by John Williams Haley

The Quaker martyr of Rhode Island.

This article comes from The Old Stone Bank History of Rhode Island, Vol. III, pages 33-35, published by the Providence Institution for Savings, 1939. Transcribed by Beth Hurd for non-commercial use only.

Detail of "Mary Dyer led to execution on Boston Common, 1 June 1660," by an unknown nineteenth-century artist.

A martyr is commonly described as one who testifies by his death to his faith or principles, and the martyrdom of countless individuals seems to have been one of the most important phases of man's history when one goes right back to the beginnings of things and follows the course of human progress through the centuries to the present time, and including the present time. It is sometimes difficult to understand the whys and wherefores of a single case of martyrdom because few of us have experienced such convictions as will urge us to join with any group, religious or political, for the purpose of compelling by force others to accept some given set of tenets or principles; neither have many of us felt such convictions as will lead us to violent death simply because we fail to accede to some group or established authorities in matters politic or religious. However, even though martyrdom seems like something that belongs to the Middle Ages or before, it is not far removed from us in this day and age, and it certainly was common to our ancestors here in New England, not so many years ago, comparatively speaking. And, there's one case of martyrdom that comes very close to home, and it concerns one who left Massachusetts and came to Rhode Island actuated by the same motives, and forced into exile for the same reasons, that guided the footsteps of Roger Williams to these shores just three centuries ago. The story of this particular martyr is virtually a sequel to the tale told of Anne Hutchinson, the leader of the party of religious exiles who first settled the Island of Aquidneck, and although this story does not reach its conclusion until a date that is a little in advance of the period that is being stressed at present in this series of chronologically arranged episodes, nevertheless, it started shortly after the founding of Providence in 1636.

William and Mary Dyer came to this country in 1635 and arrived in Boston at the time when Roger Williams was having his greatest difficulties with the authorities of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. This couple had previously lived in London where Mr. Dyer was engaged in the millinery business. Mary, his wife, was a person of unique character, courageous, inclined to be fanatical, of sweet disposition, attractive in person and highly intelligent. Upon the arrival of the Dyers in Boston, they were immediately admitted to membership in the Boston Church of which John Wilson was the pastor and John Cotton was the teacher. Their lives were lived without incident until Anne Hutchinson instituted her famous meetings for women. Mary Dyer attended these meetings and became very friendly with Anne Hutchinson. And then, when the latter heard her sentence of excommunication pronounced by the Elders of the Puritan Church in Massachusetts and rose to depart from the church from which she had been banished, she did not go unaccompanied. Another woman as fearless as Anne also rose from the congregation and passed down the aisle and out the door at her side. This other woman with the courage of her convictions was Mary Dyer.

Furthermore, shortly before the excommunication of Mrs. Hutchinson, Mr. Dyer had been one of those who signed a protest to the Elders who had condemned the Rev. Mr. Wheelright for unorthodox preachings, and, as a result, Mr. Dyer was disfranchised and lost his civil rights. Thus it is apparent why the Dyers joined the Hutchinson party in 1638 and came to Providence and later went to Aquidneck where they were among the founders of Newport. At this point it might be well to refer to a matter that may appear ridiculous to us in this enlightened day and age, but which had profound significance in the destiny of Mary Dyer. It was shortly before she left Boston with the Hutchinson party of exiles that Mary Dyer was forced to deny an ugly rumor spread in the community by her enemies. These viper-tongued busy-bodies circulated the story that she had given birth to a monstrosity which, they declared, was a sign of Divine retribution for her faith in, and adherence to, Anne Hutchinson. That stories of this sort could have been started or repeated in those days indicates that ignorance, stupidity, and downright viciousness must have accounted for much of the tragedy and trouble in the first days of [the] Colonies.

As inhabitants of Aquidneck, or the Island of Rhode Island, the Dyers were well received. William was made Clerk of Rhode Island in 1638, and two years later Secretary of Portsmouth and Newport, and he held the latter office for seven years. In the course of his life he held many prominent offices of public trust, including that of Attorney-General. With his family he lived the normal life of a well-respected townsman with executive abilities above the average. Several years later he accompanied Roger Williams to England, together with John Clarke, where the group sought to obtain a change in the charter previously granted to William Coddington. Mary Dyer accompanied her husband to England and remained there for five years, becoming a Quaker before she returned.

In the meantime, the Boston Colony had been invaded by Quakers and the place was fairly seething with fury against them. And yet, according to facts pertaining to that tempestuous period, the people of Boston were not so opposed to the Quakers as were the magistrates and the clergymen who saw in these newcomers a threat to the existing civil and religious dictatorship. Here again crops up that paradox of men leaving one country to seek religious freedom elsewhere, but in the land of their adoption the freedom seekers become even more despotic than those from which escape had been effected. Note also in such cases that political power, gained and maintained through religious domination, is invariably behind the measures taken by men to persecute others in the name of religion. In Boston the Quakers were persecuted simply because the individuals then in power did not want to lose that power; what the Quakers believed about the worship of God was a secondary matter.

So great was the hatred for the simple, truth-seeking Quakers that a law was passed which imposed a fine upon any sea captain who brought them into Boston. Under this law Quakers who did come into the Colony were to be thrown into prison, whipped, and placed on hard labor. As fate would have it, among the first Quakers to arrive after the passage of such brutal laws were Ann Burden and Mary Dyer. Both were immediately thrown into prison and Mary Dyer was not released until her husband arrived from Rhode Island to demand her release. The next arrivals experienced a much more painful fate. They were whipped, imprisoned, fined, and finally banished. One woman, Margaret Brewster, was stripped to the waist and dragged through the streets of Boston tied to a cart, with a flogging later for good measure. Stories of such inhuman practices in ancient times cause the reader of history to wince, but think that the foregoing evidence of man's inhumanity to man took place in staid old Boston less than three hundred years ago. Besides, laws were enacted by which Quakers could be punished by cutting off their ears or boring a hole through their tongues with a red-hot iron. A final decree, however, stated that any Quaker who returned to the Boston Colony after once having been banished could suffer the death penalty.

This would seem to be sufficient to keep all Quakers away from the "Forbidden City." Yet, in 1659, in protest against the authorities who had conceived such cruel laws, William Robinson and Marmaduke Stevenson went to Boston and were thrown into prison at once. Mary Dyer, hearing of their plight, came to Boston to visit them and she was also imprisoned. For three months these three remained in jail and then were tried and ordered to leave the Colony in two days. Mary Dyer returned to Rhode Island, but the two men decided to stay within the Colony and test the bloody laws, risking death. Other Quakers began to swarm into the Colony and with them returned Mary Dyer from Rhode Island. Robinson and Stevenson were seized again along with Mary Dyer and shortly the three were sentenced to death on the gallows. In October 1659, the trio were taken to Boston Common where the hangman had already adjusted his rope to the branches of a great elm. So great had been the force of public opinion against the entire procedure that the authorities called out the militia to quell any disturbance or an attempt at rescue. Arm and arm with her two friends Mary Dyer approached the executioner with no fear in her eyes, but with the calm, superhuman smile of a martyr lighting her countenance. The men were executed before her eyes, and she, with the noose about her neck, had ascended the ladder when the magistrates announced her reprieve. Her persecutors had suffered Mary Dyer to undergo all the terrors of death merely as a warning, but such heartless treatment had only prepared this martyr for ultimate death at the same hands. She was again sent away from the Colony.

And now comes an angle of true martyrdom that is hard to comprehend. Once Mary Dyer was out of the confines of the Colony the Boston authorities used her case to soften the public opinion which had risen against them for the two hangings. And then it was that Mary Dyer realized that because of her the deaths of her fellow martyrs would have no lasting influence in the Quaker cause. What did she do? She returned to Boston without delay, and appeared before Governor Endicott and the church officials. Once again she received the sentence of death, and this time there would be no reprieve. The pleadings of her husband, also a Quaker, accomplished nothing. She was led to the gallows on Boston Common, hanged by the neck until dead before an audience of terrified friends and sympathizers, and she was buried nearby on the Common in a grave that has never been located.

Even though we question the motives of martyrs, and wonder at the fervor that sometimes leads them to untimely deaths, we know that Mary Dyer did not give her life in vain. The report of her execution was related to the King of England, and although one other Quaker was hanged before official action could be taken, the English monarch put an immediate end to such cruel proceedings in Massachusetts. And thus ends the tragic tale of Mary Dyer, the Quaker martyr of Rhode Island who departed from the home of a friend living in Providence in the year 1660 and resolutely journeyed to Boston and to death in the name of religious liberty.

Return to Old Stone Bank History of Rhode Island index.

John Williams Haley (1897-1963), former vice president of the Narragansett Brewing Company, was best known for his weekly radio program, "The Rhode Island Historian," which ran from 1927 to about 1953 on WJAR. Several hundred of his radio scripts were published in pamphlet form by the Providence Institute for Savings ("The Old Stone Bank"), and many were later reprinted in the four-volume Old Stone Bank History of Rhode Island.

This article last edited July 8, 2006

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