Mission in Colonial New England
1656 - 1783
New England in 1656 consisted of many colonies scattered along the rivers and coast of what was still largely Indian country, and there were few if any Quakers. By 1783 these colonies had grown and merged to become four of the thirteen founding colonies of the United States – Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut and Rhode Island – and there were perhaps 10,000 Quakers. Nearly all of them were from colonial families – few if any Indians became Quakers, despite cordial relations.
Early Quaker work was in three quite distinct colonies. Massachusetts Bay (round Boston and Salem) was strongly Puritan, and very intolerant of dissent. Plymouth (founded in 1620 by the Mayflower Pilgrims) was a mix of Pilgrim and Puritan. Both were challenging places for Quakers. Rhode Island, by contrast, was a haven of religious toleration, and welcomed Quakers. Its two towns - Providence and Newport - were home to many refugees from the other two colonies, including Rhode Island’s founder, Roger Williams.
Quakers Mary Fisher and Ann Austin, came to Boston in 1656, but were quickly thrown into jail and then expelled. Soon after, eight more missionaries arrived, including William Brend, John Copeland and Christopher Holder. They too were immediately jailed before being sent back to England. Massachusetts was determined to keep Quakers away, and soon banned Quaker literature too.
In 1657, the Woodhouse brought five missionaries, including Brend, Copeland and Holder on their second visit. This time they landed in Newport, in tolerant Rhode Island, and Mary Dyer was an early convert. Brend remained in Rhode Island, but Holder and Copeland went to Plymouth, and had considerable initial success, with sizeable groups soon established in the townships of Sandwich and Falmouth. Alarmed by this, Plymouth enacted laws akin to those in Massachusetts, and Holder and Copeland were expelled.They went to Salem, in Massachusetts, but were immediately arrested, sent to Boston, whipped, and banished back to Newport. Massachusetts quickly passed a law penalising anyone who had anything to do with Quakers.
Despite this persecution, the missionaries, joined now by Mary Dyer, persisted in all three colonies. In 1658 Massachusetts decided on the gruesome penalty of cutting off the ears of offending Quakers, before banishing them: both Holder and Copeland endured this. When that didn’t work, Massachusetts legislated for banishment on pain of death. This sentence was passed on Mary Dyer and others in 1659, but they soon returned, and were sentenced to death. Two men were hanged but Mary was reprieved and banished again. Undaunted, she returned yet again: this time there was no reprieve.
Meanwhile Holder and Copeland had returned to England, where their mutilated ears gave vivid evidence of the brutality happening in Boston. Leading Friend Edward Burroughs petitioned the King: Charles II was the colonists’ sovereign too, so could do something about it, if he chose. He sent ‘The King’s Missive’, instructing the colonists to stop.
Thereafter there were no more executions, but persecution continued, most notoriously with the 1662 Cart and Whip Act. Quakers were still to be banished, but their expulsion now involved tying them to a cart, stripped to the waist whatever the weather, and whipping them as they walked behind the cart all the way to the border. Elizabeth Hooton experienced this twice.
Ten years later, George Fox, John Burnyeat, and others came to Newport, and spoke powerfully at the 1672 Yearly Meeting there. Soon afterwards Burnyeat and William Edmundson took part in a significant debate about Quaker theology, instigated by Roger Williams, who was deeply uncomfortable with Quakerism. Quakers had the better of it, and Rhode Island was predominantly Quaker for the next 100 years.
Edmundson, Burnyeat and many others continued missionary work in New England, including new places such as the future Maine, New Hampshire and Connecticut. They met with considerable success, though nowhere else was ever like Rhode Island.
At the beginning of the eighteenth century, a new generation of missionaries was active. Thomas Chalkley, Thomas Story and others took Quakerism to Nantucket Island, where it flourished for many years. By now many missionaries were New England born and bred, or came from colonies further south. John Woolman came from New Jersey in 1647, and reinforced the growing antislavery sentiment among New England Quakers. They went on to eliminate it amongst Quakers, and then campaigned for complete abolition.Some Quakers still came from across the Atlantic, notably John Fothergill, followed by his son Samuel.