Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Celebrate your connection to Mary Dyer's cause: religious liberty

Honor Mary Dyer’s sacrifice,
or your connection to her,
by giving in her name!
Gifts to

Click the link to go to their secure page.

© 2017 Christy K Robinson  

No one knows Mary Dyer's date or even year of birth. Because of when she married, her husband's birth in 1609, and various life events, genealogists and historians have assumed that it was between 1609 and 1611.

But we do know her date of death: June 1, 1660. That's when, after she deliberately violated her banishment-upon-pain-of-death if she returned to Massachusetts, Mary Dyer was executed by hanging.
The opening sentences of Mary Dyer's handwritten letter to
the Massachusetts General Court.
Mary (and many other Rhode Islanders) had been cast out of Massachusetts Bay, Plymouth and New Haven Colonies, when the zealous fundamentalists clashed with people who were coming to terms with other religious concepts and practices. Religion wasn't just an hour of church once a week--it was your short time on earth preparing your soul for eternity in heaven or hell. The fundamentalists (aka the Puritans) outlawed Antinomians, Baptists, Catholics, Quakers, and other groups as they cropped up. They had strained relations with Anglicans because they considered it their duty before God to purify the Church of England of its remnants of Catholicism (therefore the Anglican pejorative name of "Puritan.") And that same hard-line zeal extended to purifying their communities of people (mostly women) they suspected of being witches.

The people who emigrated to MassBay Colony were ultra-conservative zealots, far more fundamental in nature than the English Puritans they left behind: Endecott, Shelton, Winthrop, Dudley, Weld, Shepherd, Cotton, Wilson, and many others in power. Their parishioners followed, and they attempted to build a Puritan utopia--which of course was impossible, because of the oppression they created as a theocracy. 

God has mercy and boundless grace. Theocrats do not.

New England's government was inextricably combined with religion. From the moment they conceived of a new colony in the wilderness of New England, it was going to be a utopia where they lived by the precepts of the Bible's Old Testament law. The voters, called freemen, were members of churches that were very difficult to get membership. The magistrates and governor assistants were often ministers and teachers in the churches. If a tradesman turned in an invoice that seemed to ask too much money, it could be both a religious and civil offense. If a couple had an affair, the offenders could be hanged. Fornication (sex before marriage) could be punished by hanging, flogging, and time in stocks. Observing May Day or Christmas originated in pagan or Catholic tradition, and could be punished by fines, confiscation of goods, and flogging. Having a sharp tongue got Gov. Bellingham's sister hanged.

The Massachusetts Bay Colony banned Catholic priests in 1647 because they were afraid of French-Canadian and Indian converts warring against them, and a Jesuit takeover of the already-theocratic government. The same issues that New England faced in 1647 face America today. That's 370 years. Don't let your guard down, friends. Be vigilant about preserving religious liberty for ALL.

The religious utopia the founders envisioned never existed--it couldn't, flawed people being flawed people. This is how it's always been, for millennia, in all civilizations.

When Anne Marbury Hutchinson was tried for sedition and heresy in 1637 and 1638, her judges were the ministers of the colony. Her crimes: holding Bible studies in her home that included men and women, speaking against the (male) ministers by saying that all but her brother-in-law Rev. Wheelwright, and her friend of two decades, Rev. John Cotton, preached a ministry of salvation, instead of a covenant of grace. She broke the fifth commandment to "honor her father and mother," by disobeying the men in authority over her. Even after she was exiled and moved to Rhode Island, she was hounded and threatened, until at last she moved to the Bronx and was killed by Native Americans who had been incited by the Dutch colonists, who also had a religious government.

So you see, religion plus government equaled fear, judgment, and punishment. Religious fundamentalists can't keep themselves self-disciplined or their own relatives under their thumbs, much less a community or society. They can't create a New Jerusalem or a paradise on earth.

Rather than be sad or critical of the well-meaning theocrats of then, we need to learn from them and apply it today. We cannot legislate morality or impose our beliefs on others, but live our lives kindly, graciously, and justly.

Rhode Island, while William Dyer was a government official (Recorder, Secretary of State, Attorney General, and Solicitor General), began under Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson--both of them what we'd consider to be deeply religious people--and it was a secular government that encoded religious liberty, or "liberty of conscience," as they called it. They'd had enough of persecution back in England, then in Massachusetts, in the name of God. They wrote their separation of powers into their first documents, acknowledging God, but keeping religion separate from what Hutchinson called the "magistracy." And they wrote their liberty into charters (like a constitution) that were ratified by successive English governments, even in a time of civil war back in England. The charter of 1663, written by Dr. John Clarke, Rev. Roger Williams, and (I believe because of some of the stipulations) Attorney General William Dyer, became one of the templates for the United States Constitution and Bill of Rights.

The first Quaker missionaries to America arrived in 1656 and immediately clashed with the authorities. Mary Dyer returned from her nearly five years in England in early 1657 and was imprisoned right off the ship for being a Quaker. (She was quite aware of the potential for arrest, and she could have sailed for another port, but she went to Boston anyway.) She was rescued and imprisoned several more times before 1660. Mary witnessed and heard about Baptists and Quaker Friends who had been beaten nearly to death (certainly to a disability), imprisoned without blankets or warmth in New England's severe winters, had property confiscated, had ears sliced off, had two teens condemned to slavery, and other bloody torments. Finally, as she stood ready to die, two male Friends were hanged and she was reprieved. She believed as they did that God had called her to die in order to shock the New England people into forcing governors to stop the torture and death. It didn't work for the two English Quakers, but Mary Dyer, a woman with a high social status, known to be intelligent and beautiful, was the notorious shock needed. Her impassioned letter to the General Court (see tab above this article) was edited into an appeal to King Charles II, who ordered a halt. Shortly after that order, he granted the Rhode Island charter that had been written by Clarke, Williams, and Dyer, which granted  and guaranteed freedom of conscience to worship without interference or support of the government. The document is the first of its kind in the world.

But despite the charter and others like it made in later years, and despite the US Constitution and other laws, religious liberty is under attack. I'm not talking about a War on Christmas or the right to refuse to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding. But there are numerous attacks on religious liberty for all: a narrow slice of fundamentalists (Christian, Muslim, it makes no difference) tries to legislate or force their beliefs and behaviors on the rest of society via bedroom and bathroom laws, women's health, refusal of voting rights or permits to certain groups, Christian-only prayer in government functions or public schools, vouchers for taxpayer-funded religious education--the list is endless. It's growing every day, but it hasn't helped the morals of Americans, so it's obviously not working.

The only way to change America for the better is to teach kindness, mercy, compassion, and justice from home, from your own behavior.

We don't know her birthday, but we do know the day she inherited eternal life. In honor of Mary Dyer's ultimate sacrifice in the cause of religious liberty and separation of church and state on June 1, 1660, I invite you to memorialize her and make a gift in Mary Dyer's name to the nonprofit organization Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU). <--Click the link for their secure page.
AU, whose vision and mission are below the image, was founded in 1947.

This woodcut does not depict Mary Dyer, but the pikemen and the gallows give you an idea of how it was done.
In Mary's case, the pikemen and musketeers who escorted her from the prison to the gallows, about a mile,
weren't there to keep her from escaping. They were there to protect the magistrates and officials from the
angry, unruly crowd that may have numbered more than 3,000 people. 

Americans United for Separation of Church and State is a nonpartisan educational and advocacy organization dedicated to advancing the constitutional principle of church-state separation as the only way to ensure freedom of religion, including the right to believe or not believe, for all Americans.

We envision an America where everyone can freely choose a faith and support it voluntarily, or follow no religious or spiritual path at all, and where the government does not promote religion over non-religion or favor one faith over another.
AU Facebook page
Americans United home page


Christy K Robinson is the author of the 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)