Thursday, September 13, 2012

Why Mary Barrett Dyer?

Originally published at the Rebel Puritan website by Jo Ann Butler.

Mistress Dyer is a well-known resident of Newport, Rhode Island, and is featured in Jo Ann Butler’s books Rebel Puritan.  She asked what attracted Christy Robinson to research and write Mary Dyer's life story.

Why Mary Barrett Dyer?

© 2012 Christy K Robinson

Historical fiction has been my favorite literary genre since I was a young girl. I’ve learned that several of my author friends read my favorite book series on the Childhoods of Famous Americans when we were kids, and it shaped our discovery of history and historical fiction by humanizing icons of history and making them accessible to children. It tickled our imaginations to learn about culture and what life might have been like for Virginia Dare, Martha Washington, or Abigail Adams, as children. (There were boys in the series, too, of course.)

My mother was chronically ill, and she drafted me to help her at genealogy and history archives with the fetch-and-carry jobs, or searching the reference files (you know, the little card drawers at the many-books place, that preceded the search engine). We traced many of our lines back through renaissance and medieval eras to European royalty. One of our most important discoveries in the 1970s was the confirmation that we were 11 and 12 generations descended from Mary Barrett Dyer, the 17th-century Quaker martyr. In the 1970s and 80s, we believed that Mary was hanged by those mean Boston Puritans for her religious beliefs, “simply for being a Quaker.” Unfortunately, that belief persists in countless web pages today.

Mary Dyer had several opportunities to avoid prison and execution. She could have lived her life in peace and safety, doing anything she wanted to, in Rhode Island, the colony she co-founded. But she intentionally returned to Boston several times to defy her banishment-on-pain-of-death sentence, until she forced their hand and they executed her. It’s not that she wanted to die, but that she was willing to die to shock the citizens into stopping their leaders from the vicious persecution of Quakers and Baptists. Whippings such as Herodias Gardner’s. Mary and other Quakers believed they were called by God to “try the bloody law,” the law that required torture, bankrupting fines, exile, and death for dissenters.

Rhode Island's 1663 charter
from King Charles II, that
mentions William Dyer's name
twice (and grants religious freedom
to Rhode Island citizens, a first
in Western history.)
 Mary’s sacrifice and civil disobedience worked. After her death in June 1660, a petition to King Charles II resulted in a cease-and-desist order to the Puritan theocracy in New England; and the king’s Rhode Island charter of 1663 (which replaced previous religiously-liberal charters) specifically granted liberty of conscience and separation of church and civil powers in Rhode Island Colony. One hundred thirty years later, the religious-freedom concept modeled by Rhode Island became part of America’s Bill of Rights to the Constitution.

Religious liberties (to practice religion or not without interference of the government) and those who would legislate their morality upon others still clash today, 350 years later. That’s one of the things that compels me to write of a strong-willed woman. Mary Dyer sacrificed her will and her life of ease and wealth, with husband, children, grandchildren, respect and influence for the good of hundreds of people in her own time, and untold hundreds of millions who came after her.

The genealogy hobby is inspiring, educational, and fun. I’m 32 generations down the tree from Eleanor of Aquitaine, author Christy English’s muse. Eleanor’s son John was forced to agree to the Magna Carta, a charter of liberties which has been the model of constitutions around the world. On another line, I’m 12 generations down from Mary Barrett Dyer, whose sacrifice laid the groundwork for the human rights in the US Constitution. It’s fun to speculate what molecules of DNA have come down to me from those two, or from the thousands of other strong, resourceful, and intelligent women in the family pedigree. They’re the people whose actions and principles formed our society and culture today. They were not wimps. And neither are we. 

 Christy K. Robinson is an author and editor whose book We Shall Be Changed was published in hardcover in 2010. She's currently (in 2012) researching and writing a historical novel on Mary Barrett Dyer, 1611-1660. (The book was published as Mary Dyer Illuminated in October 2013.) You can reach Christy at .
Christy also has an excellent blog about William and Mary (Barrett) Dyer at and I urge you to check it out!

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