One Hundred Years Later, Same Message. 1916 - 2017
Friday, September 16, 2011
THE FIRST DISSENTER
I suppose someone had to be first, and John Billington was as likely a choice as any other man. Rumor has it that John left England in 1620 to escape his creditors. That would not have been unusual in a time when debt was a crime. Still, if he was a Catholic, as others rumors indicate, that would have been enough to drive John Billington to abandon the world he knew for the dangers of a distant, unsettled shore, looking for what was to be a basic American trait, religous freedom. He did not find it. What we know as fact, is that of all the voyagers who sailed on board the Mayflower, only forty could have been called "Puritans", or "Pilgrim Fathers". The majority, sixty-one men, women and children, were Anglicans or Catholics, who seem to have been dispised by their dispised shipmates.
John Billington was also middle aged, about 40 years old, rather ancient for an adventurer. He brought with him a wife, Eleanor, and their two young sons, John Jr. and Francis. And together their family was beginning a great adventure they were not welcomed upon.
The voyage had been organized by a group who called (and saw) themselves as “The Saints”. And they were not pleased to find the financial investors in their dream, interested only in profit, had betrayed them, leaving "The Saints" in a minority to “The Strangers”, as they immediatly began calling their new shipmates.
"The Saints" found themselves stuffed aboard a leaky ship, just 90 feet long by barely 24 feet wide, giving them 2,160 square feet of living space (a moderate sized two bedroom house) for 102 passengers and a twenty man crew. Instead of escaping the horrors of a multi-faith nation, "The Saints" found themselves imprisoned with one, dragging it along with them. And they found the burden oppressive.
After two and a half months of living hell on storm tossed seas the Mayflower anchored at the edge of the New World, sheltered by a sandy spit of land. And it was here that "The Saints" faced with what they called a “mutiny”. Through the myopia of history, we choose to describe it as 'the birth of democracy'." It was unwelcome. You see, "The Strangers" were not being landed where they had been promised, in the established colony of Virginia, but on unexplored and unprepared ground far to the north. And "The Strangers" were suspicious that this had been the intention of "The Saints" all along. And indeed that seems to have been the truth. Just to get "The Strangers" to disembark and to agree to work together in this unknown land "The Saints" were forced to compromise their faith, right on the edge of their religous paradise, and to sign the Mayflower Compact with "The Strangers", pledging to “…combine ourselves into a civil Body Politic…”
"The Saints" had thus been forced to create a civil government in this new land, and not the religious domain they had intended to establish. And one of the signatures bought by that accursed compromise had been that of John Billington.
As if in punishment for this compromise of their religious purity, only fifty-three souls survived that first winter. Amazingly, in spite of their sinful Godlessness, John Billington’s family of "Strangers" survived intact – including Eleanor, who was one of only five adult women in the entire colony who lived to see the spring. Both of John's sons also survived, another insult to the devotion of "The Saints", many of whom had buried children and wives over the bitter winter. The Billington clan had become a daily reminder that God’s Chosen were not always chosen. More evidence was to follow.
In the spring of 1623, the second full year the colonists had been ashore, pressure from the "Strangers" forced the Governor, William Bradford (a "Saint", of course) to divide all property equally amongst the survivors, one acre per family member, no matter what their religous affiliation. And thus the Billington clan received four acres of the best land, “…on the South side of the brook to the Bay wards”. It was yet another reminder of the success of "The Strangers", while so many of "The Saints" had not prospered and had even died. These insults to the faith of "The Saints" would not be forgotten.
Meanwhile, "The Saints" back in England had begun spreading rumors about the failure of the Plymouth Bay Colony, to drive down the value of the stock, making it easier for "Saints" to buy a controling interest in the company. And with each year they sent more "Saints" across the Atlantic, meaning to overwhelm "The Strangers" in Massachuttes Bay. By 1624, the colony had grown to over 180 people. But two of the new arrivals, meant to build a Saint's majority, had in fact fed the growing tensions.
The Reverend John Lyford and Mr. John Oldham were both nominally "Saints". In fact Lyford had been sent out as the official priest for "The Saints" in the colony.
But Lyford's willingness to conduct an Anglican baptism for the new child of "Stranger" William Hilton offended "The Saints". These chosen by God saw no reason to tolerate religious tolerance for anyone but themselves. And Governor Bradford became convinced that Lyford and Oldham were both secretly corresponding with the stockholders back in England, contradicting the false rumors the English Saints had been spreading.
Bradford was able to intercept some of those letters, and confront the traitorous "Saints", catching them unprepared at a public hearing. Both Lyford and Oldman were banished from the colony that very night. At the same meeting there was an attempt to also charge John Billington with being a member of the same "conspiracy", but there was little evidence against Billington, and since he was popular, (although it seems unclear how he could have been so, given the negative descriptions of him that survive) "The Saints" were forced to retreat and bide their time, yet again.
The following year, 1626, James I of England died, and Charles I, a militantly devout Catholic, took the throne. The trickle of "Saints", escaping now from real religious oppression in England, bcame a steady flow. John Billington still had allies in Plymouth, such as John Cannon and William Tench, but the pressures brought on by the constant arrival of new "Saints" drove both those men to leave the colony by 1627.
And in 1629 John Billington's eldest son died of illness. With his death, some of the flame went out of the old man. He was fifty years old now, and weary of the constant political fighting for his families' rightful place in the colony. By January of 1630 there were almost 300 citizens in Plymouth colony, the vast majority of whom were now, finally, "Saints". John Billington had become isolated.
In the late summer of 1630 a man’s body was found in the woods near John Billington’s property. The body was identified in Governor Bradford’s correspondence only as "John New-come-er”. No rational for Billington to have murdered this mysterious man was ever offered on the record. Instead surviving documents allege that the motive was the result of “an old argument between the two men”. But this would seem to have been unlikely, given that the dead man was, by every account, a literal “New-come-er”".
Dispite this glaring omission of motive, a Grand Jury was quickly convened and John Billington was charged with shooting the man in the shoulder with a blunderbuss, thus causing his death. Since a blunderbuss was generally loaded with whatever material was handy, rocks or metal, and was used as a short range (and still highly inaccurate) shotgun, using it as a weapon for an assination would have have been doubtful in the extreme.
But by this time there was little patience left in the colony for reason where the Billingtons were concerned. A trial jury wasted little time in finding John guilty of murder. And yet despite the singularity of this crime and possible punishment - Billington was the first Englishman in the colony charged with murder, and would be the first colonist to be sentenced to death - there is no record of any defense arguments offered on his behalf. "The Saints" had won their war against John Billington, and they would write his history. And yet because there was a lack of any apparent motivation for the crime, Governor Bradford sought the approval for the execution of this "Stranger" from his own fellow "Saints" in the younger, larger and more purely Saintly Massachusetts Bay Colony, centered on Boston. Such approval was instantly supplied.
On September 30, 1630, fifty year old John Billington was hanged according to the methods of the day. He climbed a ladder. The rope was placed around his neck and the noose pulled tight. The ladder was kicked away. And slowly the life was strangled out of him as he danced at the end of the rope. The drop that quickly broke the neck would not become standard in hanging for another two hundred years. Plymouth Colony was thus finally rid of its most troublesome "Stranger" in a conregation of "Saints". The only even mildly generous epitaph written for John Billington came from the poison pen of Thomas Morton, another man who irritated "The Saints" who surrounded him. Morton wrote, “John Billington, that was chocked at Plymouth after he had played the unhappy marksman...was loved by many.” And that is a piece of information not even hinted at in the history written by "The Saints" - that John had been loved by many.
Sixty years later the "Saints" would have to clean house again, this time in the village of Salem, and this time against their fellow "Saints" who were not saintly enough. Fourteen women and five men were hanged this time. Five others died in prison. All had been charged with being witches. What this re-occurance of justice from "The Saints" showed, was that even before there was religous freedom in America, there was religous hypocracy.