The Quakers, a religious sect that split off from the Church of England, held that faith should be founded on a direct knowledge of and communication with Christ without the mediations of clergy. Facing similar persecution to the Puritans, the Quakers too migrated to the New World in search of religious freedom. Once there, however, they found themselves pitted against the Puritan settlers who deemed their beliefs heretical and their refusal to adhere to the official religion criminal. Flames were further fanned by the tactics some Quakers used to challenge the status quo: they would burst into church services, create noisy disruptions in the street, and divest themselves of clothing to demonstrate their indifference to worldly concerns. Puritan reaction was brutal: if they could not compel the interlopers to leave, they were imprisoned, flogged, fined and had their property confiscated. Many were executed, while others were subjected to tortures such as having holes bored through their tongues.
As magistrate, William Hathorne was responsible for ordering much of this cruelty and is counted as one of history’s most remorseless persecutors. Hawthorne read extensively about his ancestor’s deeds, and there was much written. William Sewel’s History of the Rise, Increase, and Progress of the Christian People called Quakers (1722) cast a disgusted eye over the atrocities he had sanctioned; while George Bishop, in New England Judged (1703), condemned the man “whose Name I record to rot and Stink... to all Generations.” Unsurprisingly, Puritan histories paint him in a more flattering light.