The Decline of the Plymouth Colony


This article is excerpted from Conceived in Liberty, chapter 36. An MP3 audio file of this chapter, narrated by Floy Lilley, is available for download.

What, in all this time, was happening to Plymouth, the mother colony of all New England? Succinctly, it was rapidly and irretrievably declining. As we have seen, its fur trade had virtually disappeared by 1640. And for the next 20 years, only further decline ensued. By the mid-1640s the town of Plymouth was virtually a ghost town; and economically the colony had become a backwater of Massachusetts Bay.

By the 1640s Plymouth, like Massachusetts, found the intensity of its religious zeal on the wane, and heresy and "moral" laxity were increasing. Plymouth faced a crossroads on how to react to this development: by liberty and toleration or by following Massachusetts’ path of persecution? The critical point came in 1645 when William Vassall, a leading merchant, presented to the General Court of Plymouth as well as to that of Massachusetts Bay a petition for complete religious liberty – to grant "full and free tolerance of religion to all men that will preserve the civil peace and submit unto the government." "All men" meant exactly that, including Familists, Roman Catholics, and Jews. There was great sentiment in the General Court in favor of the Vassall petition. It commanded the support, in fact, of a majority of the chamber of deputies, and even of such an old roustabout as Capt. Miles Standish. But the ruling oligarchy of the colony, headed by Governor Bradford, Thomas Prence, and Edward Winslow, strongly opposed religious liberty and was able to block its approval.

This was the turning point and for the next two decades Plymouth accompanied its economic decline by following the lead of Massachusetts in increased theocracy and religious persecution. The colony proceeded to impose fines for failing to attend church, corporal penalties for denying the scripture, and denial of the rights of citizenship to all critics of the laws of Plymouth or of the "true religion."

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One of the persistent troubles of Plymouth was a shortage of ministers, aggravated by its poverty, decline, and increased intolerance. To deal with this scarcity, Plymouth took another fateful step down the theocratic road: it established a state church supported by taxation. Protests against this new establishment were led by Dr. Matthew Fuller, of the town of Duxbury, who for his pains was denounced as "wicked" by the Plymouth authorities and forced to pay a steep fine.

Despite this establishment, the Pilgrim ministers remained poor, as they had to collect the pulpit taxes themselves and the parishioners were usually far in arrears.

Religious persecution continued to tighten. The colony did not believe itself too poor to afford inspectors of youth; one was appointed in each parish to supervise and birch any boy unruly in church. When this procedure failed, the inspectors intensified their birching penalties and included girls in this corporal punishment as well.

Governor William Bradford died in 1657 at the age of 67. He left the colony impoverished, though he himself died a rich man, the richest in Plymouth. He was succeeded by Thomas Prence, who liked to think of himself as a "terror to evildoers." When the Quaker influx arrived in Plymouth, Prence was as good as his word. Laws passed against Quakers provided for the summary arrest of suspected heretics, in order to keep "corrupt" would-be freemen from the colony. And as a special slap at any Anglican deviation, the vicious practice of celebrating Christmas was outlawed.

In 1659 six Quakers were banished and Governor Prence thundered that all Quakers deserved "to be destroyed, both they, their wives, and their children, without pity or mercy." But most Pilgrims balked at this call for total victory. As a result, the colony did not flay, brand, or mutilate – let alone kill – its Quakers, as did Massachusetts Bay.

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The leading case of Quaker persecution in Plymouth was that of Humphrey Norton, who was banished and then returned. Though denounced by Governor Prence, Norton refused, according to Quaker principles, to take an oath of allegiance. Sentenced to be whipped, Norton managed to escape the punishment by refusing to pay the customary marshal’s fee for the "service" of being whipped, and was again expelled.

As in Massachusetts Bay, there was widespread public opposition to the persecution; the persecution itself multiplied the number of Quaker converts. Thus, almost the entire town of Sandwich at the entrance to Cape Cod was converted to the Quaker faith. Barnstable, further along the Cape, liberally harbored and protected Quakers. Indeed, Barnstable’s Pilgrim minister, Rev. John Lothrop, accepted as church members all who promised to keep the Ten Commandments.

To deal with the troublesome Sandwich problem, the colonial government of Plymouth sent there as special colonial constable one George Barlow, soon to be notorious as the "Quaker Terror." Barlow was paid on a commission basis by Plymouth Colony for finding heretics. Naturally his zeal was unbounded. Barlow ruthlessly plundered the town of Sandwich, finding all suspects and disfranchising eight freemen. The people of Sandwich dealt with Barlow in their own good way: resisting, harassing him and his family, and putting him into the stocks. Finally the people triumphed, and Barlow was driven out of town.

Another leading center of resistance and heresy was Duxbury, north of the town of Plymouth. Duxbury was a town filled with Baptist and Quaker converts. Here resistance to the tyranny of the Plymouth authorities was led by Rev. John Holmes and the Howland family. Zoeth Howland was put into the stocks by the authorities for criticizing the persecuting ministers and many citizens of Duxbury joined him in choosing to pay the fine rather than attend the Pilgrim church. Particularly galling to the despotic Governor Prence was the fact that his own daughter Elizabeth had fallen in love with Arthur Howland, the leading opponent of his tyrannical rule. Repeatedly, Prence had Howland arrested and heavily fined for the crime of courting Elizabeth, but Prence finally, after a decade, broke down and permitted their marriage.

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One of the strongest centers of liberal resistance in Plymouth was the town of Scituate, at the extreme north of the colony. Here the resistance was led by two eminent leaders of the colony, the veteran assistant governor, Capt. James Cudworth, and Timothy Hatherly, a member of the General Court for 20 years. Hatherly was summarily expelled from the General Court and disfranchised by the province, but the town of Scituate stubbornly reelected him as a deputy. The General Court, however, refused to seat the intractable Hatherly. Cudworth, in his turn, was dismissed from his high post as one of Plymouth’s two commissioners of the United Colonies. Bitterly, Cudworth denounced the actions: "Our civil powers are so exercised in matters of religion and conscience that we have no time to effect anything that tends to the promotion of the civil weal." Cudworth also attacked the establishment of a state religion as well as the persecution of the Quakers. But even Cudworth’s protest was met in the familiar way: he was dismissed as assistant governor, deprived of his military command, and disfranchised.

This treatment of Cudworth only swelled the tide of protest. The frightened magistrates decided to appoint sound and reliable Pilgrims in each town to argue with the Quakers and convert them. But this policy turned out disastrously. Deacon John Cooke, officially appointed to spy upon heretics, was himself converted to the Baptist faith and excommunicated by the Pilgrims. A much more telling blow to the authorities was the case of Isaac Robinson. Robinson, son of the beloved Rev. John Robinson, the founder of the Pilgrim sect, who had never left Leyden, Holland, for America, was appointed the official convincer at Sandwich. Instead, the would-be converter was himself converted and became a Quaker. The embittered magistrates denounced Robinson for "sundry scandals and falsehoods," dismissed him from all his offices, and deprived him of his rights as a freeman.

In the end, the Quakers emerged victorious, as they did in Massachusetts Bay. Town after town in Plymouth Colony eventually took it upon itself to grant full civil rights to the Quakers. The death of old Governor Prence in 1673 brought the more liberal younger generation to the fore, and the new governor, Major Josiah Winslow, restored all civil rights to the Quakers and their supporters. James Cudworth, too, was renamed assistant governor. The old persecuting zeal in Plymouth Colony was ended.