Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Witch of Blackbird Pond

My name is [VW]. I'm Argentinian. I teach English and I'm reading this book with my students called The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare, which is set in Connecticut in 1687. One of the characters is a Quaker who is disliked by the Puritan community. I'm trying to understand why Puritans disliked her so much. I've been reading a lot about Quakers, but I still don't fully understand why they didn't get along.

Quite simply, Connecticut considered Quakers heretics, and heretics were considered dangerous. Such people should be committed to prison or sent out of the country. Having a Quaker book was illegal. Anyone who would "unnecessarily fall into discourse with any such heretic" could be fined twenty shillings, a significant amount of money at that time. The fact that the Quaker character in this book, Hannah Tupper, was allowed to live in Connecticut would have been highly unusual. The persecution of Quakers was not as bad in New England as it had been in the 1650s. The description of Hannah Tupper and her husband as having been "branded, tied to a cart's tail, and flogged across the boundary" is an accurate description of what happened to some Quakers in Massachusetts. Four Quakers were hanged in Boston before the British government stepped in to lessen the severity of Massachusetts' anti-Quaker laws.

Why were Quakers considered heritics? The book gives some clues. Hannah Tupper doesn't believe in the outward sacraments-- Quakers considered the sacraments as a spiritual act [not an outward ritual], and did not take communion. Hannah also does not attend the established church at a time when it was illegal for any citizen of Connecticut not to do so. She was therefore fined for her non-attendance.

The Puritan founders of Massachusetts and Connecticut were certain that they were founding a Christian colony and had no qualms about outlawing "heretics" who would not conform to the established church. Those who did not comply were not only wrong about religion, but were considered subversive to the government. Quakers themselves could be disruptive, as early Quakers were quite willing to go into the established churches to debate with the local minister, though by the time of this book, Quakers had quieted down considerably from their early enthusiasm of the 1650s and 1660s.

The idea of religious toleration made little sense to the early Puritans of Massachusetts and Connecticut. They were, in their own minds, convinced that they were correct. That toleration eventually came to the British American colonies owes something to dissenters such as the Quakers who were willing to suffer fines, imprisonment, flogging, banishment and sometimes death rather than give up or conceal their beliefs.

Christopher Densmore


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