Having come from what they considered an oppressive society, the Puritans were determined to follow their own ways, especially regarding religion.
While they had been persecuted for their beliefs in England, this did not generate toleration in them. Once settled in the new world, they set about building a society that mirrored their beliefs.
Knowing that the devil was about, they enacted strict laws. There was not separation of church and state when building a new Jerusalem. When settlers strayed from the accepted norms or failed to attend church meetings, they were fined and or punished. With such a theocracy, there was little room for dissent and no room for other belief systems. When Roger Williams advanced a new perspective, he escaped the colony, rather than face arrest and trial for heresy with its severe penalties.
Into this rigid atmosphere a new threat appeared in the form of the Society of Friends, who were derisively named Quakers, since they “trembled in the way of the Lord” at the private communications they received from God. The Friends embraced the term and were soon referred to as Quakers. Founded by George Fox, they believed in individual revelation and, since life is a sacrament, there is no need for special sacraments; there was no need for ministers since the priesthood was of all believers.
They refused to pay tithes to the state church, refused to take oaths of allegiance, and refused to serve in combat. They also espoused equality among their members, giving women a much larger role than ever before. These early Quakers, who were seen as a threat to established religion, were confrontational when it came to pointing out the errors of other religions. Because of their beliefs, the Quakers were persecuted in Europe. Considered heretics, they were arrested, fined, imprisoned and seen as possible witches with their devilish religion.
Puritan Salem heard about this new sect and were very wary of any Quaker immigrants. In 1656, when two Quakers were found on a ship landing in Salem, the town fathers had them inspected for witch marks. Not finding any, which would have been a death sentence, they were put back on the ship and deported. In the same year the government of Massachusetts passed a law fining any captain who brought Quakers to the colony.
The Quakers, however with missionary zeal were not to be denied, and persisted in coming to Massachusetts. Some who had been whipped and banished from the colony continued to return, feeling a zealous obligation to bear witness to their truth. These Quakers managed to convert some pilgrims to their cause. Those converts also risked punishment, fines and banishment.
One Salem family, Lawrence and Cassandra Southwick and their children, were singled out for extremely harsh treatment. They had immigrated to Salem with four of their six children in 1637. Lawrence was perhaps the first glassmaker in America and set up his works in what became known as the Glass House Field in the present day Aborn Street area.
The Southwicks converted to the Society of Friends and hosted two Quaker preachers in their home in 1657. They were promptly arrested for this crime and jailed. Lawrence, since he was still a member of First Church, was released, while his wife remained jailed for seven weeks and was whipped and fined 40 shillings for having a document written by the Quaker missionaries. 40 shillings was a substantial fine for the day.
Realizing that the 1656 law was not slowing the arrival of Quakers, the legislature passed a new law calling for cutting off an ear, branding, and boring a hole in the tongue for returning after banishment, in addition to fines, whipping and banishment. This too did not stem the flow of missionaries who were making converts in the colony. The legislature, fed up with the banished returning to witness to these unjust laws, added a death sentence to those returning after banishment. This lead to four executions on Boston Common. King Charles II eventually intervened in 1661 and ordered the persecution of Quakers to end.
The Southwicks and their son, Joshua were again arrested in 1658 for being Quakers and not attending proper church services. They were imprisoned for twenty weeks and fined. Unable to pay the fines, some of their property was seized and sold, reducing them to dire circumstances.
In 1659, two of their children, a daughter, Provided, and son, Daniel, were ordered to be sold as slaves in Barbados to pay the fines. No merchant captain agreed to transport them, so they were allowed to stay until a captain willing to transport and sell them could be found. The poet John Greenleaf Whittier immortalized this confrontation in his poem, “Cassandra Southwick.”
While public sentiment was shifting in favor of leniency to the Quakers, the leaders refused to back down from this “threat.” Impoverished and banished, the Southwick family went to Shelter Island, New York in the winter of 1659-60. Reacting to this privation, both Cassandra and Lawrence died within days of each other.
The persistent persecution of the Southwicks is often cited as one of the worst cases of religious discrimination in Puritan Massachusetts. Here was an elderly couple, deprived of their freedom and estate, prosecuted retroactively by laws passed while they were imprisoned, banished, penniless in the dead of winter, which caused their deaths. This case is most notable in that they were not zealous missionaries, but residents who chose to follow a new path.
With the end of discrimination, the Quakers settled throughout the colonies and became integral members of society, producing leaders in a number of fields, both in Salem and throughout the country. Among the many descendants of the Salem Southwicks were Winston Churchill, Richard Nixon, and Lyndon LaRouche.
In 1904, Mr. Ayer, a descendant of the Southwicks, commissioned J. Massey Rhind, a well known sculptor, to design a suitable memorial to the Southwicks and the persecuted quakers for presentation to the City of Salem.
Upon completion of the design in 1904, he offered the memorial for placement on some public space in the City. This offer generated much controversy over a couple of years, culminating in the City’s refusal of the gift.
The main point of contention was the monument’s design. The design showed a man and a woman being attacked by a tiger (see above drawing). The City Council, in debating this, felt it equated Salem’s Pilgrim fathers, most notably, Governor Endicott, with a vicious beast. The donor stated in a letter to the city that the design would not be altered. This was followed up in a meeting with the sculptor in 1906, who also stated that no modifications would be considered. The controversy over the statue raged for almost two years and ended with a January 1907 committee report of the mayor and five alderman recommending refusal, with one alderman dissenting. The ten page report justifies refusal by citing a number of glowing tributes to the founders who, while they made errors, also did much good.
The report concludes, “It is unfilial, it is unfair, it is untrue, for us, the successors of these men, to erect upon the very ground which they consecrated to public use forever, a rampant tiger as representing the predominant surviving traits of their character.”
The monument was never completed. In 1959 a bronze statute to Mary Dyer, one of the Quakers hanged on Boston Common, was erected outside the doors of the Massachusetts State House as a monument to the Boston Quaker Martyrs.
There is no monument commemorating the nonviolent witness of Salem Quakers who endeared the harshest discrimination for several years.