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Excerpt: 'Head and Heart: American Christianities'

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Mary Dyer Must Die

On June 1, 1660, Mary Dyer was led out of the women's detention house in Boston and conducted by an armed guard to the Commons, to the hanging tree (an elm), for execution. A Quaker woman in her forties, she was the mother of six and the wife of a respected colonial official in Rhode Island. Her husband petitioned the Massachusetts authorities to spare her, but they had spared her once before. Now they judged that such reprieves could stretch out forever if they did not cut the process off. She, like other Quakers, had been banished by law from the Massachusetts Bay Colony on pain of death, and she repeatedly defied the law. She would be the third Quaker to die for defying it, while a fourth member of the Friends was already scheduled to follow her to the gallows.

This was not her first trip to the tree. Seven months earlier, she had been led out from the detention house to join with two other Quakers, William Robinson and Marmaduke Stephenson, on their way to a triple execution. She walked between the men, her comrades, hand in hand, with the jauntiness that Protestants had learned from Foxe's Book of Martyrs. This insouciance angered the crowd. Some cried that she should be ashamed, old as she was, to be holding hands in public with two younger men. She answered that she was glad to be entering eternal life in such good company.

Execution was a formal ritual. Preachers warned the condemned not to face their Maker unrepentant. Their pleas were studied and polished. Later, some of them would be published. The dramatic occasion was an opportunity to bring even the bystanders to repent their sins. If the condemned persons submitted to these last-minute pleas, that would be an occasion for rejoicing. But these Quakers were prepared with countersermons, declaring the righteousness of their cause. Such dueling theatrics held audiences in thrall.

Mary stood below the tree as each of her friends mounted a ladder with rope knotted around his neck. The other end of the rope was affixed to the designated tree limb; each man was urged to confess his sins. When it became clear that they were going to use the moment to voice their damnable heresy, the military escort drowned out their words with drums. Then the ladder was withdrawn from each man, and one after the other fell to the rope's length.

It was Mary's turn. She had so far only watched, with her own rope knotted around her neck. Now she was told to climb the ladder, while men on another ladder went up to tie her hands and legs at the top, and to bind her skirt around her, before fastening a cloth over her face. She was about to be "turned off" just like her friends. Again there was an attempt to exact a confession. It was hoped that she, being a woman, would be cowed by the sight of her friends thrashing at the ropes' ends. Then, it was planned, she would be freed, as an example to other Quakers, that they too could avoid this ordeal by recanting. But if she did not recant, she would be freed anyway, this first time out. They had gone through this charade, even sending her up the ladder, to exact a renunciation from the tree.

But that was the extent of their resolve. There were already grumblings in neighboring colonies over the persecutions in Massachusetts — the objections had even reached England, where they would soon prompt a royal intervention. The Massachusetts authorities realized that the first execution of a woman would intensify criticism of their actions, especially since this woman was a mother, a former member of the Boston church, and the wife of an influential man. So the governor, John Winthrop, feigned that he had yielded, at the last minute, to a plea for mercy from one of Dyer's sons. Actually, her pardon had been signed beforehand, but it was hoped that she would "earn" it by renouncing her errors.

When Mary was told, through the covering on her face, that she was being spared, she refused to accept the favor. She did not want a pardon for herself, but an end to the persecution of Quakers. She stood there, still inviting death, until bystanders began to shout, "Pull her down!" Men could never get her to do the right thing. They took her back to prison, where she continued to assert that she would not accept a pardon from the men who killed her friends. "I rather choose to die than live, as [a gift] from you as guilty of their innocent blood."

There was nothing to do but put her on a horse and lead her to the colony's boundary, hoping she would go home to her husband, who might persuade her to remain there. Instead she went to stay with some fellow Quakers on Long Island, and in seven months she showed up again in Massachusetts. This time a new governor, John Endecott, meant to put an end to the problem she kept thrusting upon them. If she persisted, Mary Dyer must die. She was taken back to the hanging tree. After she went up the ladder, a captain of the military escort told her she could be spared again if she showed repentance. When she refused, he told her, "You are guilty of your own blood." This was the formal position of the colony. If people were told that returning after banishment meant death, then they were in effect committing suicide if they came back.

She answered: "Nay, I came to keep blood guiltiness from you, desiring you to repent the unrighteous and unjust law of banishment upon pain of death made against the innocent servants of the Lord. Therefore my blood will be required at your hands who willfully do it."

When she refused to hear the pleas of the Congregational minister who approached her, a mocking bystander asked if she would rather have an elder (a Presbyterian "heretic") pray for her. "I know never an elder here." She desired no grace from a "priest" (Congregationalist) or elder. Would she let anyone pray for her? "I desire the prayers of all the people of God." A bystander shouted that she must not think there were any people of God present. "I know but few here," she agreed. Asked again if she would accept an elder, she shot back: "Nay, first a child, then a young man, then a strong man, before an elder of Christ Jesus." Before she could say more, the ladder was removed.

Quakers had been presenting petitions to King Charles II ever since his restoration to power two years earlier. He sent an instruction to Massachusetts, telling its rulers to stop executing his subjects for their religious opinions. Before that could reach the colony, a fourth Quaker, William Leddra, was hanged on March 14, 1667. This episode flies in the face of our grade-school understanding of American history. We were taught as children that Pilgrims and Puritans fled to the New World to escape religious repression under the British monarch and find tolerance for their views. But here we see the King championing tolerance and the colonists engaged in repression. That is just the first of many apparent contradictions to be found in the story of Mary Dyer. I put it here, at the beginning of my book, because it contains the seeds of many things that must be understood in the early stages of our history. What happened to Mary Dyer was not an anomaly but part of a pattern, one to be found in New England's treatment not only of Quakers but of Presbyterians and Baptists, of Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson, of "Antinomians" and "witches." If we are to trace the rise of Enlightened religion in America, we must see first what pre-Enlightenment religion looked like, and that is a subject best pondered in the fate of Mary Dyer. Her treatment is related to a number of topics — six, to begin with: (1) tolerance, (2) the relation of church to state, (3) a general excess of supernaturalism, (4) fear of the devil, (5) expectation of the End Time, and (6) America's providential role in history. I take up each in order.

1. Against Tolerance

The founders of the New England colonies did not come to America to protect any variety in religious practice, or to assert the primacy of the individual's conscience. Far from it. They came to set up the one true faith where corrupt versions of it could not intrude. The only religion recognized as authentic, as what God wills, was the Covenant of Grace, under which God's chosen were predestined to salvation, making their church a collection of "visible saints." Those not consciously saved in this way could not be communicating members of the church, nor could they be voting members of the community. These outsiders had to attend and support the true church even if they were not full members of it. Pastors and governors all had to be communicating members of the church. As Samuel Willard wrote in 1681 against Baptists claiming that New England should be a haven for religious freedom:

I perceive they are mistaken in the design of our first planters, whose business was not tolerating but were professed enemies of it, and could leave the world professing they died no libertines. Their business was to settle and (as much as in them lay) secure religion to posterity according to that way which they believed was of God.

Or as Nathaniel Ward put it in 1645: "I dare take upon me to be the herald of New England so far as to proclaim to the world, in the name of our colony, that all Familists, Antinomians, Anabaptists, and other Enthusiasts shall have free liberty — to keep away from us."

The crime of Mary Dyer was to enter the community without submitting to its rulers, whose authority was based on the one true religion. Even to bring a Quaker book into the community was forbidden. So, even more, was the expression of Quaker views with an attempt to win followers. Ship captains were severely fined if they so much as carried Quakers to the colony's shores — and also fined for bringing Quaker books, pamphlets or sermons, or any expressions of religious views other than the one true view. The same ban applied to Presbyterians, Baptists, and believers in any but the authorized faith. When church members strayed from the truth as that was officially expounded, they were expelled from the church. If they persisted in their errors, the civil magistrates could (and should) expel them from the colony. If they refused to go, they were to be whipped, maimed (ears cropped or tongues bored), or otherwise subdued. If they kept returning, there was no way to end such "rebellion" but by death.

Tolerance, in this setting, was sedition. It was treachery to the truth. Mere "opinion" was not a thing to be honored where certainty of salvation was the credential for membership in the ruling community. The Cambridge pastor Thomas Shepard, who was prominent in condemning the "heretic" Anne Hutchinson, said that tolerance of different religions was "the foundation of all other errors and abominations in the churches of God."6 As Richard Mather (father of Increase Mather and grandfather of Cotton Mather) put it in 1657:

Believe not them that think a man may be saved in any religion, and that it were good to leave all religions free, and that opinions have no great danger in them. These are but the devils of Satan, that so pernicious errors might more easily be entertained, as not being greatly suspected. . . . If you believe that sheep may do well enough though wolves be let in amongst them, then may you believe that false doctrine and they that teach it are in no ways dangerous to the souls of men.

By this standard, Mary Dyer was one of the "devils of Satan." Mather's grandson Cotton said that Dyer was crazy, but that the devil drove her mad. Her insistence on returning to the colony when she knew it meant death was an affliction visited upon the Quakers by Satan: "'They must needs go whom the devil drives' — these devil-driven creatures did but the more furiously push themselves upon the government."

The doctrinal reason for condemning Quakers was their reliance on an "inner light" that let them sit too loose to the literal guidance of the Gospels. Further proof of their diabolic assistance came from the fact that intense waiting for the inner light led some at their gatherings to quiver and shake, giving them the name Quakers and earning Cotton Mather's condemnation: "The quaking which distinguished these poor creatures was a symptom of diabolical possession." When the first Quaker women arrived in Boston in 1656, the mere fact that they were women preachers was enough for the magistrates to put them in prison and subject them to a strip search for signs of the devil's mark on witches.

It would be a mistake to look for religious tolerance in seventeenth-century New England. Toleration, when it did come, was forced on the Puritans from the very authority they had fled. Though they had been cheered when the papalizing monarch Charles I was overthrown and Protestant Oliver Cromwell came to power, Cromwell needed to hold together all forms of religious dissent in order to oppose the monarchy. This led him to tolerate the differences between Puritans, Presbyterians, Baptists, and others, to the disgust of the New England clergy. In their eyes, Cromwell had sold out the cause of Reform at the very moment of its triumph.

When the monarchy was restored, Charles II could not afford to unsettle his countrymen by reversing the toleration measures already in place. That is why he came to the defense of the Quakers in New England, and threatened to take away the Massachusetts Charter that enabled its governors to quash religious differences. In his letter of June 28, 1662, Charles told local authorities in Massachusetts that they could no longer limit the vote to church members, or restrict communion to those consciously saved. This went against what the colonists took to be their authority under the Charter granted them in 1629. But it was always dangerous for the Massachusetts settlers to bring up that Charter in England. They had brazenly taken it with them to the New World, where they vastly expanded its authority. The Charter simply set up a joint stock company for trade and landholding (similar to the Hudson's Bay Company and the Virginia Company). It did not authorize a separate government. While he was at it, the King decided to recall the Charter. Despite strong local resistance in the colony, the Charter was revoked in 1686, when all the Northern colonies were gathered into a single Dominion of New England governed by the King's appointee, Sir Edmund Andros.

A year after this disaster, King Charles died and was succeeded by James II. Though James was of Catholic sympathies (or, rather, because he was), he too had to issue a Proclamation of Indulgence tolerating all dissent. Increase Mather was sent to London to bargain with the new King for a restoration of the Massachusetts Charter. Before that could happen under James, the Glorious Revolution of 1688 overthrew the King and brought in William and Mary to reassert Protestant rule. The colonies took this opportunity to have their own local revolution, overthrowing the regime of Edmund Andros.

Though William granted a new Charter to Massachusetts, he also issued an Act of Toleration, under which all forms of Protestant (but not Roman Catholic) worship were to be allowed. The new Charter made the governor a royal appointee with expanded powers. The local church in Massachusetts had to submit to this new arrangement even while trying to circumvent it. Thus the pure intolerance of New England was gradually eaten away by royal acts from abroad, running from Cromwell's inclusion of all forms of dissent to Charles II's letter of 1662 to James II's Proclamation of Indulgence to William of Orange's Act of Toleration. Tolerance was the accomplishment of kings.

The immediate pressures for broadening the acceptance of religious views were pragmatic and conciliatory, but a core of principle was also being formed. The impact of the Enlightenment was already being felt in works like John Locke's A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689). The pre-Enlightenment religion of America was being challenged at many levels. But many Congregationalists dug in their heels against this tendency. As late as 1708 Samuel Sewall, the judge of the Salem witches, was still refusing to grant permission for a Quaker meetinghouse to be established in Massachusetts, since "I would not have a hand in setting up their devil worship." Intolerance dies hard, when it dies at all.

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Garry Wills