Mary Dyer: A Quaker Martyr

Arabella (Mary's mother) had no desire to be Queen, but aggressive political suitors from England and France hoped that, by marrying her, they would capture the throne and restore Catholicism to England. King James, made rather anxious by this prospect, prohibited his cousin from marrying anyone. But Arabella fell in love with Sir William Seymour, also a descendant of Henry VII and they were secretly wed in 1610. Within a year, they had a daughter [unsubstantiated], which disturbed King James further, as this marriage doubled Arabella's qualifications to the throne. He order Arabella sent to Highgate and William Seymour imprisoned in the Tower of London.

Arabella tried to flee Highgate, dressed as a man, but although she escaped from prison she was recaptured on board a ship headed to Calais and sent to the Tower of London where she spent the remaining four years of her life. William Seymour escaped to France and when he eventually returned to England after the death of King James, he became tutor to the eleven-year-old Prince of Wales, the future King Charles II.

The infant daughter was left in the care of Arabella's lady-in-waiting, Mistress Mary Dyer, who gave her own name to her adopted child and brought her up quietly and reclusively in the country. King James sent out scouts searching for the child, but was denied information by anyone who was questioned. When Mary was twenty-two years old, she married her foster mother's first cousin William Dyer was an English Puritan turned Quaker who was hanged in Boston, Massachusetts for repeatedly defying a law banning Quakers from the colony. She is considered to be the only woman in the United States to die for religious freedom, and is one of the four executed Quakers known as the Boston martyrs.

In 1637 Mary Dyer met Anne Hutchinson, who preached that God "spoke directly to individuals" rather than only through the clergy. Dyer joined with Hutchinson and became involved in what was called the "Antinomian heresy," where they worked to organize groups of women and men to study the Bible in contravention of the theocratic law of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

In 1638, Mary Dyer and her husband William were banished along with Hutchinson from the colony. On the advice of Roger Williams the group that included Hutchinson and the Dyers moved to Portsmouth in the colony of Rhode Island. William Dyer signed the Portsmouth Compact along with 18 other men.

Mary had given birth (on October 17, 1637) to a grossly deformed stillborn fetus, which was buried privately. After Anne Hutchinson was tried and the Hutchinsons and Dyers banished from Massachusetts in January 1637/8, the authorities learned of the “monstrous birth,” and Governor Winthrop had it exhumed in March 1638, with a large crowd in attendance. 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.” [1]

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.

Mary Dyer and her husband returned to England with Roger Williams and John Clarke in 1652, where Mary Dyer joined the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) after hearing the preaching of its founder George Fox and feeling that it was in agreement with the ideas that she and Hutchinson held years earlier. She eventually became a Quaker preacher in her own right.

The Dyers returned to Rhode Island in 1657. The next year she traveled to Boston to protest the new law banning Quakers, and she was arrested and expelled from the colony. (Her husband, who had not become a Quaker, was not arrested.)

Mary Dyer continued to travel in New England to preach Quakerism, and was arrested in 1658 in New Haven, Connecticut. After her release, she returned to Massachusetts to visit two English Quakers, William Robinson and Marmaduke Stephenson, who had been arrested. She was also arrested and then permanently banished from the colony. She traveled to Massachusetts a third time with a group of Quakers to publicly defy the law, and was again arrested, and sentenced to death. After a short trial, two other Quakers were hanged, but because her husband was a friend of Governor John Winthrop he secured a last-minute reprieve -- against her wishes, for she had refused to repent and disavow her Quaker faith.

She was forced to return to Rhode Island, traveled to Long Island, New York to preach, but her conscience led her to return to Massachusetts in 1660 to defy the anti-Quaker law. Despite the pleas of her husband and family, she again refused to repent, and she was again convicted and sentenced to death on May 31. The next day Mary Dyer was hanged on Boston Common for the crime of being a Quaker in Massachusetts. Her execution is described by Edward Burrough in A Declaration of the Sad and Great Persecution and Martyrdom of the People of God, called Quakers, in New-England, for the Worshipping of God (1661).

“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

After her death a member of the General Court uttered one of those bitter scoffs which prove the truest of all epitaphs, "She did hang as a flag for others to take example by."[2]

A statue of her stands in front of the Massachusetts state capitol in Boston; there is another Dyer statue in front of the Friends Center in downtown Philadelphia, and another in front of Stout Meetinghouse at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana.

Endicott: "there being sentenced to banishment on pain of death, as underminers of this government. . ."

Mary Dyer and her husband William were originally inhabitants of Boston, and members of the church there, having emigrated from England to the Colony in the year 1635. Mrs. Dyer and her husband became early converts to the doctrines of Mrs. Anne Hutchinson.

Mary had obviously not escaped official notice for in New England Memorial, we find: "This year there was a hideous monster born at Boston, in New England, of one Mrs. Mary Dyer, a copartner with the said Mrs. Hutchinson, in the aforesaid heresies; the said monster, as it was related to me, was without head, but horns like a beast, scales or a rough skin like the fish, called the thornback; it had legs and claws like a fowl, and in other respects as a woman child; the Lord declaring his detestation of their monstrous errors, as was then thought by some, by this prodigious birth."

When Mrs. Hutchinson was excommunicated, young Mrs. Dyer walked out of the church with her, and when Hutchinson was banished, she followed her to Rhode Island. This was in 1637.

What became of her in the intervening years between her exodus to Rhode Island and her return in Quaker garb to Boson is not clear, but she was by now a middle-aged matron.

Her first attempt to return to Boston as a Quaker resulted in immediate imprisonment, and only by the steadfast entreaties of her husband was she released on the stipulation that she immediately be removed from the Colony, under guard, and being allowed to speak to no one during the journey.

In September of 1659, Mary returned with William Robinson, Marmaduke Stevenson and Nicholas Davis, knowing full well of her peril, but with equal intent "to look the bloody laws in the face."

The three were immediately apprehended by the authorities imprisoned, tried and banished upon pain of death. At their first trial before Governor Endicott, he said, "we have made many laws and endeavored in several ways to keep you from among us, but neither whipping nor imprisonment, nor cutting off ears, nor banishment upon pain of death, will keep you from among us. We desire not your death."

Ignoring the edict the three were soon imprisoned once again and regarded as "rushing upon a fool's fate." On October 20th the prisoners were brought before the Court of Magistrates with the "implacable" Endicott presiding. All three were condemned to be hanged.

In letters written shortly after their trial, some of their reasons are revealed. Stephenson stated his reason for staying as being that he felt called and sent by God to be in Boston, even if it meant his death. Dyer put her statement eloquently, saying "Was ever the like laws heard of among a people that profess Christ is come in the flesh? . . . Of whom take ye counsel? Search with the light of Christ in you, and it will show you of whom, as it hath done with me and many more. . ."

Such words did not sway Endicott, however. The Boston General Court felt that Quaker doctrine assaulted the "fundamental truths" of religion. By denying the trinity, Christ, and the holy scriptures, Quakers belief in the "inner light" as the primary basis of revelation ran against the grain of Puritan dogma, with its scripturally based relationships of master/slave, king/subject, and father/family.

Thus Dyer, Stephenson, and Robinson, imprisoned, awaited their execution, "for their rebellion, sedition, & presumptuous obtruding themselves upon us, notwithstanding their being sentenced to banishment on pain of death as underminers of this government. . ."

Despite all entreaties of her family to recant, Mary apparently preferred death to dishonor, and would not. On October 27th, the high-sheriff exhibited his warrant, called for the prisoners by name, and had their irons knocked off. Surrounded by guards and a "great multitude," the three proceeded by foot hand-in-hand to the gallows.

Having arrived at the place of execution, by a circuitous route for fear of a rescue attempt, Mary and her fellows bid each other farewell. Robinson was the first to ascend the ladder and with final words predicted visitation of divine wrath to come upon his slayers. Stevenson's last words were these: "Be it known unto all this day that we suffer not as evil-doers, but for conscience' sake." Mary was next. She was pinioned, blindfolded and the fatal noose placed around her neck.

Suddenly a voice cries out. "Stop! She is reprieved! Sewall says, "Her feet being loosed, they bade her come down." Conducted back to prison, where her son anxiously awaited her return, she learned that his entreaties had managed to save her. Her sentence was commuted to banishment with the solemn warning that should she again offend the law the extreme penalty would surely be exacted.

But Mary, with the zeal of a martyr, once again chose to disobey and returned to the "bloody town of Boston," in May of 1660.

Endicott conducted her examination:

"Are you the same Mary Dyer that was here before?"

"I am the same Mary Dyer that was here at the last General Court," she replied.

"Then you own yourself a Quaker, do you not?" said the Governor.

"I own myself to be reproachfully called so."

"I must then repeat the sentence once before pronounced upon you," said Endicott.

Mary quietly rejoined: "That is no more than what thou said before."

"True," said Endicott sternly, "but now it is to be executed; therefore prepare yourself for nine o'clock to-morrow."

Mary's fate was now sealed, and it seems she desired it.

At the appointed hour the marshal came for her and without ceremony, yet heavily guarded, conducted here to the fearsome spot--Boston Common where the scaffold had been erected. A commanding officer, in an attempt to quiet of those in the crowd who expressed the hope that she might once again be saved, retorted that 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 made against the innocent servants of the Lord."

Called upon to repent from the deceits of the Devil, Mary replied "Nay, man, I am not now to repent."

Mary Dyer was then hanged by the neck until dead.

Primary Sources:
New England Legends and Folk Lore, Samuel A. Drake, Little Brown & Company, Boston, 1910
Nicholas Upsall, NEHGR 34:21+
New England Memorial, Congregational Board of Publications, Boston, 1855

Converted with Word to HTML.