© 2011 Christy K Robinson
Everyone knows that in the end, Mary Dyer was a devout,
fervent Quaker, and that the puritans of Boston
hanged her. Actually, there’s no record of Mary’s religious practices between
1638 when the Dyers left Boston as members of
the (puritan) Boston First Church,
and 1657, when she returned from England as a Quaker believer.
However, no one mentions the spiritual values of her
husband, William Dyer. He loved his wife and supported her, but didn’t appear
to share her doctrines or disciplines at the end of her life. This timeline
indicates that William went along with the majority and probably kept his views to himself, but that he was
likely a secular man when it came to organized religion. His writings acknowledge God, but he doesn't appear to be as "out there" as most other men of his time. That's understandable, as you'll see. This article is not a judgment on him; rather a discovery of his religious influences and culture. You’re free to make
comments about the Dyers at the end of this article.
|The St. Denis church in Kirkby LaThorpe, Lincolnshire, |
where William Dyer was baptized in September 1609.
This church probably had puritan, nonconformist ministers.
William Dyer was born and raised in Lincolnshire,
between Sleaford and Boston; Lincolnshire was a hotbed of nonconformist
thought, that is, they didn't conform to Church of England liturgy. (The Pilgrims of Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire were separatists, also nonconformists but not of the same beliefs as other separatists who tended toward puritan and Presbyterian ways, migrated first to the Netherlands, and then to Plymouth, Massachusetts.)
William Dyer's parents’ church in Kirkby LaThorpe
appears to have had puritan or nonconformist-type ministers, though I couldn’t find specific names of their
vicars in searches. During that time, the Sleaford and Boston
churches had nonconformist ministers; that is, super-conservative Anglicans who believed
that the Reformation from the Roman Catholic church hadn’t gone far enough—they
wanted to purify
their church of Catholic influences. England’s puritan minister of Boston St. Botolph's, Rev. John Cotton, had to go into hiding for a year
before he emigrated to Massachusetts,
where the town was named after the English Boston.
William was apprenticed in London, and lived
with master Walter Blackborne in the St. Martin-in-the-Fields parish of Westminster. St. Martin’s was not
puritan. One of the responsibilities of the master was to teach apprentices all
their trade secrets, as well as bring up the teenage boys in education and
|St. Martin-in-the-Fields between 1666 and 1721, |
when it was rebuilt in a classical style that exists today.
Before 1644, St. Martin's was Church of England, not puritan.
St. Martin-in-the-Fields had
(orthodox) Church of England ministers, not puritan. Thomas Mountford, D.D., vicar of
St. Martin-in-the-Fields from 1602-1633, “is commemorated as ‘genuinus
Ecclesiae Anglicanae filius; a true sonne of the Church of England, I meane a true Protestant; he was as farre
from popish superstition, as factious singularity, no more addicted to the
Conclave of Rome, than addicted to the Parlour of Amsterdam.’” [Parlour of Amsterdam = separatist
James Palmer was St. Martin-in-the-Fields curate
or deputy under Dr. Mountford.
William Bray (died 1644) was an English clergyman, chaplain to [Anglican] Archbishop
. Rev. Bray was vicar at St. Martin-in-the-Fields before the Dyers emigrated
Rather than change his “brand” of religion, Rev. Bray lost his job during the
Civil War when the puritan Parliamentarians forced him out.
Mary Dyer married, with the ceremony from the Book of Common Prayer
, at St. Martin-in-the-Fields church, Westminster. (This is further evidence that
the marriage was Church of England, as puritans married in homes, taverns, or other secular places with judges, with a prayer from clergy, so they wouldn't be corrupted by Church of England "popish" traditions.) William Dyer, now working as a master in his guild, lived
in this parish, and was taxed here.
first son was christened, and buried at St.
Martin’s churchyard. In Church of England tradition, Mary would have been "churched
" (blessed) 40 days after giving birth. (This practice was not followed in puritanism.)
emigrated to Boston, Massachusetts. All of Massachusetts was a puritan enclave. There
were few Anglican ministers, and they were watched—when they met with
disapproval, they were sent back to England or out of the colony. The
custom of the puritan churches in Massachusetts
was for the elders to examine a person’s life for evidence of salvation (good
works and strict keeping of the biblical laws), and to hear the person’s
testimony before deciding to admit a member. Women were not required to
testify, but were sometimes allowed. They were admitted to membership with
In December, William and Mary Dyer were admitted to
membership in (puritan) Boston
their infant son Samuel was baptized there. Minister was the conservative Rev. John
Wilson, teacher was Rev. John Cotton, formerly of Boston
William Dyer and his family had probably visited Cotton’s church in England.
|Membership granted on December 13, 1635 |
(December was the tenth month on their calendar),
at Boston First Church of Christ, Massachusetts Bay Colony.
I don't see a line item in later years for their dismissal or excommunication.
Source: Records of the First Church in Boston
and probably William Dyer were involved with Anne Hutchinson’s home Bible
studies and discussions. They, like the Hutchinsons and others, continued as
members of Boston
where services were held all day on Sundays, with a part-day on Thursday, the
“lecture” day. Fast days, at which there were sermons and lectures, were
declared to pray for deliverance from various famines, pestilence, plagues,
etc. Church members did not miss
services, or they could be fined.
1637: In March, a
large group of men signed a Remonstrance/petition about treatment of Rev.
Wheelwright, who propounded the Covenant of Grace, in contrast with the other
ministers said to be preaching the Covenant of Works. The puritan theocracy of Massachusetts Bay Colony called Hutchinson's system of beliefs "antinomian," which means "against the law (nomos)." Hutchinson and her followers believed that according to the New Testament of the Bible, the laws given to Moses on Mount Sinai were declared obsolete, and that God revealed his will to believers by direct revelation to the heart and mind.
In November, William Dyer and many others were disfranchised
as freemen because of the Wheelwright petition. I don’t think they were
excommunicated, though they were under “admonition,” a form of church
Gov. John Winthrop wrote of William Dyer, "The Father of this Monster [baby], having been forth of the Towne, about a month, and comming home just at this time [mid-November], was upon the Lords day (by an unexpected occasion) called before the Church for some of his monstrous opinions, as that Christ and the Church together are the new Creature, there is no inherent righteousnesse in Christians, Adam was not made after Gods Image, &c. which he openly maintained, yet with such shuffling, and equivocating, as he came under admonition, &c."
many members of Boston First Church
were banished from Massachusetts, and moved to
Pocasset, on Aquidneck Island (later called Portsmouth, Rhode Island).
Anne Hutchinson was definitely excommunicated, but the rest of the group were
left on the books of First Church, perhaps in the hope that they could be rehabilitated
and brought back into fellowship. William Dyer was one of the men who signed the Portsmouth Compact
, which referred to several verses of scripture regarding sacred covenants.
Aquidneck, there was no organized church group. As they had done in Boston, and in Lincolnshire before that, Anne Hutchinson and others were
at afternoon prayer when the great earthquake struck on June 1, 1638. It was felt all
over New England, and some puritans blamed it on her!
She said that the earthquake was the infilling of the Holy Spirit.
Some men at Portsmouth
met together to “prophesy,” which group may have included William Dyer. The men included Hutchinson adherents, Baptists, and
other dissenters to the puritan leadership in Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth colonies.
Prophesying meant, to them, to share revelations from scripture, not to predict
When Boston sent three men to
read a letter from Boston
admonishing the heretics, they were treated hospitably but the Rhode Islanders would
not hear the letter. Anne Hutchinson refused to acknowledge that Boston First
was even a “church,” as defined by the Bible. The “church” is a body of
believers, not an organization or building.
|1640: A school/church meeting house |
in southern Massachusetts
In 1640, Francis Hutchinson, Anne’s son, asked to have his
membership removed from Boston First, but was refused. Three years later, at
age 23, he was killed with his mother and younger siblings in an Indian attack
on their Pelham Bay farm. Rev. Thomas Welde wrote of the
never heard that the Indians in those parts did ever before this, commit the
like outrage upon any one family, or families, and therefore Gods hand is the
more apparently seen herein, to pick out this wofull woman, to make her, and
those belonging to her, an unheard of heavy example… Thus the Lord heard our groans
to heaven, and freed us from this great and sore affliction…and hath (through
great mercy) given the Churches rest from this disturbance ever since; that wee
know none that lifts up his head to disturbe our sweet peace, in any of the
Churches of Christ among us; blessed for ever bee his Name.”
|Rev. John Wilson|
On March 30, 1640,
Rev. John Wilson, senior minister, made the following statement in Boston First
"Brethren you know the Business
of the Hand hath been a Long time propounded, it taken by the church into Consideration
that now we should draw to some Issue a determination you know the Cases of
them there do much slander, some are under admonition that some under
excommunication: that some have given satisfaction in part to the church and do
hold themselves still as members of the church y do yet hearken to us ^ seek to
give satisfaction and others there be that do renounce the power of the church &
do refuse to hear the church as Mr Coddington, Mr Dyar and Mr Coggeshall, the 2 first have been questioned in the church and dealt with and
are under Admonition and have been so long, yet this add: of the church hath
been so far from doing them any good, that they are rather grown worse under
the same, for Mr Coddington being dealt withal about hearing of excomunicate
persons prophecy, he was sensible of an evil in it, and said he had not before
so well considered of it, yet since he hath not only heard such by accident as
before. But [Coddington] hath himself
and our Brother Diar and Mr Coggeshall have gathered themselves into
church fellowship, not regarding the Covenant that they have made with this
church, neither have taken our advice and consent herein, neither have they
regarded it, but they have joined themselves in fellowship with some that are
excommunicated whereby they come to have a constant fellowship with them, and
that in a church way, and when we sent messengers of the church to them to
admonish them and treat with them about such offences, they were so far from expressing
any sorrow or giving any satisfaction that they did altogether refuse to hear
the church. . . ." (Keayne,
Prince Soc. 21, p. 400.) http://www.archive.org/stream/documentaryhisto02chap/documentaryhisto02chap_djvu.txt
|Dr. John Clark, Baptist minister, |
charter author, physician,
city co-founder. This portrait
was probably made in the 1650s.
He was close in age to William Dyer.
John Clark and Mr. Lenthall held Baptist-type meetings in Newport but there was no church fellowship or
building per se for at least eight
"Into the midst of these many
teachers of diverse religious views, Ezekiel Holliman, the Baptist, came early
in 1640. He had in 1637/8 been called before the Massachusetts Court for
seducing many with his religious teachings, had in 1638 or 1639 baptized Roger
Williams and been baptized by him, and had then removed to Aquidneck. He was in
1640 the only man known to be a Baptist who was then residing on Aquidneck.
There has not yet been discovered any evidence to show that any other of the
Aquidneck settlers were at that time Baptists or that the Baptist church later
founded there had then been established.
Callender in 1738 said: "In
the mean Time Mr. John Clark, who was a
Man of Letters, carried on a publick Worship (as Mr. Brewster did at
Plymouth) at the first coming, till they procured Mr. Lenthall of Weymouth, who
was admitted a Freeman here August 6, 1640" (p. 62), and "It is said, that in 1644, Mr John Clark,
and some others, formed a Church, on the Scheme and Principles of the
Baptists. It is certain that in 1648 there were fifteen Members in full Communion."
In a footnote Callender gives the
names of some of them [not
all]: "The Names of the Males were John Clark, Mark Lukar, Nathanael West,
Wm. Vahan, Thomas Clark, Joseph Clark, John Peckham, John Thorndon, William
Weeden, and Samuel Hubbard." [NO DYER NAME THERE IN PARTIAL LIST. It may be that William and Mary attended services sometimes but did not become church members.]
There are no (discovered) christening records for the Dyer
children (except their firstborn in London, and Samuel in Boston, 1635); the
1637 anencephalic baby was stillborn and therefore could not be baptized; the
remaining four children were born in Newport,
Rhode Island. If the children
were baptized, they would have been teens of the age of consent to choose baptism by immersion. I’m not sure of the Dyers’ beliefs
as young adults (except William Dyer Jr.'s son, who founded an Episcopalian church in
but many of their succeeding generations converted to Quaker beliefs.
In Rhode Island
records kept by William Dyer Sr., he refers to “Sunday,” “First Day,” and “the
Lord’s Day,” interchangeably. This could reflect that he was reporting the
wording of others, or that it was what he called it himself. Anglicans called the days of the week as we do today, and that's what William Dyer wrote. Puritans called Sunday "Sabbath" or "first day." Puritans and Quakers referred to the first day, second day, etc., to avoid use of the pagan gods' names.
Dyer did not convert to the Quaker beliefs of his wife Mary. For two of the
nearly five years she was in England,
William was doing what some perceived to be of low morals and deplorable
ethics: acting as a privateer (pirate with a license) in the First Anglo-Dutch
|Gov. John Endecott (judge on left) |
presides at trial of Quakers in 1658. To
show respect, the Quakers were required
to doff their hats. They refused, which
served to enrage puritans further.
Dyer returns to New England, agitates with Quakers in Massachusetts
and Connecticut, and teaches Quaker beliefs on
Shelter Island. She was hanged in Boston for civil
disobedience on June 1, 1660, in support of liberty of conscience. She was
protesting the torture and imprisonment of Quakers and their sympathizers—those
who had simply offered Christian hospitality and humanitarian relief to
1662-63: The royal charter
for Rhode Island
granted liberty of conscience, including the right not to worship and pay mandatory tithes to churches. Because William’s
name appears on this charter several times, each time last in the list of men,
I suggest (but can’t prove) that he was one of the men who drafted the document
that was given to Parliament and Charles II to be finalized. The bold words and
phrases show that religious and civil matters were separate, and that each
person was free to exercise religious beliefs as they thought best—and that
some people cannot in conscience conform to the public exercise of religion,
nor should they be punished or persecuted for religious differences that don’t
disturb the civil peace. In other words, the right to participate or not.
a full libertie in religious
concernements; and that true piety rightly grounded upon gospell
principles, will give the best and greatest security to sovereignetye, and will
lay in the hearts of men the strongest obligations to true loyaltye: Now know
bee, that wee beinge willinge to encourage the hopefull undertakeinge of oure
sayd lovall and loveinge subjects, and to secure
them in the free exercise and enjovment of all theire civill and religious
rights, appertaining to them, as our loveing subjects; and to preserve unto
them that libertye, in the true Christian ffaith and worshipp of God, which
they have sought with soe much travaill, and with peaceable myndes, and loyall
subjectione to our royall progenitors and ourselves, to enjoye; and because some of the people and inhabitants
of the same colonie cannot, in theire private opinions, conforms to the
publique exercise of religion, according to the litturgy, formes and ceremonyes
of the Church of England, or take or subscribe the oaths and articles made and
established in that behalfe; and for that the same, by reason of the remote
distances of those places, will (as wee hope) bee noe breach of the unitie and
unifformitie established in this nation: Have therefore thought ffit, and
doe hereby publish, graunt, ordeyne and declare, That our royall will and
pleasure is, that noe person within the
sayd colonye, at any tyme hereafter, shall bee any wise molested, punished,
disquieted, or called in question, for any differences in opinione in matters
of religion, and doe not actually disturb the civill peace of our sayd colony;
but that all and everye person and persons may, from tyme to tyme, and at all
tymes hereafter, freelye and fullye have
and enjoye his and theire owne judgments and consciences, in matters of
religious concernments, throughout the tract of land hereafter mentioned;
Dyer wrote to King Charles II. William was
understandably bitter about the conservative puritan government he’d experienced
rule, and how they’d interfered and harassed hundreds of people over the years,
driving some to suicide, others to banishment, others to grievous bodily injury
and execution. He wrote of the Massachusetts
theocratic government, “The thoughts of which
boundless possessions might swell them of the Massathusets Colony into an
ambitious concept of being absolute Lords and Proprietors of a Great Empire,
and so arrogate to themselves a Liberty of prescribing
Laws, and exercising their Dominion over all the Inhabitants of New-England.” [Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut,
and Rhode Island.]
Dyer died at about age 67 in Newport, Rhode Island. No
evidence found (yet) that he participated in church or religious activities. He
was buried in the Dyer burial ground, probably next to the remains of Mary
Dyer, their son Maher, and others.
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