Sunday, May 8, 2016

The Puritans, The Quakers, and Little Old Me (Reflections on A Measure of Light)

A couple of weeks ago, a new novel mentioned on Facebook piqued my interest. I ordered it almost immediately. A Measure of Light, by bestselling Canadian author Beth Powning, retells the story of Mary Dyer, an English woman who came to Massachusetts as a persecuted Puritan, yet later became one of the earliest American Quakers. 

My mind always seeks connections between what I read and my own life and family, and this was an immediate grab for me. One of my ancestors, Margaret Stevenson Scott, was the last and oldest person hanged by the Puritans in the Salem witch trials. And I also knew that some of my other ancestors were New England Quakers in the 1600 and 1700's. This is not just a historical and genealogical interest for me, either. There is so much in my own life story which resonates with the contrast of Puritans and Quakers.

I'm not sure I was prepared for how this book affected me. And I certainly wasn't prepared for what I found out just after I read it; I was shocked to my core. I'll save that juicy part of the story for the end of this post. (No fair peeking!)

I already knew of the tragic conflicts between Puritans and Quakers from teaching American history to my own children and my home school co-op students for many years. In particular, I love the novel The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare. Yet that was a book for children. An adult level novel like A Measure of Light can fully explore more complexities and nuances, as well as more mature subject matter. Clue: this is not a romance novel.

As the story opens, Mary and her husband William are gravely concerned about the cruel way that the Church of England was treating Puritans. Encouraged by their friend Anne Hutchinson and her husband Will, they decide to flee to America for safety and freedom of worship. On arriving, though, Mary realizes that the Puritans are just as harsh in their punishments against those who dissent from what they believe is the true faith. A culture of strict legalism, fear of divine retribution, demonization of others outside the community (especially native Americans), and tight religious/political control rules the colony. There is little sense of God's loving grace and gospel liberty. Anne helps Mary navigate through the difficulties of adjusting to the community and to motherhood. As a loyal disciple of the Reverend John Cotton, Anne has been entrusted with elucidating his sermons in her home meetings to make the theological meanings clear to the other women. As time passes, Anne puts more emphasis on grace and liberty in her lectures, and men begin attending. All of this ultimately brings her into sharp opposition with Cotton and the other Puritan leaders. She is banished from the colony, and her followers, including the Dyers, move south to Rhode Island. Later, Mary Dyer returns to England for several years and becomes a devout Quaker, passionate about sharing the measure of light she has received with other seeking souls. She is also determined to take a stand for religious liberty for the Quakers in America, and repeatedly risks her own life to plead the cause of those who have been imprisoned and sentenced to death. 

I thought long about her conversion. It is true that the Quakers were not the most orthodox in their theology, particularly in the area of salvation and atonement. However, there is so much to admire. They believe in equality and mutual respect between men and women, between races and nationalities, and between varying socio-economic levels. They believe in peace and simplicity and quietness and supportive communities. They believe in social justice and were key figures in the Underground Railroad. They seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit and an authentic relationship with God. 

I look at the Puritans, who perhaps technically had a more "correct" theological underpinning, but whose application was at times so appalling and soul-shriveling that it negated any benefit. History does not usually look kindly upon them, except for the Pilgrims and Thanksgiving. Then I look at the Quakers, who were a bit loose in their doctrine, but whose application of their FAITH brought life and health and joy to them, as well as empowerment and justice to others.

This is a clear contrast in the book. We cannot know everything of Mary Dyer's true history, but the novel imagines her depression and anxiety, her disconnection from the God she once knew, the difficulties faced in bonding with her children when she has been warned of undue attachments, and her devastation at giving birth to a deformed stillborn baby and then hearing her religious leaders claim this was God's wrath against her. As a Quaker, she is still a very complex woman with deep wounds and a dysfunctional family, at least in the novel version. This is not a happy ever after tale. She has suffered so much spiritually and emotionally, and that leaves a deep imprint on the soul. Yet I rejoiced when she found her "measure of light" and regained a well-seasoned faith, hope, joy, and peace in the midst of the unrelenting challenges she faced. Mary Dyer was hanged in June 1660 after courageously returning to Boston (from which she had been banished) to demand a change to the bloody laws against Quakers. However, as news of this and other executions traveled throughout the colonies and to England, the Puritan leaders were ultimately forced to stop persecuting the Quakers. Unfortunately, that still didn't prevent the Salem Witch Trials. My ancestor, poor old Margaret Scott, an impoverished cranky widow falsely accused of witchcraft, was hanged in September 1692.

But jumping back to my own book reading experience... I started weeping fairly early on, even in the initial descriptions of the colony. This hit way too close to home for me. For many years, we were members of Sovereign Grace Ministries, a church movement heavily influenced by neo-Puritan thought. At the start, I was quite enthusiastic about this. We were the spiritual elite. We could handle the rigorous theology and the expectations for our lifestyle. It was a small price to pay for being so right, eh? Over time, though, my spirit withered under the culture of legalism, control, fear, and a strong emphasis on purging sin from our souls under the watchful guidance of our leaders, whom we were admonished to obey. They also expressed a strong disdain for professional counseling. I held it together the best I could, but I felt like I was under scrutiny. I could never be good enough. I am more of a free spirit, a fluid poet soul. And as a woman, I had little voice, at least when it came to anything of importance outside of my domestic sphere of home schooling and homemaking. We were to live in quietness and deference to men. 

In 2008, I stumbled on two SGM protest blogs, and my tidy yet tenuous little church life really started to unravel. I learned about the devastating effect that the heavy theology and abuse of pastoral and family authority had on members, especially the women and youth. Depression. Anxiety. Morbid introspection. Teen rebellion. Substance abuse. Suicide. Child abuse. Domestic violence. Yikes. That wasn't all. SGM has been embroiled in child molestation scandals for decades, unbeknownst to most members until the accumulated Internet reports hit like a bomb. Families were ordered to not report these crimes to the police; they were to be handled in the church and hushed up. I was disgusted. 

Here is just one example of my experience there toward the end: When I tried to speak up for living by grace in a Bible study meeting, I was openly shamed and ridiculed by a fellow member and nobody would come to my defense. He said he was going to park his (metaphorical) bus over my ideas and back up three times. Grace is for weak little pansies. He insisted that the Christian life is all about violently mortifying our sin. I was then castigated by someone else for daring to correct this man privately for his unacceptable behavior. Because I was a woman, I was supposed to suck it up in silence and accept his superior wisdom. (Here's the irony: This man is different now. He listened and he apologized. Seriously.) I can think of several other times I was chided or silenced in that church for encouraging others to live in authentic grace or for speaking up about abuse of authority. 

By 2010, I'd had enough. My eyes were opened to the deep damage done to my own family, especially my children. It is still hard to shake the sobering knowledge that I allowed this, and that it still profoundly affects them. I found a good grace-filled Christian therapist who patiently walked me through the issues. We left the church that July, along with hundreds of other members of our congregation. I wrote this poem as we were leaving: It Became to Me a Dark Thing. The church eventually parted company with SGM, as did dozens of others. SGM hasn't improved any, and they've come under scathing public criticism, protests at the 2016 T4G conference, and lawsuits. Despite all of this, I do have countless happy memories from this church, too, and many beloved friends there. So many kind and generous and creative people. We've all learned so much. I've had great conversations with the pastors since we left, and I appreciate their sensitivity to my concerns. So there's that. 

I am now a member of a small Presbyterian (PCA) congregation that doesn't get hyped about neo-Calvinism, thank you Jesus. I am still recovering, but at least I found a safe place to land and heal. I am also still seeing a professional therapist.

Like Mary Dyer, in this long process of waking up and moving on, I finally lost my fear and found my true voice. I am a woman, and I am empowered to speak the truth in love. I am a woman, and I can live by the power of the Holy Spirit. I am a woman, and I can be an advocate for the vulnerable among us. I am a woman and a Mama Bear. I wrote so many blog posts on abuse of authority in churches, families, and the home school movement that I eventually started this Watch the Shepherd niche blog for them. It now has 160 posts with over 160,000 page views. 

Yet, like Mary Dyer, I too have suffered much in my soul. I can write around the tattered edges of my own story, but the darker parts are etched deep within my consciousness. While healing comes as a measure of light year by year, the scars cannot be fully undone this side of eternity. I weep as I write.

And I am shaking again as I write this last part, the part about what I learned after I set down the book. I thought of my second cousin Ellen, and briefly posted on her Facebook wall that I thought she'd like the book. Based on what she posts, she has a Quakerish soul, I think. Then as an afterthought, I told her that we have common Quaker heritage and sent her a link to a blog post (The Quakers Up My Family Tree) that I wrote two years ago. Thinking of that old post made me curious, wondering if there were any connections between Mary Dyer and my Quaker ancestors. I read the list of names and saw the English immigrant Noel Mew and his daughter Mary. (Side note: The name Mary was handed down this family line every two or three generations from Mary Mew in the 1600's until my own daughter Mary.) Anyway, I Googled "Mary Dyer" and "Noel Mew" together and came up with a genealogy post for the descendents of a man named Edward Wanton. I was fascinated to find that he was an officer stationed at the base of the gallows where Mary Dyer was hanged. Edward Wanton was so struck and convicted by Mary's faith and courage and by the cruelty of the Puritans -- that he became a Quaker himself. Wow. That is powerful. 

Edward Wanton

But that is not all. After his conversion, Edward Wanton got married, became a Quaker preacher, and had a Quaker family of his own. Two of his sons became colonial governors in Rhode Island. And then how about this? His son Michael married Mary Mew! Thus Edward Wanton is my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather. I let that sink in and realized that if he hadn't become a Quaker because of standing at the gallows of courageous Mary Dyer, I would not be here. This ripple effect has washed over me like a tidal wave. What she did became my story. I am here because of her. And I am changed by reading her example. I am so grateful. In turn, what I do and what I say becomes the story of others. 

I look at my computer clock here in 2016. Midnight on the dot. It is now Mother's Day.

I am a woman. I am a mother and a grandmother. I have a voice and I'm not afraid to use it. This has already made a difference to many. By the grace and power of God, my life and words will ripple forth and change history. Join me?

2012: My daughter Mary and her two
oldest sons, my late mother Mary,
my late grandmother Dorothy, and me.

Related blog posts: