Mary Dyer: Martyr, Mother, and Mutineer!

June 5, 2013

“Understanding our day demands understanding the day before.  This means history.”
James Emery White 

On the first day of June in 1660, Mary Dyer was hanged for her religious beliefs in Boston, Massachusetts.  She left behind six children and a husband.  Like many Quakers, Baptists, and Separatists in early America, Mary Dyer was willing to stand against religious persecution even if it meant torture, banishment, or death.

One year earlier she had escaped the jaws of death as she walked to the gallows with William Robinson and Marmaduke Stevenson.  They were escorted to the Boston Common on October 27, 1659 by two hundred guards.  The men were hanged first.  Standing with a noose around her neck and facing the crowd, Mary learned that Governor John Endicott had stayed her execution and banished her once again from Massachusetts.  The spiritually stubborn Mary Dyer would later return.    

Years earlier, Mary and William Dyer arrived in Boston in 1635 and were members of the Puritans’ Congregational Church.  Although most people coming from England in the 1630’s shared a common belief in reformed theology, the Dyers quickly discovered the reality that, in the New World, the Puritans quickly persecuted anyone that did not adhere to their religious beliefs and practices.

In 1637, the Dyer family (along with others) moved to Rhode Island as they followed Anne Hutchinson after her trial and banishment for disagreeing with Puritan clergy. This disenfranchised group of people was befriended by Roger Williams.  Williams helped them purchase land that became the town of Portsmouth, Rhode Island.

The next year, Roger Williams was baptized by immersion and founded a Baptist Church in Providence, Rhode Island, which became the earliest known Baptist Church in America.   These early residents of Rhode Island were a mixture of religious “free church” people who wanted to live out their Christian convictions separated from a government theocracy, or the state church.   Roger Williams believed in complete religious freedom and that citizens should not be forced to pay the salary of clergymen with their tax dollars.  The Puritans believed they were promoting the one true faith in Massachusetts; therefore such, talk from Williams, Hutchinson, Dyer or any dissenting voice was intolerable.

In addition to the eventual hanging of Mary Dyer, the most insidious cruelty toward her came from then Governor Winthrop in March of 1638.   He ordered that the body of Mary Dyer’s stillborn baby be exhumed after hearing rumors of a “monstrous birth.”  With a gallery of gawkers awaiting the news, this is how he described the baby:

“It was of ordinary bigness; it had a face, but no head, and the ears stood upon the shoulders and were like an ape’s; it had no forehead, but over the eyes four horns, hard and sharp; two of them were above one inch long, the other two shorter; the eyes standing out, and the mouth also; the nose hooked upward; all over the breast and back full of sharp pricks and scales, like a thornback [i.e., a skate or ray], the navel and all the belly, with the distinction of the sex, were where the back should be, and the back and hips before, where the belly should have been; behind, between the shoulders, it had two mouths, and in each of them a piece of red flesh sticking out; it had arms and legs as other children; but, instead of toes, it had on each foot three claws, like a young fowl, with sharp talons.”

This intentional deception sought to prove to the people that God was punishing her for going against the Puritan clergy and holding to false teachings.

The Dyers returned to England along with Roger Williams and John Clarke in 1652.  After hearing George Fox preach and teach, Mary Dyer joined the Religious Society of Friends (the Quakers).  The Dyer family eventually returned to Rhode Island in 1657.

The Puritans passed laws making Quakerism unlawful in Massachusetts and sought to influence the other colonies to pursue their course of action.  These new laws incensed Mary Dyer and she entered the state on several occasions to protest.  On her last entry into the state, she was arrested and hanged the next day (June 1) on Boston Common for the crime of being a Quaker in Massachusetts.

The Puritans were forced to stop executing Quakers as Charles II came to power in England. However, the persecution continued as they passed a law called the Cart and Whip Act.  This Puritan law was used against dissenters as they were tied to carts and whipped as they traveled through towns and villages until coming to the border of Massachusetts.  They were pushed across the border into other colonies and banished from the Puritan stronghold.

© Ron F. Hale, May 28, 2013


He has served as Pastor, Church Planter, Strategist (NAMB), Director of Missions, and Associate Executive Director of Evangelism and Church Planting for a State Convention, and now in the 4th quarter of ministry as Minister of Missions.


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