A Country Built on Religious Freedom
We think of the United States as a country built on religious freedom. The Puritans came here to escape religious persecution. But, what if those same Puritans were only too quick to turn the ugliness around? The oppressed becoming the oppressor?
In Salem, Massachusetts in the 1650s, there was something a lot uglier going on than anyone has bothered to notice because they were mesmerized by witches coming later in the 1690s. Puritans were forcing everyone to go to their church. If you didn’t go, you were persecuted, fined, and jailed. It was the precursor to the accusations about witchcraft.
At this time there were only eight Quakers living in Massachusetts. The rest of the colony was Puritans and Native Americans. Everyone already knows how the Puritans treated Native Americans, but it may not be as commonly known how Puritans treated Quakers.
The Quakers who lived in Salem didn’t go to the Puritan church. Among them were the Southwicks. Lawrence and Cassandra Southwick had two children, Daniel and Provided. Both parents had already been jailed repeatedly and whipped for not going to the Puritan Church and for having Quaker publications. The family had been run out of town, but they kept coming back. They refused to let persecution scare them. They even became impoverished through the fines the Puritans levied on the family.
Then, in 1658, when Provided Southwick was 18 years old, she was arrested and imprisoned for being a Quaker. This time the Governor, John Endicott, is present for her sentencing as she is to be sold with her older brother into slavery, because her family does not have sufficient money to pay the fine. She and her brother were supposed to go to Barbados or Virginia to serve as slaves.
However, the sentence was not carried out. They had trouble finding anyone interested in transporting them to Barbados.
Instead, the Puritans decided to accept the banishment of the Southwick parents, Lawrence and Cassandra, to Shelter Island, New York, in lieu of punishment for Provided and Daniel. They really despised the outspoken Southwicks, so this was seen as a reasonable trade.
Massachusetts at this time was far more settled than New York. The elder Southwicks were being banished to the wilderness. Both of them died within three days of each other of starvation and exposure in 1660.
The children continued to live in Salem. They also continued to participate in Quaker church activities. It is a testament to the fortitude of the human spirit that Daniel and Provided Southwick stayed on in Salem and continued to establish their family. Provided married Samuel Gaskill, who became another prominent, if persecuted, Quaker.
Unfortunately, many of the accusations of witchcraft that would be made later would be made by Puritans against Quakers. This particular religious bigotry angle has not been discussed a great deal when people talk about witchhunts, but it was a critical part of what was happening.
Indeed, Samuel and Provided Gaskill ended up housing a woman who is accused of witchcraft. She was almost certainly a female preacher, although the records never specify. George Fox, the founder of the Quakers, believed that women could also preach but this gender equality was sacrilege to the Puritans. The Gaskills attempted to protect their houseguest, but they are not successful.
A warrant is issued for her arrest:
You are in theire Majest’s name hereby required to apprehen and forthwith bring before us Abigaile Soames Single Woman, now Liveing at the house of Sam’l Gaskill in Salem; who stand accused of sundry acts of Sundry Witchcraft, (or high sispition there of) donne or Committed by her Lately
Much later, poet John Greenleaf Whittier, wrote a poem about Provided, but he changed her name to her mother’s name Cassandra, because he didn’t think her name was poetic enough.
I like to remember that the Puritans came over on the Mayflower to start a country based on religious freedom. Perhaps there is justice in knowing that 28 years after Governor Endicott was in his grave, his granddaughter married into his hated sect of Quakers.