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Suppressing Heresy: The Child Petition

Mises Daily: Tuesday, July 31, 2012 by

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[This article is excerpted from An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought (1995), volume 1, chapter 29, "Suppressing Heresy: Massachusetts Persecutes the Quakers." An MP3 audio file of this chapter, narrated by Floy Lilley, is available for download.]

After its persecution of the Hutchinsonians and the Gortonites, Massachusetts continued on its path of suppressing all deviations from the Puritan norm. The next important case was that of Dr. Robert Child. As early as 1644 a growing number of people subjected to oligarchic Puritan rule had found expression in an unsuccessful petition whose purpose was to widen the highly restricted civil privileges of nonmembers of the Puritan church. Two years later, in May 1646, Dr. Robert Child, a Presbyterian minister and graduate of the University of Padua, and Samuel Maverick, a very wealthy founder of the colony, headed a petition of seven important men of the colony protesting existing rule. The petition noted that there were many thousands of residents of Massachusetts who were disfranchised even though they were taxpayers and subject to all the levies and duties of the colony. The signers of the petition were leading merchants and property owners; they included Presbyterians, Anglicans, and men of diverse religious and political views, united only by their desire for a freer society.

The petitioners asked that Anglicans and Presbyterians either be admitted to church membership or be allowed to establish churches of their own. They also urged that "civil liberty and freedom" be speedily granted to all Englishmen, and that they no longer be compelled to attend Puritan service under penalty of a heavy fine. As Englishmen, they deserved to be treated "equal to the rest of their countrymen, and as all freeborn enjoy in our native country." The petition also attacked the ruling "overgreedy spirit of arbitrary power" and the suppression of liberty in Massachusetts Bay — like "illegal commitments, unjust imprisonments, taxes … unjustifiable presses, undue fines, immeasurable expenses … non-certainty of all things … whether lives, liberties, or estates."

The Child petition was denounced from numerous Puritan pulpits as sedition, "full of malignancy, subversive both to church and commonwealth." Winthrop, Thomas Dudley, and the General Court also angrily rejected the petition, and the signers were taken into court, heavily fined, and warned "to be quiet and to meddle with your own business" — an injunction which the Puritan oligarchy itself had never been conspicuous for heeding. When the petitioners had the audacity to appeal to Parliament to attain in Massachusetts the degree of freedom enjoyed in the home country, Winthrop had them fined and imprisoned for criticizing and opposing the government. When Child and some of the others attempted to leave, to present their case to England, they were seized, searched, and imprisoned.

Child managed to escape to England, but proved to be the unfortunate victim of poor timing. Having made his appeal originally to a predominantly Presbyterian — and therefore presumptively sympathetic — Parliament, Child's case now came before a body dominated by Cromwell and his Independents, far more sympathetic to Massachusetts Bay. Furthermore, Child made the mistake of getting involved in an altercation with a Massachusetts Puritan then influential in England. Child was arrested by Parliament and was freed only on a written promise never to speak badly of New England again.

The Child opposition had thus been quickly and efficiently suppressed by Massachusetts, even though it had the support of a large part of the population of the colony. But Massachusetts was soon to reach the turning point in its previously unchecked highroad of persecution; despite a frenzy of zeal, it was never able to suppress the determined and courageous Quakers — the individualist champions of the inner light and the next great wave of heretics in the colony.