My dear Baptist peacemaking friend Ken Sehested (featured in Blessed Are the Peacemakers) keeps sending me articles about various folks whose stories I’ve never heard. Where does Ken find this stuff?! An article about Lady Deborah Moody was one of them. I tucked it in a file and finally got around to reading it preparing for this month. Why haven’t I heard about this woman?! She’s part of our American history legacy. We cheat ourselves by our silence.
Lady Deborah Moody (d. 1658 or 1659)
Have you heard of the woman in American colonial history who founded a town and a church that would be open to people of all religions so there would be no religious persecution in her town?
Such an idea in 1642 was unheard of, and we need to reclaim the story of this woman as an interfaith hero whose witness shall be heard hundreds of years later.
Lady Deborah Moody was born to a noble English family who raised their children to believe that every person had the right to civil and religious freedom. She married Lord Henry Moody, but he died seven years into their marriage. The newly-widowed Lady Moody lived independently in London which got her in trouble with the notorious Star Chamber that policed the morals of England’s upper class. The secretive court sat at the Palace of Westminster for the better part of a century, mainly during her lifetime. One of the Star Chamber’s special interests was attacking religious dissidents, before Parliament finally abolished it in 1641.
However, by that time, Lady Deborah Moody already had sold her estate to raise cash and moved to America in search of civil freedom.
She arrived in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1639 and received a grant of land in the town of Lynn a few miles north of Boston. She was soon in trouble with local authorities for speaking about her beliefs that “baptizing of infants is no ordinance of God.” When she refused to publicly confess and repent before the court, she was excommunicated, a severe punishment in Puritan Massachusetts. Governor John Winthrop later labeled her “a dangerous woman.”
So Lady Moody moved to the Dutch community on Long Island under the leadership of Petrus Stuyvesant. She bought land at Gravesend in an area that is now part of Brooklyn. She discovered that the Dutch Calvinists were no more interested in religious and civil liberties than were the Puritans in Massachusetts. So she decided to build her own town at Gravesend. She was joined by settlers she had known from Lynn, and soon the streets were laid out and houses built. Lady Moody built a church with a steeple ordered from England. Though an Indian attack destroyed the town and church, the steeple survived and was incorporated into the reconstruction.
Lady Moody secured a patent from the Dutch that gave the Gravesend settlers freedom from civil and religious interference. The church invited any group to hold services, which included Puritans, Separatists, and Quakers (the most despised and persecuted religious group of that day). When Stuyvesant heard about the “open church” policy he came to witness the “disgusting spectacle.” When he challenged Moody he found her more than a match for him. She shot back, “You, sir! How dare you enter my house in my town and tell me how to run my church! If I wish to give comfort and a place to worship, that is my business, sir.” Moody specifically addressed the religious persecution of the Quakers, concluding, “That shall not happen here, and there is naught you can do about it!”
In the annuls of religious freedom in colonial America one can think of Roger Williams (featured in my book Interfaith Heroes), Anne Hutchinson, the executed Mary Dyer (whose statue is now on Boston Common where she was hanged), and John Leland (featured in my book Interfaith Heroes 2). But Lady Deborah Moody deserves a place in that group who laid the foundation of religious freedom in our country.
As she wrote about Gravesend’s community, “There shall be complete social, political, and religious freedom. In agriculture and cultural development, we shall open the door to wayfarers of whatever creed.”
Source: “Why an Aging English Dowager Was Labeled a Dangerous Woman,” by Viola K. Hunt, Liberty, September/October, 1987.
Care to learn more?
Learn more about Daniel Buttry’s series of books on global peacemakers.