Religion and Social Movements

Samuel Gorton and his Gortonites Create a Church Among the Jack-an-Apes

By 1648, most New England leaders had it in for Samuel Gorton. In just a handful of years he had been kicked out of every town he moved to, infuriated even the famously tolerant Rhode Islanders, been attacked by government soldiers and even threatened with a death sentence in Massachusetts.

So after four years in exile in England when he decided to return to the colonies, where did he go? Yup, he sailed right into Boston harbor where he was promptly arrested. But Gorton had one more card to play that would save his life yet again.

Depiction of Samuel Gorton on Trial in Portsmouth, R.I.

Depiction of Samuel Gorton on Trial in Portsmouth, R.I.

Gorton had brought with him an official letter ordering the colonists to grant him safe passage to his home in a sparsely populated section of land in Rhode Island, and it was there Gorton finally managed to settle.

Gorton’s flaw, as the Puritans saw it, was that he didn’t believe in their world of saints and sinners. Rather, Gorton had his own unconventional beliefs that included treating women as equals, eschewing the formal church leadership and accepting that all people are imbued with the spirit of God – beliefs similar to those adopted by the Quakers.

When Gorton first arrived in the colonies in 1637 with his wife and children, he landed in Boston in the early stages of the Anne Hutchinson controversy – in which the religious leaders of the colony would eventually ban Hutchinson from Massachusetts for her religious views.

So he kept his own thoughts on religion to himself for a very brief time until he arrived in Plymouth, Massachusetts. This is where he began making enemies in earnest. He quickly got into a religious argument with his landlord and when he was summoned to court to explain himself he was so obnoxious to the magistrates he was given 14 days to clear out of Plymouth.

From Plymouth he travelled to Portsmouth, Rhode Island. Rhode Islanders, who had split off from Massachusetts when the colony banished Roger Williams for his religious beliefs, were more tolerant of people with alternate religious views than the Puritans.

Gorton, however, was so obnoxious he soon found himself in trouble. In 1640 he went to court in a dispute that started over a trespassing cow. It ended with Gorton calling the magistrates “asses” and labeling other men of the town jack-an-apes and saucy boys. He was sentenced to a whipping.

Short of support, Gorton then tried Providence. But here he didn’t even get admitted to the town since his history preceded him. Roger Williams wrote to John Winthrop: “Master Gorton having abused high and low at Aquidneck, is now bewitching and bemadding poor Providence…”

Throughout his travails, Gorton was gradually gathering a group of supporters who shared his religious views, admired his outspoken disdain for the church authorities and disliked the prevailing leadership in Rhode Island. This band of people – perhaps as large as 40 or more – became known as Gortonites or Gortonists.

In 1643, Gorton and 11 others bought a piece of land from the Indians in what was known as Shawomet, south of Providence. Other local colonists were outraged by Gorton’s shenanigans and they asked Massachusetts for assistance in ridding them of the pest who had arrived via Boston. Massachusetts declined, however, citing a lack of jurisdiction.

In response, the settlers of Shawomet declared their loyalty to Massachusetts and asked to join the colony. Once admitted they then asked for help again in ousting Gorton. This time Massachuetts complied sending 40 armed men after Gorton and his supporters. The Gortonites held out for a week and finally agreed they would travel to Boston to answer charges, but only as free men. As soon as they exited the house they were barricaded in, however, the armed men clapped the Gortonites in irons and marched them back to Boston.

The Gortonites were charged with heresy and given a death sentence. A majority of the magistrates, however, would not affirm the death sentence and instead the Gortonites were held at the Charlestown prison for a year at hard labor.

Upon release in 1644, Gorton and two of his followers thought it wise to return to England to look for help. There Gorton was active in spreading his beliefs while he petitioned the government for assistance. Here he also published several books detailing his mistreatment in New England.

By 1648 Gorton had received what he sought – a letter from Robert Rich Second Earl of Warwick – ordering that he be allowed to return to his land at Shawomet. With letter in hand he sailed for Boston.

The order to arrest Gorton was rescinded when he produced the letter from the Earl of Warwick – who was the colonial administrator for the Crown – and Gorton was allowed safe passage to Shawomet (though he remained banished from Massachusetts). His fellow townsmen – now outnumbering his adversaries – immediately elected Gorton as one of their leaders.

He would remain a leader in the town – renamed Warwick in honor of the support received from the Earl – for the remainder of his life.

In 1667 Gorton passed away while the English Crown was considering his request that his banishment from Massachusetts be lifted. The order reestablishing his freedom to enter Massachusetts was finally granted in 1668.

By 1771, all but one Gortonite had died or drifted away and Gorton’s sect disappeared altogether.

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