by Virginia Knowles cross posted from her blog Watch The Shepherd
A couple of weeks ago, a new novel mentioned on Facebook piqued my interest. I ordered it almost immediately. A Measure of Light, by bestselling Canadian author Beth Powning, retells the story of Mary Dyer, an English woman who came to Massachusetts as a persecuted Puritan, yet later became one of the earliest American Quakers.
My mind always seeks connections between what I read and my own life and family, and this was an immediate grab for me. One of my ancestors, Margaret Stevenson Scott, was the last and oldest person hanged by the Puritans in the Salem witch trials. And I also knew that some of my other ancestors were New England Quakers in the 1600 and 1700’s. This is not just a historical and genealogical interest for me, either. There is so much in my own life story which resonates with the contrast of Puritans and Quakers.
I’m not sure I was prepared for how this book affected me. And I certainly wasn’t prepared for what I found out just after I read it; I was shocked to my core. I’ll save that juicy part of the story for the end of this post. (No fair peeking!)
I already knew of the tragic conflicts between Puritans and Quakers from teaching American history to my own children and my home school co-op students for many years. In particular, I love the novel The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare. Yet that was a book for children. An adult level novel like A Measure of Light can fully explore more complexities and nuances, as well as more mature subject matter. Clue: this is not a romance novel.
As the story opens, Mary and her husband William are gravely concerned about the cruel way that the Church of England was treating Puritans. Encouraged by their friend Anne Hutchinson and her husband Will, they decide to flee to America for safety and freedom of worship. On arriving, though, Mary realizes that the Puritans are just as harsh in their punishments against those who dissent from what they believe is the true faith. A culture of strict legalism, fear of divine retribution, demonization of others outside the community (especially native Americans), and tight religious/political control rules the colony. There is little sense of God’s loving grace and gospel liberty. Anne helps Mary navigate through the difficulties of adjusting to the community and to motherhood. As a loyal disciple of the Reverend John Cotton, Anne has been entrusted with elucidating his sermons in her home meetings to make the theological meanings clear to the other women. As time passes, Anne puts more emphasis on grace and liberty in her lectures, and men begin attending. All of this ultimately brings her into sharp opposition with Cotton and the other Puritan leaders. She is banished from the colony, and her followers, including the Dyers, move south to Rhode Island. Later, Mary Dyer returns to England for several years and becomes a devout Quaker, passionate about sharing the measure of light she has received with other seeking souls. She is also determined to take a stand for religious liberty for the Quakers in America, and repeatedly risks her own life to plead the cause of those who have been imprisoned and sentenced to death.
I thought long about her conversion. It is true that the Quakers were not the most orthodox in their theology, particularly in the area of salvation and atonement. However, there is so much to admire. They believe in equality and mutual respect between men and women, between races and nationalities, and between varying socio-economic levels. They believe in peace and simplicity and quietness and supportive communities. They believe in social justice and were key figures in the Underground Railroad. They seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit and an authentic relationship with God.
I look at the Puritans, who perhaps technically had a more “correct” theological underpinning, but whose application was at times so appalling and soul-shriveling that it negated any benefit. History does not usually look kindly upon them, except for the Pilgrims and Thanksgiving. Then I look at the Quakers, who were a bit loose in their doctrine, but whose application of their FAITH brought life and health and joy to them, as well as empowerment and justice to others.
This is a clear contrast in the book. We cannot know everything of Mary Dyer’s true history, but the novel imagines her depression and anxiety, her disconnection from the God she once knew, the difficulties faced in bonding with her children when she has been warned of undue attachments, and her devastation at giving birth to a deformed stillborn baby and then hearing her religious leaders claim this was God’s wrath against her. As a Quaker, she is still a very complex woman with deep wounds and a dysfunctional family, at least in the novel version. This is not a happy ever after tale. She has suffered so much spiritually and emotionally, and that leaves a deep imprint on the soul. 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 she faced. Mary Dyer was hanged in June 1660 after courageously returning to Boston (from which she had been banished) 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 ultimately forced to stop persecuting the Quakers. Unfortunately, that still didn’t prevent the Salem Witch Trials. My ancestor, poor old Margaret Scott, an impoverished cranky widow falsely accused of witchcraft, was hanged in September 1692.
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. I weep as I write.
And I am shaking again as I write this last part, the part about what I learned after I set down the book. I thought of my second cousin Ellen, and briefly posted on her Facebook wall that I thought she’d like the book. Based on what she posts, she has a Quakerish soul, I think. Then as an afterthought, I told her that we have common Quaker heritage and sent her a link to a blog post (The Quakers Up My Family Tree) that I wrote two years ago. Thinking of that old post made me curious, wondering if there were any connections between Mary Dyer and my Quaker ancestors. I read the list of names and saw the English immigrant Noel Mew and his daughter Mary. (Side note: The name Mary was handed down this family line every two or three generations from Mary Mew in the 1600’s until my own daughter Mary.) Anyway, I Googled “Mary Dyer” and “Noel Mew” together and came up with a genealogy post for the descendents of a man named Edward Wanton. I was fascinated to find that he was an officer stationed at the base of the gallows where Mary Dyer was hanged. Edward Wanton was so struck and convicted by Mary’s faith and courage and by the cruelty of the Puritans — that he became a Quaker himself. Wow. That is powerful.
But that is not all. After his conversion, Edward Wanton got married, became a Quaker preacher, and had a Quaker family of his own. Two of his sons became colonial governors in Rhode Island. And then how about this? His son Michael married Mary Mew! Thus Edward Wanton is my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather. I let that sink in and realized that if he hadn’t become a Quaker because of standing at the gallows of courageous Mary Dyer, I would not be here. This ripple effect has washed over me like a tidal wave. What she did became my story. I am here because of her. And 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.
I look at my computer clock here in 2016. Midnight on the dot. It is now Mother’s Day.
I am a woman. I am a mother and a grandmother. I have a voice and I’m not afraid to use it. This has already made a difference to many. By the grace and power of God, my life and words will ripple forth and change history. Join me?
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