Why the Puritans persecuted Quakers

Posted on July 2, 2008. Filed under: 17th century America, Puritans | Tags: , , , , , |

It seems simple enough: the Puritans believed Quakers were heretics. In fact, anyone who was not an Anglican was a heretic, including Catholics, Lutherans, Anabaptists, Antinomians, Quakers, Ranters… in short, anyone who was not Anglican.


Heretics were seen as blasphemers who put barriers in the way of salvation; they were also considered traitors to their country because they did not belong to the official state religion. This was true throughout Europe in the century following the Protestant Reformation: whatever religion the king chose became the official state religion of his country, and all other religions or sects were made illegal. In fact, the Puritans had left England because they had been considered heretics there, and had been persecuted by the government. Technically, they were not heretics because they did not leave the official Church of England (the Anglican Church), but their demands for big changes to that church made them outsiders. It was enough to get the anti-Puritan Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, to launch a campaign of persecution against them.


So when Quakers showed up in Boston in the 1650s, it’s no surprise they were persecuted. Puritan Congregationalism was the official—and only—religion of New England. Like every other state they knew of in Europe, the Puritans enforced a state religion that it was treason to oppose. But it wasn’t just about their religion. The persecution of Quakers was also part of the Puritans’ determination to rule themselves, independent of England.


The Puritans who had remained in England during the Great Migration to America of the 1630s drifted apart from their New England brethren. They were more inclined to allow toleration of other professions of Christian faith. The impossibility of reforming, or purifying, the Anglican Church in England was slowly rejected in favor of the much more doable task of simply confirming England as a Protestant nation by allowing any and all Protestants to worship relatively freely. The English Puritans also supported presbyterianism, a system in which the state governs the church and appoints a hierarchy to oversee all churches.

To the New England Puritans, both toleration and presbyterianism were unacceptable. They had spent painstaking years establishing a system of church government called the New England Way that was based on the independence and power of the individual congregation. The state in Massachusetts did not appoint clergy, nor was there one over-arching body that regulated churches. Each church was a sovereign unit. And only one church was tolerated in Massachusetts: the Puritan, or Congregational church (which was, to them, the purified Anglican church in America).


Worried that the English government would try to force its new rules of toleration and presbyterianism on them, the Puritans of Massachusetts made preparations to fight for their independence. They elected their own governor and General Court (a combined legislature and judiciary). They built many forts to protect their harbor and drilled their militia men regularly. And they continued to persecute Quakers, who, determined to bring their version of the Gospel to New England, continued to trespass into Boston despite the harsh and often cruel punishments they knew they would receive.


Those Quakers were not meek and mild innocents who just wanted to talk. They were as righteous a group of zealots as most Puritans, and when they entered a Massachusetts town they tried to wreak maximum havoc: bursting into church services, yelling in the streets, banging pots and pans together, and even stripping off their clothes (to show their lack of attachment to worldly things). The Puritans reacted with vehement rejection, and submitted Quakers who would not heed the warnings to leave and never return to terrible punishments. Boring holes through their tongues was just one of these.


The Quakers had no one to turn to for help until 1660, when the monarchy in England was restored, and Charles II came to the throne. One of his first acts as king was to send a letter to the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony (the most powerful New England colony) ordering the persecutions of Quakers to stop. According to the “King’s Missive,” any Quaker accused of breaking the law in Massachusetts should be sent unharmed to England for trial.

Charles II issued his order for two reasons. First, he was a Catholic sympathizer, and Quakers and Catholics were about the only groups who found absolutely no acceptance in England. If Charles could win tolerance for Quakers, perhaps he could win eventual tolerance for Catholics. Second, he cast a dark eye on Massachusetts’ independence. Disgruntled ex-colonists who left New England to return home told Charles the Puritans were rebels. It didn’t help that two of the judges who had condemned his father, Charles I, to death had fled to New Haven and received a hero’s welcome there.


The new king put Massachusetts in a bind: if they stopped persecuting Quakers, and sent them to England for trial, that lessened the authority of their locally elected General Court. If they gave up the authority to prosecute Quakers, what other bit of their independence would they have to give up next? It was a slippery slope leading to direct English rule. But on the other hand, if they did not stop persecuting Quakers, they would be in violation of the King’s law, traitors, and would be immediately occupied by English soldiers and forced to accept a royal governor (rather than their own elected governor). Massachusetts made its choice: they would stave off English rule as long as possible rather than call down instant English rule on themselves. Slowly the persecution of Quakers came to an end.


They would win many small battles with the king and maintain their independence until 1691, when Massachusetts’ charter was revoked and the powerful colony came at last under direct rule from England. By that time, toleration was the rule even in New England, and Quakers were no longer a dangerous and radical sect but commonplace members of society. But resentment of English rule did not die out amongst New Englanders; less than 100 years later, the descendants of the Puritans would buck off English rule in America for good.

(For more on the Puritans and Quakers, their differences, and their battles, see Puritans v. Quakers in the battle for our sympathies.)

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19 Responses to “Why the Puritans persecuted Quakers”

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That sounds sort of like the Southern states saying they were fighting for states’ rights, and that slavery was just a side issue.

Right.. because Fighting Tarrifs in 1820, The Morril Tarrif Act (March 1861..2 days before Lincoln’s Inauguration), Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address threatening war to those who do not comply with new taxes, Dominance by the North in the House due to Western expansion & larger populations, The North only counting 3/5 slaves as votes so the South wouldn’t gain more representation based on population numbers, Lincoln Twice violating Article 3 Sec. 3 of the U.S. Constitution by invading the States(Including the still Union State of VA) which caused NC, VA, TN & AK to secede (SC couldn’t even raise enough troops until the Nov 1861 Invasion of Port Royal), Lincoln ignoring the 10th Amendment, Lincoln using Justice Chase to ‘make up’ the unconstitutionality of secession so the South could be labeled as insurrectionist and therefore justifying the invasion & subjugation of the South even though Lincoln considered them still U.S. citizens after the war… he viewed the Union as perpetual so the South never really left, since Southerners were considered U.S. citizens after the war then Lincoln violated Article 1, Sec 9, Clauses 2-3 of the Constitution, Labeling Southerners as ‘insurrectionist’ WAS a Bill to Attainder bc it was a legislative act that singled out 1+ persons & imposed punishment on them without trail, If the Fed Gov acknowledged secession as constitutional then the South should have fallen under International Law……………..So yeah, I guess State’s Rights is only about slavery considering 74% of Southern white & 1/3 of SC whites DID NOT OWN SLAVES

In no way am I saying slavery wasn’t an issue. I’m saying that this terrible war was created like all other wars. Politicians bitching and the less fortunate pay the price for their power struggles. Blame the U.S. as a whole for being dumb enough to rely on 1 industry in each region to support the economy.

Hello! I think it’s clear that I’m not excusing the Puritans. Persecution for whatever reason is persecution. What I’m interested in is establishing exactly why this persecution took place, and tying to the big picture of MBC concerns. Heresy and the need to maintain the autonomy and authority to decide their own laws were of pretty equal force to the Puritans, I think, and that fueled the response to the Quakers.

The subjects are certainly entwined. I’m not a researcher in the area, but I think I’ve also heard some evidence the Quakers did look to the King for relief.

The Quakers did indeed ask the new king for help as soon as he was on the throne. It was their first chance for government protection; before Charles II was installed, there was only the Puritan Parliament to turn to, and that was of course fruitless. So the Quakers in England appealed to the king specifically for help against the American Puritans, listing the atrocities those Puritans had committed. And the king, for his own reasons, decided to protect them. I think this first step toward tolerance in New England was one of the first steps toward creating the democracy we know and love, because it combined the desire for independence with the recognition of the need for justice for all.

Thanks for this brilliant post; I myself am sympathetic to the Puritans and while I can’t condone persecution either, I can’t help but think that the Quakers weren’t at fault as well in this tragedy. Out of curiosity, do you know whether there were any members of the Puritan clergy who spoke out against Endicott’s harsh methods?

Hello Colin; which methods are you referring to? I know Endicott—that strange guy—went in all manner of extreme directions on a few issues. Why don’t you fill us in on what you know?

Thanks for replying! I was actually referring to his methodology against the Quakers. Did any of the clergy ever protest against the extremism of his methods? I know a few of the people did, but Endicott was very good at suppressing outspoken criticism of his tactics. I was just wondering whether the clergy were unified and mobile in their full support of Endicott or whether there was some dissension amongst them as to a perhaps less ruthless though still stern treatment of the (often) lunatic Quakers and their invasion.

Well, I will admit I don’t know what specific steps Endecott took against Quakers–let us know! But I would imagine that the General Court and the ministers would have been glad to see Endecott doing something orthodox. He was a strange character, at once almost obsessively passionate about Puritanism and a supporter of deviants like Roger Williams. He got so involved in the Salem controversy (over Williams) that he came close to banishment. After the Pequot War, he appears in the General Court records several times, brought up for adultery and other infractions, then offering tearful confessions and self-degredations. He finally settled down in later life, and ended his days at peace with the MBC. But during that rocky journey, persecuting Quakers would have been acceptable to the Court and church in Massachusetts.

hey did you know one of the religios belifes of the quakers was that you can come back to life like jemima wilkson she suposengly said that god send her to preech his mesage

Hello John, and thanks for all your nice comments. I haven’t heard about Jemima Wilkson—can you tell us more?

Your post helped me understand the specifics better; thanks. I posted the link to it in a discussion on a GoodReads site called Constant Reader, where a discussion was underway of a letter supposedly from Cotton Mather that endorsed a plan to capture Penn and all others on the Welcome, then sell them as slaves in the Caribbean. Ever hear of that, or is it just another forgery?

Hello Michael; thanks for visiting. It is a fraud, the story about Mather; the letter first appeared in 1870 and was thoroughly debunked by 1897. Supposedly a chest of letters by Mather was discovered by a “Mr. Judkins” of the Massachusetts Historical Society, and this was one of them. But several points ring false: there was no Judkins at the Society; Mather was only 19 in 1682, hardly a leading New England figure to call for such a plan; “scampe” was not a word used in New England at that time, and no New Englander called Cape Cod “ye coast of Codde.”

No one is sure who forged the letter, but it is presumed that whoever did was motivated by their dislike of the Puritans and set out to ruin the reputation of a major Puritan figure.

Thanks; it seemed it had to be. Looking forward to reading through more of your blog postings. I was intrigued by your explanation of why, and how, you started this.

The following article, “Why the Puritans persecuted Quakers
The Historic Present” illustrates the fact that u truly understand exactly what u r communicating about!
I personally entirely approve. Many thanks -Kitty

The puritans left England because English law was to tolerant of other peoples rights including the Quakers that is the reason they left England and try to set up an untolarant society based on puritan values only

These people were not Christians and the foundation was not Jesus clearly.

End of story.

Hello Lorri; not sure which “people” you’re referring to. But simple statements are rarely the end of the story anyway. If you have a larger argument to share, we’d be happy to hear it.


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