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.

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.

This will be the Barn’s biggest year yet, I promise

It’s hard to believe the Red Barn has just passed its tenth anniversary. Frankly, I thought this blog would be going dormant by now, that we would have exhausted everything I have to say or show, but that’s not what’s on the horizon after all.

Instead, thanks to our downsizing and relocating to a remote fishing village with an active arts scene on an island in Maine (whew!), I promise you the best year yet. And, yes, Dover back down the coastline will still be a big part of the mix, but in a new way.

Each year, the Red Barn has changed its emphasis somewhat, and in doing so explored new fields while leaving others behind. Looking back, I’d say it’s made for a natural evolution. The poetry, for instance, has moved over to my unique digital Thistle Finch imprint. Much of the Quaker experience has gone to my As Light Is Sown blog. And newspapers just aren’t what they were, while their “war stories” fade into a foggy past.

During that decade, though, my novels were finally finding publication, and that provided a lode of new material and thinking to share with you.

Photography also became a much bigger part of the mix, thanks to my digital cameras, so much so that I can now claim shooting as one of my hobbies.

Add to that the bunnies and vanity plates and some wordplay, for a little fun, which will continue, as will the Tendrils.

The original visual artwork from my high school portfolio, alas, has been depleted. Let me confess that as the pieces came up, I often wondered why I had done this or that back then. There are some wild leaps of intuition that amaze me now, not that I’d ever venture such confidence these days. Ah, youth! (Sigh.)

A double rainbow, as seen when I was caught in an unexpected shower behind us last summer.

What’s new this year is a close look at Eastport itself and the surrounding Bold Coast and Sunrise County. It’s a remarkable landscape with a host of fascinating characters and wildlife. Having been here a year now allows for some perspective in the discoveries, ones you, too, will be sharing. The encounters have opened a whole new world for me, even as part of upright New England. They’ve also revived many sensations I’d been forced to leave behind in the Pacific Northwest more than 40 years earlier. I hope to be able to convey that awe of natural wonder. I still can’t believe this landlocked Ohio boy looks out the window and sees the ocean daily.

A neighbor’s first holz hausen firewood pile, though it took him three efforts to get it right. I didn’t miss stacking firewood last year, but I definitely missed the comfort of wood-stove heat through much of the winter.

The year also provided me with a writer’s retreat, long stretches of solitude while the rest of the family remained behind, apart from their festive visits.

I was already well into the first draft of my next book when we uprooted but quickly got back down to business here. Alas, after showing the manuscript to a circle of beta readers, it was back to the drawing board for a thorough reworking. I should have been suspicious when the book seemed to write itself. Without revealing too much, I will say the project keeps me connected to Dover but in a fresh way. You’ll definitely be hearing much more while it inches along toward publication.

Another neighbor’s red barn just isn’t the same as the one I left behind.

The barn itself has become a memory, a symbol of the longest place I’ve lived in my life, and maybe even my roots in the farming heartland.

 

 

How this new life’s looking one year later

I’ve been living in Eastport a full year now. Admittedly, during the initial four months, I was commuting the 300 miles back to Dover every weekend or so, mostly to help declutter the house and prepare it for sale. What amazed us, though, was how quickly my loyalties switched – Eastport was where I felt at home, not the house I’d lived in for the previous 21, the longest of anywhere else in my life.

As you know, I delighted in Dover. Some of my previous moves had left me homesick for a year or more – the colleagues I missed, the social and arts circles, the landscape and opportunities. Even in some of the less attractive places, there was something or someone I regretted leaving behind or unfinished.

This time, though, it felt more like dropping a fantastic perfect lover by being swept away by someone more exotic. You know, leaving a knight’s castle to go off to live on a shack on an island with a mermaid, even if she smelled like fish. (Remember, we’re talking about homes here, not actual people.)

Trying to sort out the reasons for the ease of my quick identity shift has been tricky.

I was at a point in my new creative project where extended solitude would be very helpful. And it was. You know, the writer’s retreat or arts colony.

Covid had also already distanced me. I was no longer swimming laps daily and seeing that crowd. Quaker worship and committee work was on Zoom. Choir in Boston was suspended. With museums and concerts canceled, there wasn’t even any point in taking the Amtrak down and back. And the research I was doing had enough resources online that I could finish the project. There are some questions that might be answered if I had a few weeks to spend in the reopened archives, but I’m content to leave off where I have for now.

Eastport has more of an active arts scene that Dover did, though there was plenty once you included a few neighboring towns. It’s just that the one here feels more organic, as you’ll likely be hearing. We have to be resourceful, since there’s nothing like Boston over the horizon, as there had been in Dover.

Getting back out in the wilderness has been especially invigorating, even if the years are taking a toll on my hiking abilities. Ditto for taking yoga classes on the waterfront here in town.

Did I mention meeting a series of fascinating people, all with rich stories and experiences?

Or the artists-in-residence or world-class chamber music performances by local pros?

Quite simply, I’ve declared this was my best summer ever. The prior highs had always had some big downsides – trouble at the office, upheavals in romance, unnecessary complications. Not so this one.

We had hoped to get the renovations under way, but all of the contractors have been booked out for a year – and even if we had one on the job, supplies have been hard to get, as is the case everywhere. The delay does give us a chance to plan more thoroughly for what we want to see done. And it did mean I didn’t have everything torn up for the workers. I’ll leave that for next summer.

Anyone else feeling a bit dizzy?

Let me admit that looking at the Red Barn posts as they popped up during the past year often left me feeling a bit schizoid.

As this blog has evolved over its nine years so far, its revolving categories run like a merry-go-round, and that’s led me to plan far ahead and schedule accordingly. If I tried to post right as things unfolded, I’d never have time to write anything else. Besides, this way allows me to get in a groove with each of the categories and explore them in more depth as a series rather than one-offs.

Two things I wasn’t expecting at this time last year have intervened with what I had scheduled and uploaded.

The Delta variant of Covid was one, leading to renewed closures and limitations. For me, the jolt came in bits that included seeing pictures of me standing in Canada from a few years earlier. Well, it was a reminder of what we’re fondly looking forward to doing again. In case any of you were wondering.

The bigger jolt came in the posts of Dover and our usual rounds there, especially in the garden. The problem was that I was no longer there, not after we closed on the house sale back in April – the event that sent me off to Eastport and a lot of our possessions into storage. I really didn’t expect the seller to accept our offer, but we bid in good faith and some hard budgeting and a shared dream.

That’s meant I’ve been exploring an exciting new place and learning about it, which I’ll be showing you through the coming year. What I saw on the Red Barn, on the other hand, was what I would have been experiencing through my old routine. And I must admit I’ve really, really missed those heirloom tomatoes. They just don’t grow up here, much less ripen. (Sigh!)

For the most part, my attention has been consumed by the revisions on my upcoming book – one based on a contrarian history of Dover. So I’ve been connected to the old community anyway, along with Zoom meetings with its neighbors and Friends. Be warned: I’m very much looking forward to sharing a lot of the outtakes and thinking with you through the next year. I think it will change your understanding of New England.

During much of the year, I’ve felt slightly AWOL when it comes to social media. I’m really happy to be getting back.