Martyrdom of Mary Dyer
(d. June 1, 1660)
Smitty's Genealogy, Quaker, and Civil War Pages
Mary Dyer was a follower of preacher Anne Hutchinson, who taught that the Holy Spirit dwelt in a justified person. This teaching was considered to be "Antinomian", or opposed to law, heresy by the Puritan religion. When Hutchinson was excommunicated by the Boston Puritan Church, Dyer sided with her against the pastor. Subsequently, Mary Dyer and her husband (William Dyer) were excommunicated and banished, eventually settling in Newport, Rhode Island, a place of greater religious tolerance.
After a trip back to England in 1652, Mary Dyer became a follower of the founder of the Society of Friends (Quakers), George Fox, whose teachings were similar to Anne Hutchinson. When Mary Dyer returned to Boston in 1657, she was imprisoned due to her Quaker beliefs. She was released when her husband promised that she would keep silent until she left the colony.
In 1658, religious intolerance in Boston reached a a new height, when a law was passed banishing Quakers under "pain of death." When Mary Dyer learned that two of her friends were jailed in Boston, she went to visit them in 1659, and was herself thrown in jail. In September of that year Mary Dyer and her two friends were released, but they were promised that they would be executed if they returned. Less than a month later, Mary Dyer, in the company of other Friends, was back in Boston resolved to "look the bloody laws in the face".
Imprisoned again, Mary Dyer saw her two Friends hanged, and while herself bound and with the rope around her neck, she received a reprieve at the last moment. Against her wishes, Mary Dyer returned to Rhode Island, but once again returned to Boston knowing the inevitability of her fate, but determined to give up her life in order to gain the "repeal of that wicked law".
On June 1, 1660, she was hung, refusing to repent, holding fast to her beliefs. Mary Dyer was happy to be martyred for her beliefs, as she realized that her sacrifice would result in a change of attitudes toward greater tolerance of religious faith.
"Mary Dyer Did Hang as a Flag"
[FROM Mary Dyer of Rhode Island]
[ The only Quakers ever to receive outright sentences of death ( though prison sentences in England sometimes amounted to the same thing) were sentenced in America, and by those erstwhile lovers of religious liberty, the Puritans.
Once again, as was William Penn, Mary Dyer (?-1660) was fighting-and gave up her life-for more than the right to be a Quaker. That right she had-outside of Massachusetts. She was fighting for and did finally die for religious freedom in Massachusetts.
Brooks Adams, in his The Emancipation of Massachusetts, say of the Quakers, "We owe to their heroic devotion the most priceless of our treasures, our perfect liberty of thought and speech. " Whether or not that liberty is "perfect" is debatable. That Mary Dyer did what she could to make it perfect cannot be debated.]
Mary Dyer of Rhode Island, in the words of George Bishop, the old Quaker chronicler, written after her death, was "a Comely Grave Woman, and of a goodly Personage, and one of a good report, having a Husband of an Estate, fearing the Lord, and a Mother of Children." Governor Winthrop of Massachusetts, a less friendly writer, refers to her, in 1638, as "the wife of one William Dyer, a milliner in the New Exchange, a very proper and fair woman, and both of them notoriously infected with Mrs. Hutchinson's errors, and very censorious and troublesome (she being of a very proud spirit, and much addicted to revelations)." Gerard Croese, a Dutch writer, states that she was reputed as a "person of no mean extract and parentage, of an estate pretty plentiful, of a comely stature and countenance, of a piercing knowledge in many things, of a wonderful sweet and pleasant discourse, so fit for great affairs, that she wanted nothing that was manly, except only the name and the sex." ...
In 1652 William Dyer accompanied Roger Williams and John Clarke, who were sent from Rhode Island tO England tO obtain a revocation of the extraordinary powers granted to William Coddington; and Mrs. Dyer accompanied her husband. Though William Dyer returned home early in 1653, his wife remained abroad several years longer, becoming a convert to Quaker doctrines and a minister in that society. In 1657 she landed in Boston en route for her home in Rhode Island. The years before her coming, the arrival of the earliest Quakers in Boston had so wrought up the ministers and authorities of Massachusetts Bay that various repressive measures had been adopted, and hence when Mary Dyer, and a widow named Ann Burden who came to settle up her deceased husband' estate, set foot in Boston, they were arrested and cast into prison; for although Mary Dyer's sole business was to pass that way to Rhode Island, she was kept a close prisoner so that none might have communication with her, until her husband, hearing that she had arrived and was in prison, went after her. Then she was not released and suffered to depart until he had bound himself in a great penalty not to lodge her in any town of Massachusetts Bay, nor to permit any to have speech with her on her journey. ...
In June, 1659, William Robinson, a merchant of London, and Marmaduke Stephenson, a countryman of the east pan of Yorkshire, "were moved by the Lord," in Quaker phrase, to go from Rhode Island to Massachusetts to bear witness against the persecuting spirit existing there; and with them went Nicholas Davis of Plymouth Colony, and Patience Scott of Providence, Rhode Island, a girl of about eleven years of age. ...During their incarceration Mary Dyer was moved of the Lord to go from Rhode Island to visit the prisoners, and she too was arrested and imprisoned. On September 12, 1659, the Court banished the four adults from Massachusetts upon pain of death, if after the 14th of September they should be found within the jurisdiction, but Patience Scott was discharged, as, in the words of the chronicler, "the child, it seems, was not of years, as to law, to deal with her by banishment."
Nicholas Davis and Mary Dyer departed to their homes without the jurisdiction of Massachusetts. ...On October 8, within thirty days of her banishment, Mary Dyer with other Rhode Island Quakers went to Boston, ...where she was again arrested and held for the action of the authorities. Five days later William Robinson and Marmaduke Stephenson, who had been travelling about spreading their doctrines through Massachusetts and Rhode Island since their release from prison, also went to Boston to look the bloody laws in the face, in the words of the Quaker chronicler; and they too were arrested and cast into prison [and subsequently sentenced to death]. ...
Then Mary Dyer was brought to the bar of the Court, and the Governor pronounced sentence upon her as follows: "Mary Dyer, you shall go from hence to the place from whence you came, and from thence to the place of execution, and there be hanged till you be dead." To which she said, "The will of the done." --"Take her away, Marshal," quoth the Governor. She replied, "Yea, and joyfully I go." And on her way to prison she used similar words, with praises to the Lord. To the marshal who had her in custody, she said, "Let me alone, for I should go to prison without you." -- "I believe you, Mrs. Dyer," he rejoined, "but I must do what I am commanded."
Great influence was brought to bear to prevent the execution of the sentences. Governor Winthrop of Connecticut appeared before the Massachusetts authorities, urging that the condemnned be not put to death. He said that he would beg it of them on his bare knees that they would not do it. ...
The 27th of October, 1659, was fixed for the triple execution and elaborate preparations, for those days, were made for it. Popular excitement ran high, and the people resorted to the prison windows to hold communication with the condemned, so male prisoners were put in irons, and a force was detailed, in words of the order, "to watch with great care the towne, especially the prison."...
The eventful day having arrived, Captain Oliver and his military guard attended to receive the prisoners. The marshal and the jailer brought them forth, the men from the jail, and Mary Dyer from the House of Correction. They parted from their friends at the prison full of joy, thanking the Lord that he accounted them worthy to suffer for his name and had kept them faithful to the end. The condemned came forth hand in hand, Mary Dyer between the other two, and when the marshal asked , "Whether she was not ashamed to walk hand in hand between two young men," for her companions were much younger than she, she replied, "It is an hour of the greatest joy I can enjoy in this world. No eye can see, no ear can hear, no tongue can speak, no heart can understand, the sweet incomes and refreshings of the spirit of the Lord which now I enjoy. " The concourse of people was immense, the guard was strong and strict, and when the prisoners sought to speak the drums were caused to be beaten.
The method of execution was extremely simple in those days. A great elm upon Boston Common constituted the gallows. The halter having been adjusted round the prisoner’s neck, he was force to ascend a ladder affording an approach to the limb to be used for the fatal purpose, to which limb the other end of the halter was attached. Then the ladder was pulled away, and the execution, though rude, was complete.The prisoners took a tender leave of one another, and William Robinson, who was the first to suffer, said, as he was about to be turned off by the executioner, “I suffer for Christ, in whom I lived, and for whom Iwill die.” Marmaduke Stephenson came next, and, being on the ladder, he said to the people, “Be it known unto all this day, that we suffer not as evil-doers, but for conscience sake.” Next came Mary Dyer’s turn. Expecting immediate death, she had been forced to wait at the foot of the fatal tree, with a rope about her neck, and witness the violent taking off of her friends. With their lifeless bodies hanging before her, she was made ready to be suspended beside them. Her arms and legs were bound, and her skirts secured about her feet; her face was covered with a handkerchief which the Rev. Mr. Wilson, who had been her pastor when she lived in Boston, had loaned the hangman. And there, made ready for death, with the halter round her neck, she stood upon the fatal ladder in calm serenity, expecting to die....
Just then an order for a reprieve, upon the petition of her son all unknown to her, arrives. The halter is loosed from her neck and she is unbound and told to come down the ladder. She neither answered nor moved. In the words of the Quaker chronicler, “she was waiting on the Lord to know his pleasure in so sudden a change, having given herself up to dye.” The people cried, ‘Pull her down.” So earnest were they that she tried to prevail upon them to wait a little whilst she might consider and know of the Lord what to do. The people were pulling her and the ladder down together, when they were stopped, and the marshal took her down in his arms, and she was carried back to prison. . .
It was a mere prearranged scheme, for before she set forth from the prison it had been determined that she was not to be executed, as shown by the reprieve itself, which reads as follows: “Whereas Mary Dyer is condemned by the Generall Court to be executed for hir offences, on the petition of William Dier, hir sonne, it is ordered that the sajd Mary Dyer shall have liberty for forty-eight howers after this day to depart out of this jurisdiction, after which time, being found therein, she is forthwith to be executed, and in the meane time that she be kept a close prisoner till hir sonne or some other be ready to carry hir away within the aforesajd tyme; and it is further ordered, that she shall he carrjed to the place of execution, and there to stand upon the gallowes, with a rope about her necke, till the rest be executed, and then to returne to the prison and remajne as aforesaid.”
When she returned to prison and understood the ground of the reprieve, she refused it, and the next morning she wrote to the General Court, again refusing to accept her life from her persecutors, She said: 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 chose to Dye than to live, as from you, as Guilty of their Innocent Blood.”
Such constancy and courage as the prisoners had displayed greatly excited the populace against the authorities, . . . so the day after the execution some officials came and took her in their arms and set her on horseback and conveyed her fifteen miles towards Rhode Island and left her with a horse and man to be conveyed further. Popular indignation was both loud and deep....
Mary Dyer went to Rhode Island, where she did not tarry long, as she spent most of the winter on Long Island. Terribly in earnest was she; and her sufferings in no wise abated her purpose to combat, even unto death, the wicked persecution taking place in Massachusetts. She therefore determined to go again to Boston, and again defy the authorities, forcing them either to practically annul their unjust laws, if they did not proceed against her, or else by her death to awaken popular indignation that would compel the repeal of them. She arrived in Boston May 21, 1660, and ten days later she was brought before the magistrates. “Are you the same Mary Dyer,” inquired Governor Endicott, “that was here before?”—”I am the same Mary Dyer that was here the last General Court,” she undauntedly replied. “You will own yourself a Quaker,” the Governor inquired, “will you not?”—”I own myself to he reproachfully so called,” responded Mary Dyer.
Then the Governor said, “Sentence was passed upon you the last General Court; and now likewise—you must return to the prison, and there remain till tomorrow at nine o’clock; then thence you must go to the gallows, and there be hanged till you are dead.” Mary Dyer replied, “This is more than what thou saidst before.”—”But now,” said the Governor, “it is to be executed. Therefore prepare yourself tomorrow at nine o’clock.” Then she spoke thus: “I came in obedience to the will of God the last General Court, desiring you to repeal your unrighteous laws of banishment on pain of death; and that same is my work now, and earnest request, although I told you that if you refused to repeal them, the Lord would send others of his servants to witness against them.” Whereupon the Governor sneeringly inquired if she was a prophetess? To which she replied, she spoke the words the Lord spoke in her; and now the thing was come to pass. She then proceeded to speak of her call, when the Governor cried, “Away with her! away with her!” And she was taken back to jail. Her husband, who was not a Quaker, and did not share her views, wrote a letter of earnest intercession for his wife’s life to Governor Endicott, hut in vain.
On June 1, 1660, at nine o’clock, Mary Dyer again set out from the jail for the gallows on Boston Common, surrounded by a strong military guard. As she stood upon the fatal ladder, she was told if she would return home, she might come down and save her life. “Nay,” she replied, “I cannot; for in obedience to the will of the Lord God I came, and in his will I abide faithful to the death.” Captain John Webb, the commander of the military, said to her that she had been there before, and had the sentence of banishment on pain of death, and had broken the law in coming again now, as well as formerly, and therefore she was guilty of her own blood. “Nay,” she replied, “I came to keep blood-guiltiness 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 wilfully do it; but for those that do it 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.” Then her old Puritan pastor, the Rev. Mr. Wilson, bade her repent, and be not so deluded and carried away by the deceit of the devil. To which she replied, “Nay, man, lam not now to repent.” .. . And more she spake of the eternal happiness into which she was about to enter; and then, without tremor or trepidation, she was swung off, and the crown of martyrdom descended upon her head. Thus died brave Mary Dyer....
Roger Williams, the great apostle of Soul-Liberty, was thrust out of Massachusetts for conscience sake, but Mary Dyer persisted in remaining and watering it with her blood, and God gave the increase; so that nowhere on the face of the earth today is liberty of conscience more free or more highly revered than on the very spot where, in the words of General Atherton, one of her persecutors, “Mary Dyer did hang as a flag for others to take example by.”
From The Quaker Reader - Selected and introduced by Jessamyn West
Updated 7th Month 23, 2000
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