Whittier as Quaker

The King's Missive

John Endicott, Governor of MassachusettsA ballad commissioned by James R. Osgood for The Memorial History of Boston in 1880 describes, with poetic license, a memorable incident in the history of the city. A group of Quakers, condemned to death, are granted a pardon from the King, brought by a Quaker, Samuel Shattuck, to Governor Endicott. Osgood had provided Whittier with a list of events, from which he chose this one for “The King’s Missive.” The events occurred in 1661.

Governor Endicott is speaking in this stanza:

Under the great hill sloping bare
To cover and meadow and Common lot,
In his council chamber and oaken chair,
Sat the worshipful Governor Endicott.
A grave strong man, who knew no peer
In the pilgrim land, where he ruled in fear
Of God, not man, and for good or ill
Held his trust with an iron will.

He had shorn with his sword the cross from out
The flag, and cloven the May-pole down,
Harried the heathen round about,
And whipped the Quakers from town to town.
Earnest and honest, a man at need
To burn like a torch for his own harsh creed,
He kept with the flaming brand of his zeal
The gates of the holy common weal.

His brow was clouded, his eye was stern,
With a look of mingled sorrow and wrath;
“Woe’s me! He murmured: “at every turn
The pestilent Quakers are in my path!
Some we have scourged, and banished some,
Some hanged, more doomed, and still they come,
Fast as the tide of yon bay sets in,
Sowing their heresy’s seed of sin.

“Did we count on this? Did we leave behind
The graves of our kin, the comfort and ease
Of our English hearths and homes, to find
Troublers of Israel such as these?
Shall I spare?  Shall I pity them?  God forbid!
I will do as the prophet to Agag did:
They come to poison the wells of the Word,
I will hew them in pieces before the Lord!”

The Quaker, Samuel Shattuck, enters with a missive from the King.  After he reads it, Endicott changes course:

He turned to the Quaker, bowing low--
“The king commandeth your friends’ release;
Doubt not he shall be obeyed, although
‘To his subjects’ sorrow and sin’s increase,
‘What he here enjoineth, John Endicott,
His loyal servant, questioneth not.
You are free! God grant the spirit you own
May take you from us to parts unknown.”

So the door of the jail was open cast,
And, like Daniel, out of the lion’s den
Tender youth and girlhood passed,
With age-bowed women and gray-locked men.


So passed the Quakers through Boston town,
Whose painful ministers sighed to see
The walls of their sheep-fold falling down,
And wolves of heresy prowling free.
But the years went on, and brought no wrong;
With milder counsels the State grew strong,
As outward Letter and inward Light
Kept the balance of truth aright.


Full text of "The King's Missive"

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