Mary Dyer, Quaker Martyr in Colonial Massachusetts

Key Figure in American Religious Freedom History

Illustration of Mary Dyer, William Robinson, and Marmaduke Stevenson Walking to Their Execution
Illustration of Mary Dyer, William Robinson, and Marmaduke Stevenson Walking to Their Execution. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

Mary Dyer was a Quaker martyr in colonial Massachusetts. Her execution, and the religious freedom initiatives taken in memory of that, make her a key figure in American religious freedom history.  She was hanged on June 1, 1660.

Mary Dyer Biography

Mary Dyer was born in England in about 1611, where she married William Dyer. They emigrated to the Massachusetts colony in about 1635, the year they joined a Boston church.

Mary Dyer sided with Anne Hutchinson and her mentor and brother-in-law, Rev. John Wheelwright, in the Antinomian controversy, which challenged the doctrine of salvation by works as well as challenging the authority of the church leadership .  Mary Dyer lost her franchise in 1637 for her support of their ideas.  When Anne Hutchinson was expelled from church membership, Mary Dyer withdrew from the congregation.

Mary Dyer had given birth to a stillborn child the fall before she left the church, and neighbors speculated that that the child had been deformed as divine punishment for her disobedience.

In 1638, William and Mary Dyer moved to Rhode Island, and William helped found Portsmouth.  The family thrived.

In 1650, Mary accompanied Roger Williams and John Clarke to England, and William joined her in 1650. She remained in England until 1657 after William returned in 1651.  In these years, she became a Quaker, influenced by George Fox.

When Mary Dyer returned to the colony in 1657, she came through Boston, where the Quakers were outlawed. She was arrested and jailed, and her husband's plea led to her release. He had not yet converted, so he was not arrested.  Then she went to New Haven, where she was expelled for preaching about Quaker ideas.

 

In 1659, two English Quakers were jailed for their faith in Boston, and Mary Dyer went to visit them and to bear witness. She was jailed and then banished on September 12. She returned with other Quakers to defy the law, and was arrested and convicted. Two of her comrades, William Robinson, and Marmaduke Stevenson,  were hanged, but she received a last-minute reprieve when her son William petitioned for her.  Again, she was banished to Rhode Island. She returned to Rhode Island, then traveled to Long Island.

On May 21, 1660, Mary Dyer returned to Massachusetts to again defy the anti-Quaker law and protest the theocracy that could limit Quakers from that territory. She was again convicted.  This time, her sentence was carried out the day after her conviction. She was offered her freedom if she would leave and remain out of Massachusetts, and she refused.  

On June 1, 1660, Mary Dyer was hanged for refusing to comply with anti-Quaker laws in Massachusetts.

Mary and William Dyer had seven children.

Her death is credited with inspiring Rhode Island's Charter of 1663 granting religious freedom, which is in turn credited with inspiring part of the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights added to the Constitution in 1791.

Dyer is now honored with a statue at The State House in Boston.

Bibliography

  • The Antinomian Controversy, 1636 - 1638: A Documentary History. David D. Hall, editor.
  • Ingle, H. Larry. First Among Friends: George Fox and the Creation of Quakerism Mary Dyer: Biography of a Rebel Quaker.
  • Larson, Rebecca. Daughters of Light: Quaker Women Preacher and Prophesying in the Colonies and Abroad, 1700-1775
  • Plimpton, Ruth T. Mary Dyer: Biography of a Rebel Quaker