Why were so many people in Dover so willing to defy the Puritan authorities’ draconian anti-Quaker laws?

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.

~*~

Merely listening to a Quaker could lead to this. Hours hanging in the town stocks.

Some grudges are harbored a long time, awaiting the right opportunity to flare up again.

Or, for repeated offenses, even being branded.

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.

Just down the street

Weather Underground kept scaling back its anticipated snowfall here, cutting it to a tad over three inches. Instead, we woke up to this yesterday, about 9½ inches after a day of blizzard conditions. Seemed strange going from near whiteout one day to cloudless blue the next.

Gotta dig out to make room for more.
Should I mention this was a break in our ongoing gale conditions?

We’re bracing for subzero temperatures in the coming nights, but a minus four is still ten degrees warmer than just up the road. And then another half-foot is on the horizon.

I know we’re hardly alone when it comes to scenes like this, and I’m grateful I no longer have to commute through hazardous storm conditions.

How’s the winter kicking in where you are?

It’s the book I didn’t want to write, but it wouldn’t let go  

I thought we Dover Quakers – or more formally Friends – had our long history covered. I had even helped Silas Weeks, way back, in some of his research for his definitive volume on New England Quaker meetinghouses and burial grounds.

Frankly, after revising and republishing seven novels after the appearance of my eighth, I wanted a break.

A big break.

These are supposed to be my retirement years, OK? Admittedly, I had long imagined devoting myself to the writing as a big part of that dream, but really!

But then a casual request for an overview of Dover Friends history changed everything. It came indirectly, through someone in another denomination who was active in our Sanctuary movement. But then, going back through my filing drawers, I came up empty – couldn’t even find my folders of notes. What we did have was mostly about our three meetinghouses over the years – especially the structure where we’ve worshiped since 1768 – along with a few prominent events.

This left me unsettled.

Unlike many other denominations, the Society of Friends, or Quakers, is first and foremost about its members. Our definition of church is the body of believers – not the building or the polity and definitely not the ordained clergy. It’s why we call our building a meetinghouse and why we organize as Meetings, reflecting the times and ways our church-people come together. Church can happen whenever and wherever we are, even over dinner in our homes or chance encounters on the street or in the midst of social activism. And vitally it’s not just us – we’re meeting God, too.

I spent a lot of time at my impromptu workstation in Eastport, Maine, last year working on a history of Quakers in Dover, New Hampshire. And I arrived with what I thought was a largely finished manuscript. I was mistaken.

~*~

WHAT NEEDED TO BE TOLD was the lives of the individuals and families who were the essence of one of the oldest Quaker Meetings in the world.

I resisted as long as I could but finally succumbed. Who were they? Why were they so willing to risk severe punishment and persecution imposed by the Puritan authorities? And in the face of that, how and why did a third of Dover’s population quickly become Quaker? And several generations later, start fading away?

With the 400th anniversary of the settling of Dover – and thus New Hampshire, too – coming up next year, the timing for our side of the history felt right.

Now that the book’s written and revised, I’ll be sharing some of my findings with you as well as news of publication itself as that nears.

~*~

WHAT EMERGED IS A PARTIAL HISTORY, as in partisan, with my focus on a radical religious subculture that thrived in a unique, out-of-the-way, locale. Partial, as well, to the independent streak of New Hampshire against more powerful Massachusetts authorities to the south. Partial even in being incomplete as well as lacking footnotes, and not even the work of a professionally trained historian.

The story is also partial in being biased toward a sequence of unusual, sometimes roughhewn, figures and their families – not all of them Quaker – and inclined especially toward the narrative they shape.

The roots, as you’ll see, arise in the very beginning of English settlement. Forget what you’ve assumed about New England before Paul Revere and Sam Adams and the American Revolution and Boston as the Hub of the Universe.

A lot had already happened before the first Puritans sailed into Boston Harbor. Let’s look instead to Dover, which lays claim to being the seventh-oldest continually inhabited European settlement in the United States.

In the standard telling of the founding of today’s city of Dover, New Hampshire, two brothers arrived from England in the spring of 1623 and settled at the mouth of Great Bay on the Piscataqua River, upstream from the Atlantic Ocean. The brothers were fishmongers, members of one of the oldest and wealthiest guilds, or great companies, of London.

Except, as it turns out, one of the brothers didn’t arrive until a few years later.

Instead, the cofounder of the new settlement was a fishmonger apprentice who would be an important figure in the early years of the colony.

The meetinghouse, Dover Friends’ third, is home to the faith community today. It was erected in a single day in 1768.

~*~

YOU’LL PROBABLY BY AS SURPRISED by this alternative take on New England history as I’ve been. It’s not just Quakers. There’s much more to New England’s past than a Thanksgiving dinner and a riotous tea party followed by a midnight ride and the shot heard ’round the world or even the notorious witch trials.

Here at the Barn, you’ll definitely be hearing a lot more about this big project through the coming year. Believe me, some of the findings will be startling.

I’m East of Acadia, if not quite Eden

I like to think that natural beauty can be found anywhere, but I have to admit that too often, what’s happened is that brute ugliness has prevailed in far too many places, typically as a result of greed. There’s no excuse for much of that, either. A little extra expenditure could have added grace to any development, created visual intrigue, lessened the harshness. Urban or rural or what’s in-between, alas.

Whenever possible, I chose career moves that opened me to natural or artistic settings and inspiration – along with opportunities to shine professionally. It’s meant avoiding suburbs, for one thing. Sometimes, though, it’s also meant invoking a sliding scale of value – you know, finding pockets of serenity within otherwise harsh localities. And then there were some other postings that principally industrial, even when it was mostly farmland. So it’s been a mix.

Still, as I’ve said, I came to realize that had I remained in my native corner of Ohio, I wouldn’t have been able to write poetry, the vibe was simply wrong. Or, if I had, it would have been much different from what I’ve done.

On the other hand, the four years I lived two hours east of Mount Rainier, back in the late ’70s, gave me repeated access to one of America’s greatest national treasures, often from lesser-known perspectives. What memories! And that’s before I turn to much of the back country and wilderness that was closer to our home. I even came to love the beauty of the desert where I was living, a landscape that initially struck us as hideous.

Mount Desert Island, home of Acadia National Park, glimpsed from the east.

Now I’m finding myself dwelling two hours east of an even more popular natural park, Acadia. Already, I have glimmers of many backwoods and remote rocky shores to explore in-between.

Technically, all of Downeast Maine is also Acadia, the French name of the region. For most folks, though, Acadia means the park.

The biggest land mammal out west was the elk, while here in northern New England, it’s the moose. Just as the celebrated shellfish here is lobster, rather than Dungeness crab.

The fact is, for many people, either place is about as close to paradise as you’d find on earth.

And, yes, I’m feeling lucky – or especially blessed – that way.