As Americans celebrate freedom and liberty this week, it is important to remember that persecution for faith in Christ is not only a foreign occurrence that’s never happened in our own country. With that in mind, we share today the story of martyr Mary Dyer, as told in FOXE: Voices of the Martyrs:
Mary Dyer (ca. 1611–1660)
Convinced that the intolerant law of Massachusetts Colony banishing Quakers violated God’s law, Mary Dyer would not stay quiet or stay away. Mary was a Quaker, and Quakers believed that God could communicate directly to us and that salvation could be assured. This was considered heresy by the Puritans in Massachusetts, so they banished her from the colony.
Mary challenged that law with a persistence that led authorities finally to a critical decision: agree with Mary and change the social structure of the colony, or silence her. Mary Dyer died on the gallows on June 1, 1660, affirming her stand against the government that persecuted her Quaker faith. “Nay, man,” she said at the last, “I am not now to repent.”
Mary had other alternatives. For one, she was married to a respected colonial official, William Dyer, who more than once had rescued her from a Massachusetts jail through his political connections. He, too, was a Quaker but less militant than Mary, who never dodged a fight over religious freedom, especially when her “inner light”—God’s voice to the soul—bade her confront the secular powers.
For another, Mary had the testy patience of Massachusetts Governor John Endicott on her side. When her fellow Quaker “lawbreakers,” William Robinson and Marmaduke Stephenson, were hanged in 1658, Mary stood right behind them, awaiting the same fate. To her complete surprise, she received a last-minute reprieve and was ordered never to return. She left under guard, with her husband’s promise that she would comply with the Massachusetts edict of banishment.
Finally, Mary had a mission to Native Americans on ShelterIsland, teaching and converting them to the Quaker faith. Had she been content with her work and obedient to the law, she might have seen the last of her eight children reach adulthood. But she was neither content nor submissive.
In April, 1660, Mary returned to Boston, led by her conscience and fully aware of her danger. She didn’t tell William, who nonetheless wrote a moving letter to Governor Endicott asking again for mercy toward his driven wife. This time, however, the stakes were too high.
At issue was more than Quaker nonconformity. To survive in the New World, settlers had learned to build strong communities. If food security, weather, the forest, disease, and hostile Indians were not enough, tough-souled London businessmen had given up on the colonies, leaving them to their own wits and devices. Religious nonconformity was a further strain on the social system, and defiance of law was finally a capital offense. Who could waste precious resources maintaining a prison system? Mary wanted religious freedom; Massachusetts wanted order and survival. Leaders such as Roger Williams in Rhode Island had found middle ground, granting wider freedom of expression in and around the city of Providence. Mary and her husband lived there for a while, but Mary was not a person to take refuge there.
Thus, on May 31, 1660, the General Court of Massachusetts summoned Mary Dyer and convicted her of willful violation of the banishment decree. Replied Mary, “I came in obedience to the will of God, desiring you to appeal your unrighteous laws, and that is my work now and earnest request.”
The next morning she was escorted to the gallows, a troop of drummers in front and behind to keep Mary from preaching to the gathering crowd. She left behind engraved on the wall of her jail cell: “My Life not Availeth Me / In comparison to the Liberty of the Truth.”
In 1959, on the 300th anniversary of her death sentence, the Massachusetts General Court decreed that a bronze statue of Mary Dyer [pictured] be erected in her memory on the grounds of the State House in Boston, recognizing the truth and social value of Mary Dyer’s “earnest request.”
Photo credit: Teresa Chrzanowski Flisiuk via Panoramio