Friday, March 15, 2019

Women’s History Month Spotlight: Mary Barrett Dyer

© 2018 Christy K Robinson

During Women’s History Month, we often hear the stories of women in recent history.  This article celebrates a woman who gave her life to force the New England theocracy to stop persecuting (fining, beating, torturing, hanging) those who believed differently than the fundamental dogma. Meet Mary Barrett Dyer, 1611-1660.

Mary Barrett was raised in London, to parents history has lost track of. Unusually for a girl of her era, she was well educated and could converse on traditional “men’s” subjects. She could write, which not all men could do, and she had knowledge of several religious denominations: she was married as an Anglican, she was admitted to membership in Boston First Church of Christ (Puritan), joined the Antinomian movement of Anne Hutchinson, and became a Friend (Quaker) in the 1650s.  She married William Dyer, a remarkable man, in 1633, and they joined about 35,000 Puritans in the Great Migration to Boston in 1635.

Boston, Massachusetts Bay Colony, had been founded as the City Upon a Hill by members of the Winthrop Fleet in 1630. It was meant to be a New Jerusalem where the theocratic government and utopian society would usher in the second coming of Christ. They’d seen the signs of the end with blood moons, solar eclipses, starfalls and comets, earthquakes, and believed the Elect (those who God predestined to salvation) would be taken to heaven in their lifetimes.
Mary Dyer at the Friends Center, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Artist: Sylvia Shaw Judson

The Bay Colony was governed by Puritan ministers and magistrates who were far more zealous or fanatical than English Puritans. Plainly and simply, it was a theocracy. The voters and jurymen were freemen who were members of their churches—and membership was not easy to obtain without an interview, personal testimony, and recommendations. Those who committed adultery were subject to severe whippings and possibly hanging, and members were encouraged to report crimes for the purpose of purifying the church and greater community. They were known to drop in on other members and quiz their children on their catechism. The Massachusetts Bay founders believed that religious error or dissent from their dogma was treasonable.

Along came Anne Hutchinson, who turned Massachusetts on its ear by teaching Bible studies in her home, emphasizing the New Testament covenant and salvation by grace, in contrast to the adherence to Old Testament laws and trying to be saved by keeping religious and ceremonial laws. Mary Dyer was one of Anne’s friends, and Gov. John Winthrop described Mary as “a very proper and fair woman, and both of them notoriously infected with Mrs. Hutchinson's errors, and very censorious and troublesome, (she being of a very proud spirit, and much addicted to revelations)."

One of the main accusers of Hutchinson and Dyer was Rev. Thomas Weld, who accused the Hutchinson followers of gaining adherents by
“Being once acquainted with them, they would strangely labour to insi­nuate themselves into their affections, by loving salutes, humble carriage, kind invitements, friendly visits, and so they would win upon men, and steal into their bosoms before they were aware. Yea, as soon as any new-comers (especial­ly, men of note, worth and activity, fit instruments to advance their design) were landed, they would be sure to welcome them, shew them all courtesie, and offer them room in their own houses, or of some of their own Sect…”

That sounds to my 21st century ears like community outreach  or personal evangelism. To the 17th century Puritans, it was a seditious political movement that threatened the vision of the City Upon a Hill.

Mary’s husband William was involved with Hutchinson’s religious and political movement in Boston, and signed a remonstrance against the government. Just before he had his civil rights revoked, Mary gave stillbirth to the first “monster” in America: a seven-months anencephalic and spina bifida-afflicted girl. Only a few people knew of it in October 1637, but when Anne Hutchinson was excommunicated in 1638, Mary took Anne’s hand as she was told to depart the meetinghouse, and someone told the crowd that Mary was the mother of a monster. The fetus was exhumed and it was pronounced God’s judgment on her heresy. 

Mary and William co-founded both Portsmouth and Newport, Rhode Island, with William taking an active role in government, including being appointed first Recorder, first Secretary of State, first Attorney General, and Commander in Chief Upon the Seas for New England. Rhode Island formed the first democracy disconnected from ecclesiastical control. From 1635-1650, Mary bore six children who lived to adulthood.

In 1652, just before the Anglo-Dutch naval war broke out, William was sent to England to secure a new charter of liberties and his naval commission, and Mary sailed there, too. She stayed, probably with influential family friends, until early 1657. She had been “convinced” as a Quaker during that time. Quakers were not popular in England or America because of their criticism of orthodox religion, their radical behavior in disrupting churches, and because they encouraged women to testify and preach. In 1656, the first Quaker missionaries arrived in southern New England. They were arrested, tortured, suffered confiscations of their farms, and then tried in court. They schooled the magistrates, asking what law they’d broken. The theocrats hastily created laws after the fact, to viciously persecute and kill these nonconformists. 

Mary knew exactly what she was coming home to in 1657. She intentionally sailed for Boston, rather than for her home ports in Rhode Island, a haven for religious nonconformists. The Massachusetts assistant governor promptly cast her into prison because of her Quaker beliefs. Already being famous as the mother of the monster, they knew she had a high social status because of her husband.

Over the next two and a half years, Mary was jailed several times for civil disobedience—not her religion. Surrounding colonies banished her “on pain of death” if she returned. Nevertheless, she persisted. They didn’t want to hang her and create a martyr, so she was released several times. They hanged two Quaker men in 1659, but their deaths had no effect on the bloody laws. Mary decided they needed a woman to protest, and give up her life if necessary—an educated, beautiful woman who was the perfect wife and mother, and famous at that. In May 1660, she returned to Boston at the time when the city was crowded for elections and courts. She showed up at the prison to encourage the Quakers inside, but apparently also to make her presence known. She was cast into prison, given a chance to go home, shut up, and be safe, but she refused.

On June 1, 1660, Mary Dyer marched a mile from the prison to the gallows on Boston Neck, with a large militia escorting her. They weren’t there to protect Mary: the crowd had sympathy for her. The pikemen and musketeers were there as security for the government officers and ministers who reviled her.

Mary recognized her duty to speak to oppression, and to the torture and imprisonment of her fellow believers. Her death was reported to King Charles II, who wrote an order forbidding capital punishment for religion based on a letter Mary wrote. Two years later, he ratified a new, groundbreaking charter (which William Dyer had a hand in) for Rhode Island, guaranteeing religious freedom and liberty of conscience.  It was one of the templates for the U.S. Constitution, 130 years later. Other countries have modeled their constitutions and rights on those of the United States: these liberties have become global.

Does Mary Dyer still have the ability to inspire you, 
400 years later, or are you content to say that she was your ancestor, and then change the subject? 

The battle for religious liberty, though encoded in law and enshrined in the Constitution, rages on even to this day. Stay vigilant. Note that federal and Supreme Courts, Congress, state legislatures, lobbyists, and media influencers have a hard grip on your freedoms. Write or call, and give them a piece of your mind. Do it often. They work for us.

It’s time for you and all of us to summon the courage and vision of Mary Dyer.


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.)

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