Robert Hodgson, Woodhouse voyager

Despite Robert Hodgson’s prominent role in planting Quakerism on the American shores, his full book-length biography yet to be written. In addition, his mother-in-law, especially, invites a fuller portrait: she is not only one of the first Quakers “by convincement” in the New World, providing essential comfort and support to the emerging movement, but she is associated with earlier dissenting movements in New England, first through Samuel Gorton and later with Anne Hutchinson. Even so, we do not yet have her maiden name.

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Robert Hodgson was born, circa 1626, in the Bishoprick of Durham, England; he died, May 10, 1696, at Portsmouth, Rhode Island. He married, August 3, 1665, Rachel Shotten, daughter of Sampson and Alice Shotten of New York and Portsmouth, Rhode Island. He was a recorded minister in Rhode Island Monthly Meeting at Portsmouth and Newport.

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Three known children:

1. Mary, born August 6, 1666.

2. Alice, born April 1668. She married as second wife, Third Month 18, 1699, under the care of Falls Meeting, Phineas Pemberton. In 1704, she married her second husband, Thomas Bradford. She died Sixth Month 28, 1711.

3. Robert, born circa 1670. He married, December 29, 1690, Sarah Borden, daughter of Matthew and Sarah (Clayton) Borden. He died 1733, Chester County, Pennsylvania.

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The Durham mystery

At this point we know little of Robert Hodgson’s early life. The First Publishers of Truth, published in 1907 in London and edited by Norman Penney, librarian at the Friends Reference Library in London, has “Robert Hodgson, from the Bishoprick of Durham, by occupation a Butcher” – the only reference I’ve found to date of his occupation before joining Friends or, as often thought, Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army.

As we draw together diverse facets of his life, gathered largely by Sabron Reynolds Newton’s diligent research, a mosaic emerges of an outspoken, sometimes fiercely opinionated individual who not only put his life on the line for his beliefs, but who crossed the ocean repeatedly on religious journeys and was well acquainted with leading figures in the founding of the Society of Friends, or Quakers.

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The Quaker outbreak

In July 1624 in Leicestershire, England, a religious revolutionary was born, one who would have direct dealings with several dozen Hodgsons and remain an inspiration to many of their descendants. His Journal, a remarkable document of English and spiritual autobiography, would be – like the Bible itself – a staple in many of their homes through the next several centuries. Although George Fox began an itinerant ministry around 1646, after years of religious inquiry and disappointment in finding the learned ministers of those times lacking in spiritual comprehension and genuine experience, he gained few followers in his initial efforts, despite a series of crucial mystical experiences. Nevertheless, following his first tastes of imprisonment, at Nottingham (1649) and then a year in Derby Prison (1650), he remained undaunted; initially, the term “Quaker” was applied to his followers in ridicule, both for their experience of being so filled with spiritual power they would tremble (a phenomenon noted in Oriental mystical practice, such as Yogic treatises on chakras and the kundalini) and for their response to a judge who had threatened to make them quake: “We quake only before the Lord.”

And then something extraordinary occurred.

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The Woodhouse mission

On the American side of the Atlantic, the initial Quaker messengers soon encountered a hostile reception – perhaps, in part, because of intense confrontations only two decades earlier in which the Puritan orthodoxy of New England was seriously challenged by ministers Roger Williams and Samuel Gorton as well as an Antinomian party led by Anne Hutchinson; her  resettlement to Rhode Island would provide a crucial foothold for the early Quaker movement. Many of Hutchinson’s followers would join the Society of Friends, becoming the nucleus of Rhode Island Monthly Meeting. Many of these early challenges originated in Salem, Massachusetts, which would gain notoriety at the end of the century for its response to charges of witchcraft.

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Continuing trouble

The neighboring Plymouth colony, meanwhile, was enacting its own laws against Quaker outsiders. Measures were passed against concealing or entertaining a Quaker, and foreign male Friends making return visits would have one ear cut off the first time, the other ear the second time; women would be whipped; and either sex returning the fourth time would have their tongues bored with a hot iron. Residents who offered support would get similar treatment. Nevertheless, this was a mild law compared to Boston’s.

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The Rhode Island years

Later in 1661, back in the New World, Hodgson continued his missionary activities to the south, for he was there with George Rofe and Robert Stage [Stack or Stake] when Rofe summoned all New England Friends to a General Meeting in Newport to be held in June 1661. The trio then set out from Chesapeake Bay for Narragansett Bay “in a boat very small, being but fourteen foot by the keel,” to attend what would become the first session of New England Yearly Meeting of Friends, the first such body in the Society of Friends and the oldest continuous non-Indian religious institution in the United States. (A Yearly Meeting is the largest body of Quaker church polity, usually a regional institution embracing smaller, more local Quarterly and Monthly Meetings; individual memberships are held at the Monthly Meeting level. The names arise from the frequency of their business sessions, rather than their times of worship.) “The intrepid paddlers ‘went through the place called Helgate and got to Flushings amongst Friends and then came to Gravesend.’ When they finally arrived within sight of Rhode Island, ‘the boat turning … the bottom up,’ they almost drowned. The following year, Rofe did drown” in Chesapeake Bay. In her account, Daisy Newman offers this: “But on that June day in 1661, off Newport, all was still well. Narragansett Indians swam out and rescued the three valiant Friends, who had paddled up from Maryland. ‘So we came in at Rhode Island,’ Rofe later wrote to Richard Hubberthorne of Yealand, Lancashire, ‘and we appointed a general meeting for all Friends in these parts, which was a very great meeting and very precious and continued four days together.’

“… It was exactly five years since Mary Fisher and Ann Austin had tried to enter New England. Now, in spite of brutal opposition, there were Friends ‘almost from one end of the land to the other.’ ”

One unanswered question regarding Robert Hodgson’s pre-Quaker years asks if he had been previously married. At the time of his August 3, 1665, marriage to Rachel Shotten, he would have been nearly forty – time for an earlier marriage in which his spouse might die from childbirth or illness. With the 1667 documents recorded in the section on Shotten below, we get a picture of his eventual domestic setting.

Continue reading The Rhode Island years