Thomas Maule, an outspoken Quaker, went to prison five times for criticizing Puritans in Salem, Mass. The Puritans also whipped him three times and fined him three times.
He believed in witches, but he also believed God would punish the Salem witch trial prosecutors for miscarrying justice.
He went to court on charges of slander and blasphemy. Historians view his trial as an important development in the freedom of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Thomas Maule, Quaker
Thomas Maule was born May 3, 1645 in Warwickshire, England. His family opposed Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan followers. Maule immigrated to Barbados at about the age of 13. Some speculate he went to Barbados to find his father, who Cromwell may have imprisoned there.
He moved to Boston in 1668, and he settled permanently in Salem in about 1679.
At some point he converted to Quakerism, probably in Barbados. There he took up the occupation of tailor. He continued his tailoring business in Massachusetts. Smart and successful, he expanded into merchandising, real estate and construction — despite the discrimination against Quakers.
In Salem, Thomas Maule supplied the lumber and the land for the first known Quaker Meeting House in the United States, built in 1688. (It is now part of the Peabody Essex Museum.)
Eventually the Puritans repealed the harshest laws against the Quakers, but tensions continued. The Puritans viewed the Quakers as dangerous intruders. The Quakers did not forget the way the Puritans had whipped, branded, mutilated and hanged them.
Like many Quakers of the era, Thomas Maule spoke out against the Puritans for their cruelty and intolerance. He received 10 stripes of the whip for saying Salem’s John Higginson, “preached lies and instructing in the doctrine of devils.”
Salem Witch Trials
Maule and his wife Naomi believed in witches. When the Salem witch trials began they testified against Bridget Bishop, the first victim to be hanged. But Maule grew disillusioned with the prosecutors’ murderous frenzy. Twenty people were executed within four months, and 100 more awaited trial when Gov. William Phips returned to his senses and halted the trials
In 1695, several years after the release of the last accused witch, Thomas Maule published a pamphlet. He called it Truth Held Forth and Maintained. In cool and cutting sarcasm, he wrote that God would condemn the witch trial judges. He famously stated, “[F]or it were better that one hundred Witches should live, than that one person be put to death for a Witch, which is not a Witch.”
The Puritans were sensitive on the point that they had gone too far in the Salem witch trial prosecutions. So on December 12, 1695, officials arrested Maule on charges of slanderous publication and blasphemy.
He was taken to Boston and brought before the governor and council. He refused to answer any questions and insisted on a trial in his own county by a jury of his peers. Then, after a year in jail, a court finally tried him in Salem.
The judges ordered the jury to convict Thomas Maule. But Maule argued they had no standing to rule on religious matters. He pointed out the King’s law bound the jury, and he had not broken it. And he said the pamphlet wasn’t enough evidence to convict him, since the printer, not he, put it there.
The jury, probably influenced by the backlash against the witch trials, ruled the court had no right to suppress his expression of religious belief.
Getting Tired of the Puritans
The decision marked the first time a jury disregarded instruction to convict. it also reflected the growing impatience with the Puritan theocracy.
Not only did Thomas Maule’s acquittal pave the way for the First Amendment, it set a precedent for freedom of the press as well. Lawyers cited it as precedent for the John Peter Zenger trial, which established the right to print controversial opinions.
According to Nos Ancetres Les Maulois, the journal of the Association Culturelle pour L’Information des Maulois,
Knowledge of the acquittal in Maule’s trial went immediately to the three printing houses in Boston, and by mail to New York and Philadelphia. Local Boston printers stopped seeking approval for many items, and authors stopped sending controversial works out of the colony for printing. The volume of pamphlet publishing increased significantly. To printers, the Maule case meant the right to print controversial pamphlets without being subjected to penalties.
Thomas Maule continued to write. He married twice, reared 11 children and put his energy into his store and his church. He died July 2, 1724.
To read about a man who narrowly escaped the Salem witch trials, click here. To read about the judge who apologized for the Salem witch trials, click here. And to read how people profited from selling Salem witch trial merchandise, click here and here. Image of the Quaker Meeting House by By John Phelan – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15959540.
This story about Thomas Maule was updated in 2023.