Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Mary Dyer and the Boston Martyrs

Mary Barrett Dyer (executed 1 June 1660)


So many racists, homophobes, misogynists, and all-around assholes have been using their "god-given" sense of "religious freedom" as justification for their "right" to bully, harass, humiliate, and persecute anyone who fails to conform to their idea of what is "godly" that it seems like a good time to remind ourselves about the long tradition of "religious freedom" in what would eventually become the United States of America. So here's just one example of how how religious "freedom" usually means religious persecution.

A nineteenth-century depiction of Mary Dyer,
on her way to her execution,
artist unknown
Born in England probably about the year 1611, Mary Barrett married William Dyer in London in 1633. As Puritans, the Dyers left England for the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In December 1635, the couple is noted among the members of the Boston Church.

Defending the notion of religious tolerance and difference, Dyer and her husband supported Anne Hutchinson and others like her whose religious views began to diverge from those of the dominant Puritan majority. (The complicated details of the so-called Antinomian Controversy are widely available online. For one excellent account, posted by Roland Marchand at the UC Davis History Project site, click here.)

In the theological and very political fight that erupted in the colony, Anne Hutchinson, among others, was tried and convicted in 1637 for the crime of having "traduced" Boston ministers. She was banished from the colony. For his support of Hutchinson, William Dyer was disenfranchised. When armed insurrection seemed about to erupt, colonial officials were empowered to confiscate  "all such guns, pistols, swords, powder, shot, & match as they shall be owners of, or have in their custody, upon paine of ten pound[s] for every default" (so much for the "god-given" right to bear arms too, I guess . . . )

For her part, Mary Dyer had not been officially investigated, though her support for Hutchinson brought her to the attention of officials in 1638, when she committed the mistake of walking hand-in-hand with Anne Hutchinson after Hutchinson's excommunication. 

For her act of friendship, Mary  Dyer now became the subject of investigation--and in her case, her "sin" proved to be a doozy. It seems that Mary Dyer had given birth to a "monster" a few months earlier, in October 1637. This birth of this stillborn child became the subject of an intense investigation by the Puritan governor of the colony, John Winthrop.

Unfortunately for Dyer and Hutchinson, Hutchinson had been one of two midwives in attendance at the birth. Learning this, Winthrop, accompanied by "above a hundred persons," all of them, obviously, god-fearing defenders of religion, excavated the stillborn infant's grave, finding the remains not human "but a most hideous creature, a woman, a fish, a bird, & a beast all woven together." As Winthrop described the remains in his journal:
it was of ordinary bigness; it had a face, but no head, and the ears stood upon the shoulders and were like an ape's; it had no forehead, but over the eyes four horns, hard and sharp; two of them were above one inch long, the other two shorter; the eyes standing out, and the mouth also; the nose hooked upward; all over the breast and back full of sharp pricks and scales, like a thornback [i.e., a skate or ray], the navel and all the belly, with the distinction of the sex, were where the back should be, and the back and hips before, where the belly should have been; behind, between the shoulders, it had two mouths, and in each of them a piece of red flesh sticking out; it had arms and legs as other children; but, instead of toes, it had on each foot three claws, like a young fowl, with sharp talons. 
Winthrop concluded that the "monstrous birth" was an unequivocal sign of Dyer's sin for having religious views that diverged from those of the Puritan majority. 

Forced to leave Massachusetts Bay Colony, Mary Dyer joined her husband (and the Hutchinsons, as well as others forced out by the Puritans) at a new settlement in the territory later known as Rhode Island. But religious conflicts between all of those in the new settlements--new arrivals as well as those fleeing Massachusetts--soon erupted. 

The Dyers returned to England for several years, with William Dyer one of several men who were attempting to sort out the problems with those who had commissioned the Rhode Island settlers. In England, Mary Dyer converted to Quakerism. When she returned to New England in 1657, Mary Dyer settled once more in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, then actively involved in discovering, persecuting, and eliminating Quakers.

Dyer was imprisoned in Boston. Although her husband arranged for her release, ensuring the colonial authorities that she would not speak to any members of the colony and that she would immediately return home, Dyer refused to be silent.

She traveled throughout New England to share her faith. She was arrested in the New Haven Colony in 1658 and forced to leave. By October of 1658, persecution of Quakers had intensified. In Massachusetts Bay, being a Quaker became a capital offense. The punishment for Quakerism was banishment--and if the convicted were to be found within the colony after conviction, the punishment was death.

In June of 1659, learning of the arrest of Quakers in Massachusetts, Mary Dyer left her home in Newport and headed back to Boston. She was arrested and, along with two others, condemned to death. She was taken to her place of execution on 27 October, but after watching the executions of the two men convicted with her, she was reprieved.

Mary Dyer refused to accept the conditions of the reprieve, which meant denying her faith: "My life is not accepted, neither availeth me, in comparison with the lives and liberty of the Truth and Servants of the living God for which in the Bowels of Love and Meekness I sought you; yet nevertheless with wicked Hands have you put two of them to Death, which makes me to feel that the Mercies of the Wicked is cruelty; I rather chuse to Dye than to live, as from you, as Guilty of their Innocent Blood."

Once more returned to Rhode Island, Dyer refused to accept her situation--she decided to force the Puritans of Massachusetts to change their laws or to execute a woman.

Dyer returned to Boston in May of 1660. She was arrested once more and on 31 May was examined in front of the governor of the colony, now John Endicott. Although her husband once more hoped to gain her a reprieve, she was once more condemned.

This time, she was also executed. On 1 June 1660 she was taken to the gallows where she had watched her two fellow Quakers executed in October 1659. She refused an offer to save herself, saying, "I came to keep bloodguiltiness from you, desiring you to repeal the unrighteous and unjust law of banishment upon pain of death, made against the innocent servants of the Lord, therefore my blood will be required at your hands who willfully do it; but for those that do is in the simplicity of their hearts, I do desire the Lord to forgive them. I came to do the will of my Father, and in obedience to his will I stand even to the death."

Mary Dyer was hanged that day, becoming one of the "Boston Martyrs." And one of many of those whose lives and death testify not so much to the long and glorious history of "religious freedom" in the U.S. but to religious intolerance, persecution, and blind ignorance. 

A bronze sculpture of Mary Dyer,
by American sculptor (and Quaker)
Sylvia Shaw Judson