Although many Quakers in the British Isles were imprisoned
under severe and life-shortening conditions, and some died in prison, none
were actually sentenced to death for their beliefs. However, in the colony
of Massachusetts, there were executions.
William and Mary Dyer, of Somerset, England, moved to Massachusetts
in 1635. In 1638, when Anne Hutchinson was expelled from the colony for
religious dissent, they went with her to Rhode Island, a colony founded
on the principle of religious liberty. In 1650 they returned to England
and there became Quakers.
In 1656 two women Friends arrived at Boston with boxes of Quaker literature.
They were Ann Austin, mother of five children, and Mary Fisher, twenty
two years old. The colonists, who had heard wild rumors from England about
the Quakers, were alarmed. The boxes of literature were seized to be burned,
and the women imprisoned. They were searched for marks of witchcraft at
the order of the Deputy-Governor, whose own sister-in-law had been hanged
as a witch a few months earlier. After five weeks, they were put on an
outbound ship. Two days after they left, nine more Quakers came.... In
1657 the Dyers returned to New England. Also in 1657, two male Quakers,
William Robinson and Marmaduke Stevenson, were arrested for trying to speak
to the congregation after the regular Sunday service. They were imprisoned
for nine weeks and whipped twice a week and then banished. A law was passed,
levying a fine of 100 pounds for bringing a Quaker into the colony, and
two pounds per hour for concealing or harboring a Quaker. Any Quaker who
returned from banishment was to lose an ear each of the first two times
he returned, and to have his tongue bored through with a hot iron the third
Mary Dyer visited Quakers in prison, and was banished from the colony.
In 1658 Robinson and Stevenson returned. At this, returning after banishment
was made a capital offense. In 1659, Mary Dyer returned, and was sentenced
to be hanged. On 27 October 1659, she watched as Robinson and Stevenson
were hanged, one after the other. Then she was placed on the scaffold,
and the noose was fastened about her neck. She was then released and banished
from the colony, with a warning that she would be hanged if she returned.
She returned, and was arrested and sentenced to be hanged, but was offered
her life if she would promise to leave the colony and not return. She refused,
and said, as she walked to the scaffold:
This is to me the hour of greatest joy I ever had in
She was hanged on Boston Common, 1 June 1660. A bystander remarked,
"She hangs there like a flag." The modern composer Ned Rorem has written
an organ piece called "Mary Dyer did hang like a flag" in her memory (one
of 11 pieces in his organ suite A QUAKER READER). Mary Dyer was the only
woman to die for the cause of religious freedom in the American colonies.
this world. No ear can hear, no tongue can utter, and no
heart can understand the sweet incomes and the refreshings
of the spirit of the Lord, which I now feel.
On 14 March 1661 one more Quaker was hanged. William Leddra, in a small
dark cell, chained to a log, wrote on the last day of his life:
The sweet influences of the Morning Star like a flood,
At the very moment when sentence was being pronounced on Leddra there
strode into court Wenlock Christison, who also had been banished. Seeing
him thus defy death, the magistrates were "struck with a great damp." A
few days later, when he too was sentenced, he said:
distilling into my habitation, have so filled me with the
joy of the Lord in the beauty of holiness that my spirit is
as if it did not inhabit a tabernacle of clay, but is wholly
swallowed up in the beauty of eternity from whence it had
its being.... As the flowing of the ocean doth fill every
creek and branch and then retires again toward its own being
and fulness, leaving a savor behind, so doth the life and
power of God flow into our hearts, making us partakers of
the Divine nature.
Do not think to weary out the living God by taking away
the lives of His servants. What do you gain by it? For the
last man you put to death, here are five come in his room.
And if you have power to take my life from me, God can raise
up the same principle of life in ten of his servants and
send them among you in my room.
The magistrates, whether overawed by Christison's words or fearing intervention
from England, set Christison free, together with other imprisoned Friends.
Meanwhile, Quakers in England pointed out to the King that the Massachusetts
courts were disallowing appeals to the Crown, and this smacked of rebellion.
Moved by their arguments, the King sent a Royal Mandamus to Massachusetts,
ordering that the imprisonments, executions, and floggings should cease, and
that the accused should be sent to England for trial. The letter was given
to Samuel Shattock, a Quaker banished from Massachusetts and under sentence
of death should he return. The story of his arrival is told in the poem, "The
King's Missive," by John Greenleaf Whittier.
(To read the poem, link to www.kimopress.com
and go to Whittier.) After this there were no more hangings, but, despite
the Royal decree, the floggings continued for several years. Any convicted
Quaker was to be tied to a cart's tail, and made to walk behind the cart all
the way to the border of the colony, being whipped at every step. In 1665
the London government forbade further molesting of the Quakers in Massachusetts.
In June 1658 Mary Fisher (mentioned above as one of the first two Quakers
who tried to preach in Massachusetts) visited Adrianople in Turkey, and was
granted an audience with the Sultan (the 17-year-old Mohammed IV), to whom
she preached at length. He listened courteously, and invited her to stay and
speak with him further, but she went on to Constantinople, and eventually
back to England. (It is tempting to speculate on how the course of history
might have been different if she had stayed, and if the Sultan and his family
had become Quakers.)
(courtesy of http://elvis.rowan.edu/~kilroy/JEK/FOX/V1/dyer.txt