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by Henry Onderdonk, Jr.
Hempstead, N.Y.
courtesy of Jim Pearsall

It was in August, 1657, over two centuries ago, that an English ship, with eleven Quaker preachers, first reached the New Netherlands, then under the governorship of Peter Stuyvesant.

They came with the avowed purpose of disseminating their principles in the city of New Amsterdam and on Long Island. It was on a Saturday that they landed, and the very next day, Sunday, two of their number paid a religious visit to the Governor, to acquaint him with the object of their mission. They found him "moderate both in words and actions." The next day, Monday, two women-preachers, under a feeling of religious duty, went into the streets of the city and publicly exhorted the people to turn from the error of their ways and listen to the strange doctrines of the new missionaries. The scene was odd and startling to the Dutch citizens; and the magistrates arrested the disturbers of the public peace without hesitation, and committed them to prison. What further proceedings took place we know not, except that after eight days' detention they were taken from prison, their hands pinioned behind them, (as was the custom of those days), and escorted to a vessel at the dock, which soon set sail for Rhode Island, then the hot-bed of toleration.

In the meantime the other Quaker missionaries were not idle. Robert Hodgson, with two fellow-laborers in the ministry, proceeded to visit the English settlements of Long Island, who were represented as having among them "many sincere seekers after Heavenly riches, and were prepared to appreciate those Spiritual views of religion which these Gospel messengers had to declare."

They proceeded first to Gravesend, where "their testimony was well received:" for the early settlers of this town were of English origin, mostly from Massachusetts, and of Quaker proclivities. Thence they passed to Jamaica, another Puritan settlement, where the way was already open for these preachers of new Gospel. We need not wonder that they were here "received with gladness."

So far all went well with our sturdy reformers. They next went on eastward, to the village of Hempstead, where they also met with settlers who welcomed them to their homes, and as Hodgson expressed it, "rejoiced in the spread of those living truths which were preached among them." His two compainions here left him and proceeded on toward the east end of Long Island. He was now alone, and on the "First Day," or Sunday, after his arrival, for want of a suitable building, he appointed a meeting to be held in an orchard, to which he invited the inhabitants.

Now Hempstead had been settled about 16 years before by a New England colony. The town had an organized magistracy, and a regularly-establish church and minister. The authorities had no notion of having their Sabbath worship interfered with in this way. There lived in the village Richard Gildersleeve, a justice of the peace, with Stuyvesant's commission in his pocket. He had, perhaps, been notified to be on the alert and put a stop to such irregularities. Be that as it may, as soon as he was aware of the intended meeting, he issued a warrant to a constable to arrest the preacher. The officer arrived on the ground a little before the hour for meeting, and finding Hodgson "pacing the orchard alone, in quiet meditation," he laid hold of him at once, and haled him to the magistrate, who left him a prisoner in his own private house, while he (the justice) went to the Presbyterian church (Mr. Denton's) for morning worship. But the wily Quaker outwitted the magistrate; for during his absence the prisoner, by his loud voice and energetic action, (probably in preaching from a window), had collected a large crowd of listeners, "who staid and heard the truth declared." Mr. Gildersleeve was so annoyed, on his return home from worship, to find that his dwelling had answered all the purposes of a chapel, that his prisoner had had so favorable an opportunity for spreading his doctrines, and that he could not stop his mouth, that he instantly wrote a mittimus for his removal to another house; for Hempstead did not then boast of a lockup or house of detention. The change of place did not, however, prevent the people from visiting Hodgson, during the latter part of the day; so fond were they of novelty and excitement. "In the afternoon," says Hodgson, "many came to me, and even those that had been mine enemies, after they had heard truth, confessed to it."

The probable cause of Hodgson's favorable reception at Hempstead was that the church and its support was part and parcel of the town expenses. The church-goers were divided in sentiment: some were Independents or Brownists, and some Presbyterians. The tax was burdensome to the free-thinkers and the lukewarm Christians; hence, any attack on the established Church was welcome. Beside these there were always those who are fond of any "new doctrine." Hodgson says there was another magistrate in Hempstead, (Capt. John Seaman), who disapproved of Gildersleeve's course of action, and he insists that the most respectable inhabitants of the town concurred that opinion, but that the persecuting justice, taking counsel of the ruder sort, as soon as he had committed the stranger to prison, set off on horseback to New Amsterdam, to bear the good news in person to Stryvesant, who congratulated him on his efforts to suppress the "Quaker heresy," and forthwith dispatched to Hempstead the sheriff and gaoler with a guard of twelve musketeers, to bring Hodgson and those who had entertained him in their houses to the Fort in the city.

As soon as the escort arrived in Hempstead they searched Hodgson and took from him his little pocket-Bible,* pocket-knife, papers and some other articles. He was then pinioned with cords, as was the custom at that time, and remanded to prison for the night.
(*The Quaker preachers always had a Bible at hand, which they referred to and quoted in support of their doctrines.)

During the interval the officers of the law were busy searching "for those two women who had entertained the stranger."

Thus passed the night. Next morning all was bustle in making preparation for conveying the prisoners to the Governor. A cart was procured, in which were seated the two women, (one of whom had a child at the breast), and Hodgson was to trot on behind, his arms being pinioned, and he fastened to the hinder part of the cart. In this manner, under military escort, they travelled to the city, about twenty miles, over open fields and through the woods; for the country was yet new, mostly unsettled, and no roads had yet been made. As part of the journey was performed in the darkness of night, need we wonder that it was painful to the prisoners, and that Hodgson's arms were chafed by the cords and his legs much bruised and torn by the briers and brambles that infested his path?

On their arrival at the Fort, the women were put in prison, but soon after allowed to return to their families. Hodgson, the chief offender, being loosed from the cart-tail, was led by the gaoler to a "dungeon, full of vermin, and so odious for wet and dirt, as he never saw before." Next day he was examined. He understood not a word of Dutch, but availed himself of Capt. Willet as an interpreter. We have no record of the proceedings of the Court, but Hodgson was no doubt refractory and defiant. Hence he was sentenced to pay a fine of 600 guilders ($240). failing or refusing to do which, he was to serve two years at a wheel-barrow, locked with a chain. Hodgson wished to argue the matter with the Court, but was put off. On his refusal to work he was severely and repeatedly scourged. Hodgson concludes his narrative by saying: "But after I had wrought one week, I had liberty to speak to many that did resort unto me." About the middle of September, at the intercession of some friends, he was released from prison and put on board a vessel for Rhode Island. Thus ended the first Quaker persecution. continue Part II