I am an active member of the First United Methodist Church of Marshall, Texas. I have repeatedly stated that I respect everyone’s right to practice their own religion as long as that religion does not engage in or espouse violence towards another religion or individuals who are members of that religion. I would hold this belief regardless, but the First Amendment of the United States Constitution codifies my belief. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof……..” However, this was not always the law in this land. The First Amendment, as part of the Bill of Rights, was not ratified until December of 1791.
Religious protections did not exist in colonial America. Three hundred and fifty-six years ago today, on June 1, 1660, Mary Dyer was hanged in Boston, Massachusetts for repeatedly defying a Puritan law banning Quakers from the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Mary entered this world in 1611 as Marie Barrett. In 1633 she married William Dyer. They were Puritans and he worked as a milliner. As Puritans, they were interested in reforming the Church of England from within. The king put increasing pressure on the Puritans and during the 1630’s they left England in droves for New England. William and Mary emigrated from England to the New World in 1635. In December of that year they joined the Boston Church. During the next few years William held several elected positions of public importance.
In October of 1637, Mary gave birth to a stillborn daughter that was severely deformed. The fetus was buried secretly, but the details were spread by gossip. William and Mary were involved in very acrimonious theological conflicts in the church. William was accused of supporting heretics, and of being one himself. He was disenfranchised and disarmed in November of 1637. The infant’s death was considered conspicuous punishment for the parents’ sins.
As they were excommunicated and banished, they moved to what is present day Rhode Island. In March of 1638 William signed the original compact for that colony and was elected to office. During the next fifteen years, William held several important elected positions in that area. In 1652 the couple went to England on a political mission. Mary remained for five years, becoming a follower of George Fox, the founder of the Society of Friends.
In the 17th century dissenters separated from the Protestant Church of England. They were opposed to state interference in religious matters. One of those movements is known as the Religious Society of Friends. Members of the Religious Society of Friends are more commonly referred to as Quakers. By 1680 there were an estimated 60,000 Quakers in England and Wales. They were officially persecuted in England and Wales under the Quaker Act of 1862. This persecution was strengthened by the Conventicle Act of 1664.
On the North American continent the persecution of Quakers started a few years earlier. In 1656 two Quakers began preaching as missionaries in Boston. Initially the two were imprisoned under appalling conditions. During this time their books were burned, and other possessions were confiscated. They were subsequently banned by the Massachusetts Bay Colony and deported.
Mary returned to New England in 1857. She landed in Boston and was immediately jailed. In September of 1859, Mary and other Quakers were released from prison and banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony under threat of execution should they return. When it was learned that a Quaker was again in jail and threatened with further torture, Mary Dyer and others walked through the forest from Providence to Boston to plead for his release and that of others. Mary Dyer and two others were arrested while speaking to the man through the prison bars.
In October, the three Quakers were led through the streets to the gallows with drums beating to prevent them from addressing the people. Two of them were hanged, but Mary Dyer, her arms and legs bound and the noose around her neck, received a prearranged last-minute reprieve. The reprieve lasted until June 1, 1860 when her sentence was carried out.
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