A dramatisation of the story surrounding the death by hanging of the Quaker Mary Dyer in 1660

A Question of Courage

Mary Dyer and Courage

As a youngster, I learned something about physical and moral courage. I was 14 years old when I was beaten up defending the honour of my new girl-friend. The rowdy who insulted her knocked me down when I protested. I got up, and he knocked me down. I got up, and went down again. She called for me to stay down, but I had to get up. He gave up, discontented with an easy victory but an unyielding opponent, and went off with his crowd.

The girl was all soft sympathy and thought I was a hero, black eye and bloodied mouth. The courage shown was was more than injured pride on my part. I didn't then see it as such, but it could have been a moral imperative, underlying physical courage; spiritual depths underlying the moral imperative. What lies beyond the spiritual? Where do convictions and conscience fit in? In adult life, as a person who teeters so often on the fine line between cowardice and some of these sources of strengths, I found the story of Mary Dyer misty and hidden as it is both intriguing and inspiring. It is perhaps a rare example of the interweaving of all these courages. Who knows for certain?

It happened over three centuries ago. Who can come close to the spirit and mind of the martyr, even if there were much evidence available? In the case of Mary Dyer, there are only scraps of her reported words, or musty old manuscripts, or the personal interpretations of others, later down the centuries. One observer of the time saw her as "a person of no mean extract or parentage, of an estate pretty plentiful, of a comely stature and countenance, of a piercing knowledge in many things, of a wonderful sweet and pleasant discourse." A remarkable woman, whatever the basis of her thinking, feeling, loving, and spiritual depths.

At the age of 23, and in that raw, frontier Massachusetts Bay Colony only a year or so, what prompted her to step out into the aisle and probably banishment too, in support of her friend the equally remarkable Anne Hutchinson? Twenty or so years later - though their views of maternal responsibilities were apparently not as ours - how could she ignore ties of husband and growing family, to speak out in the spiritual lion's den in Boston to face probable hanging? Even more perplexing, what form of courage - or madness! - was it to return AGAIN to certain death in Boston, just seven months after being reprieved on the gallows that first time? She was undoubtedly remarkable. She refused to stay down. More than that, she stood UP determinedly to be counted.

We surely need more of THAT today, when the direction is to "stay out of it" and "don't get involved".

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