Monday, September 26, 2016

Mary Dyer, Early American Quaker and Martyr by Samuel Adams Drake 1910


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IT is a matter of history that in 1656 a people who wore their hair long, kept their hats on in the public assemblies, and who said "thee" and "thou," instead of "you," when addressing another person, made their unwelcome appearance in New England. They were forthwith attacked with all the energy of a bitter persecution.

When called upon to speak out in defence of their cruel proceedings, the Puritan authorities declared their creed to be this: They having established themselves in a wilderness in order to enjoy undisturbed their own religious convictions, held it right to exclude all others who might seek to introduce different opinions, and therefore discord, among them. From this it is plain to see that the idea of toleration had not yet been born. The further fact that to this cruel and selfish policy, sternly persevered in to the last, the Colony owed the loss of most of the political privileges that it had hitherto enjoyed, renders it one of the stepping-stones of history. Nor have the most zealous apologists for these acts of the Puritan fathers ever been able to erase the stain of blood from their otherwise fair escutcheon.

Let us recount a single startling episode of this lugubrious history. Two words will explain the situation.

On both sides of the ocean the Puritan cry was "freedom to worship God as we do." The persecution of Quakers had already begun in England under the austere rule of the Puritan Commonwealth. They were treated as weak fanatics who needed wholesome correction, rather than as persons dangerous to the public weal. After this had been some time in progress, some of the persecuted Friends came over to New England for an asylum, or out of the frying-pan into the fire. The local authorities, urged on by the whole body of Orthodox ministers, resolved to strangle this new heresy in its cradle. But they had forgotten the story of the dragon's teeth. For every Quaker they banished, ten arose in his place.

Among the first Quakers to arrive in the Colony were two women. And it should be observed that the women all along took as active a part in disseminating the new doctrines as the men did. As was inevitable, such an abrupt innovation upon the settled convictions of the time respecting woman's place in the churches and in society, was a moral shock to the community which quickly recoiled upon the heads of the offenders.

These intruding Quakers, having announced themselves as confessors and missionaries of the true faith of Christ, were all presently put under lock and key as persons guilty of promulgating rank heresies, and as blasphemers, and their sectarian books were also seized and committed to the flames by the common hangman. The Quakers then became violent and aggressive in their turn. They retaliated with prophesies of evil. They freely denounced the judgments of Heaven upon their oppressors. One woman, seeing Governor Endicott pass by the prison, vociferated from her grated window, —

"Woe unto thee! thou art an oppressor!"

The first comers were all banished, with a stern admonition not to return to the Colony. They were put on shipboard and ordered to depart. And this, it was hoped, would be the last of them. This was, in fact, the easiest way of ridding the country of them and their errors, had these not already taken root in the soil itself. Then, as no such law existed, one was made, punishing any Quaker who might afterward come into the jurisdiction. This law imposed severe penalties. Yet, though cruelly enforced, it was soon found inadequate, the number of Quakers increasing; and so, the authorities being now at their wits end, another law, decreeing death to any of that sect who should presume to return after banishment, was enacted, against strong opposition. There was, in fact, a conscience in the Colonial body. But the rulers could not now retreat without admitting themselves vanquished; and so, pressing the point, the "bloody law" was inscribed upon the statute-book of the Colony.

We have now finished the prologue of the drama, and it is time to introduce the real actors upon the stage. Mary Dyer, a comely and grave matron, then living in Rhode Island, was one of those rare spirits who are predestined to become martyrs and saints to the faith that they profess.

She and her husband, William Dyer, were originally inhabitants of Boston, and members of the church there, they having emigrated from England to the Colony in the year 1635. From these incidents surrounding Mrs. Dyer's career it is clear that both she and her husband belonged to the better class of emigrants. She is represented by Sewel, the Quaker historian, as being a person of good family and estate, and by Winthrop as a very proper and fair woman, but, as he deprecatingly adds, having a "very proud spirit." In her, therefore, we have the portrait of a comely woman of fine presence, high spirit, a fair share of education, and possessing, moreover, a soul endowed with the purpose of an evangelist or, at need, a martyr. Both Mrs. Dyer and her husband became early converts to the peculiar doctrines held by that priestess of common-sense, Mrs. Anne Hutchinson, to whose untoward fortunes they continued steadfast. There was, in fact, a bond of sympathy between these two women. When Mrs. Hutchinson was excommunicated, young Mrs. Dyer walked out of the church with her in presence of the whole congregation. When she was banished, Mrs. Dyer followed her to Rhode Island. This was in 1637.

During the excitement produced by the rapid spread of Mrs. Hutchinson's opinions, and by her subsequent arrest and trial on the charge of heresy, Mrs. Dyer gave premature birth, it was said, to a monster, which Winthrop describes with nauseating minuteness. Losing sight of Mrs. Dyer for nearly twenty years, we suppose her life to have been an uneventful one,—perhaps one of unconscious preparation and of spiritual growth for the work she was to do and the suffering she was destined to undergo. When we next see her, the comely young wife has become a middle-aged matron, who is blindly obeying the command of destiny. She now presents herself in the garb of a Quakeress, and in company with professing Quakers, to the people of Boston, any one of whom, by harboring her even for a single night, or offering her a crust of bread, became a breaker of the law, and was liable to a heavy penalty for so doing. She was immediately taken up and thrust into the common jail, where she remained in confinement until her husband, being apprised of her arrest, hastened to her relief. His urgent prayer for his wife's release was only granted upon his giving bonds in a large sum to take her away out of the Colony, and even then the authorities further stipulated that she should be permitted to speak with no one during the journey. Upon these conditions she was conducted under guard beyond the settlements.


In September, 1659, in company with William Robinson, Marmaduke Stevenson, and Nicholas Davis, Mary again, and this time with full knowledge of the peril of the act, visited Boston for the purpose of testifying against the iniquitous laws in force there, or, as they declared it themselves, "to look the bloody laws in the face," and to meet the oppressors of her people, as it were, in their own stronghold.

Short was the time allowed them. The whole four were quickly made prisoners, and were brought before the Court, which passed sentence of banishment, to which the certain penalty of death now attached, should they return again. They were then released, and ordered to depart out of the Colony. Not obeying this mandate, Robinson and Stevenson were soon again apprehended, and were again consigned to prison, where they were used like condemned felons, being chained to the floor of their dungeon. Within a month Mary also became, for the second time, an inmate of the same prison, having been recognized and taken while standing in front of it. By thus setting the law at defiance, the trio were regarded as rushing upon a fool's fate.

With Mary came Hope Clifton, also of Rhode Island. The declared purpose of the women was to visit and minister to the Friends then lying in prison. The settled purpose of the prisoners to defy the law being known to their friends, and no mercy being expected for them, several of these came to Boston in order to assist in the last act of the tragedy. One even brought linen for the sufferers' shrouds. All this imparts a highly dramatic character to the acts of the resolute martyrs.

The three prisoners who had thus forfeited their lives to the law were, on the 20th of October, brought before the Court of Magistrates. The incorruptible but implacable Endicott presided. The men keeping their hats on, Endicott ordered the officer to pull them off. He then addressed the prisoners in the language of stern remonstrance and reproof. He told them that neither he nor the other magistrates then present desired their death, but that the laws must be enforced. All three were condemned to be hanged.


Mrs. Dyer heard her doom pronounced with serene composure, simply saying, —

"The Lord's will be done!"

"Take her away, marshal," commanded Endicott, impatiently.

"I joyfully return to my prison," she rejoined.

On her way back to prison, filled with the exaltation of the Spirit, she said to the marshal, or high-sheriff, who was conducting her, "Indeed, you might let me alone, for I would go to the prison without you."

"I believe you, Mrs. Dyer," the officer replied; "but my orders are to take you there, and I must do as I am commanded."

During the interval of a week occurring between the sentence and the day fixed for its execution, Mrs. Dyer wrote an "Appeal to the General Court," in which she compares herself with Queen Esther, and her mission with that of the queen to Ahasuerus. It is pervaded throughout by a simple and touching dignity. There is not one craven word in it, or one entreating pardon or expressing a doubt of the righteousness of her own acts. Calmly she rehearses the history of her case, and then concludes her appeal, "in love and the spirit of meekness," to the justice and magnanimity of the Court which was able to set her free. But if it was heeded, her prayer was unanswered. The renewed and earnest intercession of Mrs. Dyer's husband and son were alike ineffectual; the magistrates remained unmoved. But it is said that the son, in the hope of yet saving her, passed the last night in his mother's cell, beseeching her to abjure, or at least so far to retract her mistaken opinions as to give some chance for hope that the judges might yet relent, and so commute her sentence of death to banishment. History has kindly drawn the veil over this scene. All we know is that the mother preferred death to dishonor.

Nor were other efforts wanting to save the condemned prisoners. Suitors who were able to make themselves heard in the council-chamber and in the Governor's closet earnestly labored to prevent the consummation of the crime.

On Thursday, the 27th of October, in the morning, according to an ancient custom, the drummers of the trained bands beat their drums up and down the streets, to notify the soldiers to get under arms. This being the time-honored lecture-day, which was also the one usually appointed for holding public executions, as soon as the public worship was over, the drums were again heard, the trained bands assembled and formed in order, and were then marched to the prison, where they halted. Then the high-sheriff, exhibiting his warrant, called for the bodies of the prisoners by name, their irons were knocked off by the jailer, and, after tenderly embracing each other, they were led forth to take their places in the ranks of the guard, Mary being placed between the two men who were to suffer with her. A great multitude had assembled to witness these solemn proceedings. The procession then moved, the prisoners on foot, the people pressing closely around them, in order not to lose a word of what they might say; but whenever the condemned attempted to speak, as now and then they did, the drummers were ordered to beat their drums, and so drowned the voices in the uproar. One sees here, as always, that every tyranny is afraid of its victims. Hemmed in by armed men, and surrounded by a surging and excited throng, the prisoners walked hand in hand all the way to the scaffold, supporting and comforting each other in this most trying moment with a sublime fortitude. The brutal marshal, seeing this, said sneeringly to Mary: "Are you not ashamed, you, to walk thus hand in hand between two young men?"

Unmoved by the taunt, she replied : "No; this is to me an hour of the greatest joy I could have in this world."

The cortege having at length reached the place of execution, it having marched by a roundabout way, —for fear, it is said, that a rescue might be attempted, —Mary and her fellow sufferers bid each other a last farewell. Robinson first ascended the fatal ladder. While uttering his dying words, predicting a visitation of divine wrath to come upon his slayers, a harsh voice in the crowd cried out: "Hold thy tongue! Thou art going to die with a lie in thy mouth!"

Stevenson's last words were these: " Be it known unto all, this day, that we suffer not as evil-doers, but for conscience' sake."

It was now Mary's turn. Her two dear friends were hanging dead before her eyes. Fearlessly she mounted the fatal ladder, and fearlessly she submitted herself to the hangman's hands. She was then pinioned, blindfolded, and the fatal noose placed about her neck. All being then ready, the crowd awaited the last act in breathless suspense, when in the distance a voice was heard crying out, "Stop! She is reprieved!"

The agitation of the spectators is something that we can only faintly conceive. But Mary, it is said, remained calm and unmoved through it all. "Her feet being loosed," says Sewel, "they bade her come down. But she, whose mind was already as it were in heaven, stood still, and said she was there willing to suffer as her brethren did, unless they would annul their wicked law." She was then taken down from the scaffold and re-conducted to prison, where her son, who was anxiously awaiting her return, embraced her as one risen from the dead. Only then she learned that to his importunity with the magistrates she owed her deliverance from the fate of her brethren. The son had saved his mother. The death-sentence had been commuted to banishment; but Mary now received a solemn warning to the effect that the extreme penalty would surely be exacted should she again offend against the majesty of the law. She was then conducted under guard to the Colony frontier, whence she pursued her way home to Rhode Island.

But the old impulse reviving in her in full force, in defiance of the warning thrice repeated, Mary again sought to obtain the crown of martyrdom to which she was foreordained. Burning with fanatical zeal, regardless, too, of the conditions which had procured the remission of her sentence, she deliberately violated the law again. In May, 1660, the unfortunate woman had so little regard for her personal safety as again to come to "the bloody town of Boston." She was soon summoned before the General Court. Swift was the judgment, swift the execution. Endicott, indeed,—respect to his manhood for it! — offered her a chance of escape; but her soul was too lofty, her purpose too strongly fixed, to avail herself of a subterfuge to save her life. Endicott conducted her examination. He was as hard as iron, she gentle but undaunted.

"Are you the same Mary Dyer that was here before?" he began.

"I am the same Mary Dyer that was here at the last General Court," she replied.

"Then you own yourself a Quaker, do you not?" said the Governor.

"I own myself to be reproachfully called so." Then the jailer spoke up and said that Mary was a vagabond.

"I must then repeat the sentence once before pronounced upon you," said Endicott.

Mary quietly rejoined: "That is no more than what thou saidst before."

"True," said Endicott sternly, "but now it is to be executed; therefore prepare yourself for nine o'clock to-morrow."

Mary then began to speak of her call, when the Governor burst out with, —

"Away with her! away with her!"

In great anguish of mind, he being wholly ignorant that she meditated this fatal step, her husband wrote to the General Court of Massachusetts, once more imploring its clemency. His entreaties would have moved a stone to pity. But it was now too late. On the first day of June the solemn ceremonies of the previous October were repeated. The scaffold was erected on Boston Common, a broad area of unoccupied land adjoining the town, then used by the inhabitants in commonage, and on muster-days as a training-field, as well as for the place of public execution.

At the appointed hour the marshal came for her, and entering without ceremony the cell where she was, he roughly bade her make haste. Mary, speaking to him mildly, asked a few moments' delay, saying that she would be ready presently. But he rudely and unfeelingly retorted that it was her place to wait upon him, and not his upon her. Then one of the female prisoners, with the instinct of her sex, ventured to expostulate with this brutal functionary, when he turned upon her fiercely, and with threats and abuse silenced her. In fact, the Quakeresses were treated like vagabonds and outcasts.

The authorities having reason to fear a popular tumult, the prisoner was taken strongly guarded over a circuitous route to the fatal spot, and again her voice was silenced by the rattle of drums before and behind her. With the birds innocently twittering above her head, once more Mary ascended the scaffold with a firm step. Pity was not wholly extinct. Some of the people present made a last effort to save her, but Mary would not agree to leave the country. To the hope some expressed that her life would be again spared, the officer commanding the armed escort roughly retorted that she was guilty of her own blood.

"Nay," she replied, "I came to keep blood-guiltiness from you, desiring you to repeal the unrighteous and unjust law made against the innocent servants of the Lord."

Mr. Wilson, minister of Boston, attended her on the scaffold in her last moments, not to offer consolation, but to exhort her to recant.

"Mary Dyer," he exclaimed, "oh, repent! oh, repent! Be not so deluded and carried away by the deceits of the Devil!"

She answered him in terms of mild reproof: "Nay, man, I am not now to repent."

A colloquy by which her last moments were embittered was kept up on the scaffold. She was reproached for saying that she had been in paradise. She reiterated it. "Yes," said this undaunted woman, "I have been in paradise several days."

The executioner then performed his office.

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