The Martyrdom of Mary Dyer: “Yea, and Joyfully I Go”
Almost three hundred and fifty years ago Mary Dyer, a converted Quaker and mother of six, returned to Massachusetts from her exile in Rhode Island, knowing that she would be executed on arrival. She went back deliberately to protest the religious persecution she and her fellow Quakers faced under Puritan rule in the Bay Colony.
Image: “The Quaker Mary Dyer led to execution on Boston Common, 1 June 1660”, 19th century, artist unknown; source: Wikipedia
Ironically, the Puritans who sentenced her to death had left Great Britain for New England to avoid repression of their own faith. Yet the ideals they created for their new community demanded that their leaders maintain authority over all public religious expression.
History tends to honor those who defied the Puritans’ strict rule over individual religious practice —a defiance which sometimes led to exile, excommunication, or even death—as early proponents of religious and civic liberty, and Dyer is no exception. A twentieth-century statue of Mary Dyer in front of the Massachusetts State House bears the inscription “Mary Dyer, Quaker, Witness for Religious Freedom.”
Image: Statue of Mary Dyer at Massachusetts State House; Source: Ancestry.com
Her martyrdom has become significant in two ways: as a person of faith, her persistence forced steps towards religious freedom in the colonies; and as a woman, her defiance of authority played a key role in contemporary gender politics.
The story of Mary Dyer, a woman who died for her beliefs, though, is far more complex than it first appears. Behind her legacy as a martyr for religious freedom, Dyer was a complex individual. She left behind her family for long periods in pursuit of her faith. To protest repressive legislation, she openly dared authorities to execute her for breaking their laws. Following her multiple arrests, her husband, son, and allies worked tirelessly for her release, only to see her return willingly once more to the cause that finally resulted in her death.
Mary and William Dyer first arrived in Boston in 1635. The couple became members of the Puritans’ Congregational Church. She quickly became friends with fellow Puritan Anne Hutchinson, who criticized prominent ministers and disagreed with the theology of the Puritan clergy who claimed salvation could be ensured through a “covenant of works”, or monitoring of outward actions and behavior. Not surprisingly, clergy members were furious that a woman was questioning their authority and godliness. In 1637 Anne Hutchinson was brought to trial alongside several of her supporters and banished. When she left for the new, more open colony of Rhode Island with many of her followers, the Dyer family, fully supportive of her beliefs, went with her.
After living in North America for seventeen years, William and Mary Dyer left to visit England in 1652. William returned to their children and home in the colonies after only a brief time, but Mary stayed on in England, where she became a member of the Society of Friends, or Quakers, a faith that had very recently gained a foothold in society.
She was particularly drawn to the Society because of its emphasis on equality of the genders, something she had found distinctly lacking in Puritan society. George Fox, the founder of the Society of Friends, believed there was nothing inherently inferior about women, but that “before the Fall, men and women were equal; after the rebirth, this equality returns.”
The Society of Friends simplified the complicated structures and customs that supported many organized religions, and attempted to return to the traditions of early Christianity. “Friends” (as they came to be known) were committed pacifists and held that God was the only true authority, refusing to remove their hats or show other common types of respect to other men. They believed that God’s instructions were already within a person, and so rejected the hierarchy of the Protestant and Catholic Churches and the need for ministers, a point that must have appealed to Mary Dyer given her history with the pious pretensions of the clergy in Boston.
Three months after the arrival of the first Friends in Massachusetts in 1656, the Puritans passed anti-Quaker laws that were specifically designed to keep them out of the colony. Fines, whippings, jailings and torture met the Quakers as they continued to enter Boston, undeterred by the consequences. The Puritans' antagonism toward the peaceful Friends was not entirely without reason. The same qualities that made Quakers unique made them appear as a threat within English culture and that of its colonies. The Quakers' repudiation of earthly authorities and refusal to practice many of the social customs of their times made them seem like critics of their neighbors, and turned them into potentially dangerous outsiders. Authorities in Boston called them heretics, and declared the Friends’ then-radical claims about equality of the genders and believers’ direct access to God both arrogant and fanatic.
Mary Dyer arrived back in Boston in 1657 and was immediately imprisoned for her new Quaker faith. Her husband soon negotiated her release, though, and she was able to return to Rhode Island and her family after six years away. A year later, on October 20, 1658, the Puritans passed a law banishing Quakers from Massachusetts under pain of death, a ruling protested by many other colonies’ leaders and citizens.
A committed Dyer went to Massachusetts to visit jailed Quaker acquaintances and challenge the severity of this legislation. She was banished a second time. The next October she returned again with two other Quakers, and the authorities immediately condemned all three to death. In answer to the sentencing Mary Dyer replied “yea, and joyfully I go,” and on October 27, 1659, she marched to Boston Common, hand in hand with her fellow Quakers, drums beating around them to drown out their words lest they contaminate hearers. She watched the two men hung, but at the last moment, already bound with the noose around her neck, was given a reprieve. The situation had been prearranged to scare her into submission.
Instead of taking her freedom, she responded that she would rather be forced to “suffer with the People of God, than to enjoy the Pleasures of Egypt,” infuriating her captors by casting the Quakers as God's chosen and the Puritans as the worldly and wicked Egyptians who enslaved the ancient Israelites.
Her conviction that she must personally fight the religious intolerance facing the Quakers was absolute, but despite her protestations she was sent from the state into exile once more. Still, she could not be dissuaded from her purpose. The next spring, she deliberately returned once more to Massachusetts and was hung on June 1, 1660 on Boston Common.
Some of Mary Dyer’s peers saw her as a radical, others as a victim of religious intolerance. She believed she had an equal right and responsibility to publically express her views and shape the laws of the society she lived in. The Puritan’s angry reaction towards her defiance of their spiritual and civic authority was certainly intensified because she was a woman, and so she also represents a dramatic figure in the history of gender politics.
While Puritan persecutions may also seem abhorrent to a modern audience, Dyer’s actions can still challenge and perplex us today. She left her family to court death for her religious convictions; she shocked people by prioritizing her calling over her personal ties. She confronted the injustice she saw so one-sidedly that many might consider her actions misguided rather than brave. Her story makes us consider how we ourselves feel when people place a moral, religious, or political aspiration over compromise and everyday necessity. As author Anne Myles asks, “How do we deal with the figure of a woman refusing victimhood but choosing martyrdom?”
Dyer lived one hundred and thirty years before George Washington’s famous letter to Moses Seixas. During her life, strict limits on religious tolerance were not only widespread, but expected. Barely a year after the execution, the King of England ordered an end to the imprisonment and corporal punishment of Quakers in Massachusetts. Mary Dyer’s hanging, the public discontent that followed it, and the tract on the martyrdom that fellow Quaker George Bishop wrote and took to England thereafter were some of the direct causes of this decision.
The softening of authorities' stance on the Quakers did not end punishment of those deemed to be religious heretics or challengers of religious authority. When Dyer was executed, the Salem witch trials were still three decades in the future. But Mary Dyer’s actions, whether viewed as heroic or extreme, helped to begin a shift in pre-Revolutionary North America along a path towards increased religious tolerance and diversity.
 Mary Maples Dunn, “Saints and Sisters: Congregational and Quaker Women in the Early Colonial Period,” American Quarterly Vol. 30, No. 5, Special Issue: Women and Religion (Johns Hopkins University, 1978), 586.
 Myles, “From Monster to Martyr,” 5.
 Dunn, “Saints and Sisters,” 596.
 Wall, Caleb, An Historical Essay: The Puritans Versus the Quakers (Worcester, 1888), 10.
 Wall, The Puritans Versus the Quakers, 12.
 Myles, 5.
 Myles, 6.
 Myles, 8, quoting Burrough, Edward. A Declaration of the Great and Sad Persecution and Martyrdom of the People of God, Called Quakers (London, 1661).
 Rogers, Mary Dyer of Rhode Island, 53.
 Quoted in Ruth Talbot Plimpton, Mary Dyer: a Biography of a Rebel Quaker (Boston: Brandon Publishing Co, 1994),164.
 Rogers, 60.
 Myles, 17.
 Wall, 18.
 Myles, 13.
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