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 and been attacked by government soldiers. He even got 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 officials promptly arrested him. But Gorton had one more card to play that would save his life yet again.
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. Gorton finally managed to settle there.
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. He believed in equality for women, and he eschewed the formal church leadership. He accepted that all people are imbued with the spirit of God. His beliefs mirrored those adopted by the Quakers.
Born in 1592 in Gorton, England, near Manchester, his family was financially well off. Private tutors educated him, and he became a scholar. He married Mary Mayplet, whose brother John served as surgeon to King Charles II.
Gorton embraced an unorthodox strain of Puritanism. He believed in the equality of all humans and in the presence of the Holy Spirit in everyone. And he opposed slavery.
He left England some time around early 1637. “I left my native country to enjoy liberty of conscience in respect to faith toward God and for no other end,” he wrote.
Arrival in the Colonies
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. During that dispute, the religious leaders of the colony eventually banned 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, Mass. There he began making enemies in earnest. He quickly got into a religious argument with his landlord. He also defended his wife’s servant against gossip that she had smiled in church. When summoned to court to explain himself, he acted so obnoxious to the magistrates they gave him 14 days to clear out of Plymouth.
From Plymouth he travelled to Portsmouth, R.I. Rhode Islanders had split from Massachusetts when the colony banished Roger Williams for his religious beliefs. The colony had more tolerance for 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.” He labeled 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 again got embroiled in disputes. 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 gradually gathered a group of supporters who shared his religious views. They also 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.
Other local colonists were outraged by Gorton’s shenanigans. So they asked Massachusetts for help in ridding them of the pest who had arrived via Boston. Massachusetts declined, however, citing a lack of jurisdiction. But then Winthrop — who Gorton called “the great and honored Idol General” — warned Gorton to quit agitating in Providence.
In 1643, Gorton and 11 others bought a piece of land from the Indians in what was known as Shawomet, south of Providence. But then two Indian sachems complained to Massachusetts that he’d swindled them of their land.
They then asked for help in ousting Gorton. This time Winthrop complied, sending 40 armed men after Gorton and his supporters. The Gortonites held out for a week and finally agreed to travel to Boston to answer charges. But they would only go as free men. As soon as they exited the house, however, they were barricaded in. The armed men then clapped the Gortonites in irons and marched them back to Boston.
Warwick Gets a Name
The Puritan magistrates charged the Gortonites with heresy — not for the land deal — and sentenced them to death. A majority of the magistrates, however, would not affirm the death sentence. Instead, they ordered the Gortonites held at the Charlestown prison for a year at hard labor.
They got an early release, however, in 1644. Gorton and two of his followers thought it wise to return to England to look for help. There Gorton actively spread his beliefs while he petitioned the government for assistance. Here he also published several books detailing his mistreatment in New England.
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 Earl – for the remainder of his life.
In 1667 Gorton passed away while the Crown considered his request to lift his banishment from Massachusetts. He finally won an order reestablishing his freedom to enter Massachusetts in 1668. He died in 1677.
By 1771, all but one Gortonite had died or drifted away, and Gorton’s sect disappeared altogether.
Samuel Gorton, Reconsidered
Though dismissed as an eccentric troublemaker, later scholars and historians rehabilitated Gorton’s reputation. Despite his sarcastic outbursts, he had a gentle and sympathetic nature and often showed generosity to others.
His biographer, Adelos Gorton, argued in 1907 that no one other than Roger Williams did more to establish the foundation of civil rights and liberty in Rhode Island.
Samuel G. Arnold, 19th century historian and U.S. senator from Rhode Island, called him, “one of the most remarkable men that ever lived.” He wrote,
His astuteness of mind and his Biblical learning made him a formidable opponent of the Puritan hierarchy, while his ardent love of liberty, when it was once guaranteed, caused him to embrace with fervor the principles that gave origin to Rhode Island.
Earlier, Samuel Eddy, historian and Rhode Island congressman, wrote that none of the first settlers received more unmerited approach or suffered so much injustice as Samuel Gorton.
His opinions on religious subjects were probably somewhat singular …But that was his business; his opinions were his own and he had a right to them.
This story last updated in 2022.
With thanks to Philip F. Gura, The Radical Ideology of Samuel Gorton: New Light on the Relation of English to American Puritanism, The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 36, No. 1 (Jan., 1979), pp. 78-100.
Images: Gorton’s gravesite By Sarnold17, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34487253. Attack on Shawomet By Scribner's Popular History of the United State, 1898, by William Cullen Bryant, Sydney Howard Gay, Noah Brooks – https://books.google.com/books?id=TJBYAAAAMAAJ&q=samuel+gorton#v=onepage&q=Gorton%20and%20his%20men%2C%20whatever%20else%20they%20were%2C&f=false, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37114025. Gorton on Trial By Unknown author – NYPL Digital Collection: http://digitalgallery.nypl.org/nypldigital/id?834240, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16541517.