Friday, December 9, 2011

Mary Dyer’s husband: Anglican, Puritan, Antinomian, Quaker—or nothing?

© 2011 Christy K Robinson

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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.
1609-1624: 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.

1624-1633: 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 spiritual matters.
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 puritans]

1614-1637: Rev. James Palmer was St. Martin-in-the-Fields curate or deputy under Dr. Mountford.

1632-1644: William Bray (died 1644) was an English clergyman, chaplain to [Anglican] Archbishop William Laud. Rev. Bray was vicar at St. Martin-in-the-Fields before the Dyers emigrated to America. Rather than change his “brand” of religion, Rev. Bray lost his job during the Civil War when the puritan Parliamentarians forced him out.

1633: William and 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.

1634: The Dyers’ 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.)

1635: Dyers 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 their husbands.

In December, William and Mary Dyer were admitted to membership in (puritan) Boston First Church; their infant son Samuel was baptized there. Minister was the conservative Rev. John Wilson, teacher was Rev. John Cotton, formerly of Boston in Lincolnshire. 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

1636-1637: Mary 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 First Church, 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.

William's signature
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 discipline.

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."

1638: Late March, 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.

1638-40: On 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 the future.

When Boston sent three men to read a letter from Boston First Church 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 massacre,
“I 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 Church:
"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.)

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.
1639-1650: Dr. 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 years.
"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." (p. 63.)
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 Delaware), 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.

1652-60: William 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 War.

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.
1657-60: Mary 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 traveling Quakers.

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.

…with 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;

1670: William Dyer wrote to King Charles II. William was understandably bitter about the conservative puritan government he’d experienced under Massachusetts 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.]

1677: William 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.


Like this article? Read my non-fiction book on 17th-century life and times,
The Dyers of London, Boston, & Newport, by Christy K Robinson.
Nonfiction, illustrated. The research and recent discoveries behind the novels. The Dyers is a lively nonfiction account of background color, culture, short stories, personality sketches, food, medicine, interests, recreation, cosmic events, and all the "stuff" that made up the world of William and Mary Dyer in the 1600s.  Chapters on John Winthrop, Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, John Endecott, and many others. More than 70 chapters, and all-new, exclusive content found nowhere else!


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. You assume that basically all Puritans were Separatists - nothing culd be further from the truth in 1630s London.

  2. so half of this yall say is sorda true but your not sure... some kids have resaaerch at skewl and have to research stuff like this on a project so either your sure or your not sure....

    1. At least I troubled to do my own research, Anonymous troll. Since William Dyer died 336 years ago, it's difficult to contact him about his specific beliefs, though I've presented many indicators from his culture, experiences, and his own writings. I've researched hundreds of archived records, books, and scholarly papers. And you found this article how? Googling on a mobile phone?

      You need remedial work in the English language arts, particularly spelling, capitalization, and punctuation. Certainly the teachers at your "skewl" have despaired of your progress in education or preparation for a successful career.


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