Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture

Uncommon Sense—the blog

Finding Elizabeth Hooton’s story

· February 22nd, 2017 · 3 Comments

Today’s post is by Adrian Chastain Weimer, author of “Elizabeth Hooton and the Lived Politics of Toleration in Massachusetts Bay” in the January 2017 edition of the William and Mary Quarterly.

Elizabeth Hooton has intrigued me for years. An itinerant prophet in the seventeenth-century who perfected the art of cursing ministers and magistrates, she sat down comfortably in elite Boston merchants’ living rooms and talked politics with royal commissioners. She was often whipped and banished, yet the more I deciphered her manuscript letters I was convinced that these prosecutions were far from the focal point of her life. She cared about what she termed “righteousness” and “wickedness,” and, perhaps more surprisingly, she cared about land – most of all the chance to acquire real estate in Boston. Her strategic political interventions fit uneasily with the existing historiography on the early Restoration era, on early Quakerism, and on colonial New England. What kind of a king gives a royal license to a Quaker woman to buy property anywhere in the English colonies? What kind of a Quaker woman obtains such a letter and then uses it to call out colonial magistrates on their seditious intent? What kind of Boston magistrates allow a Quaker to buy land in the countryside as long as she stays out of their backyard? Hooton invited me into an unstable, ad hoc political world, a world where the relationship between religious zeal and political order was still up for grabs.

Tracking Hooton around the English Atlantic (she traveled all over England and to Virginia, New Netherland, New England, Barbados, and Jamaica), I learned to ask for help and to rely on the generosity of archivists – I am especially grateful to the staff at the Library of the Religious Society of Friends. I also had to learn to trust my instincts. A very senior historian once suggested to me that Hooton’s writings on her trips to the colonies might be forgeries. If her stories were true, how could earlier historians have missed them? Terrified that the forgery theory was right, I spent way too many hours in the Massachusetts Archives looking for her name in the records of the county courts. As the staff at the judicial archive was packing up for the weekend and I had almost abandoned the search, I spotted a case with the name “Hotten.” Even better, the court record included dialogue from the trial that sounded almost eerily like her own voice in her letters (in trademark style, she called Harvard ministerial students “a Cage of unclean birds”).

The reviewers and editors for the WMQ did an extraordinary job helping me to clarify the implications of Hooton’s story for the history of toleration. As readers of the WMQ will know, this is a rapidly moving field in both England and America, with terrific books upending old assumptions all the time (for example, Evan Haefeli and Chris Beneke’s in the colonies, and Ethan Shagan and Scott Sowerby’s work for the English side, just to name a few of the more recent examples).[1] Stereotypes of draconian magistrates and cowering minorities persist. Yet more and more we are identifying the range of specific beliefs and day-to-day practices undergirding political negotiations. It was important to me in this article, which is part of larger project on religion and the crisis of the Restoration in America, to acknowledge Hooton as a savvy political actor as well as a target of judicial prosecution. Hooton and other Quaker leaders such as Margaret Fell, Wenlock Christiansen, and Edward Burrough were increasingly willing to take strategic risks and forge alliances even with those whose religious beliefs they found problematic. The rigorous nature of the WMQ review process made me more aware than ever that I am part of a lively field, uncovering how religious and other minority groups helped to shape the political landscape, though not always in traditional, broad-minded, or predictable ways.

 

[1] Evan Haefeli, New Netherland and the Dutch Origins of American Religious Liberty (Philadelphia, 2012); Chris Beneke, Beyond Toleration: The Religious Origins of American Pluralism (New York, 2006); Shagan, The Rule of Moderation: Violence, Religion and the Politics of Restraint in Early Modern England (New York, 2011); Scott Sowerby, Making Toleration: The Repealers and the Glorious Revolution (Cambridge, 2013).

3 Responses

  1. Jeanne buckingham says:

    I am a granddaughter of Elizabeth Hooton. Do you know the mss Elizabeth Hooton by Emily Manners?

  2. Kate Lynch says:

    In your research did you happen to come across any references to the Flushing (in today’s Queens, NY) Quaker, Hannah Bowne, wife of John Bowne? Hannah died in London in 1677 while on a Quaker mission.

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