|This article appears in Rhode Island's Providence Journal |
for June 6, 2014. The ProJo link WAS here but was taken down sometime in the spring of 2015:
© 2014 Christy K Robinson
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On June 1, 1660, our constitutional right to religious liberty began with the execution of Mary Dyer in Boston. The result of her civil disobedience was a royal charter of liberties granted to Rhode Island, which was a model for the United States Constitution’s Bill of Rights.
There were many factors along the way, of course: Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, John Clarke, and a hundred others who founded the colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantation as a secular democracy; and those who governed the infant colony at their own expense while the Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth colonies tried again and again to annex the Rhode Islanders and bring them back under the theocratic fist.
Mary Dyer was a co-founder of both Portsmouth and Newport in 1638 and 1639. Her husband William was the first attorney general in all of America, and New England’s first commissioned naval commander in the Anglo-Dutch War.
William Dyer and the Rhode Island government created laws that supported the separation of church and state functions. They were no atheists—they belonged to Christian fellowships pastored by John Clarke, Obadiah Holmes, Roger Williams, and others—but they’d felt the iron grip of theocracy both in England where they’d been born, and in the short time they’d lived in Massachusetts before moving to Rhode Island. Their friends and relatives were still living under Puritan theocratic rule in Connecticut and MassBay. They were determined to keep religion in homes and churches, and government by both ancient laws and consent of the governed. They created the first democracy in America.
When England’s new sect of Quakers sent missionaries to New England in 1656 and 1657, they were granted refuge in Rhode Island, but the other colonies imprisoned Quakers and Baptists, sometimes without food and water, fire, or blankets in the severe winters of the Little Ice Age. Men and women were stripped naked to the waist and given severe whippings, branded with the H for heretic, had ears cut off, were choked or “bridled” with foreign objects forced into their mouths, were heavily fined, and had their lands, crops, and farm animals seized by greedy magistrates and ministers. When the teenage children of Quakers couldn’t pay fines on their elderly parents’ account, they were put on the slave block to be sold in the South, where the girl surely would have died a sex slave. (When slave ship owners refused to buy the boy and girl, they were released because Governor John Endecott was shamed before his own incensed hometown.)
News services, if they mention the June 1 anniversary of Mary Dyer’s execution at all, tend to repeat the old hash of Wikipedia. Several of those "facts" were reported (biased to fit their agenda) by Quakers of the time, or by a Victorian descendant of the Dyers who fantasized a royal genealogy for Mary Dyer. The text on Boston’s Mary Dyer statue did not come from her last letters, but was composed by a Quaker in London. The tale about Mary Dyer being hanged on an elm on the Boston Common was disproved decades ago. She did not die “because she was a Quaker,” as many websites repeat.
Mary Dyer deliberately broke the law (violated her banishment) on a particular date (election day and court hearing) to bring the largest audience and most attention for her protest, knowing that she would be executed—and hoping that her death as a high-status woman would be notorious enough to stop the religious executions and torture perpetrated by the religious and political government coalition. Outrage was so great that a 100-member militia of pikemen and musketeers was ordered to accompany her to the gallows—to protect the government from the crowds. Dyer went willingly, intending to die.
And when she did, the news went back to England, where her “last words” letter to the Boston authorities was rewritten by a Quaker minister, in a pamphlet submitted to King Charles II. The king wrote back to Boston and ordered the cessation of capital punishment, saying to send death-penalty cases back to England for trial. John Clarke, the Rhode Island doctor and minister, with strong input from Roger Williams and William Dyer, wrote the 1663 charter of liberties (constitution) that became a model for the United States Constitution 130 years later. The charter granted “liberty of conscience” to worship—or not—according to each person’s conscience, so long as it didn’t interfere with other laws.
So even if you don’t believe in a higher power, you owe that religious freedom and separation of powers to Mary Dyer’s death, and the brilliance of the leaders of Rhode Island. June 1, 1660 is a day to celebrate her sacrifice and our blood-bought rights.
What else happened on June 1 during the Dyers' and Hutchinsons' lifetimes?
Christy K Robinson is author of ‘Mary Dyer Illuminated’ and ‘Mary Dyer For Such a Time as This;’ and the nonfiction ‘The Dyers of London, Boston, & Newport.’ All three of the Dyer books tell the story of theocratic oppression, and the birth of democracy and religious liberty in colonial America.