Eliot Justifies the Execution of the Quakers

The execution of four Quakers in Boston between 1659 and 1661 raised further concern and outrage in England that Massachusetts was acting with extreme severity and outside of English law. Thus Massachusetts sought to defend itself by publishing tracts, sending representatives to England, and writing exculpatory letters by apologists for the maverick colony. In January 1668, the Reverend John Eliot wrote to the prominent Presbyterian Richard Baxter in England a long letter discussing ecclesiastical matters. Writing in response to a query from Baxter, Eliot also expounded on New England’s justification for hanging the four Quakers.

The Quakers were apprehended, he explained, not because they were Quakers, not because the court wanted to impose anything against their own “light,” but because they had been “turbulent” and had failed to conduct themselves in “quietness, peace, and submission to order.” Moreover, Eliot asserted, the court had taken “much pains with them, with long patience, and proceeded with sundry steps and degrees against them.” Such was the reluctance of the court to execute the Quakers that after sentence had been passed, the Court offered the prisoners one more opportunity to leave Massachusetts for their own places, with the promise never to return without the Court’s permission. But, reported Eliot, the Quakers remained “presumptuously obstinate.”

Letter, John Eliot to Richard Baxter, 10 January 1667/8. Baxter Letters, volume 2:276a. Dr. Williams Library, London.