A radical English religious sect of the 17th century that championed the inner light of the Holy Spirit over external religious and civil ordinances.

Religion: Christianity
Denomination: Puritian
Founder: Samuel Gorton
Founded: 17th century
Location: New England, US

The Gortonists, followers of Samuel Gorton, emerged in the mid-17th century, primarily within the Rhode Island and Providence Plantations colony, under the leadership of Gorton himself. Their beliefs centered on the notion that the Holy Spirit was present in all humans, granting each person a divine aspect and blurring the lines between saints and sinners. This theological perspective emphasized the importance of following the inner divinity, often in opposition to established human authority. Gorton critiqued the focus on external religious ordinances as a deviation from living under the ordinances of Christ, advocating instead for the true priesthood of all believers and viewing professional ministry as a manifestation of the Anti-Christ​​.

Gorton’s journey to America was motivated by a desire for religious freedom, reflecting his deep-seated belief in liberty of conscience as a fundamental right. Upon arriving in Boston in 1637, during the height of the Antinomian Controversy, he quickly moved to Plymouth, and later to Portsmouth and Providence, due to conflicts arising from his unorthodox beliefs. His confrontational and contentious stance led to frequent disputes with local authorities and settlers, resulting in several relocations within the New England colonies​​.

The Gortonists, forming a distinct group under Gorton’s leadership, were known for their outspoken criticism of both church and secular leaders and their challenge to the prevailing religious and social order in Rhode Island. Their actions and beliefs incurred the wrath of neighboring colonies, particularly Massachusetts, leading to military confrontation and legal battles. In 1643, after acquiring land from the Narragansetts (known as the Shawomet Purchase), Gorton and his followers attempted to establish a community based on their principles. However, the settlement faced aggression from Massachusetts, prompted by disputes with local Native American sachems and colonists who opposed Gorton’s teachings​​​​.

The conflict with Massachusetts culminated in the armed attack on Shawomet in 1643, followed by the trial of Gorton and his followers on charges of heresy and sedition. Though initially sentenced to death, the penalty was not executed; instead, they were imprisoned and subjected to hard labor. The intervention of influential figures in England, including Robert Rich, Earl of Warwick, eventually secured Gorton’s release and the reinstatement of the Shawomet lands to his group. In gratitude, the settlement was renamed Warwick, marking a significant victory for Gorton and his followers and solidifying their place in the early history of religious freedom in America​​.

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