Tales of Tiverton

Puritan Jail TIVERTON, 1723

On May 25, 1723, Joseph Anthony and John Sisson were arrested and put in the Bristol County jail for civil disobedience. As tax assessors of Tiverton, they had refused to assess taxes levied upon their town by the legislature. This was not the first time. They had been jailed in 1708 for the same reason. While seen as criminals by the majority of people in Massachusetts, these tax assessors were heroes in the eyes of their fellow townspeople.

This was, in essence, a fight for religious freedom – a separation of church and state. The strict and domineering Puritans of Boston and the Massachusetts Bay Colony sought to bring these outlying Quakers and Baptists into the Congregational fold. The General Court passed a law in 1695 requiring every Massachusetts town to hire and support an “able, learned, and orthodox” minister. “Learned” meant a man educated in Greek and Latin. “Orthodox” meant a Calvinist adhering to the doctrines of the Puritan churches. Originally, Tiverton was part of the Plymouth Colony, but became part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1692, two years before it was incorporated as a town. (It was transferred to Rhode Island in 1746-47.)

The majority of Tiverton inhabitants were Baptists and Quakers, and did not want to pay religious taxes to build a Congregational church and support a minister. They had their own worship services with their own lay ministers. Leading Tiverton Quakers were Joseph Wanton, Amos Sheffield, and Richard Borden. They gladly supported their churches by voluntary gifts and attendance, but believed if the Colony’s established church ever got into their communities, Baptists and Quakers would find themselves forced to not only pay taxes supporting this Congregationalism, but also liable for fines, imprisonment, the stocks, and whipping for not adhering to the law requiring regular attendance at a Congregational church. The people of Tiverton frequently appealed to the General Court with petitions against paying taxes to support Congregationalism: “[we] dare not doe it for fear of Offending God, for wee are firmly perswaded that many of our people who are religiously sincear and upright before God cannot for Conscience sake pay any Tax or rate raised for that use.”

Tiverton defied this law for three years. However, the judges of the Bristol County court hauled the Tiverton selectmen before them “for not having a minister according to law.” The selectmen argued that they did have ministers (both Baptists and Quakers had them), but the court asserted that such ministers and churches did not conform to the laws of Massachusetts and ordered them to return home and take immediate steps to acquire “able, learned and orthodox” ministers, to build churches at town expense, and to assess taxes for their support.

The selectmen informed the town meetings of the court’s order, but the town did nothing about it. A year later, the selectmen were again brought before the court. Again, they claimed they had ministers and churches and the kind of worship they wanted. Again, the court said this was not sufficient. And again the town did nothing. This happened again every year from 1700 to 1703, when finally the court decided it had enough. It requested Harvard College to send a minister to Tiverton and ordered the town to levy a tax of fifty pounds for his pay.

Again, Tiverton refused to levy the taxes. In 1708, Reverend Joseph Marsh was sent to Tiverton where five Congregational families heard him. However, he had no salary. Because the town had not levied taxes in town meetings, the legislature added thirty pounds to its colony-wide taxes in 1708. This act, though justified by a law passed in 1706 to meet this kind of emergency, undermined the principle of home-rule.

Needless to say, Tiverton reacted by passing a resolution this same year which authorized Joseph Wanton and Richard Borden to petition in Boston against this unjust usurpation of local authority. When the town assessors refused to asses the extra provincial (colony-wide) taxes, Richard Borden was arrested and put in jail. Tiverton’s voters supported the assessor’s actions, sending two law enforcement agents to ask Reverend Marsh what he was doing in their town. They ended up exiling him from Town on the grounds that he was a vagrant with no visible means of support. Outraged, he departed.

The General Court backed off. Borden was released from jail and things went on as before. However, Boston’s Cotton Mather was furious about this and filled his diary with writings against “miserable Tiverton” and equally “wretched Dartmouth”, which had mirrored Tiverton’s rebellious attitude against this ecclesiastical tax.

Fourteen years went by and Mather and his fellow clergymen did not forget about these non-compliant outlying towns. The General Court sent Reverend Theophilus Pickering to Tiverton and the legislature again levied extra provincial taxes on the town to support him. And again, Tiverton refused to comply, and again, the tax assessor was jailed. But this time was different. Tiverton and Dartmouth (whose assessor had also been jailed for non-compliance) joined forces and sent Quaker Thomas Partridge to London to present their grievances to the king in council. Massachusetts had also sent its own agent to London to represent its side.

After the king heard both sides, the king concluded that the Puritans were wrong. What right had Congregationalists, themselves dissenters from the king’s church, to lay taxes in the king’s name on other dissenters?

As a result of this incredible outcome, the Massachusetts General Court passed a new series of laws between 1727 and 1731 which exempted Quakers, Baptists, and Anglicans from religious taxation to support established Congregational churches.

Based on the article by William G. McLoughlin, “Tiverton’s Fight for Religious Liberty, 1692-1724” in Rhode Island History magazine, Volume 38, 1979, published by the Rhode Island Historical Society

Comments are closed.