Wednesday, December 12, 2012


This post was written for the Viriditas blog of Mary Sharratt, author of Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen, in a series on Light and Advent, December 2012. My article is an opinion piece on Light, not intended to tell the entire story or beliefs of Mary Barrett Dyer. The theological concepts are complicated and I've simplified them here.

© Christy K. Robinson
Mary Dyer sculpture at Boston.
Photo by Erik Pettee, used by permission.

If you know of Mary Barrett Dyer, perhaps it’s the memorial statue at the Massachusetts State House; or that she was the Quaker woman hanged in Boston in 1660.

Mary was born in London at the time the King James Bible was published, and was admired for her intellectual, spiritual, and physical beauty. She and William Dyer were married under Anglican liturgy at St. Martin-in-the-Fields, but in 1635, they emigrated to ultra-Puritan Boston in Massachusetts Bay Colony, and were immediately admitted to membership in the First Church. (Some people committed suicide because their membership was denied.) The Dyers had to conform to Puritan ways to be accepted so quickly. However, Governor Winthrop observed that Mary was “addicted to revelations.”

Mary became a disciple of Anne Hutchinson, a religious dissident who claimed that God revealed insights about scripture to her—a “weak-minded” (but highly-educated) woman. She pointed out that instead of trying in vain to earn salvation by perfectly keeping the law, believers were set free from eternal damnation by God’s grace. They could trust divine leading in their conscience, with no need for intercessors or interpreters.

But the Puritan theocracy believed if every man did as he pleased, all would be anarchy. After several ecclesiastical trials, the Hutchinsons and Dyers and about 75 Massachusetts families were exiled for sedition and heresy. They purchased Rhode Island from the Indians, and founded a new colony in 1638.

Mary visited England in early 1652, where she observed several new religious movements, including the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). In some respects similarly to Anne Hutchinson, the Friends believed that Old Testament laws were obsolete, and had been replaced by God’s voice in the individual’s conscience, which was revealed during times of silent reflection and worship. They experienced God as Light and overwhelming Love, in contrast to the vengeful Judge who predestined only certain people for eternal life. Some of the scripture they quoted included:

  • God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. … If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. 1 John 1:5-7.
  • Believe in the light while you have the light, so that you may become children of light. ~Jesus. John 12:36.
  • For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light.” Ephesians 5:8
In 1657, Mary returned to America, was accused of being a Quaker, and was cast into Boston’s prison for weeks before William Dyer learned of it and rescued her. Thus began three years of Mary’s repeatedly defying religious oppression to gain relief and freedom for the violently persecuted.

Quakers in New England were fined, beaten, branded, whipped with a knotted cord, banished, tied to carts and dragged from town to town, imprisoned without food or heat in winter, and banished “on pain of death” for their efforts and beliefs. Those severe persecutions only made them more determined to share the Light.

For supporting Quakers, Mary was arrested and imprisoned at least five times. Finally, she was sentenced to death. She wrote a letter to the General Court on the night before her execution date. “I therefore declare that in the fear, peace, and love of God I came … and have found such favor in his sight as to offer up my life freely for his truth and people’s sakes. If this life were freely granted by you, it would not avail me to accept it from you, so long as I shall daily hear or see the suffering of my dear brethren and sisters.”

Mary Dyer's handwriting: "Search with ye light of Christ in you..." 
Letter to the General Court, October 1659.
She believed that her death would be so shocking to the public that it would bring about the end of the severe tortures and repression of Quakers by the Puritan leaders. Many Puritans sympathized with and helped Quakers, and had begun to turn away from their harsh government. Fearing unrest, the court granted a reprieve when she was on the gallows. She was imprisoned in Plymouth two weeks later, spent the winter at Long Island, then deliberately returned to Boston seven months later—to obey God’s command, and commit civil disobedience by trespassing against her banishment order and providing aid to imprisoned Quakers.

She was again condemned to death, and was hanged on June 1, 1660. Because her vengeful former pastor offered a cloth to cover her face, I believe that the Light was strong on her countenance.

Mary’s sacrifice was successful. Her letters were presented posthumously to Charles II, who ended executions for religious offenses. Her husband and close friends had significant influence on the 1663 Rhode Island royal charter of liberties that granted freedom of conscience to worship (or not), and retained separation of church and state. The charter was a model for the US Constitution’s Bill of Rights, which has in turn been the beacon of light for constitutions around the world. 

The light shines in the darkness, 
and the darkness has not overcome it. John 1:5. 

Christmas, Advent, Puritan, Quaker, Light


  1. Comment on Goodreads, by Ken, of Fenton, Michigan:

    It must be the nature of our species to find comfort and security in conformity. Mary was a non-conformist with regard to Puritan religious beliefs of her time and indeed to many of the beliefs of modern Christian churches. Her death is an example of the worst in human nature, fear of anyone who does not conform, the need our species has to defend itself from the non-conformist, and how far we will go to insure conformity.

    "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

    In the context of the death of Mary Dyer, the First Amendment denies government power to establish a state religion, as the Puritans did in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It denies government power to banish religious non-conformists as the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony did to Mary Dyer. It denies government power to punish religious disscenters who publicly speak their conscience as Mary Dyer did in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It denies government power to keep discenters from peaceably meeting together as Mary Dyer did with sympathetic supporters in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

    The "Founding Fathers" or, to put it more precisly, the authors of the First Amendment, were keenly aware of the nature of our species to desire conformity yet, for some inspired reason, they were compelled to protect soul liberty, in private and in public. Mary Dyer must be shining brightly.

  2. Comment on Goodreads, by Ken, of Fenton, Michigan:

    Christy, Thank you for sharing this sympathetic opinion piece about Mary Dyer. I can't help but believe that the tribulations of Anne Hutchinson and her family,and those of her friend Mary Dyer and the other Quaker Martyrs, Marmakduke Stephenson, William Robinson, and William Leddra contributed in no small way to the acceptance of Roger Williams' revolutionary concepts of soul liberty and secular society, the inclusion of those principles in the Rhode Island Charter, and eventually in the First Amendment. Ours is a nation that was founded by Christians, more or less but which chose, beginning with Roger Williams' Rhode Island, later Jefferson and Madison, and finally with the 14th Amendment, that we could be a nation of Christians but we would not be a Christian nation - we could be a nation of Christians, Catholic and Protestant, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and everything else or nothing at all - how wonderfully unique at the time and still today.


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