Friday, June 1, 2018

June 1, 1660--Mary Dyer's victory, not victimhood

© 2018 Christy K Robinson

June 1, 1660 was the day Mary Dyer chose to die, and with her death, bring an end to religious oppression.

Statue of Mary Dyer at the
Massachusetts Statehouse, a mile from
the gallows where she was executed.
Photo by Christy K Robinson.
Mary Dyer intentionally left Shelter Island, a Quaker haven, and traveled first to Providence, Rhode Island, the colony where she was safe from persecution. She was the wife of Rhode Island co-founder, wealthy businessman, and colonial official William Dyer, so that was an additional privilege she could have claimed for personal security. She walked through wilderness and farms to Boston at the time of its greatest surge in population, the annual elections and court sessions. She timed her arrival in late May for the greatest number of watchers. Then she made an appearance, in defiance of earlier court sentences of banishment-on-pain-of-death, in the heart of the city. She was arrested and imprisoned. The governor and assistants urged her to leave and not force them to carry out her sentence. She refused to go unless they would stop the beatings, fines, and hanging of religious dissenters. They hanged Mary Dyer on the first of June, 1660, before a crowd that may have numbered 5,000.

It was Mary's civil disobedience that resulted in a royal decree to stop capital punishment for religion, and a major influence on freedom of conscience to worship--or not worship--without government interference or promotion. That's encoded in the US Constitution.

Many writers have said that Mary Dyer was hanged for being a Quaker or because of her Quaker beliefs. (There were scores of Quakers imprisoned in New England, and they were not killed.) That claim makes her a victim of a theocratic regime. But Mary Dyer was no victim. They didn't kill her: she laid her life down.

She had written in her letter to the General Court, 
Whereas it is said by many of you that I am guilty of mine owne death by my
coming as you cal it voluntarily to boston: I therefore declare unto every one
that hath an eare to hear: that in the fear peace and love of god I came and in weldoing
did and stil doth commit my soul and body to him as unto a faithful creator
and for this very end hath preserved my life until now through many trialls and
temptations... to offer up my life freely for his truth and peoples sakes... 
to me to live is christ and to die is gaine [Philippians 1:21]
though I had not had your 48 houers warning
for the preparation of the cruel and in your esteme cursed death of mee marie dire. 

Snippet of Mary Dyer's own handwriting from her October 1659 letter to the General Court of Boston.
 A high-resolution copy of the full-page letter is available here:

Mary Dyer was no victim of Boston's religious government. 
She was the victor.
She won.

One might question if Mary had a "religious liberty" motivation when she went to her death. It was a complex decision, surely. She didn't go to her death rashly, but rather in a considered, deliberate plan of action. As you see in the letter excerpts above, she had a purpose in forcing Governor John Endecott to stop persecuting Quakers.
  • Mary herself had been accused of heresy (the "proof" was her so-called monster pregnancy in 1637, seven months before Anne Hutchinson miscarried a molar pregnancy) which made the pair infamous on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. 
  • She knew the Antinomian men Gorton and Holden, who Boston authorities violently abducted from Shawomet, Rhode Island in 1643, and charged with sedition and heresy.
  • She knew that there was a virulent hatred and possible plot to imprison and execute Anne Hutchinson, an Antinomian, in 1643. 
  • She knew that Baptist minister Obadiah Holmes, Sr., had been severely beaten and Humphrey Norton, a Quaker, was tortured nearly to death over several months. 
  • She knew Roger Williams, the proponent of separation of church and state, who worked closely with William Dyer for several decades. 
  • Her Quaker friends William Robinson and Marmaduke Stevenson had been severely whipped in Plymouth Colony and were hanged before her eyes in Boston in 1659. 
  • Other Quaker friends, Katherine Marbury Scott and Herodias Long Gardner, were stripped to the waist and whipped in Boston. Robert Harper and Lawrence and Cassandra Southwick and their adult children were whipped often and imprisoned.
  • The 1663 Rhode Island Charter of Liberties contained the very things Mary wrote in her letter, including liberty of conscience and the right to free passage through Massachusetts. 

Adding all those pieces together, Mary was motivated to advocate for religious liberty for all, which meant believing and acting one's conscience (the Holy Spirit speaking to one's mind) even if the majority disagrees with an individual or group. It's not freedom or justice for all if some are excluded for their belief or non-belief. It's not freedom for one branch of believers to have privileges from the government while others are denied based on their beliefs. 

Even today, our rights to freedom of religion and freedom from oppression are under sneak attack. As an admirer or descendant of Mary Dyer, I hope you will work to protect the rights of all Americans, as started by our *first* founders, Roger Williams, William and Anne Marbury Hutchinson, Richard and Katherine Marbury Scott, William and Mary Dyer, John Clarke, and many others. Because it's a never-ending struggle in every government agency, every state and territory, and every municipality, to allow freedom for all, and not just freedom for the powerful. Join me in support of liberty.

Related articles in this Dyer website:

The anniversary of our civil rights  (published in Providence Journal)
Mary Dyer’s last 44 miles Mary Dyer’s last journey, toward her death
The great New England quake of June 1, 1638 Mary Dyer and Anne Hutchinson
The 1630 comet of doom Charles II of England was born at the time of the comet, and crowned in 1660 as Mary waited in prison for her execution
Mary Dyer's execution -- Book excerpt

I wrote the first two volumes about Mary and her life as biographical fiction. To tell her story and show her motivations, I introduced readers to the titans of New England, Henry Vane, Gov. John Winthrop, Rev. John Cotton, Anne Marbury Hutchinson, Rev. Roger Williams, and many other real people (some of them your ancestors) in my books that came from years of research into lives, family and social connections, letters, land deeds and journals, in addition to academic history and sociological studies. However, this Dyer website exists to show research about the Dyers and their associates (friend and foe).

Christy K Robinson is author of these books:
Mary Dyer Illuminated Vol. 1 (2013)  
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.)


  1. Facebook comments:

    Thomas E. C. Barclay: A compelling example of what happens when religion becomes the law. Coming from a long line of Friends, "Quakers," this woman and two others were hanged for having a differing view on the world around them and of their God.

    This is what she said when standing on the gallows, and after being offered a deal to deny her own beliefs to take up the prevailing, "Puritan" beliefs.

    "This is to me the hour of greatest joy I ever had in
    this world. No ear can hear, no tongue can utter, and no
    heart can understand the sweet incomes and the refreshings
    of the spirit of the Lord, which I now feel."

    We have the same thing going on in our nation right now. A minority of faux Christians, many of whom are elected officials, exerting their power to cause their beliefs to be the law of the land. This ranges from making laws to direct who a person is allowed to love and marry, to being able to deny a wedding cake for a couple you don't approve of, to what woman can do or not do with her own body.

    We need more Mary Dyers and fewer John Endecotts.

    1. Thank you, Thomas. I volunteer with an interfaith group that assists (feeds, shelters, clothes, etc.) the refugees and asylum seekers, all of them moms with babies and toddlers, and dads of 6- and 8-year-olds, that DHS drops at host churches in Phoenix. I'm often reminded of the verse in James 1:27 that "pure religion" is not the form or format that we've made it. It's helping the widows and orphans--the helpless of society--that he approves, and "keeping oneself" (not others) from being polluted by the world. Legislating morality is anti-biblical, and it has never worked.

      The founders of Rhode Island, all of them, had experienced religious and economic persecution. Though most of them were "religious" people, they founded the colony as a secular government that allowed liberty of conscience to all. It was a successful model that became the foundation of the US Constitution and its Bill of Rights. The very first amendment was freedom.

      Was Rhode Island a perfect, godly society? No. It was the center of the slave trade until the Quaker abolitionists had their way. But was the City Upon a Hill, Massachusetts Bay Colony, pure and spotless with all their moral legislation? No. (Slave trade, religious persecution including witch hangings, piracy, genocide, etc.) Righteousness and wickedness are between God and an individual, not the state and the individual.

      Rhode Island founders, from Roger Williams to Anne Hutchinson, William and Mary Dyer, John Clarke, Nicholas Easton, and many others, knew that and at great personal cost, created a brilliant future for millions of Americans. Let's not throw that away!


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