Jun 012016


On this date in 1660 Mary Dyer, born Marie Barrett, an English and colonial North American Puritan turned Quaker was hanged in Boston, Massachusetts Bay Colony, for repeatedly defying a Puritan law banning Quakers from the colony. She is one of the four executed Quakers known as the Boston martyrs. While her place of birth is not known, she was married in London in 1633 to the milliner William Dyer. Mary and William were Puritans who were interested in reforming the Anglican Church from within, without separating from it. Because the English king, James VI & I, and parliament increased pressure on the Puritans, they left England by the thousands to go to New England in the early 1630s. Mary and William arrived in Boston by 1635, joining the Boston Church in December of that year. Like most members of Boston’s church, they soon became involved in the Antinomian Controversy, a theological crisis lasting from 1636 to 1638. Mary and William were strong advocates of Anne Hutchinson and John Wheelwright in the controversy, and as a result Mary’s husband was disenfranchised and disarmed for supporting these “heretics” and also for harboring his own heretical views. Subsequently, they left Massachusetts with many others to establish a new colony on Aquidneck Island (later Rhode Island) in Narraganset Bay.


Before leaving Boston, Mary had given birth to a severely deformed infant that was stillborn. Because of the prevailing theological sentiments of the time concerning such a birth, the baby was buried secretly. When the Massachusetts authorities learned of this birth, its facts became public, and in the minds of the colony’s ministers and magistrates, the “monstrous” birth was clearly a result of Mary’s “monstrous” religious opinions. More than a decade later, in late 1651, Mary Dyer went by ship to England, and stayed there for over five years, becoming an avid follower of the Quaker faith that had been established by George Fox several years earlier. Because Quakers were considered among the most heinous of heretics by the Puritans, Massachusetts enacted several laws against them. When Dyer returned to Boston from England, she was immediately imprisoned, and then banished. Defying her order of banishment, she was again banished, this time upon pain of death. Deciding that she would die as a martyr if the anti-Quaker laws were not repealed, Dyer once again returned to Boston and was sent to the gallows in 1659, having the rope around her neck when a reprieve was announced. Not accepting the reprieve, she again returned to Boston the following year, and was then hanged to become the third of four Quaker martyrs.


I’ll leave you to delve the details of Antinomian Controversy, free grace theology, and whatnot if you are interested. This happens to be an interest of mine, personally and professionally, but I don’t need to inflict a theological debate on you. What I will comment on, however, is the gross religious intolerance of the Massachusetts Colonial Puritans. It boggles the mind that Puritans who left England because they were not free to practice their religious beliefs, should turn around and be as intolerant of others as their former masters, whom they were fleeing, had been. But it makes sense, particularly in light of many current religious beliefs in the U.S.

What comes to mind for me are the speculations of the cultural geographer Wilbur Zelinsky who argues that the “first effective occupance” of a colony creates a permanent imprint for future generations. His arguments are a little too circular for my tastes, but I think there is a valid core to what he says. His thesis was put to me as a graduate student of folklore in this way: North Carolina was first settled by the English and so has an English feel to it nowadays, whereas Louisiana was first settled by the French and so has a French feel to it. The flaws in the argument are self evident. Louisiana was colonized by the Spanish before it was French.  Why is there not more Spanish influence? Why is there not more Dutch influence in New York? Zelinsky focuses on the word “effective” here in circular manner. These attempts at colonization were not “effective” because they were swamped by later arrivals. In brief what he ends up saying is that the cultures of these “effective” colonists lasted, because they lasted !!! Enough said. My take on the whole debate is somewhat different. I see a certain strain of Puritanism and intolerance as everlasting in the United States, which is deeply ironic given the initial reasons that the Puritans fled England, and the underlying values of tolerance of the American Revolutionary and Independence movement.

The fact is that the Puritans were not tolerant by nature. They were convinced of the rightness of their beliefs to the point that they wanted everyone to be like them. Oliver Cromwell is the poster boy of this stance. “I think plays and dancing will lead to Hell, so NO ONE may go to plays or dance.” Well, the English eventually told him what they thought of his ideas. Over time the English proved to be more tolerant than the people they expelled. The North American colonies were not founded on toleration, they were built as bastions of intolerance: places where individual sects could practice their own brands of belief but where dissent was not allowed.


The Independence movement of the 18th century was not rooted in religious freedom but in economic and, hence, political realities. The French ideals of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity are all well and good, but it scarcely needs to be pointed out that these “ideals” were promoted in North America by slave holders who saw women as second-class citizens who could not hold property and could not vote. In order for the colonies to be united in opposition to England there had to be some compromises. The colonies valued their individual natures and their individual freedom from each other as much as they wanted freedom from England. Thus, federalism was born – a monster child if ever there was one. Under a federal system, states are free to pass laws on certain matters as long as they do not conflict with the overarching laws of the central government. How this works – or doesn’t – can be seen in the history of Supreme Court judgments; the Supreme Court exists to make sure that state law does not conflict with the (universal) Constitution.

The American Revolutionary War could not have begun without the colonies first being united against a common enemy. This political reality, and not the founding principles of the original colonies, undergirds the idea of religious tolerance.  The notion that there was to be no religious test for public office ensured that separate sects would not be disenfranchised nationally, not because one group valued the beliefs of others.  They didn’t. For political purposes, the founding fathers enshrined religious tolerance in the Constitution.

Back we come to Zelinsky. The founding ideas of Puritanism and intolerance still cling tight to segments of the population. Papering over the cracks in the federalist compromise won’t hide that fact. To this day there are segments of the population in the American South that believe that the Northern states had no right to abolish slavery in the Southern states, and that the Civil War was a gross miscarriage of justice.


Mary Dyer was a deliberate martyr for the cause of religious freedom and individual rights, and her name is not well known enough. Her stillbirth was not her fault and she should not have been stigmatized for it. Neither should she have been imprisoned, sentenced to death, and banished from Massachusetts for her beliefs. The fact that she could have lived out her life in another colony was not good enough for her. She kept defying laws and death sentences imposed on her by returning to Boston because she believed that these laws were unjust and hoped to change hardened hearts by her death – a true emulation of Christ (i.e. Christian).  We do well to remember her on the anniversary of her death.


Given my Christian allusions, lamb seems like an appropriate dish for today. Here is a period English recipe taken from The Accomplish’d Lady’s Delight In Preserving, Physick, Beautifying, and Cookery (1675)

To make a Lamb Pye.

First, Cut your Lamb into pieces, and then Season it with Nutmegs, Cloves, and Mace, and some Salt with Currans, Raisins of the Sun, and Sweet Butter; and if you will eat it hot, when it is baked put in some Yolks of Eggs, with Wine-Vinegar and Sugar beaten together; but if you will eat it cold, put in no Eggs, but only Vinegar and Sugar.

You can fill out the instructions without too much trouble. It’s a typical 17th century mélange of meat and dried fruits with sweet spices. You’ll need a flaky pastry crust for the top. I’d be inclined to add some stock to the vinegar for additional flavor, but the fruit, sugar, and vinegar combination is a good sweet and sour mix. The egg yolks act to thicken the gravy. You can use flour instead if you wish, but eggs are richer.