Open main menu

GORTON, SAMUEL (d. 1677), founder of the Gortonites, was ‘born and bred’ at Gorton, Lancashire, as also were the ‘fathers of his body for many generations.’ He came of a good family, and says that his wife ‘had bin as tenderly brought up as was any man's wife then in that towne’ (Plymouth, New England). He gives thanks that he was not ‘bred up in the schooles of humane learning,’ and therefore not misled by heathen philosophers (letter to Nathaniel Morton). He probably knew the Bible by heart, and was a powerful speaker. He must have served an apprenticeship in London, for in a certain conveyance he calls himself ‘a citizen of London, clothier.’ He regarded outward forms with contempt, holding ‘that by union with Christ believers partook of the perfection of God, and that heaven and hell have no actual existence.’ Fearing persecution, he sailed to New England, arrived at Boston in 1636, and thence went to Plymouth. His stay at Boston was probably shortened by his religious pugnacity, and though welcomed at Plymouth, he gradually ‘discovered himself to be a proud and pestilent seducer, and deeply leavened with blasphemous and familistical opinions’ (Morton, New Englands Memoriall, 1669, p. 108). He had religious differences with Ralph Smith, a Plymouth minister, in whose house he lodged. Smith only got rid of him by appealing to the courts. For alleged contempt of court in defending a contumacious widow he was afterwards committed to prison till he could procure sureties for his good behaviour ‘till ye next court.’ At the next court he was fined and again ordered to find sureties. He found sureties, but immediately left for Rhode Island. He was there welcomed as a religious refugee by the little band at Portsmouth, most of whom were outcasts from Massachusetts and Plymouth. On 27 June he was enrolled as an inhabitant. Edward Winslow intimates, however, that difference in religion was not the ground of the hard measure he received at Plymouth (Hypocrisie Vnmasked, 1646). He fixed himself for a while at Aquidneck (now Newport), but became so odious for insulting the clergy and magistracy that he was sentenced to be publicly whipped (see account of an eyewitness in ‘An Answer to ye many Slanders & Falsehoods contained in a Book called Simplicities Defence,’ &c., printed for the first time by Charles Deane in vol. iv. of the New England Historical and Genealogical Register). From Aquidneck Gorton sought refuge with Roger Williams in Providence, some time before 17 Nov. 1641. It is said that he was never admitted an inhabitant of that town, but in January 1641–2 he purchased land at Pawtuxet, in the south part of the territory. Here he was soon joined by a number of his followers who had been expelled from Aquidneck. He took the lead in a quarrel about land, which, though restrained for a time by Williams, soon became serious, and even led to bloodshed. His opponents were defeated, and applied to the Massachusetts government, which finally decided to assume jurisdiction over Providence, which was beyond the limits of its charter. Gorton and his friends protested in a violent letter full of theology. The Massachusetts people detected in it twenty-six blasphemous propositions. Gorton and his friends now retired to Shawomet, now Old Warwick, and purchased of the Narragansett chief, Miantonomo, in January 1642–3, a tract of land which now comprises the town of Coventry and nearly the whole of the town of Warwick. Certain inferior Sachems, however, repudiated the sale, and put themselves under the protection of Massachusetts. A warrant was issued (12 Sept. 1643) summoning Gorton and his companions to appear. They denied the jurisdiction; whereupon seven of them were seized by a commission supported by forty soldiers, and carried to Boston and thrown into the common gaol without bail. At the next session of the general court the prisoners were charged with heresy. All but three of the magistrates thought that Gorton ought to be put to death, but the majority of the deputies dissented. He was ordered to be confined to Charlestown, to be kept at work in irons, and if he escaped or uttered his heresies to suffer death. Six of his fellow-prisoners were sentenced to be confined on the same conditions, and were sent to different towns in the colony. They were released from confinement in January 1644, under conditions which meant perpetual banishment or death. They were not allowed to settle at Shawomet, and hired lands in Rhode Island. A demand from Massachusetts for their extradition was refused, but the commissioners for the united colonies had passed an act on 7 Sept. 1643 authorising the Massachusetts government to proceed against them. In 1644 Gorton, with his friends Randall, Holden, and John Greene, went to England. They carried with them the act of submission of the Narragansett Indians to the English government, and petitioned the commissioners of foreign plantations against their expulsion by the colony of Massachusetts. The colony of Massachusetts, on receiving a copy of this memorial from the commissioners, sent Edward Winslow as their agent to England. In 1646 Gorton published a full relation of his own and his friends' grievances in his ‘Simplicities Defence against Seven-Headed Policy, or Innocency vindicated, being unjustly accused, and sorely censured, by that Seven-headed Church-Government united in New-England,’ &c., 4to, London, 1646, which he dedicated in their name to the Earl of Warwick. This curious tract reached a second edition in 1647, has been reprinted with notes by W. R. Staples in vol. ii. of ‘Collections of the Rhode Island Historical Society,’ 1835, and again in vol. iv. of Peter Force's ‘Collection of Historical Tracts,’ 1846. Winslow immediately replied to what he termed Gorton's ‘manifold slanders and abominable falsehoods’ in ‘Hypocrisie Vnmasked,’ 1646, which he too inscribed to the Earl of Warwick. The Massachusetts government was directed not to molest those who claimed lands at Shawomet, and to defer the settlement of territorial claims until a more convenient season. Gorton returned to New England in 1648. A letter from the Earl of Warwick protected him from arrest at Boston. He joined his companions at Shawomet, which he renamed Warwick in honour of the earl, and resided there in peace until his death. Almost immediately after his return from England he was chosen one of the town magistrates, and was constantly engaged in public business during the remainder of his life. On Sundays he preached to the colonists and Indians.

Gorton had also preached frequently in London and elsewhere in England. He drew crowds to hear him, and was summoned before a parliamentary committee by ‘three or four malignant persons … one of them a Schoolmaster in Christs hospitall.’ He was accused of preaching ‘without a call.’ Winslow, who was called as a witness, declined to interfere in this matter, and ultimately he was honourably dismissed ‘as a preacher of the Gospell’ (letter to N. Morton). His accusers had complained of his book, ‘An Incorruptible Key composed of the CX. Psalme, wherewith you may open the rest of the Holy Scriptures,’ &c., 2 pts. 4to [Providence?], 1647. In all Gorton's contributions to biblical exposition he employs a dialect utterly incoherent to the uninitiated. Still more mystical was his ‘Saltmarsh returned from the Dead, In Amico Philalethe. Or, The Resurrection of James the Apostle, out of the Grave of Carnall Glosses, for the correction of the universall Apostacy, which cruelly buryed him who yet liveth, appearing in the comely Ornaments of his Fifth Chapter, in an Exercise, June 4, 1654,’ &c. [By] S. G[orton], 4to, London, 1655. Two years later appeared a sequel, ‘An Antidote against the Common Plague of the World. Or, An Answer to a small Treatise (as in water, face answereth to face) intituled Saltmarsh returned from the Dead,’ &c., 4to, London, 1657, dedicated to Oliver Cromwell. Appended to the ‘Antidote’ are two letters dated from Warwick 16 Sept. and 6 Oct. 1656, written by him to certain quakers imprisoned at Boston. They show that he could object to the persecution of a sect disagreeing with his own. Gorton answered Nathaniel Morton's savage attack on him in ‘New-Englands Memoriall’ in a letter of some eloquence, dated from Warwick 30 June 1669. It was not published during his lifetime, but will be found accurately printed in vol. iv. of Force's ‘Tracts.’ Gorton also prepared for publication a running commentary on Matthew vi. 9–13. The manuscript, which is described as being beautifully written, passed from the keeping of his family into that of the Rhode Island Historical Society.

Gorton died at Warwick between 27 Nov. and 10 Dec. 1677. He had issue three sons and at least six daughters. His sect survived him for about a hundred years. At Providence, 18 Nov. 1771, Ezra Stiles visited an octogenarian named John Angell, who believed himself to be the only Gortonite left (Mackie, Life, pp. 380–2).

[Savage's Genealog. Dict. of First Settlers in New England, ii. 283; Staples's Introduction to Gorton's Simplicities Defence, in Collections of the Rhode Island Hist. Soc. ii. 9–20; Mackie's Life in Sparks's Library of American Biography, 2nd ser. v. 315–411; Charles Deane's Some Notices of S. Gorton in New England Hist. and Genealog. Reg. iv. 201 (of which twenty-five copies were privately reprinted, 4to, Boston, 1850); Winthrop's History of New England (Savage), ii. 57, 295–9; Hutchinson's Massachusetts, i. 117–24, 549; Massachusetts Historical Collections, xvii. 48–51; Callender's Historical Discourse in Collections of the Rhode Island Hist. Soc. iv. 89–92; Alexander Young's Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers, 2nd ed. p. 379; Nathaniel Morton's New-Englands Memoriall (1669), pp. 108–10; Notes and Queries, 2nd ser. iii. 349–50.]

G. G.