The first English settlers who came to Nantucket in 1659–60 were of mixed religious persuasion.
To begin with there were probably equal small numbers of Puritans and Baptists among the first English residents of the island.
Peter Folger, previously an assistant to Puritan missionary Thomas Mayhew Jr., traveled to Rhode Island, where he was influenced by Roger Williams and embraced what was then known as antipedobaptism, the belief that adults, not children, should receive baptism. Folger experienced such a profound a change of conviction that he returned to people he had previously instructed in the Christian faith and told them that he had been mistaken and that they needed to begin all over again. He also was said to have forcefully baptized two women, one of them his daughter, by full immersion in a Nantucket pond.
Thomas Macy, the first to bring his family to Nantucket in the autumn of 1659, was also a Baptist, but had been convicted by the Massachusetts Bay Puritans of “harboring” Quakers, namely letting some travelers take shelter in his barn during a rainstorm. The family left their home in Salisbury for Nantucket, which at the time was outside the Massachusetts Bay colony.
Among the early settlers were some identified as Quakers, but they were not organized into a Meeting. Richard Swain, like Thomas Macy, had been disenfranchised and fined in Salisbury for harboring Quakers. His son John Swain married a Puritan and then drifted off to become a Baptist. Stephen Hussey was another rather un-Quakerly Quaker. Quaker William Worth left Nantucket and moved to Martha’s Vineyard
The Coffin family was characterized as a pack of “Nothingarians,” and other early Nantucketers, when pressed, identified themselves as “Electarians,” meaning that they elected not to associate themselves with any organized religion.
Christian Nantucket Wampanoags were censorious of the English settlers. They complained that not only did the settlers take advantage of Sundays to go for long walks and picnics, but they pressed the Wampanoags to work on Sundays if a drift whale washed up on shore.
All this changed around 1700. A number of Quaker visitors began arriving on the island and were received by prominent settlers Nathaniel and Mary Coffin Starbuck. Quaker minister John Richardson arrived in the summer of 1702 and preached so powerfully in the Starbucks’ home that Mary was moved to accept the Quaker faith. From that moment, Quakerism spread swiftly among Nantucketers and dominated throughout the 1700s and early 1800s, straight through the American Revolution and the War of 1812, both of which severely tested the islanders’ commitment to nonviolence.
Later in the 1800s, Quakerism among Nantucketers collapsed through factionalism and disownments.
To learn more about Quakerism on Nantucket, see Robert Leach’s book, Quaker Nantucket: The Religious Community Behind the Whaling Empire, available from the NHA Museum Shop.