"It’s not fair! My name is Mary Dyer and I’m younger than that girl! I should have been the one pulling the cover off the Mary Dyer statue!" Nine years old and indignant, I glared at the news photo of the "youngest-known descendant" of the famed Quaker martyr as she unveiled the newly erected statue in front of the Boston State House. The year was 1959, the 300th anniversary of Mary Dyer’s being condemned to death by Governor John Endicott of Massachusetts. That photo was the beginning of my inquiry into the life and death of my ancestor and namesake, Mary Dyer.
Mary Barrett married Puritan milliner William Dyer in London on October 27, 1633. The couple migrated to the colony of Massachusetts, arriving with their young son Samuel on December 13, 1635. They had already experienced the death of their first-born son, William, three days after his birth the previous year. Within a short time, the Dyers were an integral part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony; William, a freeman, owned land and held positions of importance, and his wife Mary was described as "fair" and "comely" by "detractors and defenders alike."
Within a short time after coming to Massachusetts, Mary became friends with Anne Hutchinson, midwife and religious activist. Mary and William were drawn to Anne’s beliefs that a person could communicate directly with God without a minister, and that one could be assured of salvation. However, these perspectives were deemed heresy by the Puritans, who thought a minister was essential to intercede with God, and that it was impossible to know if one were saved. Consequently, the government penalized her followers, including William in 1637.
That year also marked the birth of the couple’s third child, a daughter. Unfortunately, the girl was delivered stillborn and deformed as witnessed by Anne Hutchinson and two other midwives who assisted Mary during her premature and arduous labor. Knowing that the Puritans would deem the death and deformity of the child as an indicator of parental sin and deserving of punishment, Hutchinson sought the advice of Rev. John Cotton about burying the fetus in secret. Despite his noted religious severity, Cotton agreed compassionately to the clandestine burial.
At the time of Anne Hutchinson’s excommunication from the Puritan church in 1638, this secret came to light. As Mary courageously stuck by her friend, a group of women whispered loudly, "Who is that woman accompanying Anne Hutchinson?" Someone responded, "She is the mother of a monster." Word of this got to Governor John Winthrop, who then interrogated Rev. Cotton and learned of the birth and burial. Winthrop demanded an investigation, which ended with his "gruesome, detailed descriptions" of the "monster" that came from Mary’s womb. William and Mary Dyer were subsequently banished from Massachusetts and settled in the colony of Rhode Island, which was noted for its religious tolerance.
In 1652 Roger Williams invited the couple to join him on a trip to England. By this time the couple had had four more sons: William, Mahershallahasbaz, Henry, and Charles, and another daughter, Mary. While in England, Mary Dyer became a follower of George Fox, founder of the Religious Society of Friends, and was drawn to his teachings on the Inner Light, which were similar to those of Anne Hutchinson. Due to his responsibilities in the colony, William needed to return to Rhode Island sooner than his wife, but Mary stayed in England for five years.
Mary’s ship arrived the year after several anti-Quaker laws had been passed, and the new governor, John Endicott, was more than willing to punish religious dissenters with banishing, whipping, cutting off ears, and boring holes in tongues. Passenger lists on ships had a "Q" written next to the name of any Quaker on board, and those individuals were apprehended when disembarking in Massachusetts.
Mary Dyer was immediately arrested upon her arrival in Boston Harbor. She was deprived of communication for over two months, and only by surreptitiously passing a letter out from her place of confinement was she was able to get word to her husband. William came and demanded his wife’s release, and because he was a prominent leader in Rhode Island, Endicott acquiesced—on two conditions: Dyer had to keep his wife silent until she was out of Massachusetts, and he had to see that she never returned to that colony for any reason. Mary Dyer was released into the custody of her husband, and together they returned to Rhode Island.
Mary, spurred on by her Quaker beliefs, traveled through Rhode Island and Connecticut preaching about the Inner Light. She also claimed that both women and men could be recipients of the gift of prophecy, and that there should be gender equality in church worship and organization. This led to her expulsion from New Haven in 1658 for preaching such radical ideas.
Meanwhile, in Massachusetts there was increasing acrimony against Quakers and a demand for even harsher punishment. On October 19, 1658, in a stormy session and by a single vote, the Massachusetts authorities passed a law stating that any Quaker found in that colony would be subject to the penalty of death. The harshness of this edict provoked some Quakers to challenge the law by entering Massachusetts and risking their lives. Such was the case in June 1659, when Quakers William Robinson, Marmaduke Stephenson, and Patience Scott crossed over into that dreaded colony and were arrested. Mary Dyer went to Boston shortly thereafter to visit them and suffered the same fate. Learning of his wife’s endangerment, William Dyer wrote a scathing letter to the Massachusetts authorities and rebuked them for imprisoning someone for merely visiting her friends in prison. He demanded her immediate release. Shortly after receiving this letter, the magistrates acquiesced and released all of the imprisoned Quakers, stating that their return to the Massachusetts Bay Colony would result in their execution.
Challenging the legal right of Governor John Endicott to enforce the death penalty, Robinson, Stephenson, and another Quaker, Christopher Holder, continued ministry in Massachusetts and were again arrested. Mary Dyer, Hope Clifton, and Mary Scott walked through the forest from Providence to Boston to plead for the release of Holder, who would eventually marry Mary Scott, Anne Hutchinson’s niece. The repeat offenders—Robinson, Stephenson, and Dyer—were brought before the General Court on October 19, 1659, one year to the day after the passage of the death penalty law, and were condemned to death by Governor Endicott.
The three Friends wrote to the General Court in an attempt to change the law banishing Quakers under pain of death, but to no avail. On October 27, 1659, the three were led to the gallows. They were prevented from addressing anyone on the streets by the constant beating of drums. The two men were then hanged, but at the last minute, a prearranged political agreement saved Mary Dyer. Back in her jail cell, she wrote words to the General Court that would one day be inscribed on her statue in Boston: "My life not availeth me in comparison to the liberty of the truth."
This time it was her son William’s petition that won freedom for her. Forced to return to Rhode Island, Mary Dyer was contacted by a group of Native Americans from Shelter Island across from Long Island Sound who wanted to hold a Quaker meeting. She responded affirmatively to their request but was unable to find contentment in that safe environment. Restless to return to Massachusetts and see "that wicked law against God’s people" repealed, she followed her conscience. Without telling her husband, Mary Dyer headed back to Boston to defy the hateful law even at the cost of her own life.
She was summoned before the General Court on May 31, 1660, and was personally interrogated by Governor Endicott who ordered her to be hanged the following morning at nine o’clock. Courageously she replied that the Lord "would send others of his servants to witness against . . . your unrighteous laws of banishment on pain of death." In anger and frustration, Endicott commanded, "Away with her! Away with her!"
The following morning Mary Dyer was led though the streets of Boston between two drummers who attempted to prevent communication between her and the crowds. However, some did plead with her to acquiesce to banishment. She responded, "Nay, I cannot go back to Rhode Island for in obedience to the will of the Lord I came and in His will I abide faithful to the death." On June 1, 1660, Mary Dyer was hanged. A bystander remarked, "She hangs there as a flag for others to take example by." Indeed, Mary began to be acknowledged as a martyr even in Massachusetts, and anti-Quaker laws fell out of favor.
In 1959 the same Massachusetts General Court that had ordered her to die placed a statue of Mary Dyer in front of the State House.
Mary Dyer continued to inspire me in my adolescence as I connected her message of freedom with the Civil Rights movement. Raised in a Roman Catholic family through the influence of my Irish grandmother, I joined the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament upon graduating from high school. This group of nuns was founded by the Philadelphia philanthropist Katharine Drexel to work among African Americans and Native Americans who continued to experience negative treatment as had the Quakers in colonial Massachusetts. During my 20 years in that religious community, I taught and ministered in rural Louisiana, inner-city New Orleans, a Navajo reservation in Arizona, and in Harlem, N.Y. After leaving the congregation in 1986, I began working as a pastoral counselor with individuals, couples, and families. Now married, I am a licensed professional counselor and a staff therapist with the Samaritan Counseling Center.