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Delmarva Heritage Series

 * Wenlock Christison - Man Of Freedom

Salisbury Times - April 3, 1958

In the middle of the 17th century, religious freedom was not a major characteristic of Puritan New England; in fact, persecutions were being committed; and Massachusetts was on the threshold of her witchcraft period. In September, 1659, three Quakers, Mary Dyer, William Robinson and Marmaduke Stevenson counting martyrdom were banished from Massachusetts. All three, however, returned and the two men were hanged.

Mrs. Dyer, after having her hands and legs bound, face covered and the rope adjusted about her neck was reprieved. When she returned again in the spring of 1660, she was executed. Later in the same year William Leddra was to suffer the same fate.

However, as the famous American historian Thomas Jefferson Wertenbaker clearly points out, the Massachusetts theocracy was fighting a hopeless battle. The suffering of the Quakers was winning sympathy from thousands who were not necessarily interested in the Quaker doctrine. Shortly before the execution of Leddra, Wenlock Christison walked into the office of Governor John Endicott, and looking him straight in the eye said, "I came to warn you that you should shed no more innocent blood, for the blood that you have shed already cries to the Lord for vengeance to come upon you."

FOR HIS ACTION, Christison was brought to trial but the magistrates were not sure what should be done, for public sentiment was turning against the cruel persecutions. Yet there was one among the group who was not hesitant, and that was Governor Endicott. Pounding on the table, the good governor exclaimed, "You that will not consent, record it. I thank God I am not afraid to give judgment." Governor Endicott had his way and Christison was condemned to death, but the sentence was never carried out. Partly from fear of interference by the King and also because of the growing opposition by the people, persecution began to take milder forms.

Before this at Plymouth, Christison had been robbed of his waistcoat, had his Bible taken to pay for his fines, and suffered a whipping. Later he was banished from Boston and threatened with the death penalty should he return - but return he did, and on this occasion was told to renounce his religious principles or be executed. Although it was at this time that Christison saw Leddra hanged, he refused to change his faith or in any other way seek mercy from the court. Instead, according to Henry Chanlee Forman, (writing for the Maryland Historical Magazine) this great fighter for religious freedom said, "for the last man that was put to death here are five come in his room, and if you have power to take my life from me, God can raise up the same principle of life in ten of his servants and send them among you in my room, that you may have torment upon torment."

BACK IN BOSTON, by way of Salem, Wenlock Christison in June, 1664 met two other Quakers, Mary Thompson and Alice Gary, who recently had arrived from Virginia where they had been persecuted. Christison was shortly arrested on the old charge, and along with the women once again banished form the colony. Only this time all three were stripped to the waist, fastened to a cart and whipped through Boston, Roxbury and Dedham. Christison received ten lashes and the two ladies six lashes in each of the towns.

Finding no haven in Rhode Island, (probably the only colony in all New England which could claim any religious toleration at this time) the three came back to Boston supposedly under the protection of the King's Agents. But again there was trouble, a trial and the sentence that they should be whipped out of the province. However, shortly after this all three sailed to the Caribbean region - never to return to New England.

We lose their story for the next few years, but in 1670 Wenlock Christison and Alice Gary were in Maryland. Dr. Peter Sharpe of Calvert County turned over to Christison 150 acres of land in Talbot County - a plantation fittingly named in Christison's case, the "Ending of Controversie."

THE QUAKER records of Talbot County show that a daughter, Elizabeth, was born to Wenlock and Mary Christison in 1673. We would like to believe that his wife was the same Mary Thompson with whom he had shared such cruel punishment in New England but that fact is not known.

Christison soon rose to a position of trust in Maryland; he was one of the first Quakers to have the honor of holding public office. He became a member of the House of Delegates from Talbot County in 1676 and served in that body at St. Mary's City until his death in 1679, although his name must have been retained on the rolls until 1681 when, according to the Maryland Archives, it was recorded that he was a deceased member.

Upon his Death the widow, his second wife, thought it more appropriate to change the man of the plantation form "Ending of Controversie" to "Widow's Change."

Henry Forman, who has long been interested in colonial buildings and has made a special study of Christison's house which is about three miles northwest of Easton, wrote in the Maryland historical Magazine of September, 1939, "Perhaps when Wenlock took his last look through the little square bedroom window, the memory of his fantastic early life came back to mind. It is difficult to believe that he ever forgot the time when, on trial because of his faith - he stood before Governor Endicott of Massachusetts, who called to him, "Wast thou not banished upon pain of death?" And his own answer, calm, steady, fearless, "Yea, I was. I refuse not to die." What could you do with a man like that? What could be done with one who would sooner suffer the gallows that take off his hat? Or who, on trial for his life, tried to prove that Massachusetts had forfeited the King's Patent, at the same time turning the charges of his accusers into accusations against themselves? The Boston punishments where the lashes of knotted ropes made holes in the body deep enough for peas to lie in were not enough to break the spirit of this man . . . The little grey cottage with mossy roof, decaying by the sleepy river shore, is the last material monument of a man that Maryland will long remember."

Wenlock Christison won the right of demanding that Americans and Marylanders in particular, should remember his story. Maryland, which in United States history is probably, honored above all other States as the haven of religious toleration, is proud that she gave this persecuted Quaker the "Ending of Controversie."

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