The Silencing of Mary Dyer



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The Silencing of Mary Dyer

(From Us and Them: A History of Intolerance in America, by Jim Carnes. Montgomery: Teaching Tolerance, Southern Poverty Law Center,1995.)


“Mary Dyer left England in 1635 as an outlaw – a Puritan whose religious faith was declared illegal by the national Church of England. Rather than change her religion, she, along with many others, chose to leave her home and start a new life on the strange and distant shore of Massachusetts Bay…

“So much about life in the young Bay Colony was unknown and fearsome. Half of the first 700 colonists died of scurvy within the first two years. Crude heating in wooden buildings caused frequent fires… They found courage in their common faith and depended on the Church to keep that faith in focus.

“The Puritan Church governed all aspects of life in the colony. Church leaders dictated what people could wear and how they should behave, both in public and inside the home. The [Bible] was the foundation of civil law. Anyone convicted of violating one of the Ten Commandments was punished by hanging. Anyone who questioned the official faith was treated as a criminal. Women in Massachusetts were not even allowed to discuss a sermon, much less voice their own ideas about religion. Mary … soon recognized in [her] own church and government the same intolerant spirit that had driven [her] out of England.

“For as long as she could, Mary maintained an uneasy silence, in keeping with church rules. [And then she met an outspoken neighbor of hers.]

“The women of [Mary’s] neighborhood – in what is now downtown Boston – gathered regularly to share certain chores, such as weaving and soap-making and gardening. [The also shared] their thoughts.

The neighbor Mary Dyer grew closest to was Anne Hutchinson. To the astonishment of her peers, Anne openly opposed the rigid authority of the church leaders. She believed that no church had the authority to govern a society. In her view, God spoke to everyone, male and female, and gave each individual the ability to discern right from wrong. Hearing Anne say these things out loud filled Mary with both relief and excitement, as if her own mind had suddenly been freed from a cage.

“Anne Hutchinson organized a weekly religious meeting, which Mary Dyer faithfully attended. The swelling crowd soon included members of the clergy and the local government. Anne’s eloquence and her knowledge of the Bible impressed everyone who heard her. Her popularity continued to grow until John Winthrop, [the Colony’s governor,] set out to stop her.


dictated: directed

convicted: found guilty of

opposed: to be against

rigid: strict




govern: to rule

discern: to be able to figure out; to understand

clergy: religious leaders

eloquence: articulateness; effective speech


“A respected Puritan minister, Winthrop was elected the Colony’s first governor in 1631… In 1637…Winthrop brought charges of slander against her in general court. Many of her followers abruptly turned away from her.

“At the trial, Anne Hutchinson] was banished from the colony. Knowing that the same thing could happen to her, Mary Dyer stepped to the front of the courtroom to take her friend’s hand. For Mary, there was no choice. She had risked her life before for the right to practice her faith, and she would do it again.

“The new ideas that Anne and Mary and their friends had been spreading didn’t just make Governor Winthrop angry—they made him afraid. Amid so much physical uncertainty, Winthrop believed that a united spirit among the colonists was essential for their common survival. He feared that a loosening of Church control would endanger not only the colony’s welfare but also its charter from the King. Division and controversy were the Devil’s business, [he believed].

When word came that Anne Hutchinson and her family had been killed …, Winthrop proclaimed it the work of the Lord.”

… “To the Puritan leaders,… open defiance of authority indicated a desire and intention to tear down the government. [The governor] authorized a law requiring that [all people opposing Puritan beliefs] be banished from the Colony [or] put in jail. .. [Eventually,] any man who [opposed Puritan teachings] would have an ear cut off. If he refused either to leave the colony or to abandon [his beliefs], he lost the other ear. Women received whippings for their first two offenses. The crime of blasphemy could get a person’s forehead branded with the letter ‘B.’ Puritan officials pierced the tongues of some [religious dissidents] with hot irons to prevent them from speaking out any more.

After Anne Hutchinson’s death, “Mary vowed to continue the struggle that her friend had begun, no matter what the consequences. She followed her conscience in defying the law and speaking out about her own convictions. Everyone, she said, had the right to believe and practice religion as he or she saw fit... In response ... a court banished Mary [and her husband] from the Bay Colony in 1638… [Mary returned to Boston in 1660. Friends and family tried to talk Mary into giving up her religion so that she could go free.] Instead, she wrote letters to government officials insisting that they were the ones who ought to change.” [Refusing to give up her beliefs, Mary was hanged from a tree amid a large crowd of onlookers in 1660.]


slander: lying that harms others

banished: kicked out; removed

essential: necessary

welfare: well-being; health; safety

controversy: conflict; differences of opinion

defiance: disagreement with; opposition to




blasphemy: speech against religious things

dissidents: people who are in disagreement with others

vowed: promised

defying: going against

convictions: beliefs


Mary Dyer: Answer in clear, complete sentences.

1. Why did Mary Dyer choose to leave England?

2. We know life was hard in Massachusetts Bay Colony. Give two pieces of evidence from the text that support this statement.

3. What are three differences between Anne Hutchinson and her beliefs and the other Puritans in Massachusetts Bay Colony?

4. Would you consider Mary Dyer to be a good friend? Why? Why not? Use specific evidence from the text to support your opinion.

5. Why was Governor Winthrop afraid of Anne and Mary?

6. In your own words, what was Governor Winthrop’s reaction to Anne Hutchinson’s death? Does his reaction seem to you like the typical reaction of a “religious,” church-going person? Why/why not?

7. What traits does Mary Dyer share with some of the characters we studied during our look at “heroes?”

8. What is “ironic” about the way Mary Dyer was treated in Massachusetts Bay Colony? (Think about why she came to America in the first place.)



9. If you were suddenly transported back in time to Massachusetts Bay Colony, how do you think you would get along? Why? Begin your response with a topic sentence followed by at least three supporting sentences.


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