At noon of on autumnal day, more than two centuries ago, the
English colors were displayed by the standard-bearer of the Salem
trainband, which had mustered for martial exercise under the
orders of John Endicott. It was a period when the religious
exiles were accustomed often to buckle on their armor, and
practise the handling of their weapons of war. Since the first
settlement of New England, its prospects had never been so
dismal. The dissensions between Charles the First and his
subjects were then, and for several years afterwards, confined to
the floor of Parliament. The measures of the King and ministry
were rendered more tyrannically violent by an opposition, which
had not yet acquired sufficient confidence in its own strength to
resist royal injustice with the sword. The bigoted and haughty
primate, Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury, controlled the religious
affairs of the realm, and was consequently invested with powers
which might have wrought the utter ruin of the two Puritan
colonies, Plymouth and Massachusetts. There is evidence on record
that our forefathers perceived their danger, but were resolved
that their infant country should not fall without a struggle,
even beneath the giant strength of the King's right arm.
Such was the aspect of the times when the folds of the English
banner, with the Red Cross in its field, were flung out over a
company of Puritans. Their leader, the famous Endicott, was a man
of stern and resolute countenance, the effect of which was
heightened by a grizzled beard that swept the upper portion of
his breastplate. This piece of armor was so highly polished that
the whole surrounding scene had its image in the glittering
steel. The central object in the mirrored picture was an edifice
of humble architecture with neither steeple nor bell to proclaim
it--what nevertheless it was--the house of prayer. A token of the
perils of the wilderness was seen in the grim head of a wolf,
which had just been slain within the precincts of the town, and
according to the regular mode of claiming the bounty, was nailed
on the porch of the meeting-house. The blood was still plashing
on the doorstep. There happened to be visible, at the same
noontide hour, so many other characteristics of the times and
manners of the Puritans, that we must endeavor to represent them
in a sketch, though far less vividly than they were reflected in
the polished breastplate of John Endicott.
In close vicinity to the sacred edifice appeared that important
engine of Puritanic authority, the whipping-post--with the soil
around it well trodden by the feet of evil doers, who had there
been disciplined. At one corner of the meeting-house was the
pillory, and at the other the stocks; and, by a singular good
fortune for our sketch, the head of an Episcopalian and suspected
Catholic was grotesquely incased in the former machine while a
fellow-criminal, who had boisterously quaffed a health to the
king, was confined by the legs in the latter. Side by side, on
the meeting-house steps, stood a male and a female figure. The
man was a tall, lean, haggard personification of fanaticism,
bearing on his breast this label,--A WANTON GOSPELLER,--which
betokened that he had dared to give interpretations of Holy Writ
unsanctioned by the infallible judgment of the civil and
religious rulers. His aspect showed no lack of zeal to maintain
his heterodoxies, even at the stake. The woman wore a cleft stick
on her tongue, in appropriate retribution for having wagged that
unruly member against the elders of the church; and her
countenance and gestures gave much cause to apprehend that, the
moment the stick should be removed, a repetition of the offence
would demand new ingenuity in chastising it.
The above-mentioned individuals had been sentenced to undergo
their various modes of ignominy, for the space of one hour at
noonday. But among the crowd were several whose punishment would
be life-long; some, whose ears had been cropped, like those of
puppy dogs; others, whose cheeks had been branded with the
initials of their misdemeanors; one, with his nostrils slit and
seared; and another, with a halter about his neck, which he was
forbidden ever to take off, or to conceal beneath his garments.
Methinks he must have been grievously tempted to affix the other
end of the rope to some convenient beam or bough. There was
likewise a young woman, with no mean share of beauty, whose doom
it was to wear the letter A on the breast of her gown, in the
eyes of all the world and her own children. And even her own
children knew what that initial signified. Sporting with her
infamy, the lost and desperate creature had embroidered the fatal
token in scarlet cloth, with golden thread and the nicest art of
needlework; so that the capital A might have been thought to mean
Admirable, or anything rather than Adulteress.
Let not the reader argue, from any of these evidences of
iniquity, that the times of the Puritans were more vicious than
our own, when, as we pass along the very street of this sketch,
we discern no badge of infamy on man or woman. It was the policy
of our ancestors to search out even the most secret sins, and
expose them to shame, without fear or favor, in the broadest
light of the noonday sun. Were such the custom now, perchance we
might find materials for a no less piquant sketch than the above.
Except the malefactors whom we have described, and the diseased
or infirm persons, the whole male population of the town, between
sixteen years and sixty, were seen in the ranks of the trainband.
A few stately savages, in all the pomp and dignity of the
primeval Indian, stood gazing at the spectacle. Their
flint-headed arrows were but childish weapons compared with the
matchlocks of the Puritans, and would have rattled harmlessly
against the steel caps and hammered iron breastplates which
inclosed each soldier in an individual fortress. The valiant John
Endicott glanced with an eye of pride at his sturdy followers,
and prepared to renew the martial toils of the day.
"Come, my stout hearts!" quoth he, drawing his sword. "Let us
show these poor heathen that we can handle our weapons like men
of might. Well for them, if they put us not to prove it in
The iron-breasted company straightened their line, and each man
drew the heavy butt of his matchlock close to his left foot, thus
awaiting the orders of the captain. But, as Endicott glanced
right and left along the front, he discovered a personage at some
little distance with whom it behooved him to hold a parley. It
was an elderly gentleman, wearing a black cloak and band, and a
high-crowned hat, beneath which was a velvet skull-cap, the whole
being the garb of a Puritan minister. This reverend person bore a
staff which seemed to have been recently cut in the forest, and
his shoes were bemired as if he had been travelling on foot
through the swamps of the wilderness. His aspect was perfectly
that of a pilgrim, heightened also by an apostolic dignity. Just
as Endicott perceived him he laid aside his staff, and stooped to
drink at a bubbling fountain which gushed into the sunshine about
a score of yards from the corner of the meeting-house. But, ere
the good man drank, he turned his face heavenward in
thankfulness, and then, holding back his gray beard with one
hand, he scooped up his simple draught in the hollow of the
"What, ho! good Mr. Williams," shouted Endicott. "You are welcome
back again to our town of peace. How does our worthy Governor
Winthrop? And what news from Boston?"
"The Governor hath his health, worshipful Sir," answered Roger
Williams, now resuming his staff, and drawing near. "And for the
news, here is a letter, which, knowing I was to travel hitherward
to-day, his Excellency committed to my charge. Belike it contains
tidings of much import; for a ship arrived yesterday from
Mr. Williams, the minister of Salem and of course known to all
the spectators, had now reached the spot where Endicott was
standing under the banner of his company, and put the Governor's
epistle into his hand. The broad seal was impressed with
Winthrop's coat of arms. Endicott hastily unclosed the letter and
began to read, while, as his eye passed down the page, a wrathful
change came over his manly countenance. The blood glowed through
it, till it seemed to be kindling with an internal heat, nor was
it unnatural to suppose that his breastplate would likewise
become red-hot with the angry fire of the bosom which it covered.
Arriving at the conclusion, he shook the letter fiercely in his
hand, so that it rustled as loud as the flag above his head.
"Black tidings these, Mr. Williams," said he; "blacker never came
to New England. Doubtless you know their purport?"
"Yea, truly," replied Roger Williams; "for the Governor
consulted, respecting this matter, with my brethren in the
ministry at Boston; and my opinion was likewise asked. And his
Excellency entreats you by me, that the news be not suddenly
noised abroad, lest the people be stirred up unto some outbreak,
and thereby give the King and the Archbishop a handle against
"The Governor is a wise man--a wise man, and a meek and
moderate," said Endicott, setting his teeth grimly.
"Nevertheless, I must do according to my own best judgment. There
is neither man, woman, nor child in New England, but has a
concern as dear as life in these tidings; and if John Endicott's
voice be loud enough, man, woman, and child shall hear them.
Soldiers, wheel into a hollow square! Ho, good people! Here are
news for one and all of you."
The soldiers closed in around their captain; and he and Roger
Williams stood together under the banner of the Red Cross; while
the women and the aged men pressed forward, and the mothers held
up their children to look Endicott in the face. A few taps of the
drum gave signal for silence and attention.
"Fellow-soldiers--fellow-exiles," began Endicott, speaking under
strong excitement, yet powerfully restraining it, "wherefore did
ye leave your native country? Wherefore, I say, have we left the
green and fertile fields, the cottages, or, perchance, the old
gray halls, where we were born and bred, the churchyards where
our forefathers lie buried? Wherefore have we come hither to set
up our own tombstones in a wilderness? A howling wilderness it
is! The wolf and the bear meet us within halloo of our dwellings.
The savage lieth in wait for us in the dismal shadow of the
woods. The stubborn roots of the trees break our ploughshares,
when we would till the earth. Our children cry for bread, and we
must dig in the sands of the sea-shore to satisfy them.
Wherefore, I say again, have we sought this country of a rugged
soil and wintry sky? Was it not for the enjoyment of our civil
rights? Was it not for liberty to worship God according to our
"Call you this liberty of conscience?" interrupted a voice on the
steps of the meeting-house.
It was the Wanton Gospeller. A sad and quiet smile flitted across
the mild visage of Roger Williams. But Endicott, in the
excitement of the moment, shook his sword wrathfully at the
culprit--an ominous gesture from a man like him.
"What hast thou to do with conscience, thou knave?" cried he. "I
said liberty to worship God, not license to profane and ridicule
him. Break not in upon my speech, or I will lay thee neck and
heels till this time tomorrow! Hearken to me, friends, nor heed
that accursed rhapsodist. As I was saying, we have sacrificed all
things, and have come to a land whereof the old world hath
scarcely heard, that we might make a new world unto ourselves,
and painfully seek a path from hence to heaven. But what think ye
now? This son of a Scotch tyrant--this grandson of a Papistical
and adulterous Scotch woman, whose death proved that a golden
crown doth not always save an anointed head from the block--"
"Nay, brother, nay," interposed Mr. Williams; "thy words are not
meet for a secret chamber, far less for a public street."
"Hold thy peace, Roger Williams!" answered Endicott, imperiously.
"My spirit is wiser than thine for the business now in hand. I
tell ye, fellow-exiles, that Charles of England, and Laud, our
bitterest persecutor, arch-priest of Canterbury, are resolute to
pursue us even hither. They are taking counsel, saith this
letter, to send over a governor-general, in whose breast shall be
deposited all the law and equity of the land. They are minded,
also, to establish the idolatrous forms of English Episcopacy; so
that, when Laud shall kiss the Pope's toe, as cardinal of Rome,
he may deliver New England, bound hand and foot, into the power
of his master!
A deep groan from the auditors,--a sound of wrath, as well as
fear and sorrow,--responded to this intelligence.
"Look ye to it, brethren," resumed Endicott, with increasing
energy. "If this king and this arch-prelate have their will, we
shall briefly behold a cross on the spire of this tabernacle
which we have builded, and a high altar within its walls, with
wax tapers burning round it at noonday. We shall hear the sacring
bell, and the voices of the Romish priests saying the mass. But
think ye, Christian men, that these abominations may be suffered
without a sword drawn? without a shot fired? without blood spilt,
yea, on the very stairs of the pulpit? No,--be ye strong of hand
and stout of heart! Here we stand on our own soil, which we have
bought with our goods, which we have won with our swords, which
we have cleared with our axes, which we have tilled with the
sweat of our brows, which we have sanctified with our prayers to
the God that brought us hither! Who shall enslave us here? What
have we to do with this mitred prelate,--with this crowned king?
What have we to do with England?"
Endicott gazed round at the excited countenances of the people,
now full of his own spirit, and then turned suddenly to the
standard-bearer, who stood close behind him.
"Officer, lower your banner!" said he.
The officer obeyed; and, brandishing his sword, Endicott thrust
it through the cloth, and, with his left hand, rent the Red Cross
completely out of the banner. He then waved the tattered ensign
above his head.
"Sacrilegious wretch!" cried the high-churchman in the pillory,
unable longer to restrain himself, "thou hast rejected the symbol
of our holy religion!"
"Treason, treason!" roared the royalist in the stocks. "He hath
defaced the King's banner!"
"Before God and man, I will avouch the deed," answered Endicott.
"Beat a flourish, drummer!--shout, soldiers and people!--in honor
of the ensign of New England. Neither Pope nor Tyrant hath part
in it now!"
With a cry of triumph, the people gave their sanction to one of
the boldest exploits which our history records. And forever
honored be the name of Endicott! We look back through the mist of
ages, and recognize in the rending of the Red Cross from New
England's banner the first omen of that deliverance which our
fathers consummated after the bones of the stern Puritan had lain
more than a century in the dust.