It is nothing short of insane that the Puritans are celebrated through Thanksgiving. They killed other people who did not believe like they did. One of them was Mary Dyer.
Honor folks like her. After all, it’s her efforts, fueled by ideals very much opposite the Puritans’, as to very much why we truly celebrate Thanksgiving.
In the most terrible irony, the Puritans only accepted conformity even though they left England for religious freedom. It was deadly, even, in Mary’s case.
A look at the General Laws and Liberties of the Massachusetts Colony was remarkably stringent. And death was commonly the penalty for “crimes.” It’s something else, even for the 1600s.
Even those with Puritan beliefs who did not obey were expelled. Roger Williams saw the irony and understood the need for religious tolerance, period. He also could not fathom how the Puritans and other settlers stripped land from Native Americans. Women hardly qualified as second-class citizens – even dressing a certain way was required. Anne Hutchinson was ostracized.
There was only one woman who stood with Anne, and that was Mary.
Mary and Anne found liberation and security only temporarily in Roger’s Rhode Island. After Mary’s family traveled to England in 1652, Mary’s religious thinking changed, leading to the peril against her from Puritan authorities in Boston.
In England, Mary and her family met George Fox, founder of the Quakers. She joined the religion that resulted from his advocacy and returned to the U.S. in 1657. By then, Bostonian Puritans had passed anti-Quaker laws. Dyer was thrown into prison upon returning to America. She was released only after her husband William was able to convince authorities that she would not speak out until she left Massachusetts.
The next year, anti-Quaker feelings had reached new heights in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, with laws against Quakers at new levels. Folks could be branded with an “H” for heretic. Or a hot iron could scorch their tongues.
Even that wasn’t inhumane enough for John Endicott, the new governor of the colony. He sought whipping, jailing, banishing, cutting and lopping off ears to Quakers who came back to the colony after being banished.
Calling them “wicked laws,” Mary opposed them. She went back to Boston with friends William Robinson and Marmaduke Stevenson to speak against the laws. They were banished; they returned.
They were sentenced to death.
Before a noose was placed around their necks at Boston Common, Mary wrote from her jail cell:
“Was ever the like laws heard of among a people that profess Christ come in the flesh? And have you no other weapons but such laws to fight against spiritual wickedness withal, as you call it? Woe is me for you! Of whom take ye counsel? Search with the light of Christ in you, and it will show you of whom, as it had done with me and many more…”
The rope around her neck, Mary’s husband pleaded for her life. She was freed, but she knew that the laws were wrong, so she returned to Boston. She was arrested and doomed to hang.
On June 1, 1660, Mary was taken to a tremendous elm tree, surrounded by armed guards and beating drums. A Captain Webb said to Mary, “It is you, and only you, who are guilty of spilling your own blood.”
Mary replied, “I do only what the Lord God requires of me. Do not mourn my passing, for I am filled with happiness. I am already in Heaven.”
And Mary was hanged.
After residents had a day to see her corpse, she was buried in a Common unmarked grave. But today, her statue is before the Massachusetts state house, across the street from where she was executed.
It’s there where I learned Mary’s story, in December of last year on a trip in Boston. Why I never learned this in grade school is inexcusable.
Nathaniel Hawthorne, the great writer, romantic and novelist, wrote about Mary:
“In one of the first acts of civil disobedience on American soil, Mary Dyer was hanged because she believed God spoke directly to those who trust in him. Although happily married, with children, she refused to give in to the dictates of the Bay Colony’s leaders. Her conscience would not allow her to endorse beliefs she did not personally accept.” (“Grandfather’s Chair,” 1840)
Fortunately, Mary’s desires – that people be permitted to pursue their own religious views – was later incorporated into the framework of American government. Shortly after she was murdered, Charles II, who had authority over the colonies, put an end to more executions of Quakers.
Later, even one of Mary’s persecutors, General Atherton, said, “Mary Dyer did hang as a flag for others to take example by.”
And the Puritan way of life, with its killings, was over within the century.