Elizabeth’s father, George Cadman was one of the signers of a 1708 petition to the General Court at Boston opposing the raising of taxes to pay for Dartmouth’s first Congregational minister because it represented a violation of the freedom of religion guaranteed in the English charter (Mass. Archives Coll., 1708-10-22). This petition was signed by more than 80 local men, both Quakers and Baptists, who represented the “Major part of the Householders of the Town” (McLoughlin, New England Dissent, 177).  It was agreed that this important early stand made on behalf of religious liberty should be further explored, and that the church affiliation of the Cadmans and Whites be determined, if possible.

The Westport/Dartmouth area was settled primarily by Quakers and Baptists, the first two sects to be successfully established in mid-seventeenth-century Massachusetts, where it was forbidden to belong to any faith other than the Congregational Church of the Puritans (Pestana, unnumbered first page). In its early years, the area was largely left to its own devices by the relatively tolerant Plymouth Colony, but when Plymouth was absorbed by Massachusetts Bay in 1691, the Bay Colony set out to bring Dartmouth and other towns with large numbers of dissenters, such as nearby Tiverton (then considered part of Massachusetts), in line religiously with the rest of the colony. In spite of the fact that England had mandated a policy of toleration in 1689, laws were subsequently passed in the Bay Colony requiring every town to retain a “learned, orthodox”—or Congregational—minister, whose salary was to be paid through local taxes (Worrall, 112–13). When the towns of Dartmouth and Tiverton refused to comply, the colony passed legislation (in 1706) authorizing itself to find ministers for the towns, two years later contracting with the Reverend Samuel Hunt to serve Dartmouth and the Reverend Joseph Marsh to serve Tiverton. The towns of Dartmouth and Tiverton, however, stood firm in refusing to pay the ministers’ salaries, and when local assessors avoided collecting rates for this purpose the Bristol County sheriff was ordered to take the rates from the assessors’ estates and to arrest them if their estates were insufficient. Three assessors (two Quakers and one Baptist) were subsequently imprisoned. After Massachusetts governor Joseph Dudley was petitioned to release the assessors—upon threat that the Quakers would press the matter with their powerful network in England who had influence with the queen—they were freed (Worrall, 118–20).

For several years thereafter, the Massachusetts government helped pay the salary of Samuel Hunt (Reverend Marsh did not remain in Tiverton). In 1722, however, Congregationalist residents of the Acushnet section of Dartmouth requested permanent financial assistance from the colony on the basis that they were too few and too lacking  in resources to support Reverend Hunt on their own. At that point the Massachusetts General Court voted to add £100 to Dartmouth’s tax rates and £72 to Tiverton’s; although the purpose of the increase was not specified, it was understood by the residents of each town to be intended for ministers’ salaries and they refused to comply.When the assessors failed to raise the rates, four of them were imprisoned (McLoughlin, New England Dissent, 186; Worrall, 120–21). (One of these individuals, a Baptist pastor named Philip Taber, would later become Elizabeth’s daughter Hannah’s father-in-law; he may also be the same Philip Taber who witnessed a document Elizabeth signed stating she had received the distribution from her father’s estate.) The towns responded by petitioning the General Court, and local Quakers contacted well-connected allies in England, who argued on their behalf that taxation for the support of religious institutions countered the liberty of conscience guaranteed in the charter and was illegal. This lobbying was ultimately successful, as the British government struck down Massachusetts’s tax laws allowing for the collection of ministers’ rates and ordered the release of the assessors (Worrall, 121). (The assessors’ release ended up taking some time; the four who had been held in Bristol County Jail beginning in May 1723 were  not freed until August 1724, and two other assessors who were imprisoned in December 1723 were not released until November 1724 (Worrall, 122).) As a result of the  Quakers’ and Baptists’ conjoined efforts, new Massachusetts laws passed in 1727 and 1728 exempted first Anglicans and then Quakers and Baptists from church taxes.

Although the actions of the Quakers and Baptists in Dartmouth and Tiverton did not result in a new climate of religious harmony throughout the colony, they did represent a major step toward the the separation of church and state and a victory for freedom of worship. Also of significance is the fact that, despite having very different sets of beliefs (the Baptists’ doctrines were actually much closer in line with those of the Puritans than the Quakers), members of the two sects formed an alliance that served to further both of their interests—and, it could be argued, the greater good. While the Quakers skillfully utilized their web of political connections, the Baptists, who lacked such a network, mobilized their deeply held commitment to the idea of a need for the separation of church and state. More than any other group, the Baptists believed that religion and government should be independent of each other (this view stemmed from their belief that their churches were led by Christ alone, and thus removed from manmade laws and institutions (McLoughlin, New England Dissent, 197). By joining  forces, the  Dartmouth  Quakers  and Baptists helped ensure, as they had earlier stated in their 1708 petition, “that the   respective churches in the Severall Towns within the Province, shall, at all times  hereafter, Use, Exercise,  and Enjoy all their Priviledges and Freedoms respecting divine Worship, church order, and discipline, and shall be encouraged in the peaceable Practice thereof” (quoted in Potter, 104).4

Women in the Baptist and Quaker Churches

An important feature of both the Quaker and Baptist sects was their more egalitarian view of women than that held by the Puritan church. The Baptists, who traditionally favored lay preaching over the ministrations of educated, ordained clergymen, believed it was acceptable for women to speak during church meetings, and the Quakers even allowed women to preach and prophesy (Bacon, 7). (Of course, many colonists  found this to be one of the Quakers’ most unusual and disturbing beliefs.) The Quakers also considered marriage a partnership in which men and women accepted each other on more or less equal terms (the word “obey” was not used in Quaker marriage ceremonies), and they allowed women great social influence through the pastoral care they administered  through their monthly meetings (Bacon, 56, 43). Baptist women, too, enjoyed great  access to the formal channels of church authority for most of the eighteenth century.

The  Baptists’ openness to including women in church government was spurred on by the First Great Awakening of the 1730s and 1740s, a religious revival marked by an evangelical and democratic belief that ordinary people possessed the same ability to perceive spiritual truth as ordained ministers. “The sexual egalitarianism implicit in evangelical faith, with its emphasis on individual rebirth and its undifferentiated sense of community,” as Susan Juster writes, “translated into a sharing of power between the sexes in the internal governance of the church.” Until the late eighteenth century, Baptist women not only helped select pastors and admit and dismiss church members, but they also “assert[ed] themselves theologically in the often fractious debates over the nature of conversion and qualifications for church membership and challeng[ed] with their lay brethren the periodic attempts of the Baptist clergy to enlarge their sphere of authority” (Juster, 3–4).

Although it has not yet been possible to determine to which religious group Elizabeth Cadman White belonged, it is most likely that she was affiliated with the Baptists, given that her great-grandfather, John Cooke, first established the faith in the area (McLoughlin, New England Dissent, 166–67).5 Whatever her official affiliation, however, it is clear that living in a free-thinking place like Westport/Dartmouth—whose residents banded together to fight for religious freedom and who accepted women on a more equal footing than did many others in contemporary society—may well have had a a positive impact on the way she viewed the world and her place in it.