Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Mary Dyer (c. 1611-1660)

"Nay, I came to keep bloodguiltiness from you, desireing you to repeal the unrighteous and unjust law made against the innocent servants of the Lord. Nay, man, I am not now to repent." ~Mary Dyer's last words


Mary (Marie) Barrett was was born c. 1611. She married William Dyer, a fishmonger, milliner and Puritan, in London on 27 Oct 1633. She gave birth to eight children, two of whom died in infancy.

In late 1634 or early 1635, the Dyers emigrated to Massachusetts, where William took the Oath of a Freeman. They were admitted to the Boston Church on 13 Dec 1635. In 1637, they became open supporters of Anne Hutchinson during the antinomian heresy period.

Mary gave birth on 11 Oct 1637, to a deformed stillborn baby, who was buried privately. After Hutchinson was tried and the Hutchinsons and Dyers banished from Massachusetts in January 1637, the authorities learned of the "monstrous birth", and Governor John Winthrop had the baby's corpse exhumed in March 1638, before a large crowd. He described it thus:

"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 sent descriptions to numerous correspondents, and accounts were published in England in 1642 and 1644. The deformed birth was considered evidence of the heresies and errors of antinomianism.

In 1638, the Dyers were banished from the colony, and followed Hutchinson to Rhode Island. On the advice of Roger Williams, the group moved to Portsmouth, where William Dyer signed the Portsmouth Compact in March 1638 along with 18 other men. The Dyers ultimately settled in Newport, where by 1640, William had acquired 87 acres of land. He flourished in Rhode Island, serving as Secretary for the towns of Portsmouth and Newport from 1640 to 1647, General Recorder, and ultimately Attorney General from 1650 to 1653.

Mary was dissatisfied with Rhode Island life, and traveled alone to England in 1650, where she joined the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) after hearing the preaching of its founder, George Fox. She eventually became a Quaker preacher in her own right.

William briefly joined her but returned alone to Rhode Island in 1652; Mary remained in England another five years. Her 1657 return to New England was ill-timed; John Endicott had succeeded Winthrop as Governor in 1649, and was far more intolerant of religious dissension. When Mary's ship landed in Boston, she was immediately arrested. Her husband secured her release nearly three months later, on account of his prominent social status in Rhode Island, on the condition that William "give his honor" that Mary would never return to Massachusetts.

Mary continued to travel in New England to preach Quakerism, and was arrested in 1658 and expelled from New Haven, CT for preaching "inner light" and the notion that women and men stood on equal ground in church worship and organization. After her release, she illegally returned to Massachusetts to visit two imprisoned English Quakers, William Robinson and Marmaduke Stephenson. When she traveled to Massachusetts a third time with a group of Quakers to publicly defy the law, she was arrested and sentenced to death. After a short trial, two other Quakers were hanged, but Dyer was spared at the last minute because her son interceded on her behalf against her wishes.

She was forced to return to Rhode Island, and traveled to Long Island, NY, to preach, but her conscience led her to return to Massachusetts in April 1660 to "desire the repeal of that wicked [anti-Quaker] law against God's people and offer up her life there." Despite her husband's and family's pleas, she refused to repent, and was again convicted and sentenced to death on June 1.

The next day, as she was escorted to the gallows by Captain John Evered of the Boston military company, Evered said to her "...that she had, previously been found guilty of the same charge, and been banished, that she now had one last chance to repent and be banished again." Dyer refused and was then hanged.

After her death a member of the General Court, Humphrey Atherton, is reputed to have said, "She did hang as a flag for others to take example by." 

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