Who was Mary Dyer? Very little has been known for sure, except that Mary was a 17th-century educated Englishwoman who married at St. Martin-in-the-Fields parish in Westminster; she gave birth eight times, including to an anencephalic fetus that was called a monster; she emigrated to New England’s wilderness and cofounded America’s first democracy, and she eventually was hanged in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1660 for her intentional civil disobedience to Boston’s theocratic government.
|From 1607, the appearance of Halley's Comet |
(before Halley's name was associated with it).
Note the total and partial eclipses, the comet,
soldiers, and death (probably plague).
While we don’t find much direct evidence of Mary’s life and thoughts, we can look at the culture, politics, religions, natural history, sociology, genealogical records of her associates, and journals and letters, of the friends and family—and enemies—surrounding her. All those pieces, when placed in parallel timelines and looked at with logic, create a painting of the woman only glimpsed in the journals of others or in court records of the day.
My two-part novel of the Dyers is not written for the religious or inspirational genre. It’s historical/biographical fiction based in fact. But because of the highly-charged atmosphere of the 17th century, the reader will understand that religious beliefs were paramount to every Western culture at that time. Such a thing as separation of church and state had been thought of, but not realized. Of the governments of that era, the Dutch showed the most tolerance for minority beliefs and practices, but their Reformed church (somewhat similar to Puritanism and Presbyterianism) was still state-sponsored.
· The Separatists who became the Pilgrims fled the Anglican repression under King James I, first to the Netherlands and then to America.
· The Great Migration of the 1630s from England to Massachusetts and Virginia was years in the making, but its crux was King Charles I’s re-publication of The Book of Sports which forced the Puritans to break with Anglicans, resulting in 21,000 people moving to Massachusetts and thousands more to Virginia Colony.
· The English Civil Wars of the 1640s and ’50s were begun over Anglican (royalist)-versus-Puritan (Parliamentary) issues.
· The Thirty Years War, between Catholics and Protestants, raged across Europe carrying plague and famine with it.
· The Jews of the Iberian peninsula, even if they converted to Catholicism, were still burned as heretics if they couldn’t escape Spain and Portugal.
· The Dutch West Indies Company which colonized the Caribbean, Brazil, and parts of New England provided their settlers and military forts with Dutch Reformed ministers.
In every comet, eclipse, earthquake, or plague, the priests, ministers, and rabbis in Europe and America saw the hand of God and they preached it to their congregations. There was no secular or sacred demarcation: all was one fabric, and that was sacred fabric. They believed that the short years they were on earth were a preparatory time for eternity. Religious issues and morals weren’t lifestyle choices, fairy tales, or myths, but eternal matters. Strict adherence to biblical law and punishment of heretics concerned the entire community. Religious dogma was worth killing for, and religious liberty was worth dying for.
While researching my Dyer novels, I found references to
· Great earthquakes (approximately 7.0-magnitude quake in New England on June 1, 1638, and another great quake with tsunami in April 1658)
· The largest hurricane ever to strike New England made landfall between Plymouth and Boston in August 1635
· Hurricanes which caused tsunami-like tidal surges in southern New England
· Comet (May 29-30, 1630 visible over Europe in daylight at time of Charles II’s birth)
· Annular and total solar eclipses (April 1652 “Bugbear” eclipse in British Isles put the rich in fast coaches out of London and stopped the laborers at their work; also annular eclipse in November 1659 in Massachusetts)
· A blood-red lunar eclipse in June 1638 was reported by my book’s characters (very satisfying to this researcher!)
· Clouds of pigeons that darkened the sky ate both seed and sprouts of Massachusetts corn planting
· A plague of black caterpillars seemed to fall from the clear sky, and destroyed crops and orchards in Massachusetts and Connecticut
· The Little Ice Age was at its coldest in the 1640s and 1650s, freezing harbors in Boston, Iceland, and London’s River Thames, and ruining crops in summer
· The Leonid meteor shower of November 1636 was an every-33-year spectacular fireworks show that was considered a sign of Christ’s imminent return
· Unexplained booming noises that were probably meteorites
The people of the 17th century, of every social or economic stratus, believed that these signs and wonders were directly from the hand of God and that they were precursors to further disaster. A New Testament verse says that all these terrifying things were the beginning of birth pangs, leading to the end of the world. Yes, more to come! Even the Narragansett tribe of Rhode Island believed that earthquakes would be inevitably followed by hurricanes, blizzards, epidemics, failed crops, and other disasters. Art from Germany shows comets in the sky, with war and bubonic plague victims dying below.
|From 1517: Comets, cities broken by war, bubonic plague |
victims, a two-headed monster, and blood raining
Most of those events, because of their importance to our ancestors who experienced them, were resurrected in my novels. I didn’t even have to make them up!
What do we think today of natural events? Storm chasers follow tornados and stand outside with microphones in hurricanes. We take lawn chairs out in the middle of the night to see meteor showers or the faint glow of a comet (did you know there’s a spectacular comet predicted for November 2013?), and we don protective lenses and we photograph crescents for a solar eclipse. We moan and groan at the “snowpocalypse” or rain deluge. People of faith celebrate the Creator. Others celebrate nature. But only suicidal cultists think that we’re riding off the planet on a comet’s tail.
Whether you practice a religion or denominational affiliation, or you believe that there is a universal spirituality, or you believe there is no god, you can thank Mary Barrett Dyer for giving her life to win religious liberty for all—the right to exercise your beliefs, and (perhaps surprisingly) the right not to practice religion or to have it forced upon you. You can thank her husband, William Dyer, the first attorney general in America, for codifying that right. These liberties are still under attack today, all over the world. When organizations seek to blend religion with politics or government, repression will inevitably be the result. That has been the case in every society, for thousands of years. It’s up to you to continue the struggle to allow but not require religious expression.
Next time you see a special event in nature (I’m partial to desert lightning shows), just enjoy it. No need to flee the city, start a holy war, or form a new nation. Neither Jehovah nor Zeus is hurling disaster after you!
This article appeared first on Andrea Zuvich's blog, 17th Century Woman, on Sept. 26, 2013.
We Shall Be Changed (2010)
Mary Dyer Illuminated Vol. 1 (2013)
Mary Dyer: For Such a Time as This Vol. 2 (2014)
The Dyers of London, Boston, & Newport Vol. 3 (2014)
Effigy Hunter (2015)
And of these sites:
Discovering Love (inspiration and service)
Rooting for Ancestors (history and genealogy)
William and Mary Barrett Dyer (17th century culture and history of England and New England)
Editornado [ed•i•tohr•NAY•doh] (Words. Communications. Book reviews. Cartoons.)