Iowa History Project
The first Quakers known to have set foot on American soil were two women, Ann Austin and Mary Fisher, who appeared in Boston harbor on July 11, 1656, having come from the island of Barbadoes for the express purpose of bearing testimony against the religious deadness and formality of the Puritans.
Long had the Puritans of New England heard of the turmoil raised in the home-land by the troublesome Quakers; and now they had them at their very doors. Why should they come hither to disturb the peace and quiet of the wilderness? These were Puritan shores. The Puritans, as “Pilgrims” in a strange land, had come to New England in order that they might live according to their own ideals and worship God in their own way. They had their own institutions and their own customs, which to them were dear and sacred. At infinite cost they had built up a commonwealth in the wilderness, based on the laws, statutes, and ordinances of God. They had convictions as strong as were the convictions of the Quakers. Why should they give way to these newcomers? The very purpose of this transient visit of members of the despised sect was to scatter their books and pamphlets—firebrands of disruption and discord—and overturn the very foundations on which the Puritan community rested. The Puritans were determined that they would not allow themselves thus to be disturbed; while the Quakers were just as determined to bear their testimonies.
The scenes which followed the first arrival of Quakers in America were indeed dramatic. An irresistible force seemed to have met an immovable object. The two women were at once taken into custody by the authorities of Boston, their books and tracts were publicly burned in the market-place as heretical, and being “stripped stark naked” and searched for marks of witchcraft, they were confined in prison without light, writing materials, or the privilege of speaking to anyone on the outside. They were then ruthlessly thrust out of the colony; while Simon Kempthorne, master of the ship which brought them thither, was strictly charge with speedily taking them back whence he got them, at his own expense and under heavy penalty if he refused.(16)
Two days after the departure of Mary Fisher and Ann Austin form the port of Boston, another vessel came into the harbor bearing eight Quakers—four men and four women. These, likewise, were seized and thrown into prison, where they remained for about eleven weeks. They, too, were finally driven out of the colony and transported back to England, whence they had come. The first law, bearing date of October 14, 1656, was then passed against the intruders.(17)
Entrance from the sea being barred, the commonwealth was soon invaded from another quarter. By 1658 Rhode Island, the earliest home of religious toleration in America, had been visited by the Quakers, and there the new ideas had spread rapidly. Through this “back door the Quakers again began to appear in Massachusetts in defiance of the stringent laws which that colony had passed.(18) Time after time they were flogged, tied to the cart’s tail, threatened, and banished from the jurisdiction, but all to no avail. Finally, on October 19, 1658, this beset, defied, and outrage Puritan colony passed the fatal act, carrying with it a death penalty.
Laws thus framed and intent upon blood were not long in finding their victims. Mary Dyer, a Quaker from Rhode Island, had been banished from Massachusetts as an Antinomian; Marmaduke Stephenson had also been banished for making a disturbance in Boston; William Robinson had been whipped and banished for abusing the court; and William Leddra had been several times whipped, imprisoned, and banished. Their devotion to the cause of truth was, however, greater than their regard for man, so they fearlessly returned. On October 22, 1659, Marmaduke Stephenson and William Robinson paid the penalty on the scaffold, and thus sealed their testimony in Boston with their blood. In the spring of the following year, Mary Dyer swung from the same scaffold in obedience to what she believed to be the will of God, and on March 14, 1661, William Leddra offered up his life in the same way. All four of these persons, we are told, were of unsullied character. Constant, heroic, fearless, they faced death for the sake of religious toleration. Upon hearing of these atrocious crimes, Charles II at once ordered his Puritan subjects to forbear, and the flow of innocent blood ceased. Thus Quaker fortitude had met Puritan intolerance in Massachusetts, and, with the tongue as its only weapon of defense, the former had prevailed,(19) there to build up the first Yearly Meeting of Friends in America.(20)
With the arrival of George Fox in Maryland in 1672(21) the movement in America was given a new impetus. He and his devoted followers traveled in all directions, bearing their message. Day after day Fox plunged through pathless forests and over dangerous bogs from New England to the Carolinas, planting here and there in the scattered settlements the germs of the new faith which soon sprang up into prosperous Quaker communities. Many times the missionaries lay down to rest beside their camp fires in lonely woods, and “sometimes in the Indians’ wigwams or houses”, there taking the opportunity of speaking the word of life to these savage “kings”.(22) In New England, in the middle colonies, and in the sea-board colonies of the South the work went forward, strongly tincturing the commonwealths of the Jerseys, Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina with Quaker doctrine.(23)
Persecuted by the established church in the mother country, suppressed by the Puritans in New England, and maltreated by the Roman Catholics of Maryland and the cavaliers of the more southern colonies, the Quakers longed for a home which they could call their own. The keen mind of George Fox early perceived the advantages which the uninhabited woods of America offered as a place of refuge form the storms of persecution which beat so fiercely upon the “Friends of Truth”. In 1660 steps were taken to secure by purchase a tract of land from the Susquehanna Indians, but due to a war then raging among the tribes the attempt failed.(24) It was not long, however, until a new avenue was opened; for when Lord Berkeley offered for sale one-half of New Jersey in 1674 it was at once purchased by two Quakers, John Fenwick and Edward Billinge. Thus a new opening was made in America for the growth of Quakerism.(25)
The importance of this incident does not lie so much in the purchase of the New Jersey land by two Quakers, as in the fact that the transaction brought into play the vital interest of William Penn—a man whose name became almost a synonym for Quakerism in America. Fortunate, indeed, was it for the Quakers that he allied himself with the new faith. Rich, scholarly, and powerful, Penn threw his whole influence and fortune into the cause.
From Admiral Penn, his father, William had inherited a large estate, together with a claim of some 16,000 pounds against the British crown. Knowing that a demand for cash payment would be all but useless he besought the King, Charles II, to grant to him in payment of the debt extensive lands to the north of Maryland, “to be bounded on the east by the Delaware river…to be limited on the west as Maryland was, and…to extend northward as far as it was plantable.”(26) It should here be said, much to Penn’s credit, that the “holy experiment” which he here proposed to make was not solely for the benefit of himself and his religious order; but his colony was to be a place where all who chose might be “as free and happy as the nature of their existence could possibly bear in their civil capacity, and, in their religious state, to restore them to those lost rights and privileges with which God and nature had originally blessed the human race.”(27)
In view of the broad and liberal terms which Penn outlined for both the settlement and the government of his colony, it is no marvel that many who were oppressed in other parts of the world should come to this haven of religious toleration. Pennsylvania rapidly rose to a commanding place among the colonies on the Atlantic seaboard; and when the forces began to shape themselves toward the formation of an independent nation, the Commonwealth which bore its founder’s name was in the forefront of the struggle. Moreover, Pennsylvania—so long the bulwark of religious freedom in the new world—has always remained the stronghold of Quakerism in America.
16. Quoted in Jones’s The Quakers in the American Colonies, p. 28. See also Ellis’s The Puritan Age in Massachusetts, 1629-1685, pp. 436, 437.