Mary Dyer willingly walked to the gallows and hung 352 years ago as the first woman martyr on American soil. She had waited her turn at the gallows before. She watched her fellow Quakers die while she stood with a noose around her own neck. The first time, the noose was removed due to a last minute appeal from her son. She’d been warned to leave Massachusetts and never come back, but years later she came back to appeal for religious freedom.
Born in England, Mary Dyer married Puritan William Dyer in 1633. They immigrated to Massachusetts where William became a freeman of the Massachusetts Bay Company and held many important positions. They were admitted to the Boston church two years later. Mary was described as “fair” and “comely.”
At this point Mary was not a Quaker, but she was an open supporter of Anne (Marbury) Hutchinson. Hutchinson was the midwife who dared to teach women about God while women sat around waiting for a delivery. Her father had been a minister and she believed that men and women alike could hear from God and teach others. Mary probably met Anne at one of her births.
When Mary went into labor on October 17, 1637, she called for Anne. After hours of pain, Mary gave birth to a stillborn daughter. They knew that such a birth would be fodder for the imagination and superstitions of the Magistrates in Boston. At the advice of a well-educated doctor, they buried the child. The birth remained a secret for months.
When Anne Hutchinson was excommunicated from the church and cast away from society on March 22, 1638, Mary Dyer walked beside her. Someone asked who was that woman supporting Anne Hutchinson? Another replied, “The mother of a monster.” This remark was overhead by Governor Winthrop who immediately had the body exhumed. The baby was falsely described by Winthrop with such horror as to make it appear a curse from God—
“…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.”
Now it was Mary’s turn to be cast out from society, but her husband was well respected and they found refuge in Rhode Island. Then they went back to England on a political mission with Roger Williams. While living in England for five years, Mary began to follow George Fox, the founder of the Quakers. His teaching of the “Inner light” was similar to beliefs she learned from Anne Hutchinson. Mary returned to New England preaching the gospel wherever she went. These two women are considered by some to be the first feminists and women preachers of the New World.
The Puritans of Boston–despite fleeing their own religious persecution, had no tolerance for Quakers. In the five years since Mary left, things had only gotten worse in the New World. While other Quakers had been preaching and starting congregations all over the territory, laws had been enacted against–
“the cursed sect of heretics … commonly called Quakers”
which permitted banishing, whipping,
and using corporal punishment
(cutting off ears, boring holes in tongues).”
Upon her return, Mary, who was unaware of these new laws was immediately captured at the ship and thrown in jail. Her Quaker papers were stolen and burned. She was put into a dark cell with the window blocked to keep the light out. Because of her husband’s prestige she was set free on the condition that she never talk to anyone about her beliefs and leave Massachusetts at once. Mary went back to Rhode Island and preached everywhere she went.
Other Quakers found refuge in Sandwich, MA where freedom was granted to all religious beliefs. These men started a Quaker congregation that has met continuously to this day. Eventually spies reported these men and one of them had his right ear cut off. The struggle for religious freedom had immigrated to the New World along with the people.
Mary had been up for martyrdom before and despite the fact that she had been warned to stay away, she refused because she firmly believed that everyone should have the freedom to worship as they choose. She came back to appeal to the governor for freedom and chose to make her life an example. After she was hung, her dress blew gently in the breeze.
“She hangs there as a flag for others to take example by,”
remarked an unsympathetic bystander.
That was indeed Mary Dyer’s intention -
to be an example, a “witness” in the Quaker sense,
for freedom of conscience.”
“In 1959 by authority of the Massachusetts General Court,
which had condemned her nearly 300 years before,
a bronze statue was erected in her memory
on the grounds of the State House in Boston.
A statue of her friend, Anne Hutchinson,
stands in front at the other wing.”
Mary Dyer found a cause bigger than the New World. Although she endured the loss of privacy and dignity throughout her persecution, she went to the gallows with a gentle smile on her face saying—
“My Life not availeth me in comparison to the liberty of the truth.”
So whether Google ever makes a doodle to celebrate the spirit and life of Mary Dyer, or not, I offer her up as an example of faith and freedom of conscience to men and women everywhere. Mary could have walked away, She had many opportunities to avoid such a death, but she chose to take a stand for freedom of conscience.
Mary, like Jesus, chose to lay down her own life for a greater cause–
No one can take my life from me.
I sacrifice it voluntarily.
For I have the authority to lay it down
when I want to and also to take it up again.
For this is what my Father has commanded.
– John 10:18