Early American Faith: Puritans vs. Quakers

QuakerTrialIn previous articles on the subject of Puritans versus people of other faiths, it’s evident that Puritans had little or no tolerance for other faiths.  It’s a curious thing, though, since all these groups came to America to pursue freedom of religion, and in England the Puritans were among some of the most persecuted for their faith.  But, when Puritans converged on America they essentially set up a theocracy in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  No faith group was spared their disdain and intolerance, but Quakers seemed to have incurred more of it than others.

What Were Their Differences?

In very simple terms, Puritans were Calvinistic in their theology with a fierce belief in the harsh judgment of God.  They rejected the doctrine of free will and embraced predestination.  Their interpretation of scripture was very narrow and the slightest deviation might well bring punishment.  For instance, Puritans believed that the Apostle Paul’s admonition to “be separate from them” (2 Cor. 6:17) quite literally meant “them” were the civil authorities and unbelievers.

On the other hand, Quakers believed that scripture meant that Christians were not subject to magistrates, which also included taking oaths and serving in the military. Quaker beliefs were perceived as less rigid than other faiths.  The Protestant Reformation had brought about a shift wherein man did not rely on a human intermediary between God and the people.  Some faiths rejected or modified some of the rituals and sacraments, but the Quakers rejected them all — baptism, the Lord’s Supper, even paid ordained clergy.

Instead of ministers, Quakers relied on the “Inner Light” or “Christ within” to guide them.  Worship consisted of waiting in silence until one was moved by the Inner Light to share with other members.  One might conclude that Quakers were a meek and mild lot – that assumption, however, would be incorrect.  Quakers were just as zealous in their beliefs as the Puritans, perhaps more so.

Quakers Seen as Zealots and Heretics

Quakers were known to yell in the streets, burst into church services, bang pots and pans together and even strip off their clothes to show they weren’t attached to worldly things.  One Samuel Pepys noted in his diary on July 29, 1667:

…a man, a Quaker, came naked through the [Westminster] Hall, only very civilly tied about the privates to avoid scandal, and with a chafing-dish of fire and brimstone burning upon his head… crying, “Repent! repent!

Quakers apparently took the prophet Isaiah, who went naked for three years as a sign of judgment on Israel’s enemies, quite seriously.  An anti-Quaker cartoon depicts the scorn and derision directed toward “Quakerism”:

Anti-QuakerCartoonSome believed that Quakers thought themselves capable of performing sensational miracles like turning water into wine.  In England, Quakers had been put on trial for supposedly changing a woman into a horse.  In another incident, a Quaker had deliberately drowned himself, expecting to be brought back from the dead (he was not).  Thus, Quakers may have had a zealous faith, albeit somewhat misguided at times.

Here Come the Quakers!

When Quakers “invaded” the Puritan colony in the 1650’s new laws and punishments were enacted.  The first Quakers to arrive in Boston and dare to challenge the Puritans were two women, Mary Fisher and Ann Austin – both having felt the call to prophesy.  Ann was a middle-aged mother of five children and Mary was twenty-two years old.  The Puritans heard rumors of their journey and were prepared to confront them upon arrival.

When the ship docked it was immediately seized, as were one hundred “heretical” books and pamphlets the women had transported across the ocean.  Puritans demanded the books be burned in the public square and immediately laws were created banning such “seductive and poisonous” Quaker literature.  Anyone touching, possessing, handing out or hiding any of it would be fined heavily.  Another ship arrived shortly thereafter with more Quakers aboard – this time the ship was threatened with a stiff fine and forced to return the Quakers to England.

Mary and Ann were seized and imprisoned, and according to A Centre of Wonders: The Body in Early America:

Implying that Quaker bodies and texts were equally pernicious, the magistrates next seized Austin and Fisher, stripped them naked publicly, and then forced the women to undergo excruciating bodily searches for signs of witchcraft:

not missing head nor feet, searching betwixt their toes, and amongst their hair, tewing and abusing their bodies more than modesty can mention, in so much that Anne who was a married woman, and had born 5 children said, That she had not suffered so much in the birth of them all, as she had done under their barbarous and cruel hands.

Only midwives were allowed to conduct the search, but Ann later wrote that one of them was a man dressed in women’s clothes.  The two women were imprisoned in a cell with the window boarded up, beaten and deprived of food.  When the ship returned a few weeks later, Ann and Mary were deported back to England.

Despite the intense persecution from Puritans, Quakers continued to arrive in New England.  Once they arrived in Massachusetts, they set about vocally disrupting Puritan society by standing to speak after sermons and shouting from jail cells.  They printed pamphlets and held illegal meetings, which of course landed them in jail.  Between 1656 and 1661, the jails were full of Quakers and at least four were executed.  Short of death, however, punishments were severe indeed.  Those Quakers who refused to comply with Puritan laws against writing and speaking out were warned that non-compliance would result first in one ear being cut off, then the other ear, and finally “have their toungues bored through with a hot iron” if they continued to defy the laws.

PuritansPunishQuakersMary Dyer originally arrived in Massachusetts in 1633, but she returned to England in 1652 and was influenced by the Quakers.  She returned to New England in 1657, landing in Boston with two other Quakers, William Robinson and Marmaduke Stephenson.  Immediately upon arrival, the trio was imprisoned and banished from the colony.  The original purpose of Mary’s return to New England had been to reconnect with family in Rhode Island so she left to return there while Robinson and Stephenson refused to leave.

In 1659 the two men were again jailed and Mary returned to visit them – she was immediately seized and held without bail for two months.  Again the trio was banished and under threat of death, but the men refused to leave.  In October of 1659 Mary returned to Boston to visit another imprisoned friend, but this time the trio was jailed again and sentenced to death.  On October 27 they were all led to the gallows where Mary was forced to watch her two friends hang first.  However, she was granted a reprieve at the last minute but refused to leave – she was carried down from the gallows and forcibly removed from the colony.

MaryDyerThe following spring, on May 1, 1660, Mary again entered Boston and was arrested.  A trial was quickly held and on June 1 she was publicly hung on Boston Commons.  Quakers, however, continued to be bold and vocal.  In 1661, William Leddra was on trial when a fellow Quaker, Wenlock Christison, walked into the courthouse and disrupted the proceedings – all this despite the fact that Christison had already been banished from the colony under threat of death if he returned.  Leddra was the last Quaker to be executed, however.

Puritan Resignation

A “King’s Missive” from King Charles II halted Quaker executions, although less severe punishments continued.  By 1675, Quakers were able to freely live, work and worship in Boston – perhaps due to the influx of other faith groups it just became tiresome to the Puritans to try and fend off those with whom they disagreed.

Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!

© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2014.



  1. What a great piece of history! Thank you!

    • Thanks for reading! I had no idea those Quakers were such rabble-rousers. 🙂

  2. Hey there, You have performed an incredible job. I’ll definitely digg it and in my view recommend to my friends. I’m sure they will be benefited from this website.

  3. You have done a great job of making this history easy to read and accessible to many. I am using this info in a teen lit class. Thanks for doing the hard work for me.

    • Thank you for your kind words. I’m so happy to hear you will share this with your class! Thanks for stopping by and please encourage your students to visit the site which is full of interesting, unique and obscure bits of history. One of my goals is to make history fun and interesting — written as stories vs. just memorizing a bunch of dates, etc.



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