Sunday, March 23, 2008

Christians persecuting Christians

I stumbled upon a great little book at a used book store the other day entitled The Quiet Rebels--The Story of the Quakers in America by Margaret Hope Bacon. One thing that jumped out in the first few chapters was the level of persecution that the pacifist but obstinate Quakers received at the hands of Puritans in the American colonies. The book begins with this account:

"On July 11, 1656, two women sailed into Boston Harbor aboard a small ship, the Swallow. Upon hearing of their arrival, the magistrates of the twenty-seven-year-old Massachusetts Bay Colony were shaken, according to a contemporary observer, "as if a formidable army had invaded their borders." Governor John Endicott being out of town, Deputy Governor Richard Bellingham took prompt, if frenzied, action. The women were held on shipboard while their boxes were searched for "blasphemous" documents. One hundred such books found in their possession were burned in the marketplace by the common hangman. The women were then transferred to prison, stripped naked and searched for tokens of witchcraft, and kept for five weeks without light or writing materials. The master of the Swallow was finally ordered to transport them to Barbados and to let no person in the American colonies speak to them en route."

What was the cause of such severe action against the women? Simply that they were Quakers.

Quakers had already known fierce persecution in England at the hands of the government and Church of England. Imprisonments were common; and British prisons in the 17th century were not nice places. Floggings, brandings, tongue borings and executions were also inflicted upon the early Quakers. There are accounts of entire meetings being arrested except the children, who continued to gather for daily to worship while their parents were imprisoned.

Here are a few examples of the treatment by Puritans of Quakers who arrived on the shores of the New World:

Mary Clark arrived by boat, went to Boston and received a severe whipping and twelve weeks in solitary confinement.

John Copeland and Christopher Holder were beaten with a three-knotted whip and placed in an unheated prison for nine weeks.

Cassandra Southwick, an elderly Puritan woman, was imprisoned for seven weeks for befriending a Quaker and having a Quaker paper in her possession.

Mary Dyer, a Quaker, was hanged in Boston Common. There is now a statue there in her honor.

William Robinson, Marmaduke Stephenson and William Leddra were also hanged for being Quakers.

Three Quaker women who arrived in New Hampshire were ordered stripped to the waist, tied to the end of a cart and whipped through the length of eleven towns.

Robert Hodgson was sentenced to two years of hard labor at a wheelbarrow. When he refused, he was beaten and thrown in prison.

Henry Townsend, a Puritan, was heavily fined for allowing a group of Quakers to meet in his home. When he refused to pay the fine, he was imprisoned and beaten.

Similar stories abound. These persecutors were not red-robed Jesuit Inquisitors, but Puritans, who themselves had come to the New World seeking religious freedom. We're talking Plymouth Rock and Thanksgiving Turkey and all that.

It was a surprise to me to read about the cruelties inflicted upon Quaker women and men by Puritans. It was also a surprise to learn of the one group that was consistently kind and welcoming to the Quakers: Native Americans. Of course, we know what happened to them.

It's amazing how swiftly a group can move from being the persecuted to being the persecutors. Perhaps Blaise Pascal put it best when he wrote, "Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction."

Of course, American Christians in the 20th and 21st centuries are far too enlightened to commit such heinous acts against our brothers and sisters in Christ, aren't we? Or will future generations judge us harshly for our complicity in the persecution of fellow Christians?

For example, Evangelical Christians who subscribe to dispensational eschatology have pumped billions of dollars into Israel with no questions asked. In doing so, they have contributed to human rights abuses against Palestinians and the near destruction of the Palestinian Christian community. American Evangelicals overwhelmingly supporting a war in Iraq, which has led to the decimation of the Iraqi Christian community.


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