by Sylvia Shaw Judson
Should I worry that I am obsessed with dead housewife theologians? Why do the guys with the beards and the cigars get all the attention? These women who loved God and were executed fascinate me. Whether it was false accusations within a marriage, or a determination to do something radical for God…I am intrigued. How do these women end up laying their heads on chopping blocks, being racked until their bones dislocate, tied to the stake to be burnt alive, or simply pushed off of a scaffold with a rope around their neck? I want to know what drives these women to their untimely deaths and I always try to figure out what they could have done differently. All of them were strong-willed, feisty, and brave—each one with her own unique story. I have a deep love for Anne Boleyn, Anne Askew, Lady Jane Grey and now, my fascination continues with Mary Dyer. She was the first woman to be executed on American soil for her religious beliefs.
I appreciate that my daddy knows me well and gave me a copy of My American Eden: Mary Dyer, Martyr for Freedom, by Elizabeth S. Brinton, for Christmas. I admit that I have been so wrapped up in the English Reformation that I forgot that some of those feisty women sailed to America! With such a huge interest, I was shocked that I had not heard of Mary Dyer. I was eager to learn about her and Brinton did not disappoint. I quickly got sucked into the world of Boston, Massachusetts in the year 1635, and into the lives of the Dyer family as they arrived in the harbor. Brinton did a wonderful job of telling the story and painting the scene in my mind. She gave an accurate picture of what happened, as well as an unbiased opinion of the characters. I felt compassion for Mary, her husband, William, her children, her friend, Anne Hutchinson, and her servant, Irene who is the voice in the story.
What is really interesting is how Brinton has the gift of making me crave lobster chowder and planted in me a desire to visit Newport, Rhode Island and Boston, Massachusetts. Now that is a good author! The more I read, the more I was compelled to research Mary and the facts surrounding her. I always know that I am reading a good historical fiction when I find myself saying, “Nuh uh!” out loud and looking it up, only to find that it is recorded in history. This gave me the confidence in Brinton as an author. I have read historical fictions that are so embellished that it completely loses its integrity as “historical.” I really appreciate how closely she stuck to the truth, while maintaining her creativity as a writer.
The thing about historical fiction is that you already know the ending, so the author’s goal is to fill in the blanks and help us to understand how the ending came to be. In particular, how did Mary Dyer, known as “The Rebel Saint,” end up swinging from a rope by her neck in Boston, Massachusetts. On June 1st, 1660, Mary Dyer willingly allowed herself to be executed as an example and to cause the laws banning Quakers, or any other choice of worship, from being persecuted or put to death.
Mary Dyer is famous for the moment when immediately after she was pushed off of the platform “a gust of wind blew across the common, catching Mary’s skirt, puffing it full with a snap. Her dress billowed as a sail does when suddenly grabbed by the wind. Someone said, ’She hangs there like a flag’” (viii). Her execution caused a lot of controversy, and soon after, the laws putting Quakers to death were changed.
The word “journey” is overused these days to describe one’s spiritual life. But for Mary, it truly was a journey! Born an Anglican in England, she and her husband, William followed a band of Puritans to America. They became respected citizens in their colony. Mary, and several other women, began following the famous, Anne Hutchinson, who was banned from the colony for her antinomian beliefs. I could go off into a huge theological discussion here, but I want to stick to the review of Brinton’s book. Anne’s theology was attractive to the women of her town and they felt spiritually fed by this loving midwife. For their involvement, Mary and her husband, William, were disenfranchised and had to leave the colony with the rest of the men and women who followed Anne Hutchinson. The Dyers moved and settled twice before finally settling in Newport, Rhode Island. Here is where the story takes a twist and begins to bother me. Mary decides that she needs to go back to England to settle her estate. She went against her husband’s will and she left behind 5 children. The youngest son was only two years old! She promised to be back soon, but ended up staying for 5 years!
During her time in England, she met George Fox, the founder of the Quakers, and quickly converted. It was an easy step from Anne Hutchinson’s antinomian theology. Mary was unaware that Quakers were banned in Boston and was immediately arrested, strip-searched and whipped upon her arrival in the harbor. She was kept in jail with no heat or light for two months before her husband got word that she was there. He was given custody of her and she was banned from ever returning to Boston. They returned to Newport and Mary saw her children after 5 long years. Upon her arrival home, she left her family again and secluded herself on another island with other Quakers. Then finally, she went back to Boston against her husband’s will and the law that banned her, to make herself an example.
I loved the voice Brinton gave Mary’s husband, William. Page after page, he continued to support her, forgive her, and persuade her to stay home to serve in her calling as a wife and mother. “Yea, joyfully I go” (229). In my opinion, Mary missed out on all the opportunities that God had placed right in front of her. God blessed her with a new world, a loving husband, a home full of children who needed her love and guidance, and an island of friends and neighbors to love and serve in her vocation as a mere housewife theologian.
Yet, as I read Mary’s story as an American woman, I am reminded that I have the freedom to believe what I want to believe and attend the church of my choice. I must respect the fact that she was a huge influence on the foundation of the religious freedom we enjoy in our country. Mary contributed willingly to our American history and the freedom we have today. Read Brinton’s book, it is fascinating!
Now, about that lobster chowder…mmm!
It may be interesting to add that Sylvia Shaw Judson is the creator of the Bird Girl statue featured on the cover of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. In the case of the statue of Mary Dyer, created in 1959, the model who sat for the sculpture was Anna Cox Brinton, grandmother to my husband, Howard Brinton. This fact came to light well after my work on Mary Dyer had begun.