When several branches in your family tree trace back to colonial New England, you are likely to find connections to religious dissenters. When you start researching religious dissenters, you are likely to find outcasts – people who were exiled from their home communities because of their religious beliefs. Colonial Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island history is replete with stories of exile and persecution. For me, it wasn’t a matter of finding someone who was an outcast; it was an issue of deciding which one to write about.
I decided to write about my 9th great-grandfather Samuel Gorton, who was born in England and came to Massachusetts in 1637 with his wife and at least two of his children. I’m descended from their eighth child – a daughter named Elizabeth who was born in 1641.
Here’s what I know about Samuel. In 1637, he was part of a group of Massachusetts dissenters who purchased land from the Indians on Aquidneck Island, where they established a settlement called Pocasset. The group included William Coddington, John Clarke, and Anne and William Hutchinson, among others. That settlement, however, quickly split into two separate settlements. Samuel Gorton and others remained to establish the settlement of Portsmouth (which formerly was Pocasset) in 1638, while Coddington and Clarke established nearby Newport in 1639. Both settlements were situated on Rhode Island (Aquidneck).
He is listed as an inhabitant of Portsmouth before 1640. However, he made himself an enemy of the leaders of Newport in 1641, and moved again, this time to Providence. He soon moved to Pawtuxet (about five miles south of Providence), where he welcomed other dissidents who had been expelled from Newport. After a disagreement during which Massachusetts decided to assume jurisdiction over Providence and the surrounding areas, Gorton and his band of followers moved another five miles south to Shawomet, which they renamed Warwick
Because of ongoing disputes between Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and the Narragansetts in the region, Gorton and some of his colleagues were called to Boston; they refused this summons and were summarily seized by soldiers and taken to Boston. At the next session of the General Court, the prisoners were charged with heresy, and all seven of them were exiled to different towns in Massachusetts. In 1644 Gorton and his colleagues went to England to appeal to enlist the help of Robert Rich, 2nd Earl of Warwick, head of the Commission for Foreign Plantations. the actions of the Massachusetts government. He returned in 1648 with a letter from Rich, ordering Massachusetts to cease molesting him and his people. In gratitude, he changed the name of Shawomet Plantation to Warwick. He settled again in Shawomet (now Warwick), where he lived the rest of his life. Gorton’s followers were called “Gortonites,” a sect that existed for more than 100 years.
It’s not possible to summarize a complicated theology in a few words, but this quote from Wikipedia will give you an idea of what the Gortonites believed – and what made them so controversial in Puritan New England:
The following are some of the activities for which he and his followers were imprisoned, whipped, put to hard labor, and banished, and had their cattle, food, and property confiscated:
- teaching that heaven and hell were states existing in the hearts of men and women, rather than a material place where people reside in an afterlife
- teaching that the baptism of infants would not save a baby’s soul, since babies had no capacity to understand or accept the concepts of Christianity (a position also held by Baptists)
- teaching that the ministers and magistrates should not be the sole or ultimate authorities of how biblical interpretations were enforced with criminal laws
- teaching that God is a unity rather than a trinity
- objecting to the mandatory paying of tithes to a state church, and mandatory attendance, since salvation came through individual faith freely chosen, and not from conformity to denominational creeds and ritual
One source I consulted said that Gorton has been misrepresented over the course of almost four centuries, claiming that he was not the “cantankerous, contumacious, or obnoxious person depicted in some accounts. This source says that contrary to this image, Gorton was a “strenuous beneficent force” whose importance to the independence of the colony of Rhode Island, and his courage in securing it, was “matched only by Roger Williams.” http://famousamericans.net/samuelgorton/