Yay! I’m now up on YouTube, too

My first-ever Zoom presentation is now available for streaming, thanks to the Whittier Birthplace Museum. The presentation on January 26, “Starting with a marriage certificate: Why Whittier was no stranger to Dover,” focused on the famed poet and abolitionist’s many connections to, well, my new book Quaking Dover.

For the full YouTube event, do take a look here.

John Greenleaf Whittier is hardly the central theme in the book, but for me, developing the topic for this show, along with the accompanying PowerPoint slideshow, another personal first, was fun.

If you’re a regular here at the Barn, you know I do lag behind on the tech front. One step at a time, right?

I didn’t expect an unusually itchy nose and scratchy throat resulting from our dry indoor air. So much for my up-in-the-corner-of-the-screen stage presence.

On top of that, with the PowerPoint up in front in me, I couldn’t see who was attending. Oh, well, I had my hands full anyway.

Earlier, behind the scenes, there was concern about a possible power outage on my end as unusually warm temperatures dropped below freezing amid heavy rain. We did have a contingency plan, just in case.

I’m so glad we didn’t need it.

Maybe I’m going soft, but I am viewing the Puritans in a fresh light

Readers of my new book are telling me how shocking they find the Puritans’ cruel persecution of the up-and-coming Quaker faith. That reaction is quickly followed with their disgust that the Puritans came to the New World for religious freedom but then refused it to others.

What we need to acknowledge, though, is how deeply our outlook is engrained with an expectation of freedom of speech and religion, something that would have been foreign to mindsets back in the 1600s. There, religion and politics were one, as in a one-party state. In England in the early 1600s, the king had the state church, what we know as Anglican or Episcopal, well under his thumb, while the Puritans had Parliament and its armies. It was a volatile mix, even before we get to New England, where my book is set.

I should emphasize that for us, as modern Americans, it’s all too easy to condemn Puritans as backwater bigots, when in fact they were radical progressives on many fronts. They were decidedly anti-monarchy and proto-democracy, and advanced a less feudal, more equitable economy and society. They championed education and literacy for men and women alike and founded Harvard College within their first six years in New England despite deep divisions within their attempt to establish a godly Utopia. Boston was even prepared to fire cannons at Royal Navy ships in the mid-1630s, had they arrived to revoke the colony’s charter, which the Puritans had obtained from the king in an end-run around the man who was responsible for New England’s development – Sir Ferdinando Gorges, the father of Maine and first cohead of New Hampshire, as you’ll find in my book. He definitely would have torpedoed their application. (Whew! The amassing details do thicken the plot, hard as they become to follow.) A Puritan wife could actually divorce her husband if he failed to fulfill her. And they loved their beer.

In other words, Puritans weren’t nearly as awful as we want to portray them today, even if they do come across as villains in my book, Quaking Dover.

Since its release, I’ve been coming to believe the Quakers pressed the Puritans simply for not going far enough in their reforms and intended Utopia. Historian Carla Gardina Pestana, in her wonderful “Quakers and Baptists in Colonial Massachusetts,” even came to the conclusion that the Quakers (or Friends, as we more often refer to ourselves) went out of their way to provoke the Puritan authorities. Ouch, I’m thinking that’s true.

More recently, in revisiting Kenneth Carroll’s book “Quakerism on the Eastern Shore,” meaning Maryland, I felt affirmed by his statement, “Quakerism was, in some ways, an extreme form of Puritanism,” followed by, “It is not surprising, therefore, to discover that Quakerism, in its opening days in Maryland, reached into the centers of Puritanism … for a great number of its converts.”

Well, that latter point was surprising to me. I do see Friends blending Mennonite strands via the English General Baptists into what emerged.

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While my book is focuses on New Hampshire and its adjacent provinces, I’m finding that religious restraints in the southern American English colonies of the time were far harsher than those in New England. For instance, a provocative essay by Marilynne Robinson, “One Manner of Law, the Religious Origins of American Liberalism” in the November Harper’s Magazine, notes that the under the repressive laws in Virginia the penalty for missing church services three times or speaking ill of the king was death, along with the harshest penalties for minor infractions of other laws. She adds there was no mention of trial or appeal and much of what we consider Common Law was nebulous. The Carolinas were just as extreme.

Carroll, for his part, finds that in contrast to New England’s persecution of Quakers, “there may be a skeleton in the closet of the southern colonies also.” He remarks, “The intense persecution experienced by Friends in Virginia soon drove many of them into Maryland,” followed by a series of drastic laws that even kept Quakers from being allowed to enter the colony. “There was to be no challenge to the Established Church as the one religious institution in Virginia,” something that excluded Puritans, Presbyterians, Baptists, Quakers, and Roman Catholics alike. Carroll then states, “The full nature and extent of persecution suffered by Quakers in Virginia is not known. … We do know that William Cole, of Maryland, and George Wilson, of England, were imprisoned in a ‘nasty stinking, dirty’ dungeon in Jamestown where Wilson was whipped and heavily chained so that ‘his flesh rotted from his bones and he died.’” A number of Indian converts to Quaker faith may have also been sentenced to death because of their conversions.  And Maryland for a while also imposed harsh persecution, including the banishment and whipping of Quaker “vagabonds” from constable to constable through the colony.

Among those in the south who had visited Dover were William Robinson, before his execution in Boston, and Alice Ambrose and Mary Tompkins, once they left the north.

This statue by Sylvia Shaw Judson sits in front of the Massachusetts statehouse with copies in Philadelphia and Richmond, Indiana. Mary Dyer was one of four Quaker missionaries hanged in Boston because of their faith. She’s the only one who hadn’t visited Dover, New Hampshire, although the site of the gallows later became known as Dover Street. As a fine point, she didn’t offer her life for religious freedom but rather as a sacrifice to a Truth she espoused.

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To see how this played out in Dover, please turn to my book, Quaking Dover.

I, for one, would definitely like to see a fuller understanding of how religious liberty came about in the Southern colonies and also a presentation of how Puritans in New England evolved to emerge as, in one strand, as Unitarians.

About those taken into captivity

Learning of the length and bloodshed of border warfare between New England and New France comes as a surprise to many Americans.

One of the more startling facets is the tales of English hostages who were taken to Canada by Natives receiving payment for each person they brought north.

Some captives were ransomed by family and returned home, leaving the impression that the French were interested mostly in added revenue. You know, like legal piracy, or a landbound privateering. Maybe even as a kind of generous sympathy on behalf of the captors. Many, as I’m seeing, were wives.

Others, though, never returned, leaving the mysterious impression that they chose to remain, perhaps indulging in a more sensually rich culture than the Puritan world of their past. And perhaps some did.

The French were, however, at a distinct disadvantage in the colonial warfare and settlement. They were outnumbered by the British four to one, by many estimates. Or five to one, from another I’ve encountered.

One way for the French to build up their population was by immediately baptizing the Protestant captives into the Roman Catholic faith. For single women, this could soon be complicated by marriage and childbirth – she would not be allowed to take her children if she was “rescued” or “redeemed” and returned to New England, perhaps as a widow. Becoming a nun was another option.

Yes, further complicating the picture is the fact that some of the captives did in time become Catholic priests or monastics. As a consequence, there would be no place for them in New England without their renouncing that faith.

So far, I’ve come across no indications that the kidnapping ran in the other direction.

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The definitive examination of the cases seems to be Emma Lewis Coleman’s two-volume New England Captives Carried to Canada between 1677 and 1760 during the French and Indian wars (published in 1925).

My book Quaking Dover presents two of the attacks, though there were other serious incidents in the town.

As I was saying about wanting to learn more?

The four original towns of New Hampshire differed from the start

For most of the first century, Dover dominated both New Hampshire and neighboring Maine.

It was the core of population, for one thing, as well as the oldest continuing settlement.

It also had significant water power, unlike Strawbery Banke, the future Portsmouth.

But Portsmouth, in turn, was closer to the Atlantic and had a viable harbor, leading it to become a center for adventure capitalists and merchants plying the ocean for trade at the same time Dover’s fishing focus diminished, in part a consequence of the sawdust in the water from the lumber trade.

Hampton (1636) and Exeter (1638) were both founded by men seeking religious freedom from Massachusetts. How’s that for a turn of affairs as well as a challenge to the argument that the latter was established in a quest for religious liberty while New Hampshire folks were interested only in lucrative gain?

Hampton long remained the most agricultural of the lot. Exeter did have water power for mills both there and in today’s Newmarket, yet it soon aligned with some powerful Puritan families. As did a elite portion of Hampton.

There were even the poor collected off the streets of London and shipped to New England, who may have then drifted northward.

Maine, meanwhile, began to coalesce around York, one town over from Dover.

Today, each of them remains somehow unique, within a New England identity.

Hampton, for instance, has a suburban sprawl feel with colonial touches. Exeter, with its prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy, could easily be one of the old towns abutting Boston but yet isn’t. The novelist John Irving calls it Gravesend. Continuing on, Portsmouth is a magnet for wealthy residents and resembles wealthy port towns all along the New England coast. George Washington, after all, did both sleep and worship there. It definitely has a superiority complex. And Dover, once a major textile mills and railroad center, is taking off as a family-friendly town with a viable, pedestrian-welcoming, downtown. It has, to me, the most practical yet visionary community spirit.

The differences are a subject well worth investigating. In the meantime, I’m keeping my focus on everything touching Dover.

It is, after all, the center of my new book and the city’s 400th anniversary as the oldest of all.

Must admit, since writing the book, I’m still learning

More accurately, I’ve become acutely aware of how much I still don’t know. Or even, does anyone see this fully?

The adage, “Write about what you know,” had me starting with my Quaker experience. But the adage should add, “Write about what you don’t know.” Frankly, that’s the part that’s exciting.

Think of it as working a puzzle, trying to figure out what goes in the gaps. You just don’t know without some hands-on trial and error. And perhaps a few friends or family members’ help.

From the other direction, I know a professional historian who quotes his mentor saying that if you think you have an answer nailed down, you’re badly mistaken.

I’ll spare you my list regarding the Quaking Dover project, for now.

 

Dover’s prominence in the early province is typically overlooked

Not only is Dover the oldest permanent settlement in New Hampshire, it’s also the largest city in the Seacoast region today, with more than 30,000 residents. The region, however, adds to way more.

An hour northeast of Boston and with proximity to both Atlantic Ocean rugged shoreline and beaches as well as New Hampshire’s White Mountains, Dover has also become the fastest-growing city in the Granite State.

The town originally encompassed what’s now Durham (home of the University of New Hampshire), Barrington, Lee, Madbury, Rollinsford, Somersworth, and parts of Newington and Rochester. It also interacted heavily with the earliest settlements of Maine across the Piscataqua River, back when fishing was a leading business, followed by logging and sawmilling.

Still, there has also been a longstanding rivalry with Portsmouth just downstream, ever since its enterprising merchants rose to the fore. You know, uppity. Well, they do have the Music Hall.

Dover, I’ll insist, has been more modest. I’ll refrain from adding more for now.

For perspective, the region today has more than a half-million residents.

I like to think the center of gravity is shifting back to Dover. We’ll see. In the meantime, there’s that big 400th anniversary to celebrate.

Please stand by, as they used to say on radio.

How about a few more readers’ candid responses to my new book?

In case you’re wondering how things are going with Quaking Dover, here are some early reactions:

“The book purports to be merely a history of the Quakers at Dover, New Hampshire, but it is much more than that. It is a history of the beginning and spread of the Religious Society of Friends (aka Quakers) in the USA, the best exposition of their faith that I have read so far, a history of their persecution by the Puritans, and of the bloody conflicts between the Puritans and the native peoples. …

“Most of all, I had not previously been exposed to the reality of the Quakers’ faith, revealed in their own words. Jnana Hodson, himself a Quaker, has done extensive research in old records and journals and includes extensive quotations that bring the faith to life. Including their peaceful acceptance of persecution, their prudent approach to courtship and marriage and their belief in the work of the Holy Spirit in the heart.” – Bob Goodnough, Saskatchewan

(For his full review, visit his Flatlander Faith blog post of Dec. 12, 1922.)

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“I enjoyed your conversational writing style – sharing the research that you did — and confidentially whispering (in your writing style), ‘This is what this finding means and how it should be interpreted.’ … To ascertain what really happened you checked primary documents, read previous accounts of Dover, New Hampshire – triangulated your sources and showed us readers how you reached your conclusion. A very enlightening read – well researched, well written.” – Joe Clabby, author of A History of Eastport, Passamaquoddy Bay, and Vicinity

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“Love it!” – Susan Wiley, Sandwich, New Hampshire

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“Deftly told. I really like your voice. It’s engaging, light, and easy to read.” – Jim Mastro, science fiction novelist

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“An enjoyable book!” – Arnie Alpert, longtime peace activist

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“A rich feast of a book.” – one of my favorite authors and fellow Maine resident

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“I truly appreciate all the work and careful thought and interpretations you put into it.” – Canyon Woman, New Mexico

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“I enjoyed your book very much. I particularly liked relearning about early life in Dover and surroundings, and was impressed by how much research you did to fill in details. Not only about the life of early Quakers and their trials and tribulations, but the connection they had to the rest of New and Old England. I did not understand how important the settlement of Dover was compared to Portsmouth, Exeter, and other towns.” – John Dawson, Lee, New Hampshire

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“Thank you for writing this record of Dover Friends Meeting. The ‘Children of the Light’ had me on the verge of tears as I read it to Andrea.” – Harvin Groft, Berwick, Maine

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Considering the play, ‘Mother Whittier’s Meeting’

In timing my book for Quaking Dover for the 400th anniversary of English settlement in town, I gave myself a deadline that ensured it would actually be done. Otherwise, I’d still be researching it.

In some cases, that meant I didn’t simply follow a conventional account but came to my own original conclusions. In others, post-publication findings confirmed in what I’ve deduced. Besides, in a period of Covid restrictions plus my own relocation to the other end of Maine, opportunities in the archives were limited.

One of the works I’m glad I waited to read until my own work was done is Henry Bailey Stevens’ three-scene play, Mother Whittier’s Meeting. It was premiered outside the Dover Friends meetinghouse on August 17, 1963, to mark what he thought was the 300th anniversary of the Quakers’ presence in town. As I now see, the celebration was four or five years late.

Had I read the play first, I might never have written my own take of the history. He covers the heart of the plot in 200-some fewer pages.

Stevens himself is an interesting character who turned up around the time that the Dover meetinghouse was reopened for regular worship in the 1950s. He was the head of the Cooperative Extension Service at the University of New Hampshire in neighboring Durham but also harbored a deep interest in both history and dramatic literature, as well as an ardent vegetarian and pacifist. He even penned a series of Quaker family profiles for Dover’s daily newspaper.

The play itself is what we’d call “talky” – more dialogue than action. There’s no dancing or sword-fight scenes, as it were. The central focus shifts between Meeting as the community and as the house itself, or even turns to Abigail Hussey Whittier herself. Not that you really notice as you follow along.

There are points I’d heatedly contest. The first meetinghouse, for instance, was most likely not a log cabin.

But then I feel like cheering when Annie Pinkham shows up as a character. Her mimeographed brief history contained tidbits that would otherwise be lost to oblivion. She had every reason to believe she’d be the last Quaker in town once she locked the meetinghouse door.

Not so, as things turned out.

As for Stevens? His play, published by Baker’s Plays in Boston, isn’t his only significant book-length publication. Finding those, though, can be a challenge.

 

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.

For tiny Dover, why all the hoopla?

As improbable as it would seem now, Dover was a throbbing center of dissidents and misfits in its early years, at least from the perspective of the Puritan authorities to the south in Boston.

Nor would I have expected a settlement inland from the ocean to be the one that took root, rather than the companion complex facing the ocean, but the Dutch trading post at Albany, New York, was even further up a river and survived.

There are good reasons that Dover became the center of action north of Salem, Massachusetts, and of Boston further south, not that you were taught any of that in your history classes.

I have to admit, it’s taken a while for the fact to sink in. Dover was the heart of the New Hampshire province, not that we see that today. Still, the roots remain.

My book, Quaking Dover, looks at the history from a minority viewpoint that leaves most of the last 200 years pretty wide open. Yes, there’s so much more to examine and include in the full picture leading to the rebirth of the community in recent years.

But what I’ve found is still pretty remarkable.

To think, it was such a humble and audacious start 400 years ago and counting.

It’s gonna be a big year!