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Quakerism is Outlawed in Massachusetts - This Day in History - October 20, 1658

Posted on Wednesday, October 20, 2021

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On This Day in History, October 20, 1658, Massachusetts bans Quakers, enacts death penalty for Quakerism

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While many are familiar of the story of the Puritan Pilgrams fleeing persecution in England for religious freedom in the new world, fewer are aware of what exactly religious freedom looked like in the Colony of Massachusetts in the 17th century. While Puritans were able to secure religious freedom for themselves in Massachusetts, they did not freely give that freedom to others looking to escape religious persecution. The Quakers, or the Religious Society of Friends, as they're officially known, were another religious group that sought religious freedom in Massachusetts.

The Quakers are a religious denomination that was born in mid 17th century England from the teachings of George Fox and centered upon the belief that god is in every man and the absolute right of human consciousness, with a strong focus upon the tenants of non-violence and equality. Quakers were persecuted for their beliefs in England and some began to travel to Massachusetts in search of the religious freedom that the Puritans had sought. Puritans in Massachusetts were however horrified by the arrival of the Quakers and found their beliefs blasphemous. Beginning in 1656, the colonists in Massachusetts sought to prevent Quakers from living within their colony, enacting harsh punishments for Quakers and even ship captains who assisted Quakers in traveling to Massachusetts. Quakers who defied the ban were severely persecuted including whippings, extended imprisonments and even the removal of their ears.

When these attempts failed to quell a growing Quaker population, two years later, on October 20, 1658 the governors of Massachusetts passed an even stricter law that forbade Quakers from entering Massachusetts and threatened Quakers who defied them with the "pain of death."  Over the years numerous Quakers were executed and mutilated in Massachusetts for their religious beliefs. Some of these Quakers became known as the Boston Martyrs, including Mary Dyer who had escaped Boston in 1658, before returning two years later, willing to sacrifice her life to make a demonstration out of their cruel law. Dyer was among the Quakers hung for their beliefs.

As news of the atrocities committed against the Quakers reached England, King Charles II forbade further execution of Quakers in Massachusetts and then as the King struggled to maintain control, eventually suspended the Massachusetts Charter and sent a royal governor to Massachusetts to enforce English law. 

These executions would have a wide ranging affect on the history of the United States, as this incident would end up serving as a precedent a century later as the English insisted that they had a right to pass laws that affected American Colonists without their consent and even the authority to disband colonial governments. They would also help to inspire a young William Penn to come to the new world and create his own colony, Pennsylvania, where Quakers could finally live without the fear of persecution. Pennsylvania and its capital Philadelphia, were however not just created as a haven for persecuted Quakers, but for all. Penn's groundbreaking "Holy Experiment" of religious freedom in Philadelphia led to persecuted individuals from across Europe to flock to the city and led to Philadelphia quickly growing into the largest city in the American Colonies.


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