About joy, Quakers, and the Boston Taliban

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William Leddra writing of joy morning before his execution

What incredible words these are - and I'm afraid so distant from our common experience, they are difficult to appreciate. How could a man, condemned to die for his religious beliefs alone and held in a cruel, painful imprisonment, write such words? Feel this way? Express such ecstatic joy? Is it hollow bravado? Or mere fanaticism?

I think neither. I take it at face value, for it speaks of a joy I have only glimpsed, but am convinced is real. To understand that joy is to know that a person living one minute with it has truly lived more than most people do all their lives. I believe it is a joy that is independent of any particular faith or religion, though it is expressed here in terms of a particular faith. To start to appreciate it, you need at least a rudimentary understanding of what was going on in the Massachusetts Bay colony in the mid-17th Century.

Quakers being whipped in Boston

In 1658 Boston was the core of an ecclesiastical state - one where religion and politics were combined to the detriment of both. The political/priestly rulers, who sounded a lot like the Taliban of Afghanistan, had just passed a law that banished Quakers from the region "upon pain of death." In other words, they threw them out of the colony and if they returned, they executed them.

Why?

Because Quaker beliefs challenged their religious - and therefore, their civil - authority. The Quakers believe that there is that of God in everyone. From this core principle it follows that they do not feel they need a priestly class to intercede between them and God. They also do not feel that the Bible is the final word, but that revelation continues and may come to anyone.

This kind of fundamental, all-embracing democracy was anathema to a theocracy.

"Quaker," by the way, was at the time a derogatory term for the Society of Friends. First used by their enemies, it has become an acceptable shorthand for the same group today.

At first the Massachusetts authorities tried to deal reasonably with Quakers. They patiently burned their books, imprisoned them, then expelled them from the colony. When that didn't work they took to public whippings, cutting off their ears, and driving a hot iron through their tongues. They patiently tried these lesser punishments for a year or two, then switched to banishment followed by execution if the individual returned. Marmaduke Stevenson and William Robinson were hanged in 1659, as were Mary Dyer and William Leddra a few months later

Quakers could easily escape any of this horror. All they had to do was go to a safe haven, such as Rhode Island, where many of them had homes. But those who were punished this way - and four were eventually executed - came back to Boston fully knowing their fate, but determined to see these hateful laws erased from the books. They died, but they achieved their goals in two ways:

1. The general populace was so appalled by the behavior of its leaders that a clamor arose for changing the law and it was changed.

2. Many more people in Massachusetts became Quakers. (No surprise there - martyrdom works its wonders every time and those who create martyrs never seem to understand what they are doing.)

It is common, of course, when faced with such peaceful martyrs to declare them "fanatics," as if that explained everything. After all, a fanatic is "a person marked or motivated by an extreme, unreasoning enthusiasm, as for a cause." The operative word here is "unreasoned." If you accept that reason is the only path to true knowledge, then you reject fanatics. But if you recognize that there are other ways of knowing - that there are things we can know with certainty and yet not express them with reasoned words - then you have to look a second time at the "fanatic."

I believe these Quakers were guilty as charged - they were indeed Quakers and they were indeed "fanatics." But I believe that is because they knew a joy that can not be reached through reason. They tried to express their experience of that joy in words, but ultimately the words fail them.

That shouldn't be surprising. Words work because they build on common experience. If the experience is uncommon there is nothing to build upon. Thus we can agree something is a chair, for example, because we both have a common experience of an object called a chair. Without that experience the word would be total nonsense to us.

But the ecstatic experience of the early Quakers is not common. They were convincing, not by their words alone, but by their acts - by the apparent bravery in which they welcomed their fate. But even there, I am not sure "bravery" is the right term. That's what it would appear to be to an unbiased observer who saw these people walk unflinching to the gallows. But I believe these people were alive in a far greater sense of that word than most would ever know.

Their joy, walking to greet the executioner, was real. It was not simply that they would soon be in "heaven," for they were already in heaven here. They did not feel sorry for themselves. They felt genuine sorrow for all those around them who were not fortunate enough to know what they knew. And they felt they had a mission to bring that joy to as many as possible, even if it meant pain, suffering, and certain death.

Death simply could not overcome joy.

So call it fanaticism if it makes you comfortable. Or call it bravery. Or even bravado. For me it is an ultimate expression of joy and those who have not experienced - or do not experience - such joy, are dead and merely going through the motions of living. In such a state, it is no wonder they hate life and seek to slash out at it.

Greg Stone, Westport, November 9, 2001

* This quote is from page 88 of "The Quakers in the American Colonies" by Rufus M. Jones, Macmillan and Co., Limited, London, 1911

Greg Stone Email me: greg@giveyoujoy.net Updated December 20, 2005 and May 31, 2003 (written November 9, 2001)