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  • Writer's pictureVirginia Knowles

Puritans and Quakers Up My Family Tree

(This is the Small Story from my chapter called "Story")

My one-sentence personal testimony is: “I got saved as a 12 year old at a family reunion in 1976 when my cousin shared weird-looking gospel tracts with me.” But honestly, my own spiritual story is intricately interwoven with my family heritage even hundreds of years before I was born. This became particularly poignant to me as I reflected on my exit from a Neo-Puritan patriarchal church movement where I had been a member for eight years.

From the genealogy records displayed at our family reunions, I knew that my ancestor Margaret Scott was the last and oldest person hanged during the Salem Witch Trials. She was an innocent but cranky pauper widow living in the wrong place in the wrong century. I had also seen that we have both Puritan and Quaker heritage up our family tree. Reading the novel The Witch of Blackbird Pond with my children during our homeschool years had taught me about the troubled relationship between these two religious sects. What was then just my historical backdrop would soon come into foreground focus.

A few years after we left the Neo-Puritan church, I read A Measure of Light by Beth Powning. This historical novel is based on the true story of Mary Dyer. Its depiction of extremism and conflict in the Massachusetts Bay Colony reminded me way too much of my own experience, not so much in the details as in the attitudes. That was troubling enough, but after finishing the book, I discovered a detail in my family history that shocked me even more. (Cliffhanger! I’ll save that juicy tidbit for the end of this story.)

I think many of us who have experienced crises and disillusionment can relate to the story of Mary Dyer. She and her husband William were gravely concerned about the cruel way that the Church of England treated Puritans. Encouraged by their friends Will and Anne Hutchinson (yes, the very famous Anne Hutchinson), they decided to flee to the American colonies for safety and freedom of worship.

On arriving, though, Mary realized that the Puritans could be just as harsh in their punishments against those who dissented from what they believed to be the true faith. A culture of strict rules, fear of divine retribution, demonization of others outside the community (especially Native Americans), and tight religious/political control ruled the colony. There was little sense of God's loving grace and gospel liberty.

When Mary gave birth to a stillborn baby with major deformities, the church leaders accused her of harboring a horrible sin that had provoked God’s wrath upon her. Anne helped her friend Mary navigate through these trying times, but even she was not safe from the sting.

A loyal disciple of the Reverend John Cotton, Anne had been entrusted with elucidating his sermons in her home meetings to make the theological meanings clear to the other women. As time passed, though, Anne placed more emphasis on grace and liberty in her lectures. Men began attending and her meetings became more popular than Cotton’s, which brought her into sharp opposition with jealous leaders. Banished from the colony, she and her followers, including the Dyers, moved south to Rhode Island.

Later, Mary returned to England for several years and became a devout Quaker, a missionary passionate about sharing the measure of light with other seeking souls. Back in the colonies again, she determined to take a stand for religious liberty, repeatedly risking her own life to plead the cause of Quakers who had been sentenced to death by the Puritan leaders. She was banished from Boston with the threat of her own death.

The Puritans hanged Mary in June 1660 after she courageously returned to Boston to demand a change to the “bloody laws” against Quakers. However, as news of this and other executions traveled throughout the colonies and to England, the Puritan leaders were eventually forced to stop persecuting the Quakers. Unfortunately, that still didn't prevent the Salem Witch Trials which claimed the life of my ancestor Margaret Scott in September 1692.

We cannot know everything of Mary Dyer's true history, but the author of A Measure of Light imagines her depression and anxiety, her disconnection from the God she thought she once knew, her shame for giving birth to a deformed stillborn baby, the difficulties faced in bonding with her later born children when she has been warned of undue attachments. As a Quaker, she was still a very complex woman with deep wounds and a dysfunctional family, at least in the novel version.

This is not a “happily ever after” tale. Mary’s suffering left a deep imprint on her soul, and on mine. I started weeping fairly early on in the book. This all hit way too close to home for me. Yet I rejoiced when she found her measure of light and regained a well-seasoned faith, hope, joy, and peace in the midst of the unrelenting challenges.

Like Mary Dyer, in this long process of waking up and moving on, I finally lost my fear and found my true voice. I became empowered to speak the truth in love, to be an advocate for the vulnerable among us. Yet, like Mary Dyer, I too have suffered much in my soul. I can write around the tattered edges of my own story, but the darker parts are etched deep within my consciousness. While healing comes as a measure of light year by year, the scars cannot be fully undone this side of eternity.

After reading the book, my world was rocked even more. Curious to find any possible connections between Mary Dyer and my Quaker ancestors, I did a quick Google search. I found my answer in a genealogy post for the descendants of a man named Edward Wanton. Yikes! It turns out that Edward was the guard at the gallows when Mary Dyer was hanged. Oh my! Tragic as this is, I found a redemptive story pivot. Disgusted by his complicity with cruelty, Edward promptly puked in Frog Pond. Then, inspired by Mary’s courage and conviction, he became a Quaker preacher, married a Quaker woman, and through his Quaker children, became my Quaker great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather.

What Mary Dyer did became my story. Hundreds of years later, I am not only here because of her, but I am changed by reading her example. I am so grateful. In turn, what I do and what I say becomes the story of others.

Think again about the power of your story.

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