The Myth of Puritan Intolerance (Part II)

Anxious Bench | 5/23/2019 | Staff
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A few weeks ago, I suggested that the “myth” of puritan intolerance is “not very useful for understanding the history of seventeenth-century New England” in part because “it implies that New England’s leaders were outliers within the trans-Atlantic world they inhabited.” The reality is that the Congregational ministers and magistrates of New England “were quite ordinary in their desire for religious uniformity and their determination to punish stubborn heresy.” In this week’s post, I will flesh out these suggestions.

It is important to recognize that pretty much everyone in the seventeenth-century trans-Atlantic world disliked certain religious groups (and usually, a lot of certain religious groups). Disliked is a weak term. Generally, there was a tremendous amount of religious repulsion, loathing, and fear. Among English Protestants, those loathed groups included Catholics, Brownists, puritans, Familists, Baptists, Quakers — you get the point.

Course - Difference - Members - Group - Imprison

Of course, there’s a big difference between loathing members of a certain religious group and wanting to whip, imprison, or kill them. Roger Williams loathed Quakers and regarded them as rank heretics. Williams also had some very negative things to say about Native religious practices, which he understood as idolatry. The founder of Providence, however, was unusually resolute in his support for religious toleration. The extremely intolerant Williams tolerated what he loathed.

Society of Friends Meetinghouse, North Pembroke, Massachusetts, photograph by Arthur C. Haskell, 1934, courtesy of the Library of CongressLet’s start by stipulating Williams as an outlier, at least for the middle part of the century. What did things look like for the Quakers elsewhere, for instance?

New - Plymouth - Fall - Quakers - Colony

We’ll begin in New Plymouth in 1659. That fall, several “foreign” Quakers passed through the colony, including Mary Dyer, William Leddra, and Peter Peirson. For several years, Quaker missionaries and converts had vexed and divided New Plymouth’s leaders. Quakers had been whipped, imprisoned, fined, and banished,...
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