June 1, 1660
"In obedience to the will of the Lord God I came, and in His will I abide faithful to the death."
Mary Dyer was an English Puritan (one who practices or preaches a strict moral and spiritual code) who emigrated to the Massachusetts Bay Colony from England in 1634 or 1635. She became influenced by Anne Hutchinson (see entry), who was preaching "Antimonian" ideas. (Antinomianism is the belief that faith alone is sufficient for salvation from sin. The view was considered heresy because it was contrary to the Puritan teaching that salvation can be gained only by doing good works.) When Hutchinson was excommunicated (excluded from the rights of the church) and banished from Massachusetts in 1638, Dyer also left the colony. After traveling to England with her husband in 1652, Dyer became a Quaker (member of the Religious Society of Friends who believe that the individual can receive divine truth from the Holy Spirit through his or her own "inner light" without the guidance of a minister or priest). When she returned to New England five years later she was imprisoned for her belief. Eventually, she was executed for heresy. Today Dyer is considered a symbol of religious freedom.
Mary Dyer was born Mary Barrett in England. The date of her birth is unknown, and very little information exists about her early life. Although the story is not based on fact, there is a rumor that she was the daughter of Lady Arabella Stuart, who was a cousin of King James I of England. There is some evidence, however, that she came from a wealthy family. It is also known that on October 27, 1633, she married William Dyer, a milliner (hat maker) and a Puritan. They were wed at St. Martin's-in-the-Fields, a church in London. Not long after their marriage, the Dyers, like many other Puritans, emigrated to the New World (a European term for North America and South America).
Influenced by Anne Hutchinson
The Dyers arrived at the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1634 (or 1635) and joined the Puritan church on December 13, 1635. The Dyers were influenced by Anne Hutchinson, who preached about "Antimonianism." Unlike the Puritans, Hutchinson believed the religious experience was personal, asserting that only the individual alone could decide whether or not he or she was saved (had gained forgiveness for sins against God). The Puritans, on the other hand, turned outward for their religious experience and achieved salvation through hard work, charitable acts, and material gain. For the Puritans, church leaders had the sole authority to decide who was saved.
Because Hutchinson challenged one of the central doctrines (laws) of the Puritanism, she was excommunicated and banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony on March 22, 1638. By this time, the Dyers were so influenced by Hutchinson that they took her side against their pastor, John Wilson. When Hutchinson left the church the day she was excommunicated, Mary Dyer followed her. As a result, the Dyers were also excommunicated. The couple settled at Newport, Rhode Island, where they could practice their form of religion freely. William Dyer went into public office and became an upstanding member of the colony. Mary Dyer turned her attention to domestic life. The couple eventually had five sons: Samuel, William, Mahershallalhashbaz, Henry, and Charles.
Joins Society of Friends
In 1652 the Dyers returned to England on a political mission to uphold the interests of the colony with John Clarke and Roger Williams (see entry), founder of Rhode Island. Remaining in England for five years, Mary Dyer joined the Religious Society of Friends, the Quaker religion founded by George Fox. Quaker beliefs were very similar to Hutchinson's "Antimonianism." According to the Quaker doctrine of "inner light," each individual possessed the Holy Spirit. Like Hutchinson, the Quakers believe that the individual has a direct relationship to God. In 1657 Dyer and her husband returned to New England, settling in New Haven (now a city in Connecticut). Because of her conversion to Quaker beliefs, Dyer was immediately seized by the Puritans and imprisoned in Boston. During the previous year Puritan leaders in Boston had outlawed "the cursed sect of heretics . . . commonly called Quakers."
John Endecott and Puritan intolerance
The man responsible for the execution of Mary Dyer was John Endecott, the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Endecott was a strict Puritan who had emigrated to the New World in 1628. He himself had experienced religious persecution in England when he was rebuked by his grandfather, who disagreed with his views. Despite his own experience, however, Endecott gained a reputation as a strong-willed, unfeeling man. Endecott played a major role in the Pequot War of 1636, which led to the near extinction of the Pequot tribe. He was equally harsh with dissenters (religious nonconformists) and other rebels—especially Quakers—in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. After executing William Robinson and Marmaduke Stephenson the previous year, he executed Dyer in 1660. Some historians believe that Endecott was too brutal in his handling of the Quakers. However, others point to the prevailing opinion among colonists that dissenters should be executed.
Dyer was released from jail when her husband promised that he would prevent her from preaching. Nevertheless, Dyer continued to advocate Quakerism and was thus expelled from New Haven. In the meantime, on October 19, 1658, the Massachusetts courts passed an even stronger law that imposed the death penalty on practicing Quakers. By the following year, two Quakers, Marmaduke Stephenson and William Robinson, were imprisoned in Boston. Defying the laws, Dyer visited the two prisoners that summer. She was subsequently thrown into prison as well. On September 12, all three of the prisoners were banished from Boston and threatened with execution if they ever returned.
Continues to defy laws
Not surprisingly, considering her rebellious spirit, Dyer returned to Boston with Stephenson, Robinson, and several other Quakers. The group was determined to confront the rigid Massachusetts laws about religious tolerance. By October 19, 1659, they were brought before the General Court to be investigated and sentenced. When asked why they had returned to Boston, they replied that "the ground and cause of their coming was of the Lord." All three Quakers were sentenced to death by Massachusetts governor John Endecott (see entry). On October 27, 1659, Stephenson and Robinson were hanged, but Dyer once again escaped execution. At the last minute, John Winthrop Jr. and Thomas Temple intervened with a plea from her son William. Dyer was spared from the gallows.
Becomes symbol of religious freedom
Dyer left Boston for Rhode Island and then went to Long Island (in present-day New York). She was determined to return to Boston to "desire the repeal of that wicked law against God's people and offer up her life there." On her return to Boston, she was arrested again. This time she was sentenced to death, and the penalty was carried out on May 31, 1660. Her husband, who never became a Quaker, claimed that his wife was mad and should be spared. Despite his plea, Dyer was executed. She was given one last chance to repent before she was hanged. Dyer refused to renounce her Quaker beliefs, saying, "In obedience to the will of the Lord God I came, and in His will I abide faithful to the death."
The execution of Mary Dyer
An eyewitness and fellow Quaker gave a detailed description of the execution of Mary Dyer on May 31, 1660. Following are excerpts from that account.
So she [Dyer] was brought to the prison-house, where she was before, close shut up until the next day. . . . Then they [the Puritan authorities] brought her forth, and drums were beat before and behind her, with a band of soldiers, through the town, and so to the place of execution, which is about a mile, the drums being that none might hear her speak all the way.
Some said unto her, that if she would return she might come down and save her life. She answered and said, "Nay, I cannot. For in obedience to the will of the Lord God I came, and in his will I abide faithful to the death. . . . "
John Wilson, their [the Dyers'] priest of Boston, said, "M. Dyer, O repent; O repent, and be not so deluded and carried away by the deceit of the Devil." M. Dyer answered and said, "No, man, I am not now to repent. . . . "
Then one said she should say she had been in Paradise. And she answered, "Yea, I have been in Paradise several days." And more she spake of her eternal happiness, that's out of mind. And so sweetly and cheerfully in the Lord she finished her testimony and died a faithful martyr of Jesus Christ. . . .
. . . These are the people that say their churches are the purest churches in the world, and their magistrates are godly magistrates, and godly ministers. A fair show to the world! . . .
Reprinted in: Kupperman, Karen Ordahl, ed. Major Problems in American Colonial History. Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath and Company, 1993, pp. 162–64.
By the twentieth century—four hundred years after her execution—Dyer had become a symbol of courage in the face of tyranny (oppressive power exerted by a government). At the time she was sentenced to death, she was considered a heretic (one who does not conform to an accepted belief or doctrine). Over the years, however, freedom of religion is recognized as a central tenet (a principle or doctrine) of American law. Once seen as a threat to society, Dyer is now regarded as a hero. In 1959 the General Court of Massachusetts erected a statue in her memory on the State House grounds in Boston.
For further research
Bacon, Margaret Hope. Mothers of Feminism. New York: HarperCollins, 1986.
Crawford, Deborah. Four Women in a Violent Time: Anne Hutchinson (1591–1643), Mary Dyer (1591?–1660), Lady Deborah Moody (1600–1659), Penelope Stout (1622–1732). New York: Crown Publishers, 1970.
Kupperman, Karen Ordahl, ed. Major Problems in American Colonial History. Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath and Company, 1993, pp. 162–64.
Mary Dyer Trials: 1659 and 1660
Mary Dyer Trials: 1659 and 1660
Defendant: Mary Dyer
Crime Charged: Quakerism
Chief Defense Lawyer: None
Chief Prosecutor: No Record
Judge: Governor John Endecott
Place: Boston, Massachusetts Bay Colony
Dates: October 19, 1659; May 31, 1660
Sentences: First trial: death by hanging, commuted to banishment from the colony and hanging should she return; second trial: death by hanging
SIGNIFICANCE: Quaker Mary Dyer's conviction and execution for practicing her faith in a manner other than the one approved by Massachusetts' colonial government was indicative of the draconian measures the puritan leaders of the colony were prepared to use to insure total theological conformity.
In 1638, when Anne Hutchinson was excommunicated from the Church of Boston, Mary Dyer walked to Hutchinson's side and offered her hand in solidarity. Accounts of Hutchinson's trials in the Massachusetts Bay Colony appear in every child's first American history text, while Mary Dyer's own trials—22 years later and with far more drastic consequences for the accused—are rarely examined.
The Puritan officials of the Massachusetts Bay Colony had struggled since the colony's founding to eliminate dissenters. In 1658, they found Quakers, or members of the Society of Friends, particularly alarming: The Records of the Governor states emphatically that "The doctrine of this sect of people … tends to overthrow the whole gospell [sic] & the very vitalls [sic] of Christianitie …" On October 19, 1558, the colony passed a law banishing Quakers "on pajne [sic] of death."
Two Quakers, William Robinson and Marmaduke Stephenson, were imprisoned in Boston in 1659; that summer, Dyer visited them and was thrown into prison as well. All three were ordered banished and threatened with execution should they ever return to the colony. They were released on September 12, 1659, but returned within a few weeks to "look [the] bloody laws in the face."
The three were thrown into jail for, as the governor's records describe it, "theire rebellion, sedition, & presumptuous obtruding themselves upon us," and "as underminers of this government." They stood trial before the General Court on October 19, 1659. "[B]rought to the barre," they "acknowledged themselves to be the persons banished" and earlier "convicted for Quakers." Governor John Endecott declared the sentence to each of them in turn, using the same words: "You shall go from hence to the place from whence you came [jail], & from thence to the place of execution, & there hang till you be dead."
When Dyer heard her sentence, she said, "The will of the Lord be done." Her husband, William Dyer, accepted the situation with less equanimity. On August 30, 1659, he had written to the "Court … assembled at Boston" to object to the restriction of his wife's religious liberty. He likened the members of the General Court to the "Popish inquisitors" of the 13th century, since they served as "a judge and accuser both." He complained bitterly that the Puritans, who had left England to escape persecution, now persecuted others: "[S]urely you or some of you, if ever you had the courage to looke a bishop in the face, cannot but remember that the 1. 2 or third word from them was, You are a Puritane are you not, & is it not so in N. England, the magistracy having … assumed a coercive power of conscience, the first or next word After appearance is You are a Quaker."
Governor Thomas Temple of Nova Scotia, Governor John Winthrop, Jr., of Connecticut, and Dyer's son William added their objections, and Dyer received a dramatic suspension of her sentence. With Robinson and Stephenson, she was escorted by drum-beating soldiers to "the place of execution, & there [made] to stand upon the gallowes, with a rope about her necke." Robinson and Stephenson were both hanged but Dyer, to her surprise, was granted "liberty for forty eight howers … to depart out of this jurisdiction, after which time, being found therein, she is forthwith to be executed."
She remained outside the colony for only seven months before returning. Before Governor Endecott and the General Court on May 31, 1660, "she acknowledged herself to be Mary Dyer,… denied our lawe, [and said she] came to bear witness against it." Then "The whole court mett together voted, that the said Mary Dyer, for her rebelliously returning to this jurisdiction … shall … according to the sentence of the General Court in October last, be put to death."
Mary Dyer was hanged on June 1, 1660. In 1959, the Massachusetts General Court ordered a seven-foot statue of Dyer—which bears the inscription "Witness for Religious Freedom"—to be placed on the lawn of the Boston State House.
Suggestions for Further Reading
Chu, Jonathan M. Neighbors, Friends, or Madmen: The Puritan Adjustment to Quakerism in Seventeenth-Century Massachusetts Bay. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985.
Dyer, William. Mary Dyer, Quaker: Two Letters of William Dyer of Rhode Island, 1659-1660. Printed for Worthington C. Ford by the University Press, Cambridge, U.S.A., n.d.
McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women: A Biographical Dictionary from Colonial Times to the Present. New York: Dover Publications, 1983.
Shurtleff, Nathaniel B., ed. Records of the Governor and Company of the Massachusetts Bay in New England. Boston: From the Press of William White, Printer to the Commonwealth, 1854.
Tolles, Frederick B. "Mary Dyer," Notable American Women, 1906-1950. Edward T. James, Janet Wilson James, and Paul S. Boyer, eds. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.