My 9th g-grandmother Was A Quaker Hanged For Civil Disobedience 355 Years Ago Today

Trial Over Touro Synagogue, The Nation's Oldest Jewish House Of Worship, Begins In Rhode Island
A peek at William Dyer's handwriting
Mary Dyer statue (Massachusetts State House, Boston)

Mary Dyer statue (Massachusetts State House, Boston)

Another in my occasional series entitled “Bad-Ass Women in History”: 355 years ago today, my 9th g-grandmother, Mary Dyer, was executed by the colonial Massachusetts government for practicing her religion.  She was a Quaker, and she was killed for repeatedly defying a Puritan law banning Quakers from the Massachusetts Bay colony.  She is one of the four executed Quakers known as the “Boston Martyrs”.

Mary was born in England in about 1611.  She and her husband, William, emigrated to Massachusetts in 1635.  Mary and William Dyer left Massachusetts for the new colony of Rhode Island in 1638, following in the footsteps of Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson (both are my 10th g-grandparents), who were excommunicated and exiled for their unconventional views by the Puritan Church of  Massachusetts Bay colony in 1635 and 1638.  You can read more about her biography and details of my family connections —> HERE.

Christine K. Robinson reminds us, in an article from 2012 on her excellent website, of several important points to keep in mind, of which I include excerpts here (her full post, to which Christie K. Robinson retains the copyright, is available here: “Top 10 Things You May Not Know About Mary Dyer”):

  • First-AmendmentMary Dyer’s death contributed to the constitutional freedoms of all Americans: The sacrifice of Mary Dyer’s life in 1660 had direct bearing on the Rhode Island Charter of 1663 which legally granted liberty of conscience (religious freedom), and eventually on the United States Constitution’s Bill of Rights, ratified in 1791, and used as a model for many governments around the world. When you hear the words “First Amendment” rights, remember Mary Dyer.  She and her cause were the motive for separation of church and state in America, and freedom to worship (or even not worship!) and speak according to your conscience.  Government and religion must be kept separate, and religious beliefs must not determine laws.  Mary Dyer knew that, and she was ahead of her time.
  • Mary Dyer was not hanged for “being a Quaker”:  Thanks to the Quaker missionaries from England, there were hundreds of Quaker (Religious Society of Friends) converts in New England in the late 1650s and early 1660s.  They were subject to persecution and physical torture because they represented anarchy to the church-state government formed by the Massachusetts Bay founders.  Not one person was hanged for religious beliefs in their hearts and minds for “being a Quaker,” but because they were intentionally disobedient to anti-Quaker laws.  Mary was very definite in her intention to die, if necessary, to bring attention and bear witness to the cruelty of the theocratic governor and magistrates and their unjust laws, and to raise public outcry against them. Although she had left Massachusetts for safety in Rhode Island, her conscience required her to return to Massachusetts, to finish, as she expressed it, “her sad and heavy experience in the bloody town of Boston.”
  • Civil_DisobedienceMary Dyer committed civil disobedience: The four Quakers who were hanged, including Mary Dyer, chose to die, rather than agree to permanent exile from Massachusetts and their preaching and religious support there. They were given the opportunity to leave – and live – and chose instead to take a stand for liberty of conscience in the hope that their deaths would be so shocking that the persecution would end.  They were hanged for civil disobedience.  Mary Dyer’s letter to the Boston magistrates shows that she was opposed to their “bloody” laws of religious intolerance and persecution, and that she rejected their conditional offer of release.
  • Mary Dyer was the mother of a “monster”: Mary’s third pregnancy ended in the premature stillbirth of a girl with anencephaly (having only a brain stem) and spina bifida deformities.  Six months after it was buried, Governor John Winthrop ordered the exhumation and examination of the baby, calling it a monster, and proof of God’s judgment on Mary’s heresy to the puritan beliefs and lifestyle.  In 1644, he published a book in England about Anne Hutchinson’s heresy trial that described the Dyer baby’s appearance.  In the 17th century, there was a common belief that women who preached, or even listened to a woman preacher, bore monsters.  Mary bore eight children, six of whom lived to adulthood.  She has many thousands of living descendants, including me and all of my cousins on my father’s side, who are descended through her son Samuel and Anne Hutchinson (the granddaughter of the famous Anne Marbury Hutchinson – the woman who is known to history as “Anne Hutchinson”) and two different grandchildren.  Mary’s life was cut short by the ignorance and fears of the superstitious times she lived in.  Since those dark times, we’ve come a long way, but we need to guard against the ignorance, fear and superstition that are still with us.
  • Mary Dyer was co-founder of two American cities: Mary came to Boston in 1635 with her husband.  In 1638, she was a pioneer who walked from Boston to Providence, Rhode Island, with her husband, small child and other families connected with Anne Marbury Hutchinson.  Mary’s husband William Dyer signed the Portsmouth Compact that united the founders of the new colony, and he was among the purchasers of Rhode Island from the Indian sachems.  One year later, Mary and William and others established the town of Newport, Rhode Island.
  • inner_lightMary Dyer heard God’s voice: In her twenties, Mary was a close friend and student of Anne Marbury Hutchinson, who claimed divine revelation and visions, and by doing so, incited the fury of the Boston Puritan leaders who believed that God only communicated in that way with men.  Massachusetts Gov. John Winthrop said that Anne and Mary were “much addicted to revelations.”  When Mary studied Quaker beliefs in the 1650s, she learned that they called divine revelation the “Inner Light”.  Evangelical and Pentecostal Christians today would recognize it as the Holy Spirit speaking to one’s heart.  Secular people would term it a conscience.


You can read more about her biography and details of my family connections —> HERE.



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