Religion and Social Movements

Benedict Arnold and the Rhode Island Quakers, Ranters and Heretics

Rhode Island Quakers had cause to esteem Benedict Arnold more than a century before his descendant brought disgrace to his name.

In September of 1658, the United Colonies of New England – Plymouth, Massachusetts Bay, New Haven and Connecticut – issued a joint proclamation. They would neither welcome nor tolerate Quakers.

And they urged their neighbor to join with them in pledging to banish any Rhode Island Quakers found in their midst.

Quakers Come to America

Quaker Mary Dyer brought before Gov. John Endecott (painting by Howard Pyle)

Quaker Mary Dyer brought before Gov. John Endecott (painting by Howard Pyle)

The Quakers first set foot in America in 1656 in Massachusetts Bay Colony. Massachusetts quickly made them unwelcome with imprisonment, fines, whippings and destruction of their books. They tried to establish a foothold in Sandwich, Mass., then part of Plymouth Colony. But that town proved equally inhospitable.

The Quakers and the Puritans both criticized the Church of England, but the similarities ended there. The Puritans practiced rites of baptism and communion and followed a minister. The Quakers believed God worked in man through the individual’s inner light.

The Puritans already had trouble with the Baptists, but their differences paled in comparison to their issues with Quakers. Massachusetts’ Puritan leaders could not see  that the more they fought the Quakers, the more attention the Quakers got. And the more attention the Quakers got, the more members they got.

Rhode Island Quakers

The proclamation to ban all ‘Quakers, ranters and such notorious heretics’ did not get a positive reception in Rhode Island.

Benedict Arnold served as the colony’s president at the time its neighbors urged him to banish all Rhode Island Quakers. The letter carried the threat that if Rhode Island persisted in providing a haven for Quakers, all trade with its neighbors would cease.

Benedict Arnold, whose namesake would one day turn traitor to the American revolutionary cause, replied to the request in a letter:

“Concerning these Quakers (so-called), which are now among us, we have no law among us, whereby to punish any for only declaring by words etc. their minds and understandings concerning the things and days of God, as to salvation and an eternal  condition,” he wrote.

‘Delight to be persecuted’

Arnold understood what his neighbors did not about the Quakers: They ‘delight to be persecuted by civil powers.’ When persecuted, they gained more followers who sympathized with ‘their patient sufferings’ than who agreed with ‘their pernicious sayings’.”

Arnold distanced himself, though, from the Rhode Island Quakers, saying their beliefs undermined civil authority and overturned relations among men.

The following year, Rhode Island leaders agreed that if they received any complaints about Quakers that they would send them to England. There, the English courts could handle the issue.

But the Rhode Islanders came up with the policy only to deflect Massachusetts’ ire. No complaints against Rhode Island Quakers ever resulted in their expulsion or trial.

Massachusetts would continue persecuting Quakers, even executing some such as Mary Dyer. Then in 1660, the monarchy returned to England and King Charles II ordered Massachusetts to stop.

Arnold and most other Baptists in Rhode Island had little in common with the Quakers. But Arnold did not believe they posed a threat.

Perhaps he would have taken a firmer stand against them if he knew how quickly the Quakers would multiply. In 1674, four years before Arnold’s death, Rhode Islanders elected as governor a Quaker named William Coddington.

This story was updated in 2022.

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