Saturday, October 14, 2006

October 14

quakers_being_led_to_execution_massachusetts_origThree hundred and fifty years ago today, the English colony of Massachusetts Bay passed a law intended to regulate the "cursed sect of heretics lately risen up in the world, which are commonly called Quakers." The Society of Friends, which had formed little more than a decade previous, insisted that believers did not need the Bible to receive the word of God, nor were ministers or priests required as intermediaries; instead, Quakers believed each soul possessed an "inner light" that enabled the revelation of Christ to be experienced directly.

The July 1656 arrival of two Quakers in Massachusetts Bay posed a challenge to the colony, which had rooted out similar heresies 20 years earlier during the "Antinomian controversy." Governor John Endicott, a religious zealot without peer, ordered that the two Quakers -- Ann Austin and Mary Fisher -- be detained on board the Swallow, the ship that had brought them to the colony. After their possessions were confiscated (including nearly 100 books) and their bodies were searched for marks of witchcraft, Austin and Fisher were imprisoned for three weeks before being returned to England. Shortly after the Quker women had been evicted, the Speedwell arrived with eight more Quakers who were themselves promptly detained without legal cause. Seeking retroactive legal authority for these unlawful detentions, Endicott urged the Massachusetts General Court to provide him with the tools he would need to fight the Quaker scourge.

The General Court obliged their governor, and on 14 October 1656 passed a law mandating that any "master or commander of any ship, barke, pinnace, catch, or any other vessel" who transported Quakers "or any other blasphemous heretics" would be ordered to pay a fine of 100 pounds before returning the offending believers from whence they had come. Colonists discovered with Quaker books would receive a fine of 54 pounds; those who defended Quaker beliefs could be fined 40 pounds. Quakers themselves who entered the Massachusetts colony could have their ears cropped or their tongues bored through with holes. Just over two years later, on 19 October 1658, Massachusetts decreed that Quakers who entered the colony were to be put to death. By 1661, four Quakers had been dismissed to the gallows for their crimes.