Mary Dyer was the wife of William Dyer of Somersetshire, England, with whom she came to Massachusetts in the mid-1630s. According to Massachusetts governor John Winthrop, Mrs. Dyer was “a very proper and fair woman,” and both she and her husband were well educated.
During the Antinomian controversy that rocked the Bay Colony in the 1630s, their open sympathy and support for Anne Hutchinson and the Reverend John Wheelwright alienated the Dyers from their orthodox Puritan neighbors. In November 1637, William Dyer was disenfranchised and subsequently disarmed because of his support of Wheelwright (who soon fled to New Hampshire), and later, when Mrs. Hutchinson was expelled from the Puritan Church, Mary Dyer defiantly accompanied her as she withdrew from the assemblage.
On October 17, 1637, amid religious turmoil, Mary Dyer gave birth to a badly deformed stillborn child and gave it a private burial. Not long after, the Dyers moved to Rhode Island to escape the hostile atmosphere of Massachusetts Bay. In March 1638, William Dyer became one of the founders of Portsmouth as a signer of the Portsmouth Compact. In that same month, Massachusetts authorities, on orders from Governor Winthrop, had the Dyer baby exhumed and published a lurid description of the child’s deformities. Since Anne Hutchinson had assisted in the delivery, Winthrop stated that the “monster” was evidence of the heresies and errors of Antinomianism.
After more than a decade on the island of Aquidneck, Mary Dyer sailed alone for England in 1650. The reason for her solo departure has never been affirmed. Since she was a devoted wife and the mother of six minor children, including a newborn son, the only plausible explanation was her extreme religious fervor. In 1651, she was joined by her husband, who journeyed to London with John Clarke and Roger Williams to obtain a recession of the Coddington patent of 1651. At the conclusion of this successful mission, William Dyer left for Newport, but his wife remained until 1657.
During her extended stay in England, Mary Dyer zealously embraced the religious doctrines of George Fox, the founder of the Quakers, or Society of Friends. For her and many Rhode Islanders after her, including William Coddington, the similarity between Antinomian and Quaker beliefs made for an easy transition from one sect to the other.
As she passed through the port of Boston in 1657 upon her return to Rhode Island, Mary Dyer was arrested and imprisoned for heresy, but she was released upon her husband’s entreaty. In 1658, as a Quaker missionary, she was expelled from the Puritan colony of New Haven. When several Quakers were imprisoned in Boston the next year, she went to visit them and to “bear witness to her faith,” and she was again jailed. Banished from the Bay Colony on September 12, 1659, she returned to Rhode Island, but she soon made another visit of mercy to Boston to comfort other jailed Quakers. For this bold act of defiance, she was seized by the authorities and condemned to be hanged. At the last moment, upon petition of her son William, the captain of a coasting vessel, she was reprieved and sent back to Rhode Island.
But on May 21, 1660, she once again returned to Boston and was again imprisoned and condemned to death. When offered her life if she would leave Massachusetts and return no more, she said, “Nay, I cannot; for in obedience to the will of the Lord God I came, and in His will I abide faithful to the death.” Despite the supplications of her husband, she was hanged on the first day of June, becoming one of the four executed Quakers known as “the Boston martyrs.” Eventually, Massachusetts repented by allowing a bronze statue of Mary Dyer by Quaker sculptress Sylvia Shaw to be placed in front of the state capitol.
Excerpts taken from:
Patrick T. Conley, Rhode Island’s Founders: From Settlement to Statehood Charleston, South Carolina: The History Press, 2010.
Image: Conn, J. Stephen. Mary Dyer Statue. Flickr.