Mary Dyer (?-1660)

Mary Dyer

Emigrating from England with her husband, Mary Dyer settled in Boston in 1635. Though the Massachusetts Bay Colony was only a few years old, the power of its theocratic government was strong. When, in 1638, Anne Hutchinson was excommunicated and banished from the colony because her religious views differed from those of John Winthrop, who was both pastor and governor, Mary Dyer was the only person in the church to exit with Hutchinson. She then was also excommunicated and banished, and the Dyers, like the Hutchinsons, fled to the freedom of Rhode Island, which had been founded two years earlier when Roger Williams was expelled from Massachusetts.

They lived in Newport, where Dyer bore at least five sons. In 1652, she and her husband returned to England with Williams and other Rhode Island leaders; Dyer stayed there five years, during which she converted to the religious ideas of the Society of Friends, commonly called Quakers. Quaker women were exceptional in the equality afforded them in both the theory and practice of religion, and when Dyer returned to American in 1657, she set about exercising her church’s unusual use of women as missionaries for the humane new faith.

The Massachusetts and Connecticut colonies, meanwhile, had enacted laws banning Quakers, and Dyer was exiled from Boston in 1657 and from New Haven in 1658. When she returned to Boston in 1659 to visit two male friends from England who were imprisoned for expression of their Quaker beliefs, she herself was jailed. She was banished to Rhode Island in September, but returned a few weeks later. Her two friends were hung in October for their defiance of the ban, but Dyer—who had been marched to the gallows and bound for hanging—was granted a reprieve. She spent the following winter in Rhode Island and Long Island (where Hutchinson had also lived until her violent death in 1643.)

Dyer’s family, who did not share her religious ideas, used those months attempting to dissuade her from what they saw as her determined martyrdom. It had been her son who arranged the reprieve, but he could not convince Dyer to stay away from the harsh theocrats who ran Boston, for she was resolved to speak. Her husband—like multitudes of women throughout history who tried and failed to deter their men from courting danger—accompanied his wife to Boston in the spring. He pleaded for her life, but her last speech was a plea for religious freedom. Mary Dyer was hanged on the first day of June in 1660.

It did not take long for this martyrdom of a woman to sink in on the people of the Bay Colony, and her death was an important factor in lessening the powers of the church.