‘For Conscience Sake’ – What Did Southampton’s First Settler Mean By That?

Conscience Point trailhead.
Conscience Point trailhead.

The first English settlers to come to what is now the State of New York landed in a small boat at Southampton. There were about 40 families. They had set sail in June of 1640 from Lynn, Massachusetts, where they had been farmers and fishermen, to settle somewhere else because they felt that the teachings of the church they attended in Lynn were too strict.

The English Crown encouraged the formation of new settlements in the New World. You could, without cost, get a patent to settle a piece of land from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and it could be anywhere in the new colonies provided no other patent had yet been issued. These 40 families applied and, only a few weeks after their application, were granted one such patent by the Earl of Stirling for eight square miles of land “to make their choice to sitt downe upon as best suiteth them.”

The ship they came on—a 40-foot-sloop owned by Captain Daniel Howe, one of them—took them around Cape Cod, past Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, and into Long Island Sound, where, finally, they found what they thought was an uninhabited spot on the North Shore of Long Island called Schout’s Bay (now Hempstead Harbor). They were wrong. As they came off their boat, they were immediately arrested and put in jail by Dutch settlers who had already set up a colony nearby at North Hempstead.

Negotiations followed. The Dutch—not a government but a trading company—had settled in New Amsterdam and were pushing out onto Long Island from the west. The British, a government, had settled in New England and had never before been to Long Island. This would have been their first colony. Eventually, the 40 families from Lynn were freed, provided they left Schout’s Bay, and sailed across back across the Sound to New England.

And so, the settlers crossed the Sound the other way and took shelter at the harbor in New Haven, in what is now Connecticut. Not soon after, they applied for a newer patent, this one granting them the rights to any other spot they chose but further out on eastern Long Island, away from the Dutch.

A rededication ceremony was held for the memorial rock at Conscience Point that marks where settlers first landed.
The Conscience Point memorial rock and plaque that mark where settlers first landed, Photo: Brendan J. O’Reilly

This time things worked out. There is a huge boulder on a beach in North Sea Harbor with a plaque on it to mark where these 40 families came ashore on their second try.

The plaque declares the spot to be “Conscience Point” because when the settlers landed—and they landed to stay—the first person to step ashore, a woman, said “for conscience sake we are on dry land once more,” which is a clear reference to the fact that they had been thrown off at Schout’s Bay. The date of the new landing was June 1640.

I have always wondered what this woman meant by saying that. It seems an odd thing for anybody to say from this 21st century perspective.

Turns out the first part of it is a phrase from the Bible. It is in Romans 13:5 in the New Testament. So in 1640, this would have been something that a church-going Christian—and these folks were—might say. There were few books possessed by the settlers. But they did have Bibles.

“Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience,” says the particular passage in the bible.

On the other hand, I am not exactly clear what “conscience” would mean. It’s not a word that seems to make sense in that context.

So I looked it up in the dictionary.

“Conscience” is that aspect of human behavior that is governed by the knowledge of right and wrong.

And that knowledge of right and wrong, in the Christian world, comes from the word of God: the Ten Commandments. Thou Shalt Not Kill, Thou Shalt Not Steal, Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbor’s Wife, etc., etc.

A good interpretation of what she said might be that for weeks now we’ve been aboard a boat that is at the mercy of the winds and the sea and, as it turned out, the Dutch, and so finally we’ve got somewhere here on dry land where we can once again decide upon things based on the teachings of God’s good Christian commandments.

Conscience Point
Conscience Point, Photo: Oliver Peterson

After the arrival, these English settlers made friends with the local Shinnecock Indians. Gifts were exchanged. And the Shinnecocks, seeing that the new settlers were planning to make an encampment near where they landed, suggested they instead go further inland—they would guide them—to a more wooded spot not too far from the Atlantic Ocean, where pits could be dug into the soft ground and trees and branches and leaves could be laid above to create domed huts to protect the settlers from the upcoming winter storms. The Indians also introduced corn to the new settlers. The Shinnecocks, much like the Montauks, were peaceable people.

In researching this, I also became interested in the first part of the Bible passage that says certain things should be done not just to escape God’s wrath, but also because it was “in good conscience,” that is to say, whatever it was that was the right thing to do by Christian standards.

Turns out, according to the Ligonier Ministries, there are many passages in the New Testament declaring that Christians are not of the secular world and should not therefore obey secular laws that are issued by “the fallen standards” of humanity.

However, there are other passages that clarify this, stating that government laws cannot only be bad laws—bow down to the new ruler—but also good laws in conformance with God’s teachings. They catch and punish robbers, for example. And so Christians are urged to obey secular laws if and when they are in conformance with God’s teachings, given to us to accept as our collective “conscience” which knows right from wrong.

The settlers soon built their Presbyterian church in Southampton and also a meetinghouse, where elders from the community could create and pass laws.

Among them, they passed a law that governs proper attire. You will see signs alongside the entry roads to Southampton that read “please obey our proper attire laws,” which among other things require clothing to cover from above the areola (the nipple) all the way down to halfway between the hip and knee when out in public. An exemption is allowed at the beach and 100 yards inland, where, presumably, people would be changing in and out of bathing attire.

Anyway, the settlement in Southampton thrived, and here we are today as a world-class beach resort, so chosen because of the land’s great richness and beauty laid down here by the hand of God.


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