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  William Vassal: A Biographical Sketch
Last Stand

By now the conflict over liberties had reached fever pitch. The conservatives were determined to prevent William from even reaching England. He would carry not only the Child petition, but the original Hingham petition and his own petition for religious toleration. While the first two had been publicly debated in open court, William's petition had not been as widely circulated. The magistrates feared that, if William's petitions were successful, they would lose lucrative tax-free trade rights. More importantly, the Charter for the colony itself might be revoked. Since William's brother was a member of Parliament and could easily bring the petitions before the Commissioners for the Plantations, the conservatives knew the petitions were likely to receive a sympathetic hearing.

Robert Child and one John Dand were to accompany William, but ministers in the colonies called upon local law enforcement to apprehend them—and they did. The night before the Supply was set to sail, Dand's study was ransacked by the magistrates in a desperate attempt to find William's petition. Child and Dand were held as transgressors against the capital law, meaning they could be found guilty of treason and put to death.

William, somehow, was able to get aboard ship, along with his comrade Thomas Fowle. But even then he wasn't safe. As part of their propaganda campaign, the magistrates had instructed colony ministers to preach on the subject of "Jonas" before the ship sailed. In thinly veiled references, ministers throughout the colonies warned passengers that, in any stormy crossing, the "Jonas" should be found and thrown overboard in order to appease God.

Conveniently enough, a storm did blow up over the Atlantic as the Supply made her way. A woman approached William during the storm and told him they must throw the "Jonas" (meaning the petition) overboard. William cooly answered that he had no such Jonas, only a petition to Parliament that they might enjoy the liberty of English subjects, and certainly there could be no evil in that. He then suggested she go see Thomas Fowle (which makes one suspect the two had planned for this turn of events). This she did. Fowle told her innocently he had nothing but a copy of the Child petition, and even read it to her. He then mentioned that, if she "and others" thought it might be the cause of the storm, he'd be happy to hand it over so they could toss it overboard. She gladly seized on the opportunity and threw the petition to the wind, but, alas, God was not appeased and the storms did not abate for the remainder of their crossing.

Perhaps it would've helped if she'd thrown the actual petition overboard; Fowle had only given her a copy of the petition addressed to Boston, not the petition addressed to Parliament! The Parliament petition remained safely onboard, along with another copy of the Boston petition and the all-important petition which William himself had written.

Arriving in England, they found Winslow had already been distributing tracts named Hypocrisie Unmasked, a virulent diatribe against William and his position. It was Winslow who had been chosen by the conservatives to present their case to Parliament. Not to be outdone, William responded with the 22-page tract, New England's Jonas Cast Up at London,* a piece agitating for greater political freedom in the colonies.

William presumably presented his petition, although there is no record of it in Parliamentary papers. He had come back to England at a difficult and confusing time. His natural allies in Parliament, enemies of Charles I, were no longer moderate, having been caught up in the revolutionary fervor of the times. Puritans were divided into factions and extremism was on the rise. Only two years later, Charles I would be beheaded and Cromwell's Puritan Commonwealth established. It was precisely the wrong time to look for support of religious tolerance in the colonies.

The petitioners charged a lack of religious freedom in Massachusetts, and the denial of civil privileges to those who were not church members. As they were freeborn Englishmen, they asked that English law be reasserted in the colonies, rather than a separate, more repressive system under the magistrates. They noted that they were being denied their liberty in the colonies on the grounds of their religion, and were being forced to take civil oaths which conflicted with their oath of allegiance to the king. They termed colonial government "arbitrary" and complained of being subjected to extrajudicial proceedings.

Winslow represented the government's point of view to Parliament, and it was he who won the day, thanks in part to the success of Hypocrisie Unmasked. The Parliament committee summed up their view: "We encourage no appeals from your justice. We leave you with all the freedom and latitude that may, in any respect, be duly claimed by you."

In other words, "shut up." The conservatives now had full authority to govern as they chose. The end result was predictable: The hanging of Quakers, the hounding of dissidents, and the trials of so-called "witches." When we wonder how those who came to the colonies seeking religious freedom could possibly participate in such persecution of their own, we need only remember that dissent was made punishable by death, and those who escaped such harsh punishment must either remain silent, choose martyrdom, or leave the colonies forever.

[*Complete title: New-Englands Jonas cast up at London: or, A relation of the proceedings of the court at Boston in New-England against honest and godly persons, for petitioning for government in the common-wealth, according to the lawes of England ... Together with a confutation of some reports of a fained miracle upon the foresaid petition, being thrown overboard at sea; as also a brief answer to some passages in a late book (entitled Hypocrisie unmasked) set out by Mr. Winslowe, concerning the Independent churches holding communion with the Reformed churches.]

Part VII: Aftermath >

< Part V: Open Dissent: The Child Petition

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