Mary Dyer has been described as an “American Puritan turned Quaker who was hanged in Boston in 1660.” Yet behind that label was a woman who struggled with religious persecution and harassment.
When researching more modern individuals, historians have the advantage of the wide availability of public records, as well as personal records such as letters and diaries. Yet in the past—and particularly in the 17th century—if you were non-elite then you usually remained obscure. In the case of Mary Dyer we can’t be sure of her birthplace or date, yet there are some records for a “Mary (Marie) Beret” with her parents unidentified. However, we can assume she was probably born in either 1610 or 1611.
We do know from church records that in 1633 Mary married William Dyer, who was described as a “fishmonger and milliner” and because they were later accepted at the Boston church, we can assume they were Puritans. This was an offshoot sect of the Church of England that sought to “purify” the church with simpler worship and less emphasis on liturgy. Then because of opposition in Britain many Puritans settled in New England and particularly in Boston. Yet though they sought religious freedom for themselves that didn’t mean they offered it to others.
Mary and William Dyer arrived in New England in 1635 and since they soon had their baby baptized it’s possible the child was born while at sea.
The Puritan churches of Boston at that time had internal theological differences, a fact that soon became evident as the Dyers joined. One minister named John Wilson emphasized morality and—“evidencing justification by sanctification”—or holy living as evidence of salvation. Yet others disagreed, offering alternate views. One outspoken member was midwife and teacher Anne Hutchinson who held meetings in her home, where the Dyers attended.
Then the Boston church in 1637 charged Hutchinson with slandering the ministers. And since church and city government were inseparable, it meant that she and many of her supporters were banished, William Dyer among them.
Then in March 1638 when Hutchinson was officially excommunicated Mary Dyer was identified as a supporter and church authorities wondered who she was. Finally someone identified Mary as the woman who had had “the monstrous birth”—and there began an investigation.
Several months before this Mary had given birth a stillborn baby with some abnormalities, a tragedy that today would bring compassion. However, in the 17th century, any congenital illness or disability was believed to be a judgment of God on the person involved, indicating a hidden sin. Thus with such a common response Mary and her supporters had interred the child secretly.
However, as word of the tragedy spread church officials insisted on an exhumation to verify the disability and thus began the mother’s persecution. Eventually it became so severe that Mary and her supporters settled in other communities and the Dyers moved to what is now Rhode Island. Finally some dissenters to the church government, among them William Dyer, returned to England to seek removal of the Boston church officials. But for William it was a reunion with Mary, since she had preceded him.
She remained in England for several more years and it was at this time that she became attracted to the teachings of the Quakers. Formally known as the Society of Friends, and founded by George Fox, the Quakers emphasized freedom of thought, separation of church and state, and also believed in the individual’s conscience and how it guided him or her. They called this the “Inner Light.” However, the Puritans saw the Quakers as according to one source, “among the most reprehensible of heretics” and sought to legally ban them from the New World.
Mary Dyer returned to New England in 1657 and was instantly recognized as a Quaker and put in jail forcing her husband to get her released. However, she continued to travel the area, speaking about her faith, and in 1658 she was again arrested and then expelled from a community she visited. At the time common punishments for Quakers (and other offenders) was often confinement in the stocks or pillory, whipping or cutting off ears.
Then local persecution against Quakers in New England became more severe, and sometimes it meant capital punishment. Mary and other Quakers were imprisoned and in 1659 they were brought before the Governor, where they explained their beliefs. When Dyer’s turn came the governor told her, “You shall go …to the place of execution and there be hanged till you be dead.” Mary responded, “The will of the Lord be done” and as she was led away she added, “Yea, and joyfully I go.”
On October 27, 1659 Mary and two male associates were brought out to be executed but when they tried to address the crowd, their voices were inaudible because of increased drumming. The two men were soon hung, but when it was Mary’s turn there was a sudden reprieve, a result of her son’s petition giving the authorities an out in executing a woman.
Though she returned to her Rhode Island home, Mary was still determined to force the issue, so she returned to Boston in May, 1660. Brought again before the governor, she again was condemned to be hung. When the governor asked if she was a prophetess she replied, “I speak the words the Lord speaks to me.” She was ordered to be hung—but this time there was no reprieve—despite her husband’s letter to authorities to spare her.
On June 1, 1660 Mary Dyer was escorted to the gallows but would not recant. She announced, “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…” Then, in the words of her biographer, “She was swung off, and the crown of martyrdom descended upon her head.”
Word of Mary’s execution spread through the other British colonies, and across the Atlantic to England, but there was no immediate royal response since King Charles II had just assumed the throne. Then when another Quaker was executed in March 1661, finally the king responded. A royal decree dated September, 1661 was addressed to the governors of the New England colonies ordering them to cease execution and imprisonment of Quakers and that any offenders should be sent to England for trial.
However, into the next decade Quakers were still whipped and imprisoned until popular sentiment and further royal orders finally ended the persecution.
Anne Adams is a retired church staffer. She lives in East Texas and has an historical column for a local newspaper. She has published in Christian and secular publications for more than 40 years.