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  • Writer's pictureTim Burns

Hiking with the Ghosts of the Quakers

The Quakers have Left their Graves.

Quakers immigrated to New England in the mid-1650s, over 300 years ago. The powers of the Commonwealth of Massachusettes did not welcome them. They humiliated them in stocks, publically whipped them, burned their books, and even hanged Mary Dwyer because she gave birth to a stillborn and deformed child. Her crime? As a Quaker, she was a heretic, and the abnormal pregnancy was the mark of the Devil.

I cannot help but make the connection between those who persecuted immigrants, religious minorities, and women long ago and those who persecute them today.

Benedict Arnold, whose great-grandson was the infamous traitor Benedict Arnold of the American Revolution, said of the Quakers:

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,

After harsh treatment in Massachusetts, the Quakers sought refuge in the southern Rhode Island town of Newport.

Not long after the Quakers moved to Newport, Benedict Arnold rose to power, and his contempt for the Quakers manifested in word and deed. Unwelcome again, the Quakers moved north of Providence into the woods and hills of Northern Rhode Island. With ample rivers for grain mills and some of the few lime quarries for building materials. They built the Saylesville Friends meeting house in 1704.

In the rocky woodlands of Northern Rhode Island, the Quakers mingled with the native tribes of the Nipmuck, where they lived and died. I often run across their cemeteries in the woods.

An Early Quaker Tombstone with a Notch (Photo by Author)

A couple of weeks ago, I learned about a cemetery I've passed countless times and never noticed. The Rev. Ken Postle of the Blackstone Valley Historical Society was working on elevating the tombstones buried under the hundreds of years of the earth in reverence for the souls long gone.

Early Quaker Tombstones did not have markings because of their value of simplicity and humility. They have a small notch at the top cut into the rock. The gravesite has both a headstone and a smaller footstone. Each grave orients to the east to await Jesus' resurrection and second coming in Jerusalem. Plots with a mother and baby that both died in childbirth are side-by-side. The headstone and footstone outline her bones beneath the earth, and the smaller one outlines the bones of her child. No names or dates - just a stone to mark their shared passing.

Even in the solitude of the woods, we are walking among the ghosts of the past as we live with the monsters of the present. Bigotry, ignorance, misogyny, intolerance, and state-sponsored violence still plague our society. The bones of old sins color our current world and linger like the bones of the victims of past injustice. Thomas Merton once said:

Let no one hope to find in contemplation an escape from conflict, from anguish or from doubt. On the contrary, the deep inexpressible certitude of the contemplative experience awakens a tragic anguish and opens many questions in the depths of the heart like wounds that cannot stop bleeding.

The presence of a sacred place in the woods is an opportunity to listen to the present and think about the past. We can gather hope, resolution, and courage from knowing that those who have opposed persecution and lived to make the world better came long before us, and we, too, can oppose persecution and spend our brief time here making the world better.

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