Quakers Executed - History

Quakers Executed - History

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On October 27th,1659 two Quakers were executed in Boston, after reentering the colony, despite having been expelled. One year later, a third person, a women named Mary Dyer, was also hanged, after returning to the colony. She had initially been spared execution.


10 Horrifying Ways America’s Puritans Persecuted The Quakers

He was one of the Puritans who had set sail for America in search of religious tolerance. They had cried for freedom of religion in England, but once they&rsquod landed in America, all those ideas of tolerance had quickly started to fade.

The Puritans were already becoming every bit as cruel as the people they&rsquod tried to escape. And no religion would suffer as horribly under their hands than the Quakers.

Quakers in the World

Mary Barrett Dyer (1611 – 1660) was an English Puritan turned Quaker who was hanged in Boston, Massachusetts for repeatedly defying a law banning Quakers from the colony. She is one of the four executed Quakers known as the Boston martyrs.

Mary (Marie) Barrett's marriage to William Dyer (Dier, Dyre), was recorded in church records at St Martin-in-the-Fields, London, on 27 October 1633. William Dyer took the Freeman's oath at the General Court in Boston on March 3, 1635 or 1636. In 1637 Mary Dyer supported Anne Hutchinson,who preached that God "spoke directly to individuals" rather than only through the clergy. Dyer joined with Hutchinson and became involved in what was called the "Antinomian heresy," where they worked to organize groups of women and men to study the Bible in contravention of the theocratic law of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Mary had given birth on October 17, 1637 to a deformed stillborn baby, which was buried privately. After Anne Hutchinson was tried and the Hutchinsons and Dyers banished from Massachusetts in January 1637-8, the authorities learned of the “monstrous birth,” and Governor Winthrop had it exhumed in March 1638, before a large crowd. He described it thus:

“it was of ordinary bigness it had a face, but no head, and the ears stood upon the shoulders and were like an ape’s it had no forehead, but over the eyes four horns, hard and sharp two of them were above one inch long, the other two shorter the eyes standing out, and the mouth also the nose hooked upward all over the breast and back full of sharp pricks and scales, like a thornback [i.e., a skate or ray], the navel and all the belly, with the distinction of the sex, were where the back should be, and the back and hips before, where the belly should have been behind, between the shoulders, it had two mouths, and in each of them a piece of red flesh sticking out it had arms and legs as other children but, instead of toes, it had on each foot three claws, like a young fowl, with sharp talons.”

Winthrop sent descriptions to numerous correspondents, and accounts were published in England in 1642 and 1644. The deformed birth was considered evidence of the heresies and errors of Antinomianism.

In 1638, Mary Dyer and her husband William were banished from the colony along with Hutchinson. On the advice of Roger Williams the group that included Hutchinson and the Dyers moved to Portsmouth in the colony of Rhode Island. William Dyer signed the Portsmouth Compact along with 18 other men.

Mary Dyer and her husband travelled to England with Roger Williams and John Clarke in 1652, where Mary Dyer joined the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) after hearing the preaching of its founder George Fox and feeling that it was in agreement with the ideas that she and Hutchinson held years earlier. She eventually became a Quaker preacher in her own right.

William Dyer returned to Rhode Island in 1652. Mary Dyer remained in England until 1657. The next year she travelled to Boston to protest the new law banning Quakers, and she was arrested and expelled from the colony. (Her husband, who had not become a Quaker, was not arrested.)

Mary Dyer continued to travel in New England to preach Quakerism, and was arrested in 1658 in New Haven, Connecticut. After her release, she returned to Massachusetts to visit two English Quakers, William Robinson and Marmaduke Stephenson, who had been arrested. She was also arrested and then permanently banished from the colony. She travelled to Massachusetts a third time with a group of Quakers to publicly defy the law, and was again arrested, and sentenced to death. After a short trial, two other Quakers were hanged, but because her husband was a friend of Governor John Winthrop he secured a last-minute reprieve—against her wishes, for she had refused to repent and disavow her Quaker faith.

She was forced to return to Rhode Island, from where she travelled to Long Island, New York to preach. However her conscience led her to return to Massachusetts in 1660 to defy the anti-Quaker law. Despite the pleas of her husband and family, she again refused to repent, and she was again convicted and sentenced to death on May 31. The next day Mary Dyer was hanged on Boston Common for the crime of being a Quaker in Massachusetts. She died a martyr. Her execution is described by Edward Burrough in A Declaration of the Sad and Great Persecution and Martyrdom of the People of God, called Quakers, in New-England, for the Worshipping of God (1661).

“Nay, I came to keep bloodguiltiness from you, desireing you to repeal the unrighteous and unjust law made against the innocent servants of the Lord. Nay, man, I am not now to repent."

After her death a member of the General Court uttered one of those bitter scoffs which prove the truest of all epitaphs, "She did hang as a flag for others to take example by."

A bronze statue of her by Quaker sculptor Sylvia Shaw Judson stands in front of the Massachusetts state capitol in Boston a copy stands in front of the Friends Center in downtown Philadelphia, and another in front of Stout Meetinghouse at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana.

Quakers fight for religious freedom in Puritan Massachusetts, 1656-1661

The Massachusetts Bay Colony of the New World was a Puritan theocratic state in the early 1650s. Puritan leaders did not have much tolerance for people of other religions, and as a result, the Puritan government often persecuted and banished religious outsiders who tried to enter and live in their Puritan towns. A fear was embedded in the Puritan society that if they started to admit outsiders, they would lose their political and religious control of the colony.

Beginning in 1656, members of the newly formed Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) started to arrive in the Massachusetts colony on ships from England, where Quakerism had recently emerged. The Quakers who arrived in Boston's harbor demanded that they be allowed to live in Massachusetts and practice their own religion freely. They were greeted by intense hostility and were often forced to board the next ship out.

The first known Quakers to arrive in Boston and challenge Puritan religious domination were Mary Fisher and Ann Austin. These two women entered Boston's harbor on the Swallow, a ship from Barbados in July of 1656. The Puritans of Boston greeted Fisher and Austin as if they carried the plague and severely brutalized them. The two were strip searched, accused of witchcraft, jailed, deprived of food, and were forced to leave Boston on the Swallow when it next left Boston eight weeks later. Almost immediately after their arrival, Fisher and Austin's belongings were confiscated, and the Puritan executioner burned their trunk full of Quaker pamphlets and other writings. Shortly after they arrived in Boston, eight more Quakers arrived on a ship from England. This group of eight was imprisoned and beaten. While they were in prison, an edict was passed in Boston that any ship's captain who carried Quakers into Boston would be fined heavily. The Puritan establishment forced the captain, who had brought the group of eight Quakers to Boston, to take them back to England, under a bond of £500.

Despite the intense persecution of Quaker newcomers by Massachusetts' Puritans, Quakers continued to come to Boston in increasing numbers and attempted to spread their message by whatever means possible. They came by ship from England and Barbados and by foot from Rhode Island, Pennsylvania and Virginia. Once in Massachusetts, they rose to speak following Puritan sermons and during trials and shouted from jail cell windows. They published pamphlets and held illegal meetings. They refused to pay fines to the Puritan government and refused to work in jail, with the latter often resulting in their jailers depriving them of food.

The Massachusetts Puritan government soon passed other laws aimed at stopping Quakers from entering and disrupting their status quo. Ship captains, learning of the fines, often refused passage to Quakers intending to sail to Boston. One Englishman, Robert Fowler, from Yorkshire, however, felt called to build a ship to transport Quakers from England to Massachusetts. He built the Woodhouse and set sail from England with eleven Quakers. One of the eleven was Dorothy Waugh, a farm servant from Westmorland who said she had been called by the Lord to come to America and share the Quaker message.

In all, from 1656 to 1661, at least forty Quakers came to New England to protest Puritan religious domination and persecution. During those five years, the Puritan persecution of Quakers continued, with beatings, fines, whippings, imprisonment, and mutilation. Many were expelled from the colony, only to return again to bear witness to what they believed. One of them, 60-year-old Elizabeth Hooten, returned to Boston at least five times. The Boston jails were full of Quakers, and four known executions of Quakers took place in Massachusetts during those five years.

As is evident, the Quakers were not a quiet group in Puritan New England. From their speeches in the courthouse, the church, and from jail cell windows, they attracted a number of supporters and converts. Locals would often give money to jailers to feed the otherwise starved inmates, and the Quakers' unflinching commitment to speaking their truth touched many. There is evidence to suggest that the Puritan hatred towards Quakers was not omnipresent within the Puritan community. For example, the law banishing Quakers from the colony on pain of death was only passed by a one-vote majority. John Norton was the most outspoken critic of the Quakers and is credited with spreading much of the anti-Quaker bias.

Perhaps the most notable Quaker to be brutalized and eventually executed by the Massachusetts government for being a Quaker was Mary Dyer. Dyer originally came to Massachusetts in 1633 and settled there with her husband. In 1652, Dyer returned to England, where she was exposed to Quakerism and accepted Quaker ideals. Five years later, on her way to rejoin her family who had since moved to Rhode Island, she landed in Boston, along with two fellow Quakers, William Robinson and Marmaduke Stephenson. The three were at once jailed for being Quakers and were banished from the colony. Dyer left for her family in Rhode Island, but Robinson and Stephenson stayed. Two years later, in 1659, when Robinson and Stephenson were jailed again, along with several other Quakers, Dyer returned to Boston to visit them in jail. She was arrested upon entry and all were held for two months without bail. Upon their release, they were banished from the colony under penalty of death, but Robinson and Stephenson refused to leave.

In October of that year, Dyer returned to Boston once again to visit another imprisoned friend. This time Dyer, Robinson, and Stephenson were all jailed and sentenced to death. On October 27, the three were led to the gallows, and Dyer watched as her two friends were hung. When it came to her turn, she was granted a last minute reprieve but refused to climb down from the scaffold until the law banning Quakers was changed. She had to be carried down and was forcibly removed from the colony.

Dyer spent the winter in Rhode Island and Long Island but insisted on returning to Boston the following spring. On May 21, 1660, she entered Boston and was immediately jailed. She was quickly tried, and on June 1, 1660, she was hung on Boston Commons.

It was not too uncommon that when a Quaker was being tried and prosecuted under threat of death, another Quaker would openly walk into the courthouse and disrupt the proceedings. Wenlock Christison did just this at the trial of William Leddra in 1661. Christison, himself, who had been banished from the colony under pain of death, burst into the courthouse crying out that for each “servant of God” that the Boston government hung, five more would rise up to take their place. Christison was arrested but never had to face the gallows.

The citizens and magistrates of Boston began to grow tired of having to punish the Quakers and Leddra was the last Quaker to be executed by the Puritan government. A messenger had gone to England to ask for a missive from the king. King Charles II, a Catholic supporter, wanted to provide a missive for the Catholics of the New World who were also being persecuted. When a Quaker messenger came asking the king to also provide sanctuary for the Quakers, he agreed. The “King’s Missive” did stop the executions, but punishment of the Quakers by the Boston government still continued, though it was less harsh. As more diverse groups of people landed on the shores of the New World, the persecution of the Quakers by the Puritans gradually faded. By 1675, Quakers were freely and openly living and worshiping in Boston.


“William Robinson and Marmaduke Stevenson, two Quakers who came from England in 1656 to escape religious persecution, are executed in the Massachusetts Bay Colony for their religious beliefs. The two had violated a law passed by the Massachusetts General Court the year before, banning Quakers from the colony under penalty of death.

The Religious Society of Friends, whose members are commonly known as Quakers, was a Christian movementfounded by George Fox in England during the early 1650s. Quakers opposed central church authority, preferring to seek spiritual insight and consensus through egalitarian Quaker meetings. They advocated sexual equality and became some of the most outspoken opponents of slavery in early America. Robinson and Stevenson, who were hanged from an elm tree on Boston Common in Boston, were the first Quakers to be executed in America. Quakers found solace in Rhode Islandand other colonies, and Massachusetts’ anti-Quaker laws were later repealed.

28 Responses to “Why the Puritans persecuted Quakers”

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.

As a historian, I’m going to jump in here. You’re flat-out wrong.
Some facts for you:
“Right.. because Fighting Tarrifs in 1820, The Morril Tarrif Act (March 1861..2 days before Lincoln’s Inauguration),”
—And the only reason the Morril Act passed is because South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas had already seceded, so their Senators and Representatives left Washington DC. So sure, the States were totally angry about an event that hadn’t even happened yet.
“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”
Blaming Lincoln for threatening war in his inauguration address, against 7 states that had already seceded BEFORE his Inauguration Address, I’m going to go ahead and give a pass on, because again, you’re blaming Secession on events that hadn’t even happened before 7 states had already seceded.
“The North only counting 3/5 slaves as votes so the South wouldn’t gain more representation based on population numbers”
Right, because the North got to count how many mules, and horses they had. You clearly don’t understand how Slavery actually worked. They were not given rights, not treated as people, they were PROPERTY. The South defined them as such by law, and used the wording of the Constitution to support that case: “[N]or shall any person . . . be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law . . . ” The South argued that they could take slaves anywhere in the country, even into Free states, and those slaves were protected PROPERTY. Why does your property get counted in your representation? Hmm?
“Lincoln Twice violating Article 3 Sec. 3 of the U.S. Constitution by invading the States”
Because, again, that totally supports the first seven states seceding, when it has not even happened yet. Sure, its a great excuse after the fact, but its still that: an excuse.

I highly recommend picking up a book called _Apostles of Disunion_, it follows the Secession Commissioners sent to each States’ legislative bodies and conventions to try to convince them to secede. It recounts their speeches, the debates, and very clearly lays out a framework, in their own words, of the reasons for secession. I promise, it is an eye-opening read.

I don’t blame you for having this view, its the popularly accepted view of the history of the South, but it IS factually incorrect, which is why I’m jumping in here.

One last thing of note:
In South Carolina and Mississippi, nearly 50% of households owned slaves. The statistics you’re citing are misleading because it includes the border states where secession came much later, in response to further events, and where ownership rates were much lower. This was a far more common, more ingrained institution than I think you realize. For reference – Per the 1860 Census, the top 5 rates were:
Mississippi – 49%
South Carolina – 46%
Georgia – 37%
Alabama – 35%
Florida – 34%

In 1662 Robert Pike Halts a Quaker Persecution in Massachusetts

In 1662 three English Quakers arrived in Dover, N.H. It didn’t take long before the Puritan townspeople spoke up about the newcomers. They petitioned Richard Waldron, the magistrate at Dover, “humbly craving relief against the spreading and the wicked errors of the Quakers among them.” Dover was frontier country and Waldron was the vice president of the New Hampshire colony and the representative to the Massachusetts General Court, where Quaker persecution was a hotly debated issue.

Illustration of Mary Dyer

An ornery Puritan who came from England to New Hampshire in 1635, Waldron came from wealth and he expanded it greatly, acquiring lands in Dover where he constructed mills on the Cochecho River and ran an active trading post with the local Pennacook Indians, with whom he maintained largely friendly relations.

The Quakers, meanwhile, were proving themselves a thorn in the side of New England’s Puritans. They had begun arriving in the colonies in 1656, and agitated for religious freedom. The General Court in Massachusetts repeatedly voted to ban the Quakers and they were punished by an assortment of methods, including whipping and branding.

But the Quakers persisted in demanding their rights. Several chose to become martyrs rather than accept offers of leniency, unless the state authorities would rescind the bans on Quakerism. In 1660, Massachusetts had even executed four Quakers who refused to renounce their faith. This group included Mary Dyer, a martyr who knew her execution would prove controversial for the political leaders of Massachusetts.

In 1662, Waldron had the Dover Quakers – Ann Coleman, Mary Tompkins and Alice Ambrose – arrested as vagabonds. He ordered that they be tied to the back of a cart and walked the 60-plus miles to Boston. Waldron ordered that at each town along the way they were to be stripped and whipped by the local constable. After carrying out the sentence in Dover, the cart was dispatched to Hampton. There, the constable also carried out the punishment.

The next stop along the punishment trail was Salisbury, Mass. Here, the whippings stopped.

Robert Pike was a constable, militia leader and deputy to the Massachusetts General Court for Salisbury. Though the General Court had outlawed Quakerism, the decision was far from unanimous. Pike and others supported religious freedom, and he and others in Salisbury were outraged at the order to whip the women.

Pike and Walter Barefoot, a political rival to Waldron in New Hampshire, treated the three Quakers’ wounds and helped them escape to Maine. The Quakers correctly believed that the persecution was backfiring. Each incident brought greater attention to their struggle and fresh converts to their faith.

In 1661, the King of England had ordered the colonies to stop executing and imprisoning Quakers. Rather, they were to be sent to England. This was probably the fate Waldron had in mind for the three women he sent to Boston.

Instead, what happened was the three Quakers returned quietly to Dover and established a church there. Fully one third of Dover’s population would eventually convert to Quakerism. Active persecution of the Quakers died out around 1670.

Waldron, in New Hampshire, would meet a horrific fate. Following King Philip’s War in 1678, a group of Indian fighters had fled to New Hampshire. Waldron managed to trick the Indians into attending a “war game.” As soon as they had discharged their muskets, he seized the Indians and sent them to Boston. They were banished into slavery for their part in the war.

The result was that many New Hampshire Indians viewed Waldron with contempt. In 1689 a band of Indians killed him. Waldron was 80.

Robert Pike, meanwhile, had continued his protests for greater religious tolerance. In 1692, as the Salem witch hysteria was gaining momentum, Pike authored a letter to one of the judges in the witch trials. Pike criticized the way the trials were conducted. While he did not dispute whether witchcraft was real, he argued that the Salem trials were not sound.

Pike’s letter made him the first of many who began attacking the witch trials, eventually bringing them to an end. He died in 1706.

Pike’s actions in the Quaker incident were immortalized by John Greenleaf Whittier. In the poem, How the Women Went from Dover, the word of justice Pike are recorded:

The History of the Quakers, and How to Find Your Quaker Ancestors

Do you have Quaker ancestors? If so, your genealogical research will be much easier. Here is the story of the origins of the Quaker religion, as well as how to research your early Quaker ancestors.


Quakers call themselves the Religious Society of Friends. They were given the moniker of “Quaker” by other Christian denominations who derided the writhing and dancing in religious ecstasy that was common in the early days of the group. While there are several different Quaker denominations today, they all come from the same first group and share the same values the original Quakers taught.

These values can be summed up in the belief that each human has the ability to access the spirit of God that is within every person. Because Quakers believe that God is in every person, and each person can access God within them without the intercession of priests or pastors, they have a general priesthood of all believers each member of the Quaker church is a priest within that church, and can teach others and give testimony, even women, and children, which is quite unlike most other denominations of Christianity.

Quakers also avoid creeds and hierarchical structures. The different Quaker denominations that exist today include evangelical, holiness, liberal, and traditional. Original Quakers had meetings with no planned services most of the meetings were held in silence, until (and if) someone felt moved by God to say something. There are Quaker denominations who still worship this way today, while others have a prepared message given by a designated pastor, and sometimes singing, as well.

Quakers began during the English Civil War (1642-1651) when many religious groups that dissented from the ruling Puritans and the rival Anglican Church of England emerged. George Fox was one of these people. He had his own religious revelation that there is one Jesus Christ who can speak to “thy condition,” and afterward believed it was possible to have a direct experience of Jesus without the involvement of any ordained clergy. George Fox began traveling around England preaching this new religious testimony, then brought it to the Netherlands and Barbados. Because Fox taught that Jesus came to Earth to teach people personally, that he expected others to continue this individual, personal teaching. Quakers came to consider themselves the restoration of the true, original Christian church.

The Quaker religion caught on with great popularity in England and Wales, though the dominant Protestant establishment viewed them as blasphemous, and an unacceptable challenge to the nation’s social and political order. They were persecuted through various acts beginning in 1662, but this persecution ended with an act of toleration in 1689.

Meanwhile, George Fox’s followers made their way to North America and began preaching their testimony to the English colonists there. Many of the missionaries who went were women, as women were equal priests and teachers to men in the Quaker church. The Puritans in New England proved less than receptive to any Quakers within their borders and even stopped a few would-be missionaries from getting off their ships before sending them back to England. The authorities did not want the Quaker religion to corrupt their pure Puritan citizens. However, word got out through a few missionaries who managed to get through, and via handing out Quaker pamphlets to the colonists. There were Puritan converts to the Quaker religion, and the Puritan persecution of the Quakers began in North America.

Many colonial Quakers were imprisoned, fined, whipped, mutilated, set in the stocks, tortured, and banished from Puritan-controlled colonies. Those who were forced to leave, or who wanted to leave for more tolerant pastures, usually went to Rhode Island, which was set up as a colony where any Christian denomination was welcome. Though the Puritans enacted a death penalty for any Quaker caught on their third entry to a Puritan colony after being banished, only four were ever executed, and these were three men and one woman. The woman, Mary Dyer, has a statue erected in her honor in Salem, MA.

Eventually, the Puritan authorities were ordered by the English king to stop their persecution of Quakers, and members of the group became tolerated, and even accepted, in most of the colonies. One colony, Pennsylvania, was even established by a Quaker, William Penn, and governed on Quaker principles.

Over the centuries, Quakers have come to be known for many things that make them stand out from other religious denominations. Some of these defining characteristics include:

  • Using “thee” as an everyday pronoun
  • Refusing to participate in wars
  • Wearing plain clothing
  • Refusing to swear oaths
  • Opposing slavery
  • Opposing the consumption of alcohol
  • Belief in trial by jury
  • Belief in equal rights for men and women
  • Advocating for free public education

The early Quakers advocated boisterous and unruly behavior in order to get attention, to point out the fallacy of the regular Protestant church, and to get converts. By 1700, this behavior was no longer encouraged, though the use of spontaneity of expression during meetings was still a part of their worship. Later in the 18 th century, the Quakers began what is known as the Quietist period, where they became a more inward-looking religious order, and left off most of their conversion efforts. They also outlawed marrying outside the faith. Those who did would be ex-communicated. Their numbers dwindled in America and Great Britain but reached a point where they remained steady, though they were lower than they had been in the beginning. The formal name of the Quakers, The Religious Society of Friends, was adopted during this period and has been used ever since.

If you have Quaker ancestors, you are in luck, because Quakers are well known for keeping excellent records. There are detailed records of births, deaths, and marriages of Quakers going back to the early 1700’s. Most have been microfilmed by the Mormons and are available at their regional family history centers. These records can also be found on numerous genealogy websites, or even at Quaker churches themselves. Quaker cemeteries abound in New England, though the early members of the church did not believe in headstones you may not find any stones until the mid-1700’s and after. There are also many ancient Quaker churches going back to the early 18 th century that are still in use. Quakers are one of the easier religious denominations to research, even if someone left the religion either by choice or ex-communication because those events are recorded, too, as are the movements of early Quakers from one church to another. You shouldn’t have any trouble finding information on your early Quaker ancestors.

October 27 is International Religious Freedom Day, dating to the execution this date in 1659 of Quakers Marmaduke Stephenson and William Robinson on Boston Commons. They were two of the four Boston Martyrs, Quakers whose necks were stretched in Massachusetts for failing to either keep quiet or stay out of town.

(Fellow Quaker Mary Dyer, perhaps the more famous martyr, was led out to execution with Stephenson and Robinson but reprieved at the last moment. Her time was still some months away.)

As Puritans had fled C-of-E persecution earlier in the 17th century, Quakers migrated to the New World with Cromwell‘s Puritan ascendancy.

And in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the old dissidence had become the new orthodoxy — as described by the (obviously partisan) Horatio Rogers. (Via)

In June, 1659, William Robinson, a merchant of London, and Marmaduke Stephenson, a countryman of the east pan of Yorkshire, “were moved by the Lord,” in Quaker phrase, to go from Rhode Island to Massachusetts to bear witness against the persecuting spirit existing there and with them went Nicholas Davis of Plymouth Colony, and Patience Scott of Providence, Rhode Island, a girl of about eleven years of age … During their incarceration Mary Dyer was moved of the Lord to go from Rhode Island to visit the prisoners, and she too was arrested and imprisoned. On September 12, 1659, the Court banished the four adults from Massachusetts upon pain of death

… On October 8, within thirty days of her banishment, Mary Dyer with other Rhode Island Quakers went to Boston, …where she was again arrested and held for the action of the authorities. Five days later William Robinson and Marmaduke Stephenson, who had been travelling about spreading their doctrines through Massachusetts and Rhode Island since their release from prison, also went to Boston to look the bloody laws in the face, in the words of the Quaker chronicler and they too were arrested and cast into prison. …

The issue was now clearly made between Quaker and Puritan. The Quaker defied the unjust Puritan laws, and dared martyrdom. Dare the Puritan authorities inflict it?

On October 19 the three prisoners were brought before Governor Endicott and the Assistants, and demand having been made of them — Why they came again into that jurisdiction after having been banished from it upon pain of death if they returned? — they severally declared that the cause of their coming was of the Lord and in obedience to him. The next day they were again brought before the magistrates, when the Governor called to the keeper of the prison to pull off their hats, which having been done, he addressed them substantially as follows: “We have made many laws and endeavored in several ways to keep you from among us, but neither whipping nor imprisonment, nor cutting off ears, nor banishment upon pain of death, will keep you from among us. We desire not your death.” Notwithstanding which, he immediately added: “Hearken now to your sentence of death.” … When the Governor ceased speaking, however, Stephenson lifted up his voice in this wise: “Give ear, ye magistrates, and all who are guilty, for this the Lord hath said concerning you, who will perform this promise upon you, that the same day that you put his servants to death shall the day of your visitation pass over your heads, and you shall be cursed forevermore, the Lord of Hosts hath spoken it therefore in love to you all take warning before it be too late, that so the curse might be removed for assuredly if you put us to death, you will bring innocent blood upon your own heads, and swift destruction will come upon you.” …

Great influence was brought to bear to prevent the execution of the sentences. Governor Winthrop of Connecticut appeared before the Massachusetts authorities, urging that the condemned be not put to death. He said that he would beg it of them on his bare knees that they would not do it. … Governor Endicott, the Rev. John Wilson, and the whole pack of persecutors, however, seemed to thirst for blood and it was determined that somebody must die.

The 27th of October, 1659, was fixed for the triple execution and elaborate preparations, for those days, were made for it. Popular excitement ran high, and the people resorted to the prison windows to hold communication with the condemned, so male prisoners were put in irons, and a force was detailed, in words of the order, “to watch with great care the towne, especially the prison.”…

The eventful day having arrived, Captain Oliver and his military guard attended to receive the prisoners. The marshal and the jailer brought them forth, the men from the jail, and Mary Dyer from the House of Correction. They parted from their friends at the prison full of joy, thanking the Lord that he accounted them worthy to suffer for his name and had kept them faithful to the end. The condemned came forth hand in hand, Mary Dyer between the other two, and when the marshal asked, “Whether she was not ashamed to walk hand in hand between two young men,” for her companions were much younger than she, she replied, “It is an hour of the greatest joy I can enjoy in this world. No eye can see, no ear can hear, no tongue can speak, no heart can understand, the sweet incomes and refreshings of the spirit of the Lord which now I enjoy.” The concourse of people was immense, the guard was strong and strict, and when the prisoners sought to speak the drums were caused to be beaten.

The method of execution was extremely simple in those days. A great elm upon Boston Common constituted the gallows. The halter having been adjusted round the prisoner’s neck, he was forced to ascend a ladder affording an approach to the limb to be used for the fatal purpose, to which limb the other end of the halter was attached. Then the ladder was pulled away, and the execution, though rude, was complete.

The prisoners took a tender leave of one another, and William Robinson, who was the first to suffer, said, as he was about to be turned off by the executioner, ‘I suffer for Christ, in whom I lived, and for whom I will die.” Marmaduke Stephenson came next, and, being on the ladder, he said to the people, “Be it known unto all this day, that we suffer not as evil-doers, but for conscience sake.”

Next came Mary Dyer’s turn. Expecting immediate death, she had been forced to wait at the foot of the fatal tree, with a rope about her neck, and witness the violent taking off of her friends. With their lifeless bodies hanging before her, she was made ready to be suspended beside them. Her arms and legs were bound, and her skirts secured about her feet her face was covered with a handkerchief which the Rev. Mr. Wilson, who had been her pastor when she lived in Boston, had loaned the hangman. And there, made ready for death, with the halter round her neck, she stood upon the fatal ladder in calm serenity, expecting to die….

Just then an order for a reprieve, upon the petition of her son all unknown to her, arrives. The halter is loosed from her neck and she is unbound and told to come down the ladder. She neither answered nor moved. In the words of the Quaker chronicler, “she was waiting on the Lord to know his pleasure in so sudden a change, having given herself up to dye.” The people cried, “Pull her down.” So earnest were they that she tried to prevail upon them to wait a little whilst she might consider and know of the Lord what to do. The people were pulling her and the ladder down together, when they were stopped, and the marshal took her down in his arms, and she was carried back to prison. . .

It was a mere prearranged scheme, for before she set forth from the prison it had been determined that she was not to be executed, as shown by the reprieve itself, which reads as follows: “Whereas Mary Dyer is condemned by the Generall Court to be executed for hir offences, on the petition of William Dier, hir sonne, it is ordered that the sajd Mary Dyer shall have liberty for forty-eight howers after this day to depart out of this jurisdiction, after which time, being found therein, she is forthwith to be executed, and in the meane time that she be kept a close prisoner till hir sonne or some other be ready to carry hir away within the aforesajd tyme and it is further ordered, that she shall he carrjed to the place of execution, and there to stand upon the gallowes, with a rope about her necke, till the rest be executed, and then to returne to the prison and remajne as aforesaid.

Mary Dyer once again returned from exile the following year, and was hanged in June 1660.

The hours were numbered, however, for New England Puritans in their most cartoonishly obnoxious form. Upon the restoration of the monarchy in the mother country, an edict forbidding the death penalty for Quakerism closed the doors to the Boston Martyrs club.

Quakers Executed - History



by Nick Gier, Professor Emeritus, University of Idaho

I would carry fire in one hand and faggots

in the other to burn all the Quakers in the world.

-- Boston preacher John Norton

Two Quakers Hung, but Mary Dyer is Freed, Boston, 1658

To execute image go to

This is the time of year to honor a small band of persecuted English Christians, who first sought refuge in Holland and then decided to set sail for the New World. With the aid of friendly Indians they were able to survive their first year in America. We celebrate the Pilgrims of Plymouth because of their yearning for religious liberty and their desire to worship freely in their own way. What we don't always recognize, however, is the fact that they denied that freedom to those who disagreed with them.

The English Puritans took very seriously the Apostle Paul's commandment that Christians were obligated to "be separate from them," interpreted as unbelievers and civil authorities, and "tough nothing unclean" (2 Cor. 6:17). Quakers believed that this separation meant that true Christians were not subject to magistrates, including taking oaths or serving in the military. They also rejected all religious dogma, preferring to follow the internal light of Christ than a literal reading of the Bible. The leaders of the Plymouth colony required that all residents pay a church tax and attend the established church every Sunday. Because Quakers refused to do this, their males were not "admitted as free men" and not allowed to "be employed in any place of trust."

In 1656 two Quaker women, Ann Austin and Mary Fisher, landed in the Bay Colony. Quakers believed in the equality of men and women, and they believed that women had a right to preach. Fisher and Austin were arrested as "blasphemous heretics" and their books were burned. They would have died of starvation in jail if sympathetic people bearing food had not bribed the guards. Later the same year eight Quakers were arrested on a ship arriving in Boston Harbor. Their leader, Christopher Holder, stumped the Puritan magistrates when he pointed out that they had no law proscribing Quaker belief.

Laws were quickly passed with increasing severity: the first offense would be to have one ear cut off, and offending a second time would cost Quaker males the other ear. Quaker women were to be whipped instead. If Quakers, male and female, had not their lesson by the fourth time, "their tongues would be bored through with a hot iron." Christopher Holder kept coming back to Boston to preach and to debate Puritan leaders, so on July 17, 1658 Holder and two other Quakers had their ears cut off, whipped twice a week for nine weeks before they agreed to return to England.

Mutilation of religious rebels was commonplace in England and the cutting off of body parts was not original with the Boston magistrates. The first turning point in Roger Williams' life was the day that he witnessed the mutilation of a Puritan in London . During his time in the pillory, this alleged "Sower of Sedition" lost both his ears and his nose. The letters "SS" were burned into his forehead and he spent the rest of life in prison.

Five Quaker women left the safety of Rhode Island, where Williams had established religious liberty in America for the first time, and came to Boston to support their oppressed comrades. As soon as they arrived they were thrown in jail. Each of the jailed women were stripped and checked for bodily signs of witchcraft, specifically a third teat by which a "familiar" was nursed. Thirty-four years later, a special Puritan court would execute 20 male and female witches, many with Quaker lies, in an unprecedented superstitious frenzy.

The Bay Colony Puritans concluded that Satan had sent them this Quaker scourge, so on October 19, 1658 the General Court of Boston passed a law stating that any Quaker refusing banishment would be executed. The result was that Quakers kept coming back to Boston with more zeal than ever. After returning to Boston, Mary Dyer, one of the women from Rhode Island, and two men were tried under this law and were convicted. The men were hanged but Mary Dyer was rescued by her son riding on a white house (yes, it's true) with a reprieve from the governor in his hand.

When Mary Dyer learned that the Boston Puritans were boasting to the English Parliament about their mercy in her case, she was determined to confront them and she returned to demand that the laws against Quakers be appealed. It was decided that no new trial was necessary, so after she refused to repent, she was led to the gallows once more on June 1, 1660. When someone in the crowd called out "Did you say that you have been in Paradise?" Dyer answered: "Yea, I have been in Paradise several days and now I'm about to enter eternal happiness." D yer happily mounted the scaffold and after her neck broke, General Atherton broke the silence: "She hangs like a flag for others to take example from." One more Quaker would be hanged before a new charter from England forced the Boston Puritans to protect all Christian sects except Catholics.

Before her execution Dyer suffered extreme humiliation because of her stillborn child. She tried her best to hide her misfortune, and one of the Boston pastors actually helped her secretly bury the child. Word, however, leaked out and Governor John Winthrop ordered that the body be exhumed. It was publicly described as a monster, and Dyer was then accused of being a witch as well as a heretic. Many people arrested during the later witch hunts were Quakers or had Quaker associations.

I was raised in an evangelical Quaker church in Medford, Oregon, and their peaceful meditative Christianity had a profound influence on me. I was recruited but declined to attend George Fox College, now a reputable small University in Oregon's beautiful Willamette Valley. Every spring the religious scholars of the Pacific Northwest meet and the George Fox faculty always present excellent papers.

American Quakers are now a small but widely respected part of the nation's spiritual life. The American Field Service Committee (AFSC) has an international reputation for aiding people in need and insisting on nonviolent solutions to international problems. Their early American predecessors would definitely have been surprised, if not shocked, to learn that the AFSC now supports gay and lesbian rights.

Barack and Michelle Obama have also chosen a Quaker school in Washington, DC for their two daughters. I'm sure that they will receive the same strong character education that I did as a young boy at the Medford Friend's Church.

Watch the video: Quaker executions as myth and history (November 2022).

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