Bizarre Quaker Protest, 1677
Quakers were persecuted for their religion in colonial Boston. It took an explicit written order by King Charles II in 1661 to prevent the execution of Quakers here. Their capital crime was practicing a different religion than what was mandated by the state. In November 1675, a law was passed barring Quaker meetings. In April 1677, a law was passed that authorized constables to break into private dwellings to arrest Quakers and those entertaining Quakers. Scorn and intolerance of Quakers continued in Boston until the early 1700s. The following describes a bizarre protest by a group of Quakers in 1677:
In the late Spring of 1677 there came to Boston from Barbados, the English colony in the West Indies, a Quaker.
She came because she believed herself appointed by God to warn the Puritans against oppressing her coreligionists. Her idea was not a new one. Others had come [to Boston] on [similar] missions before, and had been whipped for their trouble. But Margaret Brewster was to put across an old idea in a brand new way.
A law had recently been passed requiring constables "to make diligent search...especially on the Lord's Day, in all suspected places & houses, & where they know or may be informed that any Quakers are [meeting] to celebrate their irregular & prohibited worship, and are hereby empowered to break open any door where peaceable entrance is denied them..."
Accordingly, there was a tremendous breaking down of doors and carrying out of Quakers to the House of Correction, which stood in what is now Park Street, opposite Boston Common. There they were kept three days on a diet of bread and water, or else made to pay a fine of 5 Pounds, which few of them could or would do.
It was against this treatment that Margaret Brewster felt moved to protest. And her protest was registered in a way which, while not so daring that of Lydia Wardell of Hampton, "a woman of exemplary modesty in her behavior," who strolled into the church at Newbury wearing nothing more than a sorrowful countenance, or of Deborah Wilson, who walked naked through the streets of Salem, was decidedly the more spectacular.
One morning in July, while the congregation of the South Meeting House was listening to the words of the pastor, Reverend Thomas Thatcher, a weird procession moved quickly from the door to the preacher's desk.
The chief figure was Margaret Brewster. Her feet and legs were bare. About her shoulders was a wrap of sackcloth. Her hair hung loose, her head was covered with ashes and her face was blackened with soot. Two young women led her. A man followed, carrying the clothing that had been discarded at the door.
There was a moment of awful silence, then an uproar—"the greatest and most amazing uproar that I ever saw," wrote Samuel Sewell [one of the judges of the later Salem witch trials in 1692], who was present. He described Margaret as wearing "a canvas frock, her hair disheveled and loose like a periwig, her face as black as ink." Women shrieked and fainted. Men shouted. The aged preacher raised his voice in protest. The intruders were seized and removed from the meeting.
The five principles, Margaret Brewster, Lydia Wright of Long Island, Sarah Miles of Salem, John Easton Jr. and Barbara Bowers, who appear to have joined the group after they had entered the church, were thrown into prison, and, in early August brought before the justices.
"What have you to say to her charge?" asked John Leverett, the Governor. "If this be the woman," said the constable who arrested her, "If this be the woman, I don't know. For she was then in the shape of a devil. I thought her hair had been a periwig, but it was her own hair."
"Are you the woman," he demanded, "who came into Mr. Thatcher's meeting house with your hair frizzled and dressed in the shape of a devil?"
"I am the woman," said Margaret Brewster, "that came into the priest Thatcher's house of worship with my hair about my shoulders, ashes upon my head, my face colored black, and sackcloth upon my upper garments."
"You owe yourself to be the woman?"
"Yes, I do."
"What made you come so?" said the Governor.
"I am in the obedience of the Lord."
"The Lord!" cried Leverett. "The Lord never sent you, for you came like a devil, and in the shape of a devil incarnate."
"Noble Governor," replied the prisoner, "your name is spread in other parts of the world, for a moderate man. Now I desire thee and thy Assistants to hear me with patience..."
"The Lord God of Heaven and Earth, the Maker and Creator of all mankind, laid this service upon me to visit this bloody town of Boston," said the woman.
"She should be stopped!" cried one of the magistrates. But the Governor said: "Let her go on."
The Quaker began a harangue which the magistrates soon interrupted.
"Hold, hold woman! You run too fast," cried Leverett, his patience exhausted. "Silence in the court!"
But Margaret Brewster would not stop. She pleaded that laws against Quaker meetings be changed. "If you will draw your swords against the Lord and his people, the Lord will assuredly draw His sword against you," she said.
"Hold woman!" said the Governor again. The other three [Quakers] were then called and their cases heard.
Finally: "Take them away, and carry them to prison," said the court crier.
"Yea, I am willing to go to prison and to death," said the Quakeress, who seemed to have an idea that God had called upon her to give her blood in His cause.
"Margaret Brewster," read the clerk, "you are to have your clothes stripped off to the middle, and to be tied to a cart's tail at the South Meeting House, and to be drawn through the town, and to receive 20 stripes upon your naked body."
The other women were to be tied to the cart's tail, but not whipped. The lone man in the affair seems to have got off with a reprimand.
"I will go without pulling," cried [Margaret], as the jailor led her away. "I will go as cheerfully as Daniel went to the lion's den, for the God of Daniel is with me.... I am glad that I am worthy to be a sufferer in this bloody town...."
And so runs the account, "they were carried to prison again...and on the fifth day following, the sentence was executed." Derived from a May 21, 1922 Boston Globe article.