I advise people who desire, above all things, to have a comfortable time in the world to be good conservatives. Do as other people do, think as other people think, swim with the current – that is the way to glide pleasantly down the stream of life. But mark, O you lovers of inglorious ease, the men who are remembered with honor after they are dead do not do so! They sometimes breast the current, and often have a hard time of it, with the water splashing back in their faces, and the easy-going crowd jeering at them as they pant against the tide.
This valiant, stalwart Puritan, Major Robert Pike, of Salisbury, Massachusetts, who was born in 1616, the year in which Shakespeare died, is a case in point. Salisbury, in the early day, was one of the frontier towns of Massachusetts, lying north of the Merrimac River, and close to the Atlantic Ocean. For fifty years it was a kind of outpost of that part of the State. It lay right in the path by which the Indians of Maine and Canada were accustomed to slink down along the coast, often traveling on the sands of the beaches, and burst upon the settlements. During a long lifetime Major Pike was a magistrate and personage in that town, one of the leading spirits, upon whom the defense of the frontier chiefly devolved.
Others were as brave as he in fighting Indians. Many a man could acquit himself valiantly in battle who would not have the courage to differ from the public opinion of his community. But on several occasions, when Massachusetts was wrong, Major Pike was right; and he had the courage sometimes to resist the current of opinion when it was swollen into a raging torrent. He opposed, for example, the persecution of the Quakers, which is such a blot upon the records both of New England and old England. We can imagine what it must have cost to go against this policy by a single incident, which occurred in the year 1659 in Robert Pike’s own town of Salisbury.
On a certain day in August, Thomas Macy was caught in a violent storm of rain, and hurried home drenched to the skin. He found in his house four wayfarers, who had also come in for shelter. His wife being sick in bed, no one had seen or spoken to them. They asked him how far it was to Casco Bay. From their dress and demeanor he thought they might be Quakers, and, as it was unlawful to harbor persons of that sect, he asked them to go on their way, since he feared to give offense in entertaining them. As soon as the worst of the storm was over, they left, and he never saw them again. They were in his house about three quarters of an hour, during which he said very little to them, having himself come home wet, and found his wife sick.
He was summoned to Boston, forty miles distant, to answer for this offense. Being unable to walk, and not rich enough to buy a horse, he wrote to the General Court, relating the circumstances, and explaining his non-appearance. He was fined thirty shillings, and ordered to be admonished by the governor. He paid his fine, received his reprimand, and removed to the island of Nantucket, of which he was the first settler, and for some time the only white inhabitant.
During this period of Quaker persecution, Major Pike led the opposition to it in Salisbury, until, at length, William Penn prevailed upon Charles II. to put an end to it in all his dominions. If the history of that period had not been so carefully recorded in official documents, we could scarcely believe to what a point the principle of authority was then carried. One of the laws which Robert Pike dared openly to oppose made it a misdemeanor for any one to exhort on Sunday who had not been regularly ordained. He declared that the men who voted for that law had broken their oaths, for they had sworn on taking their seats to enact nothing against the just liberty of Englishmen. For saying this he was pronounced guilty of „defaming” the legislature, and he was sentenced to be disfranchised, disabled from holding any public office, bound to good behavior, and fined twenty marks, equal to about two hundred dollars in our present currency.
Petitions were presented to the legislature asking the remission of the severe sentence. But even this was regarded as a criminal offense, and proceedings were instituted against every signer. A few acknowledged that the signing was an offense, and asked the forgiveness of the court, but all the rest were required to give bonds for their appearance to answer.
Another curious incident shows the rigor of the government of that day. According to the Puritan law, Sunday began at sunset on Saturday evening, and ended at sunset on Sunday evening. During the March thaw of 1680, Major Pike had occasion to go to Boston, then a journey of two days. Fearing that the roads were about to break up, he determined to start on Sunday evening, get across the Merrimac, which was then a matter of difficulty during the melting of the ice, and make an early start from the other side of the river on Monday morning. The gallant major being, of course, a member of the church, and very religious, went to church twice that Sunday. Now, as to what followed, I will quote the testimony of an eye-witness, his traveling companion: –
„I do further testify that, though it was pretty late ere Mr. Burrows (the clergyman) ended his afternoon’s exercise, yet did the major stay in his daughter’s house till repetition of both forenoon and afternoon sermons was over, and the duties of the day concluded with prayer; and, after a little stay, to be sure the sun was down, then we mounted, and not till then. The sun did indeed set in a cloud, and after we were mounted, I do remember the major spake of lightening up where the sun set; but I saw no sun.”
A personal enemy of the major’s brought a charge against him of violating the holy day by starting on his journey before the setting of the sun. The case was brought for trial, and several witnesses were examined. The accuser testified that „he did see Major Robert Pike ride by his house toward the ferry upon the Lord’s day when the sun was about half an hour high.” Another witness confirmed this. Another testified: –
„The sun did indeed set in a cloud, and, a little after the major was mounted, there appeared a light where the sun went down, which soon vanished again, possibly half a quarter of an hour.”
Nevertheless, there were two witnesses who declared that the sun was not down when the major mounted, and so this worthy gentleman, then sixty-four years of age, a man of honorable renown in the commonwealth, was convicted of „profaning the Sabbath,” fined ten shillings, and condemned to pay costs and fees, which were eight shillings more. He paid his fine, and was probably more careful during the rest of his life to mount on Sunday evenings by the almanac.
The special glory of this man’s life was his steadfast and brave opposition to the witchcraft mania of 1692. This deplorable madness was in New England a mere transitory panic, from which the people quickly recovered; but while it lasted it almost silenced opposition, and it required genuine heroism to lift a voice against it. No country of Europe was free from the delusion during that century, and some of its wisest men were carried away by it. The eminent judge, Sir William Blackstone, in his „Commentaries,” published in 1765, used this language: –
„To deny the existence of witchcraft is to flatly contradict the revealed word of God, and the thing itself is a truth to which every nation has in its turn borne testimony.”
This was the conviction of that age, and hundreds of persons were executed for practicing witchcraft. In Massachusetts, while the mania lasted, fear blanched every face and haunted every house.
It was the more perilous to oppose the trials because there was a mingling of personal malevolence in the fell business, and an individual who objected was in danger of being himself accused. No station, no age, no merit, was a sufficient protection. Mary Bradbury, seventy-five years of age, the wife of one of the leading men of Salisbury, a woman of singular excellence and dignity of character, was among the convicted. She was a neighbor of Major Pike’s, and a life-long friend.
In the height of the panic he addressed to one of the judges an argument against the trials for witchcraft which is one of the most ingenious pieces of writing to be found among the documents of that age. The peculiarity of it is that the author argues on purely Biblical grounds; for he accepted the whole Bible as authoritative, and all its parts as equally authoritative, from Genesis to Revelation. His main point was that witchcraft, whatever it may be, cannot be certainly proved against any one. The eye, he said, may be deceived; the ear may be; and all the senses. The devil himself may take the shape and likeness of a person or thing, when it is not that person or thing. The truth on the subject, he held, lay out of the range of mortal ken.
„And therefore,” he adds, „I humbly conceive that, in such a difficulty, it may be more safe, for the present, to let a guilty person live till further discovery than to put an innocent person to death.”
Happily this mania speedily passed, and troubled New England no more. Robert Pike lived many years longer, and died in 1706, when he was nearly ninety-one years of age. He was a farmer, and gained a considerable estate, the whole of which he gave away to his heirs before his death. The house in which he lived is still standing in the town of Salisbury, and belongs to his descendants; for on that healthy coast men, families, and houses decay very slowly. James S. Pike, one of his descendants, the well-remembered „J. S. P.” of the „Tribune’s” earlier day, and now an honored citizen of Maine, has recently written a little book about this ancient hero who assisted to set his fellow-citizens right when they were going wrong.