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Mary Dyer, Quaker Martyr

Michael Scott Smith

Mary Dyer was a follower of mid-wife and religious activist Anne Marbury Hutchinson, who taught that God could be communicated directly (without the assistance of a minister) and that salvation could be assured. This view was considered heresy by the Puritan religion, which taught that it was impossible to know whether one was "saved" or not (which resulted in the colonial Puritans being a rather anxious group). When Hutchinson was excommunicated by the Boston Puritan Church for her beliefs, Dyer sided with her. Subsequently, Mary Dyer and her husband (William Dyer) were also excommunicated and banished from the colony. They eventually settled in Newport, Rhode Island, where Mary Dyer and her husband enjoyed a political atmosphere of greater religious tolerance.

Following a voyage to England in 1652, Mary Dyer became a follower of George Fox - the founder of the Society of Friends (Quakers) - whose teachings were similar to those of Anne Hutchinson. When Mary Dyer returned to Boston in 1657, she was imprisoned due to her uncompromising expression of her Quaker beliefs. She was granted release when her husband promised that she would keep silent until she left the colony.

In 1658, religious intolerance in Boston reached a horrible height, when a law was passed banishing Quakers under "pain of death." When Mary Dyer learned that two Quakers of her acquaintance were jailed in Boston, she went to visit them in 1659 - and was herself imprisoned (probably by design -- Dyer was very pro-active). That September, Mary Dyer and the two other Friends were released, after being assured that they would be executed if they returned. Nevertheless - only a few weeks later - an undaunted Mary Dyer, in the company of other Friends, returned to Boston resolved to "look the bloody laws in the face."

Imprisoned once again, Mary Dyer saw her two fellow Quakers hung to the death. While herself bound and with the rope around her neck she received a last-minute reprieve (which was almost certainly prearranged). Against her wishes, Mary Dyer returned to Rhode Island; but soon came back to Boston - knowing the inevitability of her fate, but determined to give up her life in order to gain the "repeal of that wicked law".

On June 1, 1660, she was led once more to the scaffold and executed by hanging - refusing to repent, holding fast to her beliefs to the very end. Mary Dyer was happy to be martyred for her beliefs, as she hoped that her sacrifice would result in a change toward greater tolerance of religious faith.

Note: According to the Memoirs of 19th-century Quaker minister, Sunderland P. Gardner, Mary Dyer's maiden name was Long, and her sister was Herodias Long, who was an ancestor of Gardner's. A description of the persecution of Herodias Long is available in Gardner's autobiography. Despite Gardner's assertion, Mary Dyer was almost certainly only a sister to Herodias Long in spirit and religious conviction. More recent research contends that Mary Dyer's maiden name was Barrett.

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