Recently I joined a wonderful book group in Mississippi via Skype and was asked about the differences between the Quakers and the Puritans. I knew that the Puritans didn’t like the Quakers, and that they persecuted and exiled them from Massachusetts Bay Colony. But I didn’t know much more than that. So I did a little digging.
Today Quakers are known as a peaceful people who embrace nonviolence and spiritual principles and who were strong advocates for the abolition of slavery in the 19th century. But in early 17th century New England, they were outlawed, imprisoned, exiled, and sometimes executed. Why?
Both the Puritans and the Church of England regarded Quakers as “heretics.” In Massachusetts Bay Colony, the Congregational Way (which the Puritans believed was the purified Church of England) was the only legal religion. Every resident was required to attend Sabbath worship and to pay local taxes to support the minister and church. Just as in England, it was treasonous to oppose the state religion.
The Quakers who came to Massachusetts in the 1650’s were as righteous and fanatical as the Puritans. They knew very well they weren’t coming to a colony where their way of worship would be tolerated. They were there to make points about their own religion. And they weren’t quiet about it. In fact, they were often uncivil and overbearing and not always truthful. They made a practice of interrupting worship services, and of creating a raucous uproar by yelling and banging pots and pans in the streets. They shouted people down who didn’t agree with them and humiliated public figures with name-calling and ridicule. Sometimes they even stripped off their clothes in public. The Puritans responded to these outrages with fines, which escalated into more severe punishments, including boring holes in their tongues, whippings, banishments, and even executions.
We condemn the Puritans for their intolerance and persecution of other religious groups, and rightly so. But the 17th century Quakers weren’t quite the meek and innocent victims they’re portrayed as. Even Roger Williams, the early proponent of religious freedom who was banished from Massachusetts Bay Colony, was so irritated by Quaker incivility and lack of respect that he considered restricting their liberties. The Quakers were pretty disagreeable at times. Not so very different from the Puritans themselves.