Feast of William Leddra (March 14)   6 comments

Above:  The Seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony

Image in the Public Domain



British Quaker Martyr in Boston, Massachusetts Bay Colony, 1661

For bearing my testimony for the Lord against deceivers and the deceived, I am brought here to suffer.

–William Leddra, on the day he died

People who execute pacifists do not impress me.

William Leddra comes to this, A Great Cloud of Witnesses:  An Ecumenical Calendar of Saints’ Days and Holy Days, via G. Scott Cady and Christopher L. Webber, A Year with American Saints (2006).  Their source lists March 24, 1661, as the date of Leddra’s judicial murder.  Nevertheless, most other sources I consulted list the date as March 14, 1661.

Those who claim that most Puritans who settled in what became the United States sought religious freedom either lie or labor under a misconception.

The majority of Puritans, whether in the old country or on this side of the Pond, created and maintained theocracies when they had the opportunity.  Religious toleration was not a dominant Puritan value; religious persecution was.

Quakers, with their pacifism, egalitarianism, and mysticism, threatened the hierarchical Puritan social order by merely existing.  Being a Quaker in Puritan colonies in New England was illegal, therefore.  In the Massachusetts Bay Colony, prior to 1659, penalties included:

  1. Expulsion,
  2. Lashing behind a cart,
  3. Abandonment deep in a forest,
  4. Branding with an “H” for “heretic,”
  5. Branding of the tongue, and
  6. Cutting off of the ears.

Some Quakers, convinced that their Inner Light told them to preach the Friends gospel despite the risks, returned anyway.  From 1659 to 1661, in the Massachusetts Bay colony, the list of penalties expanded to include death by hanging.  Four Quakers became martyrs.  Marmaduke Stephenson and William Robinson died on October 27, 1659.  Mary Dyer received the crown of martyrdom on June 1, 1660.   

Leddra, who was married, was a native of Cornwall, England, who had moved to Barbados then to New England.  He converted to the Religious Society of Friends.  Our saint, a clothier, arrived in Rhode Island in 1658.  He would have been safe there, with the greatest risk being Roger Williams arguing with him and accusing him of heresy.  Leddra, however, went to Connecticut, the government of which banished him.  Then our saint traveled to Salem, Massachusetts Bay.  Authorities arrested Leddra and transported him to Boston.  Our saint, banished from the colony, returned to it.  Authorities arrested him again in April 1659.  Our saint, incarcerated again in October 1659, went on trial before Governor John Endecott in March 1661.  The sentence was death by hanging.

In May 1661, Puritan authorities received new orders from King Charles II forbidding any more executions for alleged heresy.  This order arrived in time to prevent a fifth execution for being a Quaker in the Massachusetts Bay colony.

I use absolute terms, such as “never,” sparingly, so take note, O reader.

Freedom is never absolute; life in society requires the surrender of some individual freedom from everyone for the common good.  Consider a practical, generally non-controversial example, O reader; we must, for the sake of all, obey traffic laws.  Freedom of religion should be as broad as possible, with sensible restrictions.  One should never, for example, get away with child abuse or endangering public health on the grounds of freedom of religion.  And, if one’s religion mandates an honor killing, a court should define that act as murder.  Law is easy at the extremes.  On the opposite extreme, the mere refusal to conform to theocracy or a dominant form of faith should never constitute a crime, and law should bend over backward, so to speak, to allow for a wide variety of peaceful expressions of religion, within reasonable limits.  Life in a free society requires much mutual toleration.

Quakers, with their theology of the Inner Light, affirmed that God spoke to everyone.  The most germane question, from that perspective, was if one was listening.  This doctrine called into question the Puritan spiritual hierarchy, with the ministers at its heart.  Quakerism constituted an existential threat to the Puritan social order.

Authorities tend to go to great and frequently morally unjustifiable lengths to protect the social order.  If morally unjustifiable lengths prove necessary to preserve that social order, perhaps it should fall, so that a just society may emerge.





Gracious Lord, in every age you have sent men and women

who have given their lives for the message of your love.

Inspire us with the memory of those martyrs for the Gospel

[like your servant William Leddra] whose faithfulness led them in the way of the cross,

and give us courage to bear full witness with our lives to

your Son’s victory over sin and death; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Ezekiel 20:40-42

Psalm 5

Revelation 6:9-11

Mark 8:34-38

–Adapted from the Lutheran Book of Worship (1978), 37


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