The Sisterhood of Friends
A hanging inspires three Oyster Bay siblings to fight for the Quakers of New England

By George DeWan
Newsday, Inc., Staff Writer


Puritans whipping Quakers in Boston
Puritans whipping Quakers in Boston (The Granger Collection)



A statue of  martyr Mary Dyer
A statue of martyr Mary Dyer (AP Photo)



Mary Dyer, a middle-aged mother of six, was hanged as a Quaker from a sturdy branch of a great elm tree on Boston Common in 1660. A Puritan in the gathered crowd looked at the lifeless body and jested: ``She hangs there as a flag for others to take example.''

Three remarkable young Quaker sisters from Oyster Bay took example from Mary Dyer's death, but not in the way the scornful Puritan intended. Over a period of 17 years, from 1660 to 1677, Mary Wright, then Hannah Wright, then Lydia Wright, were so moved by the persecution of Quakers in New England that they went to Boston, each on her own, to testify in the courts of Puritan authority. For their efforts, they were jailed, pilloried and run out of town.

``Assertively and independently, each questioned the authority of ministers and magistrates, taking a course of action not considered appropriate for women in a paternalistic society,'' Mildred DeRiggi, a historian with the Nassau County Department of Museum Services, said at a 1996 history conference.

The oldest sister, Mary, who was 18 at the time of Dyer's death, traveled by herself to Boston a few months later. She went to demonstrate against the hanging of Mary Dyer, who after she had been banished, returned to Boston to continue preaching. Mary Wright, along with several Quakers from Salem, Mass., were all immediately jailed.

The next sister to challenge the authorities was Hannah, four years younger than Mary and a teenager also when she went to Boston. Although King Charles II by this time had halted the hanging of Quakers -- four had been executed -- a new Massachusetts law was in effect. It called for Quakers to be stripped naked to the waist, tied to the back of a cart and whipped through town after town until they were out of the colony.

Hannah's story is summarized in ``The History of the Rise, Increase and Progress of the Christian People Called Quakers,'' a 19th Century book by William Sewel:

``Once, a girl . . . called Hannah Wright, whose sister had been banished for religion, was stirred with such zeal, that coming from Long Island, some hundreds of miles from Boston, into that bloody town, she appeared in the court there, and warned the magistrates to spill no more innocent blood. This saying so struck them at first, that they all sat silent; till Rawson the secretary said, ``What, shall we be baffled by such a one as this? Come, let us drink a dram.''

The youngest of the sisters, Lydia, was 22 in the summer of 1677 when she and other Quakers accompanied Margaret Brewster of Barbados when she entered a Puritan Church in Boston dressed as a penitent. ``Brewster was barefoot, with her hair loose and with ashes on her head, her face blackened, and sackcloth covering her garments,'' DeRiggi said.

All of the Quakers were arrested. In August, they appeared in court for trial, and Lydia Wright's testimony before the magistrates -- reproduced in a 1753 book by Joseph Besse, ``A Collection of the Sufferings of the People Called Quakers'' -- shows she had remarkable poise for a young woman.

Gov. John Leverett: ``Are you one of the women that came in with this woman into Mr. Thatcher's meeting-house to disturb him at his worship?''

Lydia Wright: ``I was; but I disturbed none, for I came in peaceably, and spake not a word to man, woman or child.''

Governor: ``What came you for then?''

Wright: ``Have you not made a law that we should come to your meeting? For we were peaceably met together at our own meeting house, and some of your constables came in and haled some of our Friends out, and said, `This is not a place to worship God in.' Then we asked him `Where we should worship God?' Then they said `We must come to your public worship.' And upon the first-day following I had something upon my heart to come to your public worship, when we came in peaceably, and spake not a word, yet we were haled to prison, and there have been kept near a month.''

S. Broadstreet: ``Did you come there to hear the word of God?''

Wright: ``If the word of God was there, I was ready to hear it.'' . . .

Juggins (a magistrate): ``You are led by the spirit of the devil, to ramble up and down the country like whores and rogues a cater-wauling.''

Wright: ``Such words do not become those who call themselves Christians, for they that sit to judge for God in matters of conscience ought to be sober and serious, for sobriety becomes the people of God, for these are a weighty and ponderous people.''

Governor: ``Do you own [acknowledge] this woman?

Wright: ``I own her and have unity with her, and I do believe so have all the servants of the Lord, for I know the power and presence of the Lord was with us.''

Juggins: ``You are mistaken: You do not know the power of God. You are led by the Spirit and Light within you, which is of the Devil. There is but one God, and you do not worship that God which we worship.''

Wright: ``I believe thou speakest truth, for if you worshipped that God which we worship, you would not persecute his people, for we worship the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and the same God that Daniel worshipped.''

So they cried, ``Take her away.''

Margaret Brewster was stripped to the waist, given 20 lashes, tied to the back of a cart and drawn through town. Lydia Wright and the rest of the women were also tied to the cart, but not whipped. Thus banished, she returned to Oyster Bay.

The Wright sisters were the daughters of Peter and Alice Wright, who were among the first settlers of Oyster Bay. The middle sister, Hannah, died at age 29 when her boat capsized while she was on a Quaker mission in Maryland. Both Mary and Lydia married, and in 1685 they moved with their families to New Jersey.

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