Mary Dyer is lost to the mists of time.
Our first historical glimpse of this woman who would change the course of New England’s history is in 1635. In that year Mary and her husband William crossed the treacherous Atlantic Ocean to join fellow Puritans in the Massachusetts Bay colony. The crossing in an unnamed merchant vessel would have been no less harrowing for the Dyers than it was for the original Pilgrims. Fortitude and faith were probably about all that saw them through that wet, sickening, miserable time on the vast sea. Sailors, it must be admitted, these people were not.
Mary and William set up housekeeping in probable relative comfort. Mary at this time, perhaps in her early twenties, would later be described by those who knew her as “comely,” “grave,” and “of goodly personage… fearing the Lord.” A God-fearing goodwife to an up and coming lawyer probably appeared the very root-stock of Puritan society, but Mary was a rebel in drab homespun linsey-woolsey.
Not long after the Dyer’s settled in, Mary met Anne Hutchison. Anne, the now famous Puritan heretic who had the audacity to claim that even women to could have a profoundly personal relationship with the Divine, was probably a neighbor and the two women seem to have become fast friends. Mary began attending Anne’s all-female “Bible studies” where local women sought to understand God’s plan without the guidance of preachers or even husbands.
When Mary went in to labor in late 1637, Anne – who was a practicing midwife – was by her side. The birth was not a joyful occasion; the baby was stillborn and malformed. Anne whisked the infant away and buried the little girl’s corpse privately. This may have been standard operating procedure for midwives of the era, who were often accused of causing children to be born dead, with defects or both.
Little was said of the unfortunate incident until after Anne Hutchinson’s trial for heresy and subsequent banishment. The Dyers chose to follow their friend and her family to the wilds of what is now Rhode Island, where the Hutchinsons established a new colony. Once they were gone, Massachusetts Bay colony Governor John Winthrop had their houses and property searched. Discovering the little grave he had it dug up and distributed his account of the “monstrous birth” locally and in England. The malformed infant was, he assumed, proof of God’s wrath against heretics.
Mary and William, meanwhile, seem to have prospered in the new Rhode Island colony. Life was doubtless hard, but William was successful enough by 1652 to make a trip back to England on business. Mary accompanied him and it was in England that she came into contact with George Fox, founder of the Society of Friends known as the Quakers. Mary was entranced with Fox’s teachings; his doctrine of personal revelation jibed nicely with what Anne Hutchinson had been preaching back home. Mary joined the Society; when her husband returned to Rhode Island, she stayed behind to become a Quaker preacher in her own right.
In 1656, the Massachusetts Bay colony enacted an anti-religious law that included a ban on Quaker preaching and practices. When news that men, women and children of the Quaker faith were suffering mutilation, imprisonment, banishment and threats of death reached England, Mary booked passage straight to Boston. She would arrive there, after another untenable crossing and this time at around the age of 47, in 1657.
Mary immediately began preaching in the city and was almost as immediately arrested. The authorities, led now by new Governor John Endecott, released Mary only when William – who had not converted to the Society – arrived in the city to take charge of her. Both were admonished that Mary should not return on pain of death, a threat which frightened her not at all.
When Mary learned that two of her Quaker congregation who had gone out to preach in Massachusetts, had been arrested, she hurried to Boston to help. She was herself put back in prison and all three were brought before the court in September of 1659. The miscreants were again banished and warned that their sentence would be death if they returned. A short time later Mary’s companions, Marmaduke Stephenson and William Robinson, were back in Boston to “bear witness against” the colony’s anti-Quaker laws. Mary followed them soon after.
As good as their word, the authorities arrested the three Quakers again. This time Robinson and Stephenson were hanged while Mary stood by with a noose around her neck. An 11th hour reprieve was staged by Endecott and Mary was again remanded to the custody of her husband. Obviously, the Governor imagined that this brush with death would put Mary in her womanly place. Clearly, he wasn’t paying attention.
Mary continued to preach in Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York and elsewhere but ongoing persecutions in Massachusetts drew her back to Boston. Horatio Rogers says in Mary Dyer of Rhode Island that she stated her mission at her final trial before the Governor:
I came in obedience to the will of God… desiring you to repeal your unrighteous laws of banishment on pain of death. And that same is my own work now, and earnest request, although I told you that if you refused to repeal them, the Lord would send others of his servants to witness against them.
This time Mary had gone too far. Endecott, who at her trial became so infuriated with Mary that he screamed “Away with her,” ignored her family’s pleas and sentenced her to hang. She was marched to the tree at Boston Commons, all the while refusing to repent. Mary Dyer died by hanging in May of 1660.
Mary’s fight for religious freedom in New England was won only after – and to a large degree because of – her martyrdom. A year later, King Charles II forbade imprisonment, banishment or execution on religious grounds in his colonies. In 1686, the Massachusetts Bay colony’s charter was revoked, an English Governor was set in place and the reign of terror instigated by the “Pilgrim fathers” was brought to a halt.
All this because a “goodly personage” had the courage to cross the ocean and stand up for what she believed.
Header: “I Have Been Preserved for This”, a portrait of Mary Dyer by Howard Pyle via Ideas Made of Light