Friday, September 14, 2012

Mary Dyer, a strong-willed woman

This article, second in a series on strong-willed women that includes Mary Dyer, is found at Jo Ann Butler's Rebel Puritan blog. She asked why I chose to write this blog and a book trilogy on Mary Dyer and her world.

© 2012 Christy K Robinson

Historical fiction has been my favorite literary genre since I was a young girl. I’ve learned that several of my author friends read my favorite book series on the Childhoods of Famous Americans when we were kids, and it shaped our discovery of history and historical fiction by humanizing icons of history and making them accessible to children. It tickled our imaginations to learn about culture and what life might have been like for Virginia Dare, Martha Washington, or Abigail Adams, as children. (There were boys in the series, too, of course.)

The author's pedigree chart, begun in 1974 and printed in 1994.
My mother was chronically ill, and she drafted me to help her at genealogy and history archives with the fetch-and-carry jobs, or searching the reference files (you know, the little card drawers at the book place, that preceded the search engine). We traced many of our lines back through renaissance and medieval eras to European royalty. One of our most important discoveries in the early 1970s was the confirmation that we were 11 and 12 generations descended from Mary Barrett Dyer, the 17th-century Quaker martyr. In the 1970s and 80s, we believed that Mary was hanged by those mean Boston Puritans for her religious beliefs, “simply for being a Quaker.” Unfortunately, that belief persists in countless web pages today.

Mary Dyer had several opportunities to avoid prison and execution. She could have lived her life in peace and safety, doing anything she wanted to, in Rhode Island, the colony she co-founded. But she intentionally returned to Boston several times to defy her banishment-on-pain-of-death sentence, until she forced their hand and they executed her. It’s not that she wanted to die, but that she was willing to die to shock the citizens into stopping their leaders from the vicious persecution of Quakers and Baptists. Whippings such as Herodias Gardner’s. Mary and other Quakers believed they were called by God to “try the bloody law,” the law that required torture, bankrupting fines, exile, and death for dissenters.

Mary’s sacrifice and civil disobedience worked. After her death in June 1660, a petition to King Charles II resulted in a cease-and-desist order to the Puritan theocracy in New England; and the king’s Rhode Island charter of 1663 (which replaced previous religiously-liberal charters) specifically granted liberty of conscience and separation of church and civil powers in Rhode Island Colony. One hundred thirty years later, the religious-freedom concept modeled by Rhode Island became part of America’s Bill of Rights to the Constitution.
1663 Rhode Island charter, written by Rhode Islanders
such as John Clarke, Roger Williams, and William Dyer,
and granted by King Charles II.

Religious liberties (to practice religion or not without interference of the government) and those who would legislate their morality upon others still clash today, 350 years later. That’s one of the things that compels me to write of a strong-willed woman. Mary Dyer sacrificed her will and her life of ease and wealth, with husband, children, grandchildren, respect and influence for the good of hundreds of people in her own time, and untold hundreds of millions who came after her.

The genealogy hobby is inspiring, educational, and fun. I’m 32 generations down the tree from Eleanor of Aquitaine. Eleanor’s son John was forced to agree to the Magna Carta, a charter of liberties which has been the model of constitutions around the world. On another line, I’m 12 generations down from Mary Barrett Dyer, whose sacrifice laid the groundwork for the human rights in the US Constitution. There are numerous other figures who may not be famous today, but who shaped our society nonetheless. It’s fun to speculate what molecules of DNA have come down to me, or from the thousands of other strong, resourceful, and intelligent women in the family pedigree. They’re the people whose actions and principles formed our society and culture today. They were not wimps. And neither are we. 

Author/blogger/friend (not necessarily in that order) Jo Ann Butler releases book two of her trilogy on Herodias Long Hicks Gardner Porter in autumn 2012. "Herod" or "Harwood," as Jo Ann's heroine is known, was a neighbor of the Dyers in Newport, Rhode Island, beginning in the early 1640s.

William Dyer's 1643 memo regarding Herodias
and her husband John Hicks' domestic violence.

“Memo John Hicks of Nuport was bound to ye pease
by ye Govr & Mr Easton in a bond of £10
for beating his wife Harwood Hicks
and prsented [at this] court was ordered to continue
in his bond till ye next C[ourt] upon which his wife
to come & give evidence concerning ye case”
William Dyer recorded legal documents about Herodias' first marriage, and did business with and served in government with Herod's husbands. It's highly likely that Herodias and Mary Dyer were friends as well as neighbors, because Herodias, like Mary, protested the Puritan persecution of Quakers. Herodias, holding her unweaned baby, was stripped to the waist in public, and whipped with a knotted lash, as punishment for her support for Quakers and dissidence against the Puritan theocratic authority. She was then imprisoned for two weeks in Boston, so you can imagine that her wounds may have become infected and healed badly.

For more information on Herodias Long, and to order the book, visit the Rebel Puritan website.
Images courtesy of Jo Ann Butler.

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