John Endecott and the Quakers

It is regarded today as a major stain on the reputation of John Endecott that he ordered the hanging of four Quakers, William Robinson, Marmaduke Stephenson, Mary Dyer, and William Leddra. This has caused a discrepancy in the way John has been treated by history.

For example, early writers such as William Bentley (1759-1819), the noted Salem, Massachusetts minister, scholar, columnist and diarist, enthusiastically wrote of John “Above all others he deserves the name of the father of New England.” And Joseph B. Felt (1789-1869), born in Salem and arguably Salem’s first professional historian, also called him “The father of New England.”

But a bit later poets like John Greenleaf Whittier, whose ancestors were Quakers, focused on John’s actions against the Quakers to portray him in a bad light, as a proud, uncompromising, cruel martinet:

And on his horse with Rawson, his cruel clerk at hand Sat dark and haughty Endicott, the ruler of the land I looked at haughty Endicott, with weapon half-way drawn Swept around the throng his lion glare of bitter hate and scorn

Whittier in the Ballad of Cassandra Southwick

Or Henry Woodsworth’s amazing play, John Endicott, in which Longfellow imagines a talk the Governor has with his son, also named John, shortly before the Governor’s death in which the Governor defends getting rid of Quaker heretics but the son disagrees, saying:

In the sight of God, Perhaps all men are Heretics. Who dares To say that he alone has found the truth? We cannot always feel and think and act As those who go before us. Had you done so, You would not now be here.

How to evaluate all this? How could John Endecott execute Quakers who we think of today as so docile and friendly?

How To Judge

When you seek to evaluate something like this that happened so long ago, you have to consider a few broad issues, such as:

Understanding the age in which it occurred. Compared to what?” Compared to perfection? Or compared to what others did then (and even now)? Good things can come from flawed individuals. In public life, leaders have to deal with various groups and thus face trade-offs ordinary people don’t face. On balance is the person good or bad?

When you look at historic figures in these terms, you run into folks like Thomas Jefferson giving America the aspiration “All men are created equal” while at the same time owning slaves—and being intelligent enough to know how hypocritical he seemed to be, writing that but not observing it.

You run into Andrew Jackson struggling to advance the rights of the “common man” against an American aristocracy, but killing and removing Indians in the process.

Or Woodrow Wilson successfully guiding the U.S. through WWI but being an out-and-out racist, for example, by re-segregating the federal bureaucracy: “Segregation is not humiliating,” he said, “but a benefit.”

Or FDR refusing to allow mass immigration of Jews into the United States during WWII thus condemning many of them to death in Nazi concentration camps. And on it goes, the inevitable imperfections of public figures.

And yet, despite the flaws, on balance, we judge these people as good.

Back Then It Was Like This…

To understand what happened to John Endecott and the Quakers one needs to understand how much more religion dominated public life in the 17th century than now. In the period before modern science, religion was for many people the only way to explain things. (It was also a convenient way for people in power to justify their dominance by claiming to be commissioned by God.)

The general scene was much like in the Middle East today, where the religious freedom that we take for granted in America did not exist then and governments were theocracies that melded church and state rather than separated them.

As a result, religious disagreements became unbelievably contentious: military and financial power of certain groups over others was grafted onto this; wars were fought over it; people were burned at the stake over it; and others tried to flee from it. It’s similar to what’s going on in the Middle East today between the Shias and Sunnis, for example.

Martin Luther intensified this phenomenon when he instigated the Protestant Reformation on the continent in 1517. This led to sects breaking away from Catholicism, many of them fanatically insisting theirs was the only true way.

Religious Turmoil in England

In England, the Reformation led to Henry VIII separating the Church of England from the Catholic Church. But some groups, like the Puritans, Pilgrims, and Quakers, thought this didn’t go far enough. They wanted the Church of England to more closely resemble the Protestant churches on the continent that dispensed with the ornaments and rituals they regarded as idolatrous.

(Puritans, Pilgrims, and Quakers weren’t the only break-away sects. There were many others, including some far-out ones such as the Diggers, who rejected private property, and the Ranters, who claimed to worship God through drinking, smoking, and fornicating.


The Pilgrims, Puritans, and Quakers did have a few things in common. They believed that faith was key in life, community was important, and the Church of England was wrong.

But beyond that, they disagreed. The disagreement between the Puritans and Pilgrims was not so great and they got along. The Pilgrims thought the Church of England was a lost cause and simply wanted to get away from it. The Puritans, at least nominally, said they wanted to stay within the Church of England and purify it from within–– even though they wanted to do so 4,000 miles away from it.

But there were much bigger differences between the Puritans and the Quakers:

The Puritans had ministers teach their beliefs but the Quakers didn’t accept that. Quakers said they were willing to consider the beliefs of others but the Puritans weren’t. Quakers believed that everyone was good and equal, including Indians, and that anyone who did the right thing would go to heaven. The Puritans believed that only Puritans would go to heaven. Quakers were pacifists, while Puritans were not. Quakers refused to pay taxes, Puritans didn’t. Puritans emphasized the primacy of the Scriptures and Quakers emphasized the primacy of revelation. Puritans were the dominant religious force during the English Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell, while Quakers were an oppressed minority. In fact, in England some 15,000 Quakers were jailed between 1660 and 1685. There is one more thing, and it was the most important of all: both the Puritans and the early Quakers were fanatics.

As we’ll see in a moment, the Quakers of that era were quite unlike the Quakers of today. It wasn’t until the Quaker leader, George Fox, died in 1791 that a period of “quietism” ensued in which the Quakers vastly toned down their proselytizing to become more like what we think of Quakers today.

In sum, in the 1600s, religion in the English-speaking world was a big battleground. You had three churches all contending for religious and political power, the Catholic Church, the Church of England, and the Protestant church. And within the Protestant church you even had different sects contending for power.

They All Come to America

Because of their beliefs, first the Pilgrims, then the Puritans, and then the Quakers all came to America. But while we say today these groups were seeking “religious freedom,” in reality, they were seeking it only for themselves, they were not offering it to all peoples of all faiths. And who’s to say they were wrong in wanting to be by themselves?

The Massachusetts Bay Colony was the most religiously intolerant of all the colonies. It was theocracy just like Iran is today. In fact, The Boston Globe once called John Endecott the Ayatollah Khomeini of Massachusetts.

Puritans and Quakers in Massachusetts

According to a lecture called “What it Meant to be a Puritan – the Case of John Endecott,” delivered at Endicott College in Beverly, Massachusetts on June 20, 2012 by Dr. Francis Bremer, Professor Emeritus, at the Millersville University of Pennsylvania, John Endecott’s community believed that it had to be kept apart from the other sects, some of which, such as the Quakers, they even regarded as the work of the devil. In other words, the Puritans thought of themselves as being godly precisely because of resisting outsiders like the Quakers and they expected John Endecott to be their enforcer.

On top of this, according to another lecture, “John Endecott and the Quakers” delivered on the same day and at the same place by Dr. Dane Morrison of Salem State University, Quakers then were not at all like the peaceful Quakers of today. They were much more confrontational, more “in your face,” like Vietnam war protestors who threw blood on draft board records, conducted sit-ins to disrupt normal life, and publicly insulted government officials.

In Puritan Massachusetts Quakers marched into churches and loudly denounced ministers as dumb dogs and hirelings. They also refused to doff their hats before magistrates or to swear oaths. They refused to pay taxes and fight at a time when the young colony was frequently under military threat —and they aggressively sought to convert Puritans to Quakerism.

In this context, then, imagine Quakers arriving uninvited at the Massachusetts Bay Colony, crashing its party, so to speak. Imagine the Quakers in the most confrontational way urging the people in the Puritan community to stop following the Puritan way and start following the Quaker way.

For example, in 1658, according to Professor Morrison, the Quaker Humphrey Norton arrived from England with the express purpose of overthrowing the Puritan administration in Massachusetts. During a sermon he got up and publicly challenged the Puritan minister.

The Puritans were terrified. They thought this was the work of the devil and that all their sacrifices had been for naught. Their reaction? Whip him and banish him from the colony!

At the end of 1658 the Massachusetts legislature enacted a law saying that all Quakers should be banished on pain of death. Ultimately, it would fall to John Endecott as Governor to enforce this law to its fullest.

Quakers Kept Coming Back

Quakers banished to Rhode Island could have just stayed there and practiced their religion undisturbed. But that wasn’t enough; some of them kept trying to force Massachusetts to convert. This was not going to end well.

Three of these Quakers were William Robinson, Marmaduke Stephenson, and Mary Dyer. Dyer has received the most attention. She had started out as a Puritan in Massachusetts but then she began to espouse different views and thus was sent away from Massachusetts. She went to England, became a Quaker, and then returned to Massachusetts, where she was sent away for a second time.

She then went to Connecticut, preached Quakerism there, and got arrested there, too. After her release, she returned to Massachusetts to visit two other Quakers who had been arrested there, William Robinson and Marmaduke Stephenson. She was arrested again.

This time, John Endecott, following the 1658 Massachusetts law, pronounced a death sentence on the three. It was carried out on Robinson and Stephenson, but at the last minute through the intercession of her son, Mary was reprieved and sent away a third time.

But in May, 1660, she returned for a fourth time. In the meantime other Quakers had also appeared, also being subject to the ultimate penalty, but they had not been executed.

After ten days John Endecott, at the bidding of the courts, sent for Mary, and asked her if she were the same Mary Dyer who had been there before. It was pointed out that all she had to do to be spared was to say no. But she said yes, she was the same one, and this time she was executed.

Later, in March 1661, a fourth Quaker, William Leddra was executed, bringing the total executions under John to four.

Finally, in September, 1661, King Charles II decreed an end to it, by authorizing the letter below to be sent to John:

CHARLES R. Trusty and well-beloved, we greet you well. Having been informed that several of our subjects among you, called Quakers, have been and are imprisoned by you, whereof some have been executed, and others (as hath been represented unto us) are in danger to undergo the like; we have thought fit to signify our pleasure in that behalf for the future, and do hereby require, that if there be any of those people called Quakers amongst you, now already condemned to suffer death or other corporal punishment; or that are imprisoned, and obnoxious to the like condemnation, you are to forbear to proceed any further therein; but that you forthwith send the said persons (whether condemned or imprisoned) over into their own kingdom of England, together with their respective crimes or offences laid to their charge; to the end such course may be taken with them here as shall be agreeable to our laws and their demerits. And for so doing, these our letters shall be your sufficient warrant and discharge. Given at our Court, at Whitehall, the 9th day of September 1661, in the 13th year of our reign. To our trusty and well-beloved John Endicott, Esq., and to all and every other governor or governors of our plantations of New England, and of all the colonies thereunto belonging, that now are, or hereafter shall be; and to all and every the ministers and officers of our plantations and colonies whatsoever, within the continent of New England. By his Majesty’s command, WILLIAM MORRIS

John’s receiving this was later immortalized in John Greenleaf Whittier’s poem, “The King’s Missive” which contains these excerpts:

UNDER the great hill sloping bare To cove and meadow and Common lot, In his council chamber and oaken chair, Sat the worshipful Governor Endicott. A grave, strong man, who knew no peer In the pilgrim land, where he ruled in fear Of God, not man, and for good or ill Held his trust with an iron will.

His brow was clouded, his eye was stern, With a look of mingled sorrow and wrath; ‘Woe’s me!’ he murmured: ‘at every turn The pestilent Quakers are in my path! Some we have scourged, and banished some, Some hanged, more doomed, and still they come, Fast as the tide of yon bay sets in, Sowing their heresy’s seed of sin.

‘Did we count on this? Did we leave behind The graves of our kin, the comfort and ease Of our English hearths and homes, to find Troublers of Israel such as these? Shall I spare? Shall I pity them? God forbid! I will do as the prophet to Agag did They come to poison the wells of the Word, I will hew them in pieces before the Lord!’


About a decade after the death of John Endecott in 1665, a series of events loosened the intensity of both Puritanism and Quakerism. The first thing was that King Phillips War ended in 1676. In this war, the colonists had proven their ability to fight off the Indians all by themselves and thus proven the colony was going to survive. Up to then, the British didn’t think much about these colonies. Maybe they’d last, maybe they wouldn’t.

But after King Phillip’s War, the British decided the colonies were here to stay and the British needed to exploit them better. So in 1691, Britain revoked the Massachusetts charter that had allowed the Puritans to govern themselves ever since the time of John Endecott and appointed governors from Britain instead of letting the colonists govern themselves.

That led to numerous changes, one of which was allowing non-Puritans, including Quakers, to settle in Massachusetts and having their religion protected.

Something else happened in 1691 to loosen religion’s control, the death of George Fox, the founder of Quakerism. After he died, there began a period of “quietism” for the Quakers in which they toned down their approach and no longer encouraged disruptive behavior. In other words, they became more like the ones we know today.

That didn’t mean the end of religious zeal in New England; you still had the “Great Awakening” in the 1740s. But this time it transcended denominational boundaries. But while strict Puritanism may have ended, people in Massachusetts were still aware that they had a Puritan heritage and many good things had come out of that, such as community responsibility, the importance of education, a belief in moral excellence, hard work, thrift, and lack of ostentation. Could all this have been instilled in the very beginning without the discipline of religious zeal?


Knowing all the aforementioned facts, what judgment can one render on John Endecott? Perhaps the following:

Certainly in today’s terms, even despite repeated provocations, executing Quakers is inexcusable. But perhaps now it is explainable. As we look back 350 years, we can say John Endecott was wrong. But we’d also have to say others were wrong, too, and in fact we’d have to say the whole intolerant age John lived in was wrong. Fortunately we’ve progressed a lot since those days. Still, it’s probably true that 350 years from now people will say the age we live in today was wrong in many respects.

You can see in this episode why the Founding Fathers of the United States felt it was so important to keep religion out of politics, a lesson we seem to have trouble with even today.

People can accomplish great things if they believe in something fervently. So fervor’s good. It helps make an inspirational leader, or create “charisma,” as we like to say. But the question is how to keep the fervor within proper bounds because while it can create the energy to do great things, like found a colony, it can also cause harm like executing people over religion.

You have to weigh John Endecott’s executing Quakers against the good things he did, which include:

He was the first and longest-serving governor in Massachusetts history. During all of his years in the colony but one, he held some form of important civil, judicial, or military high office in Massachusetts. This proves he constantly won the approval of his constituents who considered him zealous, and stern, yes, but also just and dedicated to building the Massachusetts colony.

He was willing to invest his money and then accept the risky assignment of voyaging to the New World to try to build a community there. Starting in 1628, for two years, despite considerable adversity including deadly disease that killed his first wife, he succeeded in establishing and maintaining the first Massachusetts colony and preparing it for a larger group of settlers under John Winthrop that arrived in 1630. Among other things, he oversaw the clearing of land and helped establish a church which was essentially the colony’s government. Whatever defects he may have had, he was a major force in establishing a government free from feudal or hereditary principles, a major step toward the system we have in the United States today. In a violent age, he was ordered to lead a punitive military expedition against the Pequots in 1636 to avenge the killings of some English settlers, a duty he discharged. He was a supporter of education, suggesting that Salem establish a free public school and after 1642, serving as an overseer of Harvard College.

In 1641, as Deputy Governor he was one of the signatories to the Massachusetts Body of Liberties, which enumerated a number of individual rights available to all colonists, a forerunner to the Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution. In 1646 he was chosen to represent Massachusetts in the New England Confederation, a military alliance of the English colonies of Massachusetts Bay, Plymouth, Connecticut, and New Haven, formed in May 1643. The threat of Indian conflicts in neighboring colonies prompted the colony to raise its defensive profile, in which John played a leading role.

In 1652, as Governor, he addressed a persistent shortage of coinage in all of the colonies by overseeing the establishment of a mint in Massachusetts and begin producing of coins from its silver reserves. This solved a practical problem, even though the colony had no authority to do so from the crown. Massachusetts was the only colony to do this.

As governor he oversaw the expansion of the Massachusetts colony claiming most of what is now southern Maine and New Hampshire.

The takeaway: In public life, especially when it comes to starting a new civilization in an alien land, you can’t emerge morally unscathed. You will inevitably be confronted with hard choices. Certain ideals are true but only up to the point they conflict with realities. Faced with situations like this, John Endecott was a man of action who may not have always made perfect choices, but he helped create a nation.