Thursday, January 16, 2020

Mary Dyer and Social Justice

A script commissioned by Julie Esker Dishman

© 2019 Christy K Robinson

If you’ve heard of Mary Barrett Dyer, who lived in the mid-1600s, it’s probably as a Quaker woman who was hanged because of her religious beliefs. But historical research shows that Mary Dyer—married in an Anglican service, emigrated to Boston in 1635 as a Puritan, banished as an Antinomian heretic, co-founded Rhode Island as a non-conformist, possibly worshiped with Baptists, became a Quaker in England—actually was hanged for her civil disobedience! 

From 1657, she was arrested and jailed in New Haven and Plymouth colonies, and was in and out of prison in Massachusetts Bay Colony, some say because she preached. But there’s no record of her spoken words, nor a record of her being whipped, the fate of women who taught religion to men.

Learn more about Mary Dyer: 

We know from her only surviving letter, written from prison to the General Court in Boston, that her mission there was, in “love and compassion,” to “offer up her life for truth and people’s sakes” to force the theocratic government to repeal its laws that whipped, imprisoned, seized property, and executed Quakers and other religious dissenters. She demanded that the government “let the truth and the servants of God have free passage” in the colony. She said on Shelter Island that she went to Boston “to try the bloody law.” 

Mary Dyer was reported as lovely, well-spoken and educated, and had social advantages with her well-connected husband, a prosperous mariner, farmer, and the first attorney general in America. The Boston government did not want to make a martyr of her and begged her to leave and be safe in Rhode Island. But Mary used those advantages to force their response.

After they hanged her in 1660, English Quakers rewrote and edited her letter to elicit tolerance for their cause. As a result, King Charles II put an end to colonial executions for conscience’s sake. He also ratified the Rhode Island charter of 1663, which brought religious liberty and free passage in New England, as Mary had demanded. That charter was used as a template for the US Constitution’s Bill of Rights.

What Mary Dyer and the Rhode Island founders sent down through the ages with their testimonies and documents, was justice, mercy, compassion, and equality for all people of all faiths, all nationalities. Their philosophy of separation of church and state allowed for a wide spectrum of belief and behavior without oversight by government or regulators. Most were godly people who knew firsthand the persecution and oppression of theocracy.

They encouraged kindness and tolerance without demanding conformity to one dogma or creed. Instead of stealing land, they purchased it for a fair price, and they were reluctant to make war on Native Americans.

Extending those qualities to social issues today would mean that we don’t dehumanize refugees in crowded pens with inhumane conditions. We don’t withhold health care, shelter, or sustenance from the elderly, the disabled or infirm, or children or strangers among us. It would mean that government officials don’t take bribes or benefit financially from their elected or appointed positions, and that political campaigns are financed by the people of that jurisdiction instead of billionaires and corporations.           

The legacy of Mary Dyer’s exemplary life and sacrificial death is that under our Constitution, we have the freedom—apart from government—to speak, to freely assemble, to protest, and to worship according to our conscience—what they called “soul liberty” in her day. Today we call them basic human rights. 

As people of firm faith in one religion or another, or people of no faith, we all have a responsibility to nurture one another and to care for our planet, recognizing the liberty and human rights of future generations.
The Golden Rule transcends time, religions, and cultures.


Christy K Robinson is author of these books (click the colored title):

Mary Dyer Illuminated Vol. 1 (2013)  

Effigy Hunter (2015)  

And of these sites:  

Discovering Love  (inspiration and service)

Rooting for Ancestors  (history and genealogy)

William and Mary Barrett Dyer (17th century culture and history of England and New England)

Editornado [ed•i•tohr•NAY•doh] (Words. Communications. Book reviews. Cartoons.)


  1. Facebook comments:

    Ann Barry: My 10th great grandmother. I've loved finding uppity women in my family and sharing them with my sisters.

    Annette Burgess Hulett: A grandmother to my husband.

    Rosemary Dyer Moreo: my 8th great grandmother.

    Laurel Siviglia: She was my ancestor!

    Tiffany Garcia: One of my ancestors. Strong women in my family. We don't take things laying down.

    Jonah McJonah: Mary Barret Dyer stood up and sacrificed equally for freedom of conscience and against the violence and brutality routinely exercised against outsiders.

  2. Facebook comments:

    John J Sundelin: My 11th Great Grandmother. "sacrifice of her own life"? WTF is this bullshit? They hanged her because she wouldn't give up her religion. I hate these history revisionist asses! The Puritan government of Massachusetts murdered her!

    Jeannie Pratt: Actually, she was warned repeatedly not to come back to Boston. She went of her own free will in support of fellow Quakers imprisoned there. So, in a sense she did sacrifice her own life. But, I agree she was motivated more by Faith than Social Justice.

    Christy K Robinson: John J Sundelin, Have a nice day. Signed, History Revisionist Ass who has researched Mary Dyer since the 1970s, wrote three books about her and mentioned her heavily in a fourth, consulted on a TV documentary, was interviewed on NPR, wrote articles for several journals and newspapers, and maintains a website with 220+ researched articles on her that has upwards of 651,000 page views.

    1. Jo Ann Butler:
      John J Sundelin, it is true that Mary Dyer was put to death by the Puritan government, but calling it 'murder' makes you the same history revisionist @$$ you rudely called Christy K Robinson. Mistress Dyer knew she would be hanged for defying extreme and unjust anti-Quaker laws enacted by New England's Puritans, but she returned to Boston anyway. I can't say whether it was from faith or social justice, but that's sacrificing one's life in my book. You could make a case for judicial murder, but MA's anti-Quaker laws echoed the anti-heretic and witchcraft laws of England, which culminated in execution. Massachusetts deemed Mary Dyer a heretic in 1660, as well as in 1638, as was her mentor Anne Hutchinson. There was discussion in Boston whether Anne had bewitched Mary, and both were a little lucky to escape execution.

    2. Jeannie Pratt: There is no greater love than to lay down one's life for one's friends.
      I believe we are all proud ❤ descendants in this group. I think Mary would have wanted us to respect each other even though we all view her from a different perspective. Intolerance of people who thought differently killed Mary Dyer and her friends. No doubt we have Puritan ancestors, too. Let's not repeat their mistakes.


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