There’s a good reason Dover Friends didn’t have a meetinghouse before 1680

Or keep minutes, that we know of.

The Quaker Meetings in Salem, Hampton, and Dover were all in Puritan-governed colonies, and thus officially illegal at the time. Religious toleration around 1680 came with a change New England governance and a royal governorship in Massachusetts.

With it, Salem has claimed to have the first Friends meetinghouse in America, though it was built about the same time as the one on Dover Neck, just south of today’s St. Thomas Aquinas high school. And Third Haven on Maryland’s Eastern Shore may be a tad older than either one.

Now, if we only had documentation, we might find the honor of being first in New England belongs instead to Dover.

The persecution wasn’t consistent

Had the Puritan persecution of dissidents been consistent, the Quakers and Baptists likely wouldn’t have survived. Instead, it came in waves aimed more at the traveling missionaries as well as to constrain the political and business prowess of resident Friends.

Further, there were relatively few congregations or ministers in New England. Despite required attendance at worship on the Sabbath, the buildings couldn’t hold them all, had they showed up.

Who was keeping attendance rolls, anyway?

Under its stern exterior, Puritan polity was fragile in nature

No, I didn’t expect to be feeling some sympathy for the Puritan authorities in America.

In fact, I had assumed they were a pretty formidable front.

But then, in researching my new book, Quaking Dover, I was rather amazed by the range of developments they faced in the 1630s, their first decade in the New World. It’s like they were being hit on all sides.

In addition, they had no direct representation in Parliament. And they didn’t necessarily represent the majority of the residents in their own towns.

In their tribulations with the Crown, the place was ripe for Revolution from the very beginning, rather than having to wait for Paul Revere’s midnight ride.

The Quaker challenge of the late 1650s hit at some intrinsic flaws in the Puritan mindset. As one challenge voiced it, the flaws were essentially theological rather than focusing on the unfolding news events. The title of the pamphlet?

An examination of the grounds or causes which are said to induce the Court of Boston in New England to make an order or law of banishment, upon pain of death, against the Quakers

As also

Of the grounds and considerations by them produced, to manifest the warrantableness and justness both by their making and executing the same; which they now stand deeply engaged to defend, having already put two of them to death

As also

Of some further grounds for justifying the same, in an appendix to John Norton’s book (which was printed after the book itself, yet part thereof); whereof he is said to be appointed by the General Court

And likewise the Arguments briefly hinted, in that which is called, “A true Relation of the Proceedings against the Quakers, &c.”

Whereunto somewhat is added about the Authority and Government Christ excluded out of his church; which occasioneth somewhat his true Church-Government

By Isaac Penington, the Younger



It’s a remarkable document, actually, well worth reading, even in light of the headlines and news flashes we encounter. It argued, essentially, that the Puritans were falling far short of their true goals and potential.

As for the full title?

It would never sell today.

The Puritans do get a bad rap

Oh, it’s hard for me to admit that, at least in light of the early persecution of Friends. I started out with my new book, Quaking Dover, assuming the Puritans were a monolithic opponent of religious liberty for others.

I did know, however, they weren’t always as uptight as they’ve been portrayed. In some ways they were liberal, with high literacy rates for men and women. Startlingly, a woman could divorce her husband if he didn’t sexually satisfy her. Besides, in England their Parliamentarian armies were the vanguard of the radical World Turned Upside Down that toppled the king. And they did love their beer.

As I researched my book, I began to sense that the old adage about coming to America for religious freedom but not extending it to others wasn’t exactly on target, nor was the part about neighboring colonies like New Hampshire being founded purely for monetary gain. As for Rhode Island? You see, it complicates.

For starters, the Puritans’ Massachusetts Bay charter was a commercial document, like the one for the East India Company, with their brilliance coming in immediately moving the annual stockholders meeting to the New World rather than London, under the King’s eyes.

The Pilgrims at Plymouth, too, had come under a commercial charter, one that left them strained by heavy debt. The majority of the first settlers at Plymouth weren’t even fellow Separatists in faith, but here for economic opportunity.

What the Puritans envisioned was a utopia, one within an economic, political, and religious worldview. While it’s sometimes described as a theocracy, ministers were banned from town office – not so elsewhere in the colonies.

Two of New Hampshire’s first four towns, meanwhile, were founded by ministers fleeing Massachusetts. That’s Hampton and Exeter.

And then, the Puritan fundamentalism somehow evolved into a liberal Unitarian strand and more mainstream Congregational wing, now part of the United Church of Christ denomination.

I’ve previously noted an essay by Marilynne Robinson in the August 2022 Harper’s Magazine, delineating ways Massachusetts was far more liberal than Virginia or the Carolinas when it came to religion and liberty in general. In early Virginia, for instance, missing church three times or speaking ill of the King merited a death sentence. Let it be noted, too, that Puritans, along with Presbyterians, Baptists, Quakers, and Roman Catholics, were unable to gain much of a foothold anywhere in colonial Virginia, with its ruthless Anglican state denomination.

There are even arguments that the persecution of the upstart Quakers in both New England and the southern colonies was based more on political and monetary motivations than religion.

The historian at First Parish church in Dover had me seeing that the opposition in New England wasn’t nearly as monolithic as I’d assumed, and then that New Hampshire’s four local congregations had somewhat different characters from those in Massachusetts.

More recently, I’m facing Carla Gardina Pestana’s contention in Quakers and Baptists in Colonial Massachusetts that Friends went out of their way looking for trouble. It does rather thicken the plot. The Baptists somehow found ways to fit in more agreeably.

Considering current attacks on freedom of speech (and printing), some of it under the guise of religion, I do wonder about the status of the separation of church and state.

Sometimes history isn’t so far back there as we’d like to suppose.


A few key provisions made all the difference

I had initially dismissed them as inconsequential, but when Massachusetts annexed New Hampshire, it allowed two crucial exemptions in the Live Free or Die province.

The first let all free males vote in town affairs, not just those in good standing in the tax-supported church. And it let them hold land.

What that meant for those joining the Quaker and Baptist movements was that they wouldn’t be disenfranchised for their faith.

That wasn’t the case in the Puritan colonies of Massachusetts and Connecticut.


Massachusetts’ treasonous coins

One of the many surprises I encountered in researching my book Quaking Dover was the fact that the Puritan authorities in Boston were ready for revolution from the git-go, way before Paul Revere.

I’d like to see more of their history presented from that riotous side.

There were the cannons they set up on Boston Harbor in 1634 to fire on Royal Navy vessels, should they come to follow up on the king’s voiding their charter. As things developed, Charlie the First got distracted from his problems over here and thus those volleys were never fired.

For another example, we can look to the coins John Hull produced from 1652 plus others for the next 30 years, even though the new king, Chuck Two, soon declared the practice treasonous.

Yes, treason. Off with your head or mere imprisonment in the Tower of London, that sort of thing.

Leap ahead, I’m wondering how he would have handled credit cards and their depths of debt and to me, at least, usurious rates.

Looking at some of those figures today, is anyone ready to say “Off with their heads?”

Maybe ancient history isn’t so far back there after all.

On top of it, the colonists had no representation in Parliament. That had to chafe on their identity as Englishmen through and through.

That was compounded by the costs London imposed on the Americans in defending themselves from the attacks by the French and their Native allies in the decades of warfare prompted by petty European royal succession and alliances. The New Englanders were definitely on their own.

A big question is what made the ruling Virginia Cavaliers turn from Loyalist to revolutionaries? Plus, why did it take so long?

Starting with a wedding certificate

Join me online from the Whittier Birthplace Museum in Haverhill, Massachusetts, on Thursday, January 26, at 7 pm.

My presentation in their virtual lecture series via Zoom will explore the celebrated abolitionist and poet’s many connections to Dover, starting with an examination of his parents’ certificate of marriage in the Quaker meetinghouse in 1804. His mother grew up in the Dover Quaker community, and his Whittier uncle, Obadiah, was already living in town at the time of the wedding. In fact, Whittier Falls and Whittier Street weren’t named for the poet but his uncle and cousins.

There’s a lot packed into this historic document. Join me to find out.

Once we’ve gleaned insights into seemingly quaint Quaker practices of the time, we’ll turn to the signatures of the witnesses – that is, all of the Friends in attendance – and learn about some of them, too, as well as a few who weren’t present but were still members of the Meeting living in a town to the west and definitely of interest.

And then it’s your turn to ask questions or make comments.

The event does require preregistration and a suggested donation of $10 per household. Go to whittierbirthplace(dot)org and click on Events to learn more.

Here’s hoping you can make it. Putting this together has been a blast.

Was there a hidden connection in the street name?

The site in south Boston where two Quaker missionaries were hanged less than a month after visiting Dover, New Hampshire, was eventually christened – get this – Dover Street.

The street was later renamed.

Another of the four who died on the gallows there had also apparently visited Dover a year or two earlier.

Who made the decision – and why? They couldn’t be that oblivious, could they?

Once the surrounding water was filled in, the street came to have a long history of immigrants and seedy characters, perhaps doomed by its bloody past, before part of the neighborhood was razed for the urban renewal that brought the Boston Herald newspaper plant and later removed the elevated subway station after the Orange Line was rerouted to the west in 1987.

Today it’s known as East Berkeley Street, hoping for a new image.

Check out my new book, Quaking Dover, available in your choice of ebook platforms at

Reasons to like Watertown, Mass.

Greater Boston is comprised of many suburbs that were originally Colonial towns out in the country. As a result, much of the metropolitan area today retains a village feel in addition to its cosmopolitan chic.

Each town – or, in many cases, now city – is different, however subtly.

Let me illustrate with Watertown, where my choir rehearses.

  1. It’s on the Charles River, which once powered its paper mills and other factories. Today the river has lovely parks and pathways, as well as crewing teams practicing out on the water in season.
  2. The impressive Arsenal produced military armaments from 1816 through World War II. Today it’s a shopping district, and its restored antebellum commander’s mansion is a kind of museum.
  3. Settled in 1630, Watertown soon became the seat of the Whitney family of invention, investment, and horse-breeding fame.
  4. It’s largely overshadowed by neighboring Cambridge and the Harvard crowd. The famed Mount Vernon Cemetery, the first garden style burying ground in America, 1831, is usually thought of as being in Cambridge, when it fact it lies mostly in Watertown, with a who’s who of famous Americans buried in its rolling grounds.
  5. Watertown has a wide ethnic range of residents, mostly working class or professionals.
  6. The Armenian Library and Museum of America is well worth visiting for exhibits that acknowledge many genocides beyond their own. Watertown is the third largest center of the Armenian diaspora in the United States, surpassed by only two cities in California.
  7. When it comes to cheap eats, I think it definitely beats hipper Cambridge. Some of the best Chinese I’ve ever had was in a modest storefront in Watertown Square, and I’m really sold on the Iranian takeout just up the street. But we also like Wild Willy’s.
  8. The Perkins School for the Blind, founded in 1829, is the oldest such institution in the U.S. and is world famous. It manufactures its own machine to record text in braille. It moved to Watertown in 1912.
  9. I really like the public library, which even has its own coffee shop.
  10. The Gore Place is an opulent summer home built by a man who a fortune in speculating in Revolutionary War debt.