Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Mary Dyer, pioneer of civil disobedience

© Christy K Robinson

Little did I know when I set out to write a historical novel (part fiction, lots of fact), that I’d come upon so many fantasies, assumptions, and falsities in my heroine’s so-called biographies, or discrepancies in timelines that expose obvious mistakes. Who thought that at least one of two documents thought to be written by her, was not written by her, but significantly changed; and because that happened to the first document, the second one is highly suspect?  Or that much of what is “known” about her came from the highly-politicized and carefully-managed public relations wing of a budding religious movement?

Here’s what can be constructed about Mary Dyer:
  • was born Mary Barrett, about 1610-11 in England, parents unknown (though sensational-but-WRONG stories have Mary as the sixth-generation descendant of Henry VII. Did I mention this is WRONG?)
  • seems to have been well-educated and could write beautifully when most middle-class women could barely read and rarely could write
  • married William Dyer in 1633 at St. Martin-in-the-Fields church, which was an Anglican church at the time, before the Puritan regime took over in the 1640s
  • buried newborn son on first wedding anniversary
  • emigrated to Boston in 1635, was admitted to church membership in a conservative Puritan church, where her new son was baptized by a man who would be a tormenter at her death
  • was close friends with and mentee of outspoken female religious dissenter, Anne Hutchinson
  • in 1637 had a seven-months-gestation stillbirth of an anencephalic girl with spina bifida deformities; her pastor/teacher buried the fetus secretly
  • in 1638 offended Boston authorities by taking hand of Anne Hutchinson at Hutchinson’s heresy trial
  • Mary’s “monster,” the stillborn fetus, was exhumed and shown to more than 100 men as proof of her heresy in following Anne Hutchinson’s beliefs.
  • Because her husband William and 60 other men had signed a protest letter to the court in 1637, and refused to apologize, they were expelled from Massachusetts, effective May 1, 1638.
  • William and Mary joined the Hutchinsons and about 75 families in purchasing Native American lands that would become the colony of Rhode Island. They co-founded the Rhode Island cities of Portsmouth and Newport.
  • Mary had five children between 1640 and 1650 who lived to adulthood, but there are no existing records of what she was doing while William’s career in government and the law took off, and he increased their land holdings.
  • In early 1652, Mary sailed to England, leaving children (aged 2-17) behind with friends. William followed later, to obtain a commission to act as privateer in the Anglo-Dutch War, in the Dutch territories around Long Island Sound. He returned to Rhode Island without Mary.
  • In 1657, having at some point in the last 4 years become a Quaker, Mary and another woman sail from Bristol for Boston, but are detoured by extreme weather at sea. The ship waits out the winter in Barbados for a few weeks, and they return north on the Gulf Stream, arriving in Boston in March.
  • Mary is arrested straight off the ship, having been reported as a Quaker. Her belongings are burned. She stays incarcerated for weeks until her husband receives a message in Rhode Island. He goes to Boston to rescue her and pays a bond for her release.
  • Over the next two years, Mary supports the Quakers who come to Newport for refuge from Massachusetts, New Amsterdam, and Connecticut persecution. She protested the torture of Quakers in New Haven, Connecticut, and traveled again to Boston to support the imprisoned with material aid and spiritual comfort.
  • After repeatedly defying her banishment orders and sentences of death if she returned, Mary and two Quaker men were condemned to death by hanging. The men are hanged before her eyes, but Mary is reprieved by the court in a piece of manufactured drama. She would rather have been martyred, and writes to the court. She is released to go home.
  • But she can’t stay there when Quakers are beaten nearly to death, fined to the point of bankruptcy, and physically mutilated. She goes to Sandwich, Massachusetts and gets re-arrested and jailed for about a week. The man who transported her there is ordered to pay her jail costs and fine, and she is sent home to Newport.
  • Instead of staying in safety with her family, in November 1659 Mary sails to the eastern tip of Long Island, to a small island in its harbor, called Shelter Island. She spends the winter with the Quakers who own the island. She may have taught Bible lessons to the natives there.
  • Determined to rile the residents and defy the Boston court, Mary sails from Shelter Island past her own home without stopping, landing at Providence, Rhode Island. She and a female companion walk the same road back to Boston that the Anne Hutchinson group had walked in 1638 when they were expelled from Massachusetts Bay Colony. For the best effect, Mary times her arrival for late May 1660, for the sitting of the court.
  • Mary is arrested for visiting Quakers being held in the prison there. This time she means to be martyred, and she is, on June 1, 1660.

Why would this Englishwoman of high social status, education, a mother of six, and economically well-off wife of an attorney general, described as beautiful and intelligent, intentionally provoke her own death at age 48 or 49?

Did her religious beliefs make her mentally unbalanced? As you know, religious beliefs, whether conservative, center, or liberal, are complicated. They’re partly about how you live your life in relationship with others and God, and partly what you expect as reward or punishment in the hereafter. For the people of the 17th century, religion was everything. Nothing happened unless God directed it. Life on earth was fleeting, especially when waves of plague, misery, poverty, and war seemed unceasing; but the hereafter was “where it was at.” It was eternal, inevitable—and the only alternative was eternal hellfire.

The American Puritans were much more conservative than those in England, perhaps due to the bitter persecutions they’d experienced prior to their emigration. They combined their civil laws with Old Testament religious laws: Ten Commandments, plus many rules in the Books of Moses that were written specifically for the Israelites during their 40-year wanderings, along with Calvinist beliefs that men had a better chance of heaven than women (because Eve sinned before Adam) and that eternal salvation was only for a relative few that had already been chosen by predestination. How did one know one was part of the Elect who would attain heaven? They never fully knew if they’d be saved, but they showed their desire and intent to God, by keeping the laws, and by making sure that one’s community members also kept the law. This, of course, led to spying and tattling.  

American Puritans, then, were fearful of being lost, and frightened of a god as a harsh judge who, despite their lifelong, arduous work of being “good,” had no intention of saving them. When Anne Hutchinson in the 1630s and the Quakers in the 1650s came along saying that by faith in the free gift of God (grace), that God actually loved and desired their love, and that personal revelations of his will for their daily lives had replaced the old written law, people caught in that legalistic hell were attracted to a God of love and light. They could be saved. They would be saved.
Source: http://www.plainquaker.org/news.html

This was, in effect, a giant threat to the Puritan judges and ministers because their authority was undermined, they expected chaos from those who felt they weren’t required to keep any laws, their “New Jerusalem” city-upon-a-hill project had failed, and not least: that the lawlessness would bring a royal governor over to administer Anglican and secular affairs, and the magistrates and founders would lose their 1629 charter and their lifelong financial investments in the colony.

In their fear and fury at the Quaker invasion beginning in 1656, New England began making laws (which were contradictory and flimsy and were refuted by Quaker defendants untrained in the law!). The authorities burned books and papers, and arrested Quakers, putting them in prison for months at a time including freezing winters with no heat or light, forcing them to hard labor, feeding them poor rations or starving them, beating them several times a week, whipping (men and women were stripped to the waist in public and flogged), dragging Quakers through three towns and giving them 10 lashes at each town, dragging them at cart-tail out into the wilderness and dumping them barely alive, slicing off the ears, and other punishments. Some families endured these tortures and were fined large amounts of money; when the cash ran out, they lost cattle, horses, and properties, until at one time, a Quaker family’s teenagers were put up for slave auction. Because men vastly outnumbered women in the colonies and the Caribbean, the girl would probably have been doomed to be a sex slave, and the boy would have toiled until he died in the sugar fields. But the ship’s captain would not buy what appeared to be innocent young people for slave trade, and the attempt failed.

By this time, 1659, many Puritan settlers had become Quaker and Baptist sympathizers, sick of the cruelty, avarice, bloodlust, and injustice of their rulers. Some of them were fined and whipped for providing hospitality to Quakers or protesting the unnecessarily harsh penalties. Many of the sympathizers converted to Quakerism within a few months or years.

This is why Mary Dyer insisted on committing what we now call “civil disobedience.” Contrary to what many genealogy web pages say, and several accounts by Quakers of her time, Mary was no poor little victim. “She was hanged for being a Quaker,” they say. Absolutely not! She could have chosen peace, safety, health, and protection in Rhode Island, where her human rights were guaranteed. Instead, she actually sailed past her powerful and respected attorney husband and their six children who would have stopped her, to return to the scene of greatest hate and most malevolent government, and put herself face to face with their “bloody laws,” as Quakers called the system. She intended to rouse public opinion and shame the governor and court into annulling their laws. As Mary was escorted by more than 100 pikemen and musketeers to her first execution scene, she went happily and proudly, knowing she’d accomplished her purpose and would be in heaven in a flash. She didn’t need 100 armed soldiers to keep her from running away, but to keep the crowd from rallying to her rescue and to protect the Boston authorities who were executing a high-status woman, Mary Dyer. Her crimes were about the business of supporting those in prison—a biblical mandate—and disobeying the court by returning to Massachusetts, a misdemeanor in most eyes. The public opinion campaign was working.

After Mary’s 1660 execution by hanging, the early Quakers who wrote Mary’s and other heroic stories composed an appeal to King Charles II, newly restored to the throne, which refuted the Boston magistrates’ defense of their practices. As a result, the King ordered that Boston stop executions based in religion and refer their cases to England for trial.

Mary’s influential husband William was one of the framers of the 1663 royal charter of liberties for Rhode Island Colony. The charter confirmed the principle of separation of church and state, with liberty of conscience to believe, and worship (or not), in the way you choose as long as it doesn’t break the civil law. The Rhode Island charter was a model for the United States Constitution’s first amendment guaranteeing religious freedom and freedom of speech.  

So what do you think of Mary Dyer? Was she crazy to leave security and peace to be hanged? Did her choice to be a martyr have any effect on your civil rights? Would you have the courage to face death for a principle—or for people you don’t even know, hundreds of years in the future? Could you do what Martin Luther King Jr, and Mary Barrett Dyer did: own a dream, consider others’ welfare above your own, and commit civil disobedience, even unto death, to further righteousness and justice in this world?

Previously published on Sarah Butterfield’s http://sarahshistoryblog.wordpress.com/  during Women’s History Month, March 17, 2013.
Initially, I intended to write on Mary Dyer's contribution to religious liberty, but realized that the blog’s audience is mostly British and immersed in medieval and Tudor culture. So I wrote it instead as a popular piece, simplifying the complex issues and stripping out the others (including a large group of fascinating people) that were essential to the outcome. Because, you know, that's what journal articles and full-length books are for!


  1. From Ken in Michigan:

    Hi Christy, good "cut to the chase" about what we know about Mary. Most writers fail to note that Mary and William took separate ships. Either Mary was extremely anxious to get to England and William had unfinished business before he could depart or... Or what? Why make a long and dangerous trip separately? You politely refer to the New England puritans as "conservative," yet by any standard they are radical fundamentalists. I admire your characterization of their punishments as "torture." You have put their sadistic punishments in perspective. I hope that you devote a chapter to the terrible things they did in the name of God. No doubt they were hoping to terrorize anyone who disagreed with them. Kudos for noting that Mary was a willing martyr forcing the MBC to execute her for her duty to conscience.

    I believe that Mary's desertion of her husband and children (including my one year old 7th great grandfather, Charles) has been seriously overlooked by Mary's biographers - and this before her quaker conversion. Yes, I've read her husband''s pathetic letter to the court on her behalf - that's significant, too.

    Great job!

    An additional thought - you hint at personal experiences that contribute to fanaticism - I can't help but recall the tragic death of Mary's dear friend Anne Hutchinson... Indirectly at the hands of the MBC.

    1. Dear Ken in Michigan - are you descended directly from Charles Dyer? That's my line of descent as well. I'm learning so much from the research that Christy has done, and appreciate all the connections that may come from it. I'm hoping to find out more about why the Quaker practice seems to have died out, at least it was not any part of my father's lexicon. My mother's ancestors were all Boston puritans, so I have both side of the persecution in my own history. It's appalling, and fascinating as well. Thanks for any connection you can provide. Faith

  2. Mary Dyer and the 6th principle of UU [Universalist Unitarian]

    Hello Ms. Robinson,
    I am writing you from my home town of Boston, MA. Just wanted to thank you for your handling of all materials "Mary Dyer". I love your work, which is both educational and entertaining. Your ability to take us back to the daily life of the 17th century through small details and BIG subjects is such a talent.

    I wanted to let you know that I am co-celebrating our UU service this Sunday [March 29, 2015] with our minister at First Parish Dorchester (we just celebrated 385 yrs as a continuous religious organization). By the way, our third minister was THE Richard Mather - so I am sure he will be rolling in his grave this Sunday as the subject of the service is the 6th principle of UUA.-The Goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all. - and I will be using Mary Dyer as an example of civil disobedience.
    Thank you again and have a nice day!
    Tom Cunningham


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