a way that maintained peace and orthodoxy. ” It was crucial for the Puritans to balance the power between the church and state in the ‘New World.’ While the Quakers functioned ‘outside’ of the government and lived as a separatist group, the Puritans used the civil authority to their advantage. It cannot come as a surprise to modern day scholars who study the Puritans to learn that they “used civil authority to suppress Quakers. Bay Puritans had learned to use secular authority in religious affairs when they faced heterodox people like Roger Williams, John Wheelwright, the Antinomians, and other religious dissidents. ” Looking at the history of the Puritans interacting with those who disagreed (whether in a political or religious setting), their actions with the Quakers were foreshadowed in the way they treated their ‘own’ who disagreed or would not submit to the Puritan way of life.

Timothy Breen has warned against the presumption that the will of the General Court could be enforced at all levels of society within the Bay Colony. Breen’s caution, “points to the necessity of placing the Puritan treatment of Quakers in a context that considers not only the actions and justifications of the General Court, but the particular conditions of local life. ” Essentially, Breen is arguing that the feelings toward Quakers held by the Puritans were reflected in everyday life. The ‘laws’ created by the colony, simply expressed the general consensus of the local world. “To demonstrate its concern for the growing religious anarchy in England, to prevent the spread of religious confusion, and to fortify Massachusetts institutions so that, ‘the ordinances of Christ may be more effectual,’ the General Court ordered a fast day to be held on 11 June 1656. ” The General Court was the local government of the Puritans that made laws and functioned as the governing corporate organization. It was laws like this that proved how seriously the Puritans took their ‘perfection’ and purity. “Although Massachusetts led the English colonies in establishing anti-Quaker regulations, it only expressed commonly held sentiments in doing so… other English colonies generally agreed that Quakers had to be expelled. ” The laws that the Puritans instituted were not abnormal for the time period. John Hull, a Boston merchant and Selectman declared that Quakers were, “Persons uncivil in behavior, showing no respect to any, ready to censure and condemn all; themselves would be thought the only knowing persons and their spirit infallible: carrying a semblance of humility but exceedingly proud. ” The Quakers were thought of as dangerous because they did not reflect the feelings of the Puritans and especially because they refused to acknowledge authority and live by the rules and laws. The concept of not showing respect to any comes from the way that Quakers addressed one another as ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ as well as the overall refusal to doff their hats to others. The infallible spirit is a ‘misinterpretation’ of the Inner Light, which was a central Quaker doctrine and teaching (the idea that one could know God from the revelation that each man was capable of on his own was antithetical to the Puritan model of governance). This Inner Light belief also is spoken of in the humility that is proud; the concept that none is above another, but that each man can know God on his own with no one telling him what to do. “Justification for the state’s intervention in controlling these Quakers required no logical leap of faith. The uncivil character of the visitors, the absence of ecclesiastical institutions with powers to regulate heresy and dissent outside the congregation, and the existence demanded that the state act. ”
While it is assumed that some in Massachusetts may have embraced the tenets of Quakers, there is no evidence that any had claimed themselves or adopted the name of the despised sect. Had they done so, they probably would have been at least named in the recommendation of the Court made in May of the same year, that ‘the 11th day of June next… be kept as a public day of humiliation, to seek the face of God on behalf of our native country, in reference to the abounding of errors, especially those of the Ranters and Quakers. ” This quote reflects back to the day of fasting instituted by the General Court and the seriousness of the Puritans. Even if there were some Quaker converts hidden in the ‘city on a hill,’ they kept themselves anonymous because of what happened when the first Quakers braved their way into Massachusetts.

Mary Fisher and Ann Austin were among the first Quakers to land in Boston and when the magistrates of the Massachusetts General Court became aware that they were Quakers, they ordered the two women to be seized, deprived of all of their books, searched, and jailed until they could be deported. In response to this ‘crusade’ by the Quakers (that would threaten the peace of Massachusetts), the colony “hung four Quakers, whipped and banished over a devil’s dozen more, and would levy large fines upon others. ” As one historian of the period put it, the Bay magistrates were “inspired to prodigious feats of persecution” in their efforts to suppress Quakerism and preserve Puritan orthodoxy. “The Cart and Tail Law was passed by the Boston magistrates in 1661. The law provided that any Quaker found in Boston should be stripped to the waist and fastened to the tail of a cart and beaten as he or she was dragged along behind the moving vehicle. They would be driven from Boston to the next town where the local sergeant would arrange for similar transportation to the following town. ” Theoretically, this would continue from town to town until the Quakers were dragged out of the jurisdiction of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The magistrates justified this behavior because Quakerism was a heresy, but also because Fisher and Austin refused to abide by the law set forth. During (at least) the first half of the seventeenth century Englishmen believed (despite all of the religious controversy) that there could only be a single ‘true’ church and that the state had to support its demands to ensure universal conformity. The idea was that heresy (or non-conformity) undermined the public welfare and morality, which led to a disturbance of the peace. Without a doubt, the Puritans wanted universal conformity and social order to ensure peace (even though the means of keeping the peace was rarely peaceful).

“Because it provided an issue compelling action, the prosecution of Quakers illustrates the ability of central authority in Massachusetts to enforce its will in the localities… Puritans had to consider the extent to which they defined Quakers as deviants at each separate institutional level. ” From the point of view of their Puritan critics, the Quakers had no claim to being regenerate men. Regenerate men, according to Massachusetts minister Edward Breck did not ‘speak nonsense, idle ridiculous and foolish things… false doctrines and contradictions.’ It was absurd to think that the Holy Spirit prompted men ‘to speak blasphemously against the Lord Jesus Christ, crying down his Institutions of Magistracy, Ministry, Sacraments, Sabbaths, etc.’ What made Quakerism even more dangerous was the determination of Quakers to act upon their delusions and to encourage other men to behave similarly- leading to moral chaos. To critics, Quakers under the guise of conscience made it their duty to demean both civil and ecclesiastical authority, to violate God’s commandments, and to live lives of lasciviousness, indolence, and vagrancy. ”

E. Digby Baltzell argues that the issues between the Puritans and the Quakers were rooted in the completely different cultures that these religious groups participated in. “From the Quaker point of view…there is not need for an elite of magistrates and ministers, or any kind of church hierarchy, since God’s authority is to be found through the promptings of the Inner Light. Nor would there be any need for government or war if all men followed the Sermon on the Mount; the Quakers, in accord with this perfectionist set of values, have on the whole, tended to withdraw from both government responsibility and participation in war. The Puritans, however held a very different set of values that included the conviction that sinful men need some sort of external authority such as the Ten Commandments and the Bible, as well as a set of leaders highly educated in interpreting the law or the Bible to provide strong government at home and a fighting force to protect society from external enemies (usually representing the so-called forces of evil). ” “Puritan and Quaker ethics differed over human, sociological, societal, institutional, or existential as against transcendental authority: whereas both the Puritans and the Quakers recognized the absolute authority of God, the Puritans, for theological reasons, assumed that sinful man needs an earthly and institutionalized hierarchical authority structure; the Quakers argued that perfectible man needs no such system but is capable of approaching God directly. ”

Baltzell presents a chart pointing out theological differences, which translate into cultural practices. He says that Puritans focus on the Old Testament, the transcendence of God, predestination, election, and that sinful man is the source of evil while the Quakers focused on the New Testament, the immanence of God, the idea that God is in every person, a general calling, and that the world is the source of evil. Essentially this boils down to a legalistic Christianity stemming from an overall ‘bad’ view of man where legalism is necessary for order (Puritan) and a charismatic individualistic positive view of man (Quakers). In the Puritan way of life, to be identified as a ‘good Christian,’ one must play the prescribed role within the system and defying the system is to expose oneself to severe penalties. The Quaker comeback to this idea was that the Puritans were compartmentalizing their lives: fulfilling one role in the world, and one role in the church. ‘You have a time to pray, and a time to play; a time to abstain from your lusts, and a time to fulfill your lusts; a day to abstain from the world, and days to conform to the world. ”

Understanding these theological doctrines sheds major light on how the culture of these two groups functioned (and the difficulties that they faced when trying to interact). The Puritans felt the need for a hierarchy and intolerant institution to keep the sinful nature of man in check. This led to a very clearly defined governmental system with the ‘ideal man’ being a minister or magistrate at the top of this rigid system. The Quakers on the other hand emphasized a more egalitarian, anti-institutional system highlighting individualism. There was no structure to governance, tolerance was possible and the ideal man was the individual mystic who encountered God in an egalitarian world. On top of these ‘differences’ the extent to which they were ‘believed’ and ‘studied’ differed. The Puritans developed a highly complex and intellectual body of dogmatic theology, while the Quakers, guided by no intellectually binding dogma, had to rest on a series of petty symbols, or ‘testimonies,’ that were rigidly enforced within the community of Friends. Understanding how the theology influenced the culture of these ‘societies’ makes it easy to see the difficulties that arose when these two antithetical groups interacted. These two groups each had strong convictions and when outreach began, conflict began to arise quickly and severely.

When looking at the interaction between two very ‘convicted’ groups who took their beliefs seriously, it should come as no surprise that they struggled to get along. However, that doesn’t make the actions of these two denominations excusable in the least. Dandelion points out that this was not a one-sided issue, both groups were ‘at fault.’ “The first period of Quakerism was not universalist or ecumenical and neither was it polite. In Boston, the Puritan rulers of the colony hanged four Quakers for their beliefs. The lack of ecumenical spirit ran both ways and created the first Quaker martyrs. ”

“Unfortunately, men are given to see only through a glass darkly and tend to fight over great truths in the name of great half-truths. Puritans emphasized grace in England and defended works after settling in the New World; sectarians in Anglican England, they built their own church in Massachusetts. The Quakers, however, tried to remain true to their sectarian ideals in the New World. ”
After looking at early interactions between Puritans and Quakers is becomes apparent that neither group handled the situation particularly well. Knowing the roots of each group in England, the desire for a unified ‘religious colony’ (who actually came to America for religious freedom, of which they quickly forgot about when interacting with other belief systems) is understandable. While the intentions of the Quakers were commendable and the intentions of the Puritans to create the Kingdom of God on earth were equally commendable, both groups fell short when it came to loving one another. However, when looking deeper into the cultural context of the time, it is almost ‘excusable’ in the sense that the Puritans even treated their own harshly when any dissension was noticed. Even though the Quakers were not the only people that the Puritans treated poorly, the interaction between these two separatist groups is not excusable or acceptable. As Christians we are called to be love our neighbors and while the Puritan and Quaker worlds were nearly antithetical, the actions of both did not accurately reflect the Biblical principles of love.

Cory Janson

2013 Graduate of Malone University- Bible/Theology and History

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