On this day 385 years ago the Massachusetts Bay Colony was formed. The founding group obtained a grant from the Council for New England that included land between the Charles and Merrimack rivers, extending westward to “the South Sea.” A year later in 1629 the New England Company obtained a royal charter as the “Governor and Company of the Massachusetts Bay in New England.”
As most historians correctly observe, the governing emphasis of the Massachusetts colony shifted almost immediately from that of commerce to religion. One of the three men who negotiated for this patent, John Endecott, became the leader of the colony at Naumkeag (Salem). Endecott was an acolyte of particularly strident Puritanism (the state religion). The 1840 edition of the Boston Almanac records the extent of Endecott’s zeal: “[He] despised the Quakers and perceived them as a threat to (Puritanism) and to the community. Several Quakers were hanged while he was Governor, with other penalties pronounced including ears or tongues cut off, public lashings, and bread & water diet jail sentences.”
Historian William Sewel presents an account of typical severity concerning the persecution of William Brend, a 78 year-old Quaker: “[The] jailer took a pitched rope about an inch thick, and gave him twenty blows over his back and arms, with as much force as he could, so that the rope untwisted … he came again with another rope, that was thicker and stronger.”
Approximately a century later, future U. S. president James Madison grew ever-more concerned about the persistent theocratic tyranny in the colonies. Madison, like many of his generation, knew that the central promise of the New World was a land free of state-sponsored religion.
On January 24, 1774, Madison wrote to his Princeton classmate, William Bradford, expressing dismay at the persecutions of Baptists in northern Virginia. In the letter Madison contrasts the intolerance he witnessed in Virginia with the relatively more ecumenical environment of Bradford’s Philadelphia: “That diabolical Hell conceived principle of persecution rages among some and to their eternal Infamy the Clergy can furnish their Quota of Imps for such business. This vexes me the most of any thing whatever.”
One need not be well-versed in the history of our great nation to recognize this struggle as enduring even today. We see this battle between those who believe their faith legitimizes oppression and the seemingly complacent majority who appear content to let the shrill minority have their way.
Of the two bad acts, it is difficult to deem one worse. The vocal conservative extremity has deftly gerrymandered is way into control of several state assemblies and Congressional districts. They would have us believe that bluster and volume equate to moral substance.
On the other hand, we have the well-herded mute throng. It is as if the majority of Americans have forgotten that they are in fact the majority. Rather than circumscribing the other faction’s noise, they stand idly by like pedestrians watching a terrible car wreck. Perhaps they hope if they just sit quietly the new theocratic minority-majority will just peter out of its own accord.
To be sure, any party that comes to power with such trumpeting swagger will eventually self-immolate. Unfortunately, in the long interregnum, far too many pedestrians will suffer the burns.