Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The establishment vs the individual: Mary Barrett Dyer

© 2010 Christy K Robinson

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"The sentence was passed upon you; you must return to the prison and there remain until tomorrow at nine o'clock; then from thence you must go to the gallows, and there be hanged till you are dead." ~Gov John Endicott, Massachusetts Bay Colony--said to Mary Barrett Dyer, May 31, 1660.

And on June 1, 1660, Mary was taken from the jailhouse to the gallows on Boston Neck. So that the large crowd of onlookers would not be able to hear her voice, drummers accompanied the militia as she walked the mile to the gallows where she died.

Mary Dyer was banished from Boston for expressing her religious beliefs, but kept returning under conviction that she must speak what God revealed to her. The first occasion was as an Antinomian in 1638. The Puritans who governed Massachusetts Bay Colony were themselves refugees from the Anglican repression of Calvinism. They believed that civil and religious government were one fabric, and based their civil laws upon the Ten Commandments. They believed also that they were special and chosen of God, and that their piety and strict adherence to the Law proved to each other and to God that they were, indeed, predestined for eternal salvation. 

This may seem foreign to contemporary Protestants and evangelicals who believe that salvation is only by God’s gift—grace—to anyone and everyone who accepts the gift. But there are many people and groups today who say that yes, they’re saved by grace, but because they love the Lord who saves them, they must “prove” their love by keeping the law of the Old Testament. They misunderstand Jesus’ statement, “If you love me, keep my commands,” because it’s taken out of context. Jesus’ command (not the Ten Commandments) in that context is simply to love one another as he loves us. 

Antinomians believed that the Bible’s entire Old Testament law (nomos in Greek) was made null and void when Jesus died on the cross. There was no distinction between the ceremonial regulations (sacrifices and rituals, clean/unclean activities and foods) and the moral law (Ten Commandments). Nomos meant the entire kit and caboodle. 

As believers in Jesus, Christians are no longer under the covenant of keeping the Law, Antinomians believed.

“For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace.” Romans 6:14

“But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.” Romans 7:6

“Through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death.” Romans 8:2

“By calling this covenant "new," he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear.” Hebrews 8:13

 So if we don’t keep the old Law any more, are we free to participate in chaos, and do as we please, hurting ourselves and others? No, says Paul the apostle. Now we are accountable directly to God himself, subject to the new Law he writes on our minds and hearts (conscience). We have lists in the New Testament of behaviors and attitudes which will keep us from intimacy with God, and keep us from entering his kingdom: murder, fornication and adultery (sex outside marriage), theft, lying, gossip and slander, dishonoring our parents, greed, drunkenness, and others.

“For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the Lord; I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts [direct revelation or Inner Light]: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people: And they shall not teach every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for all shall know me, from the least to the greatest [there goes the theory of the Elect]. For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more.” Hebrews 8:10-12

Here is where Mary Dyer and other Antinomians based their beliefs that the old Law was obsolete and useless, and the new Law was personally and directly revealed to them by the Holy Spirit. In later years, when Mary espoused the Quaker beliefs, direct revelation was called the Inner Light. 

But back to the Puritans: If you destroy the foundation of their belief, the Law, there is nothing left to hold onto, because faith in God’s grace is not enough security. You just cannot have people running around doing as they please, excusing themselves by saying that God told them to do this or that. There needs to be a structure! There’s nothing that distinguishes the law-keepers from the Catholic or apostate-Protestant herds. The entire multibillion-dollar institution crashes. The worldwide "we're the exclusive Remnant/Elect of God, and only we will be saved" thing is gone. They can't handle it spiritually, emotionally, or intellectually. They also can’t handle it financially. The Massachusetts Bay Colony was a business venture, chartered by King Charles I.

I understand, in a way. When you've believed wholeheartedly in God’s will, that this promise or this distinctive is a special gift to you, it's part of your very fabric. Pull some threads or cut a hole, and it's not salvageable. It’s too difficult, and maybe even too late in life, to start all over and learn everything new, especially when you’ve been “right.” How does one hold one's head up with constituents, parishioners, faith adherents? There’s no putting new wine into an old wineskin or patching a cotton tear with wool. What about prophesied end-time events? We’ve been denying ourselves and living a hard life, and these unworthy people get to waltz into heaven while we trudge there? What about judgment (who flies and who fries)? What if we stop observing a law-decreed Sabbath on Saturday or Sunday--and start trusting in God for complete rest from our strivings and a sabbath-rest that blesses us today and every day? What will distinguish us, the Remnant and the Elect, from the unwashed and uncouth? We’d have to go out of business, retrain every pastor, retool every institution from preschool through university and seminary, and worst of all, change the minds and hearts of those who have believed what they were taught for generations. It’s unthinkable! 

Puritans were so sure they were “right” that there was no room for dissent. (This from reformers and dissenters to the Church of England!) There was no agreeing to disagree. There was only consensus—agreeing to agree. And if, after being shown your errors in theology and behavior, you didn’t agree, you’d be punished. The church/state government, and all of society, was in danger of collapse if people just did and believed as they wanted. 

In 1637-38, Mary and William Dyer and 75 other families followed Anne Hutchinson in the Antinomian Controversy, and were disfellowshipped (excommunicated or disfranchised) from the Puritan congregations of Boston.

They moved to Rhode Island and founded two communities, Portsmouth and Newport, under extremely primitive conditions. They built homes and planted farms and worshiped according to conscience. Four years later, Massachusetts Governor Winthrop sent a manuscript to England that was published as a lurid and vicious description of Mary’s stillborn anencephalic baby, and Anne Hutchinson's hydatidiform mole pregnancy, and called them monsters, proof of their heresy in 1637-38. (It was a Winthrop PR campaign to show his awesomeness and worthiness to be the governor of the colony.) 

In 1652, Mary traveled back to England and stayed for five years. She followed the doctrines of George Fox, founder of the Quaker (Religious Society of Friends) movement, and sailed back to Rhode Island via Boston Harbor in 1657. She and her friends were arrested from shipboard and taken to prison, where they stayed for several months. Their crime: being Quakers, when the colony, now governed by John Endicott, had ruled that Quakers would be imprisoned and banished—after having been dragged behind a wagon and scourged, and losing their ears. One of Mary’s shipmates, a woman, was stripped to the waist and scourged, and another was sent back to England, but Mary was released to her husband in Rhode Island as a professional courtesy because he was a government official—and not a Quaker. 

Mary returned to Massachusetts in 1658 to visit her imprisoned Quaker friends and was expelled. She preached in New Haven, Connecticut, and was arrested and expelled from that colony. In 1659, she learned that two Quaker men had been imprisoned in Boston, and she walked through the forest on Indian trails to visit and comfort them in prison. She was arrested again, and tried in Governor Endecott’s court. Mary was convicted and actually sent to the gallows. Her friends were hanged before she was placed in the noose with a cloth over her face—but was reprieved on condition she would not return to Boston. She actually seemed disappointed in the reprieve and "rescue" by her husband and son, as she was protesting religious repression and willing to die with her Quaker colleagues. She was admonished not to return upon pain of death. 

After six months of preaching to the Indians and Quakers of Long Island and Connecticut, she went back to Boston without telling her husband or six children who lived in Rhode Island. Her Quaker brothers and sisters were being tortured and their property confiscated. She went directly to the jail and asked to speak to the prisoners. She was arrested on May 21 during their annual elections and General Court, jailed, convicted again, and hanged on June 1, 1660. 

Analyzing her beliefs and letters, Mary Dyer seemed to have the biblical book of Hebrews written on her heart. This passage jumped out at me today as I was researching this post. I’ve bolded the phrases that apply to Mary, and you can see how closely they align with her actions just before her arrests, imprisonments, and execution.
“Remember those earlier days after you had received the light [direct revelation of God, or the Quaker “Inner Light”] when you stood your ground in a great contest in the face of suffering. Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You sympathized with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions. So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded. You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised.” Hebrews 10:32-36

 Mary joyfully accepted her martyrdom, believing that her death would so shock the system that Endecott and his court would have to back down from their repression. She died so that others could live and worship in freedom of conscience. She did not die in vain. 

The dedication on Mary's statue in Boston says "WITNESS FOR RELIGIOUS FREEDOM." Mary died for the basic human right to worship and express her religious beliefs as she felt called by God to do. She was the only woman hanged for religious beliefs, and only one more Quaker man was hanged after her, because of outcry in both New England and Britain over their persecution and executions. 

Massachusetts Bay Colony, like many business, political, and religious organizations, was dedicated to control of the institution (self preservation), the church, and its people en masse. Mary understood that Jesus came as a man to relate to and save the individual. She and the others died for one of the principles America holds most dear: the liberty of the individual to follow conscience. 


Christy K Robinson is author of these sites:  

and of these books:

·          We Shall Be Changed (2010)
·          Mary Dyer Illuminated (2013)
·          Mary Dyer: For Such a Time as This (2014)
·          The Dyers of London, Boston, & Newport (2014)
·          Effigy Hunter (2015)
·          Anne Marbury Hutchinson: American Founding Mother (2018)


  1. I am grateful to discover this site (via a new page on FaceBook,) and welcome the research which you're sharing, as well as your evident passion and approval for Dyer and her witness. I happen to agree with your assessment of the rigidity of the Puritan Establishment which she defied, and I would extend this to a critique of ANY theocracy. The U.S. Constitution's prohibition of any "religious test" for public office, and the assurance of non-interference by the new federal government in religious matters (neither setting up nor taking down any "establishment of religion") was a radical step then, and is still under assault now, by Theocrats who believe they have a Divine Mandate to govern. Like the Puritans in New England, they claim "religious liberty" only for themselves and not for those they pronounce "wrong." The separation of the concepts of "heresy" and "treason" is America's contribution to the world, and I appeal to all to help maintain that separation. I hope we solemnly undertake to preserve the heritage of Religious Liberty which was purchased with Mary Dyer's life.

    1. Thank you for your comment, David. I've been watching the theocrats (Moral Majority, the Pat Robertson followers, any think tank or PAC with the word "Family" in it) for 30 years, and have seen them build the mighty alliances with politicians at state and federal levels. They love to quote the "Founding Fathers" of the late 18th century, but fail to notice the very real great-grandparents of the Founding Fathers, who perpetrated repression and torture in the name of God; and they fail to notice what it took for Mary Dyer and the other martyrs to win rights for ALL people. You're right: the fight is not over, and we must remain vigilant about principles of liberty.

      I hope you'll follow this blog and the Mary Dyer Facebook page.


  2. Great site- I am looking forward to exploring more. I was born in Providence and intend to move back to New England - I was very entranced with the local North Kingstown history when I was there. No one seems to care about it here in Atlanta.

    I appreciate what you are doing

    1. Thanks for your comment, Scott. There are 70+ articles about the Dyers and their culture in the archive in the margin of this blog. In addition, I've listed some blogs about the time period, AND some suggested reading (the Amazon widgets).

      For 17th-century historical fiction (though about real people) in the Kingston area, try my friend and author-colleague, Jo Ann Butler, who is writing the third book of a trilogy on the pioneers there. The first 2 are for sale here

      I've been happily surprised to learn that the articles in this blog have been viewed thousands of times and all over the world, though more, of course, in English-speaking countries.


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