Who was Mary Dyer?

Mary Barrett Dyer (1611 – 1660) was an English Puritan turned Quaker who was hanged in Boston, Massachusetts for repeatedly defying a law banning Quakers from the colony. She is one of the four executed Quakers known as the Boston martyrs.

Top 10 Things You May Not Know About Mary Dyer

Mary Dyer (National Women's History Museum)

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.

Quakers in the World

Mission in Colonial New England

1656 - 1783

New England in 1656 consisted of many colonies scattered along the rivers and coast of what was still largely Indian country, and there were few if any Quakers.  By 1783 these colonies had grown and merged to become four of the thirteen founding colonies of the United States – Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut and Rhode Island – and there were perhaps 10,000 Quakers. Nearly all of them were from colonial families – few if any Indians became Quakers, despite cordial relations.

Early Quaker work was in three quite distinct colonies. Massachusetts Bay (round Boston and Salem) was strongly Puritan, and very intolerant of dissent. Plymouth (founded in 1620 by the Mayflower Pilgrims) was a mix of Pilgrim and Puritan. Both were challenging places for Quakers.  Rhode Island, by contrast, was a haven of religious toleration, and welcomed Quakers.  Its two towns - Providence and Newport - were home to many refugees from the other two colonies, including Rhode Island’s founder, Roger Williams.

Quakers  Mary Fisher and Ann Austin, came to Boston in 1656, but were quickly thrown into jail and then expelled. Soon after, eight more missionaries arrived, including William Brend, John Copeland and Christopher Holder. They too were immediately jailed before being sent back to England. Massachusetts was determined to keep Quakers away, and soon banned Quaker literature too.

In 1657, the Woodhouse brought five missionaries, including Brend, Copeland and Holder on their second visit. This time they landed in Newport, in tolerant Rhode Island, and Mary Dyer was an early convert. Brend remained in Rhode Island, but Holder and Copeland went to Plymouth, and had considerable initial success, with sizeable groups soon established in the townships of Sandwich and Falmouth. Alarmed by this, Plymouth enacted laws akin to those in Massachusetts, and Holder and Copeland were expelled.They went to Salem, in Massachusetts, but were immediately arrested, sent to Boston, whipped, and banished back to Newport.  Massachusetts quickly passed a law penalising anyone who had anything to do with Quakers.

Despite this persecution, the missionaries, joined now by Mary Dyer, persisted in all three colonies.  In 1658 Massachusetts decided on the gruesome penalty of cutting off the ears of offending Quakers, before banishing them: both Holder and Copeland endured this. When that didn’t work, Massachusetts legislated for banishment on pain of death. This sentence was passed on Mary Dyer and others in 1659, but they soon returned, and were sentenced to death. Two men were hanged but Mary was reprieved and banished again. Undaunted, she returned yet again: this time there was no reprieve.

Meanwhile Holder and Copeland had returned to England, where their mutilated ears gave vivid evidence of the brutality happening in Boston. Leading Friend Edward Burroughs petitioned the King: Charles II was the colonists’ sovereign too, so could do something about it, if he chose. He sent ‘The King’s Missive’, instructing the colonists to stop.

Thereafter there were no more executions, but persecution continued, most notoriously with the 1662 Cart and Whip Act.  Quakers were still to be banished, but their expulsion now involved tying them to a cart, stripped to the waist whatever the weather, and whipping them as they walked behind the cart all the way to the border. Elizabeth Hooton experienced this twice.

Ten years later, George Fox, John Burnyeat, and others came to Newport, and spoke powerfully at the 1672 Yearly Meeting there.  Soon afterwards Burnyeat and William Edmundson took part in a significant debate about Quaker theology, instigated by Roger Williams, who was deeply uncomfortable with Quakerism. Quakers had the better of it, and Rhode Island was predominantly Quaker for the next 100 years.

Edmundson, Burnyeat and many others continued missionary work in New England, including new places such as the future Maine, New Hampshire and Connecticut. They met with considerable success, though nowhere else was ever like Rhode Island.

At the beginning of the eighteenth century, a new generation of missionaries was active. Thomas Chalkley, Thomas Story and others took Quakerism to Nantucket Island, where it flourished for many years.  By now many missionaries were New England born and bred, or came from colonies further south. John Woolman came from New Jersey in 1647, and reinforced the growing antislavery sentiment among New England Quakers. They went on to eliminate it amongst Quakers, and then campaigned for complete abolition.Some Quakers still came from across the Atlantic, notably John Fothergill, followed by his son Samuel.