Dover Friends have long relied on the story of the three Quaker missionaries who came to town in 1662 as the origin of Dover Friends Meeting. They were severely persecuted and whipped, the subject of a well-known John Greenleaf Whittier protest poem, yet they were promptly followed by more itinerant ministers and soon a third of the population was Quaker.
The Puritan authorities had enacted harsh anti-Quaker laws. Anyone who even listened to a Quaker for an hour or owned a Friends book or tract could be imprisoned, fined, have an ear loped off, or have the flesh mutilated with a red-glowing branding iron. By the time the three women – accompanied by two men – came to Dover, four Quakers had been hanged in Boston. Yet in some places, a few people listened and even hosted them.
Dover, obviously, was one – and, as I find, had welcomed Friends even earlier than we’d thought. In 1659, some residents were fined for neglecting public worship, meaning the Puritans’ services, and attending Quaker Meeting instead.
My central question keeps asking what made Dover, of all places, so responsive to the controversial Friends message? What made some residents so willing to defy the prohibitions and risk the consequences?
My upcoming book delves into the findings, but quite simply, the town had been rocked by divisions for much of its then-short existence. At one point there had even been an armed skirmish between rival ministers for the town’s tax-funded pulpit.
Some grudges are harbored a long time, awaiting the right opportunity to flare up again.
Another factor to consider is the ways that Dover’s settlers differed from the majority of the Puritans to the south. Dover’s came overwhelmingly from Devon, a large shire in South West England, while the Puritans were rooted in East Anglia, to the other side of London. Culturally, they differed strongly, from accents and cuisines to courting and marriage patterns to superstitions and social customs. It’s something Dover shared with two Quaker hotbeds nearby – Salem, in Massachusetts, and Hampton, down the coast of New Hampshire.
Frankly, I’ve been surprised by the degree to which Dover was a center of controversy and scandal in the mid-1630s and a bit on, all so early in New England’s history.
Much of the Atlantic coastline hadn’t yet been settled. What happened in Dover fuels a big part of my big book and definitely sets the stage for what follows.
Maybe you’ll be as startled as I’ve been.