Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Where Paths Diverge: The Great Quaker Debate

I'm pleased to present a guest post by a friend I met through the Mary Barrett Dyer Facebook page. Thank you so much, Ken, for adding to our understanding of the life-and-death issues that surrounded Massachusetts Bay and Rhode Island Colonies in the 17th century.
© Ken Horn (use in this site by author’s permission) 

Picture two people traveling down the same road, in seeming accord. Both meet a wayfarer … and respond in directly opposite ways. One is captivated, the other appalled. One sees an open door, the other an obstacle. To one it’s an opportunity, to the other a stumbling block. For Mary Dyer and Roger Williams (1604?-1683) that wayfarer was George Fox, the founder of Quakerism. And the paths of Dyer and Williams diverged—radically.

Dyer would become a Quaker and eventually give her life for that cause; Williams became a bitter enemy of the Quakers, though his principled adherence to the separation of church and state and freedom of religion kept him from ever wielding the force of law against them in Rhode Island. Instead, the pen and the tongue were his weapons.

After Anne Hutchinson was expelled from Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1638 on grounds of heresy, she and her family, and scores of her followers, sought the refuge Roger Williams had created in his colony.

Roger Williams and the Rhode Island Charter
Williams had fled the persecution of Archbishop Laud in England, arriving in Boston in 1631. He went to Salem and became a teacher of the church, but was eventually banished (in the dead of winter) because of his radical views on religious liberty, the separation of church and state, and fair compensation and godly interaction with the Native Americans.

He took those beliefs with him and put them to work when he founded Providence Plantation, which eventually was united with Portsmouth, Newport, and Warwick to form Rhode Island Colony. After purchasing the land for a fair amount from the Narragansett Indians in 1636, Williams’ unique society was built on the foundation of freedom of religion. 

When the Puritans risked all to cross the ocean, they were not seeking freedom of religion as we understand it today. Toleration was not part of their goal. Instead they sought freedom for their religion—strict Calvinism—and toleration of other forms of Christianity was not included. As a result, dissenters from the state religions (Anglican, Catholic, Jew) were drawn to Williams’ haven for refuge.

In 1639 Baptists took refuge in the colony and influenced Williams to accept their view of water baptism—immersion for believers, no infant baptisms—doctrines contrary to Puritan teaching and practice. He was rebaptized by Ezekiel Holliman, who had been a member of the Salem church Williams had ministered in, and helped found the first Baptist church in America.

But the relationship did not last. Williams left it in short order to become a “Seeker” and wait for the restoration of the true church. He came to believe that the true church no longer existed, its succession being broken when Constantine instituted the first state church in Rome in the fourth century.

Following her husband’s death, Anne took her family to Dutch territories. She and five of her children were killed by Indians in 1643.

The Dyers had also been banished with the Hutchinsons to Rhode Island in 1638. In 1651, William Dyer, now Attorney General of Rhode Island, accompanied Roger Williams and John Clarke to England, where they obtained a confirmation of their charter and revoked divisive land claims of the governor. Mary Dyer sailed for England in early 1652, remained five years, and became a follower of Fox.

In Rhode Island, the strong foundation of freedom of religious expression survived the onslaught of internal problems brought about by the hearty individualism that very freedom fostered. Rhode Island became a haven to the Quakers but Williams came to distrust, even dislike, them.

Fox’s teaching included the precept of the “Inner Light,” a mystic tenet which was similar to Anne Hutchinson’s “Antinomianism.” To Dyer, the Quaker cause was worth dying for. To Williams, it deserved the worst of his open scorn.

Mary’s fate after becoming a follower of Fox is well documented on this blog. Dyer was eventually hanged for repeatedly returning to Boston with her Quaker beliefs in 1660.

While Quakers were persecuted in Massachusetts, in Rhode Island they were debated—quite bitterly indeed, but nevertheless not persecuted.

 Williams and Fox were alike in that they held radical religious and political views, but the views themselves differed, so they made formidable adversaries. Fox spent two years in the New World and was grateful for its freedom.

During that time, Williams composed 14 propositions against Fox that were published as “Mr Wms Q against ye Quaker,” and included a challenge to debate. Williams’ mean-spirited accusations included calling Quaker teaching “Popish” and “Jewish.” Williams did recognize that Quakers suffered for their beliefs. But one of his propositions asserted the persecutions were not to be construed an evidence of the truth of their religion.

Fox never answered the challenge, but after his departure from Rhode Island, three of his disciples picked up the gauntlet. The result was several days of bitter and incendiary rhetoric between the Quakers and Williams.

A few years later, in 1676, Williams published his book George Fox Digg’d out of his Burrowes. In 1677, Fox and disciple John Burnyeat responded with A New-England Fire-Brand Quenched, a volume directed against Williams.

What came to be known as The Great Quaker Debate can be disillusioning. It paints a radically disparate picture from what little most of us know about Williams. And it seems immensely unfair to the memory of Mary Dyer, who died a martyr for the causes of both Williams and Fox.

George Fox Digg’d out of his Burrowes Full Title

George Fox digg'd out of his burrowes, or, An offer of disputation on fourteen proposals made this last summer 1672 (so cal'd) unto G. Fox, then present on Rhode-Island in New England by R.W. : as also how (G. Fox slily departing) the disputation went on being managed three dayes at Newport on Rhode Island, and one day at Providence between John Stubs, John Burnet, and William Edmondson on the one part, and R.W. on the other : in which many quotations out of G. Fox and Edward Burrowes book ... are alleadged : with an appendix of some scores of G.F. his simple lame answers to his opposites in that book quoted and replyed to

A New-England Fire-Brand Quenched Full Title
A New-England-fire-brand quenched being something in answer unto a lying, slanderous book, entituled, George Fox digged out of his burrows, &c. printed at Boston in the year 1676, of one Roger Williams of Providence in New-England ... : of a dispute upon XIV, of his proposals held and debated betwixt him, the said Roger Williams, on the one part, and John Stubs, William Edmundson, and John Burnyeat on the other at Providence and Newport in Rode-Island, in the year 1672 where his proposals are turn'd upon his own head, and there and here he was and is sufficiently confuted : in two parts : as also, something in answer to R.W.'s Appendix, &c. with a post-script confuting his blasphemous assertions ... : also, the letters of W. Coddington of Rode-Island, and R. Scot of Providence in New-England concerning R.W. and lastly, some testimonies of ancient & modern authors concerning the light, Scriptures, rule & the soul of men
Guest author Ken Horn
 Ken Horn, a descendant of William and Mary Dyer, and William and Anne Hutchinson, is an ordained minister, and editor of the Pentecostal Evangel at the General Council of the Assemblies of God.


  1. The interesting part is that while both Williams and Dyer disagreed about Fox--they both were able to travel down the same road without attacking each other. They could have become great personal enemies and tore each other down--but--it seems they didn't choose that path. In our modern times, I wonder if it is possible that a liberal and conservative could do the same--could they travel together and respect each other's differences?

  2. BTW: What qualifies as an impolite comment?

    1. Trolls are impolite. Spammers. People who explode in rants. People who write longer responses than the articles (which are pretty long!) should get their own blog.

      adjective: impolite

      not having or showing good manners; rude.
      "it would have been impolite to refuse"
      synonyms: rude, bad-mannered, ill-mannered, discourteous, uncivil, disrespectful, inconsiderate, boorish, churlish, ill-bred, ungentlemanly, unladylike, ungracious;

  3. My wife and I have known Ken Horn since 1953 and he officiated over the renewing of my wife's and my wedding vows in 1956. I have never known anything about him that I would be impolite to post. I am fascinated by his two articles and have passed them on to my wife to enjoy. She comes from a Quaker background.
    Bill and Almie Sparling, Sequim, WA

    1. Ken has been my friend since about 2010, and I agree, he's never been impolite.

      The comment from Anonymous, above, refers to my requirement about posting that says "Reasonable, thoughtful comments are encouraged. Impolite comments will be "moderated" to the recycle bin." Although this is a history and research site, I do get the occasional rude, unmannerly comment, which I choose not to publish. I will publish statements that have a reasonable and resourced disagreement, but crabby people need not waste their time.

      Thanks for your comments, and I'm glad you enjoy this site.


Reasonable, thoughtful comments are encouraged. Impolite comments will be moderated to the recycle bin. NO LINKS or EMAIL addresses: I can't edit them out of your comment, so your comment will not be published. This is for your protection, and to screen out spam and porn.