THE MOST IMPORTANT ENGLISH WOMAN IN COLONIAL AMERICA
Anne Hutchinson’s legacy has changed over the last 300 years.
To the Puritan orthodoxy of the 16th Century, she was an “agent of destructive anarchy.” To the 19th Century, Anne was a crusader for religious liberty. In our time, she is the symbol of a feminist leader; assertive and highly visible.
Anne Marbury was born in Lincolnshire, England, in 1591. She was the daughter of an Anglican minister with Puritan inclinations; so much so that he was censured and imprisoned. At 21, Anne married a merchant working in London named William Hutchinson. Shortly afterward, the couple moved to the small town of Alford to start a family. They had heard of a young, charismatic Puritan minister named Rev. John Cotton who was preaching in a nearby town and decided to attend his service. Although Cotton was only 27, he was gaining a reputation for giving spiritual messages that were unlike any others. He minimized an individual’s behavior as a requirement to gain salvation while emphasizing one’s spiritual conversion. Anne was greatly drawn to this message, and she attended his church often. Cotton’s philosophy was called the “COVENANT OF GRACE” and differed from mainstream Puritan teachings, the “COVENANT OF WORKS.”
The “Covenant of Works” vs. the “Covenant of Grace”
A theological “covenant” is a divinely offered agreement or promise from God that frames His relationship with humanity. At the time, two different theological covenants vied for acceptance. The first, supported by the more orthodox Puritan sects, was the “Covenant of Works,” sometimes called the old covenant, which is a major theme of the Old Testament. It supports the belief that salvation is achieved by following the laws set down by God. It promises eternal life for obedience and death for disobedience. Signs of the Covenant of Works include the knowledge of good and evil and the observance of the Sabbath.
The second is the “Covenant of Grace,” sometimes called the new covenant. It is the primary message of the New Testament. It supports the belief that salvation is achieved through the crucifixion of Christ which atones for the sins of all who put their faith in him; Christ being the representative for all mankind. Signs of the Covenant of Grace include Baptism and Communion. Some people believe it replaces the Covenant of Works, but most see it as existing alongside it. Other theological covenants, not related to salvation, also exist such as belief in a “promised land.”
(We are not theologians, and admit that the understanding of covenants is much deeper than this brief description. But we are looking at the historical and sociological consequences of the conflict between these two viewpoints in early America.)
Anne saw herself as a participant in the power of God and His grace gave her a status that would have traditionally been determined by that of her husband or father. This social empowerment was irresistible to her.
The Anglican Church in England was driven to suppress any preaching or practices that did not conform to their ideology. The Puritans had already been pressured to relocate to the new colonies in America starting about 1620. In 1633, John Cotton was removed from his ministry, threatened with imprisonment, and went into hiding. Soon after, he departed for the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Anne and William Hutchinson believed that the Spirit directed them to follow Cotton to the New World. They had already sent their oldest son along with Cotton.
Anne Arrives in America
The Hutchinson’s arrived in Massachusetts with ample assets. They built a house in Boston and bought farmland outside the town where the city of Quincy is located today. Anne adjusted easily to her new home. She was a midwife and while attending to the needs of women in childbirth, she offered them spiritual advice.
A friend of the Hutchinson’s, John Cotton was now acting as the temporary minister in a church in Boston. It grew 50% in membership during his first four months, becoming the leading Puritan church in the city. In her home Anne held gatherings for people “who had found grace” where she spoke about the teachings of John Cotton. She also offered her own views and beliefs. Over time her theological interpretations, closely allied with John Cotton, began to distance her from the more traditional views of orthodox Puritan ministers in the colony. She attracted many new followers to the Covenant of Grace including people who believed that outward behavior was not necessarily tied to one’s soul. Among the latest visitors to her home was the respected Henry Vane.
But there was religious tension building between the traditional and new belief systems. The next year, 1634, John Wilson, the permanent and senior pastor of the Puritan church, returned from England. Anne and other new church members were exposed to his teaching for the first time. She saw immediately that there was an enormous difference between her own belief system and his, and it was disagreeable. All the ministers in the colony, other than John Cotton, believed as Wilson did. Hutchinson and her co-believers began disrupting Wilson’s sermons or rose and left the church when he got up to preach. Local ministers began writing to Cotton communicating their concern over his preaching and about the unorthodox opinions of his parishioners, especially Anne Hutchinson.
In 1636, new influential supporters of the Covenant of Grace appeared. The eminent Rev. John Wheelwright arrived from England and allied himself with Cotton and Hutchinson. He was also Anne’s brother-in-law. In addition, their supporter Henry Vane had just been elected Governor. Things were looking up.
But during the summer, continued disrespect for John Wilson and growing aggression from the Covenant of Works group caused an eruption between the two factions. In the rear view mirror of history, we see the Puritans as a single unified sect but nothing like that existed in 1636 Massachusetts.
Accusations of Heresy
A Boston magistrate, John Winthrop, took notice of the turmoil and warned of future actions. Instead of pronouncing blame on one of the ministers like Cotton or Wheelwright, Winthrop wrote, “One Mrs. Hutchinson, a member of the church at Boston, a woman of ready wit and a bold spirit, brought over two dangerous errors: (1) That the person of the Holy Ghost dwells in a justified person; (2) That no sanctification can help to evidence to us our justification;” in others words she did not follow the doctrine of the orthodox Puritan church. Another accusation of her was that she had charged some of the ministers of preaching a covenant of works; and therefore, they were not proper ministers of the New Testament.
By late 1636, the schism had deepened and was called “The Antinomian Controversy.” Hutchinson and her supporters were accused of two heresies: antinomianism (meaning against or opposed to the law) and of being familists, the belief that all things are ruled by nature and not directly by God. Hutchinson, Cotton, Wheelwright, and Vane were all considered outside the boundaries of the true Puritan church. Clearly it went beyond a theological debate at this point, and encompassed gender and political issues as well. The bold behavior of Anne Hutchinson and her followers had begun to threaten the “Puritan Holy Experiment.”
After six months of standoffs, things began to change between the Puritan Church and the followers of the Covenant of Grace. The tide was turning in favor of the church’s traditional teachings. At this time, there was a very close parallel between the doctrines of the church and the political actions of the Massachusetts Bay Colony government; made even closer by the defeat of the Covenant of Grace supporter, Governor Henry Vane, in the election of May 1637. He was replaced by John Winthrop, the magistrate who so bitterly condemned Anne Hutchinson the previous summer.
Anne Hutchinson on Trial
Rev. Wheelwright, Anne’s brother-in-law, was tried in public court and convicted of provoking a rebellion against the colony government. He was sentenced to banishment. Other supporters of Anne were tried and also given similar sentences. But all of this was just a preface to the main event. In November, Anne Hutchison was brought to trial on the primary charge of slandering the ministers of the church. Remember, she had said that they were unfit to teach the New Testament. She was also charged with “troubling the peace of the commonwealth and churches” because she promoted opinions that caused distress among the people.
Anne may have been persecuted to a greater extent because she stepped beyond the gender role that was considered appropriate for a woman, especially a Puritan woman. The local ministers were not accustomed to outspoken women, and they saw Anne as a threat to their position. As she gained more followers, the treat became too much to tolerate. Her true crime may have been the violation of her role in Puritan society.
Presiding over her trial was her nemesis the new Governor, John Winthrop. The goal of the prosecution was to demonstrate that Anne made denigrating remarks about the ministers. At first they tried to prove that she had been a co-conspirator of the others already found guilty. But the court was not able to make that accusation stick. Her defense was that she had only spoken reluctantly and in private; which was not completely the case. As the day wore on, Anne was successful at out maneuvering the arguments of the prosecutors. She possessed boundless self confidence and was well educated, largely because of her father. At the end of the first trial day Winthrop said, possibly to atone for his aggressive questioning, “Mrs. Hutchinson, the court has labored to bring you to acknowledge the error of your ways.” She didn’t.
On the trial’s second day, Anne Hutchinson, buoyed by her triumphs the day before, went on the offensive. She accused the magistrates and the ministers of violating their own oath of confidentiality and of deceiving the court about her activities. She also demanded that the ministerial witnesses testify under oath. Then the court called John Cotton to the stand. He claimed to remember little of what Anne had said and done, and tried to portray her in a softer light. But overall his testimony was less than supportive of this lady who had admired him so much.
Then the most dramatic event of the trial occurred when Anne addressed the court. Anne’s remarks were recorded in the transcript as, “You have no power over my body, neither can you do me any harm - for I am in the hands of the eternal Jehovah, my Savior. I fear none but the great Jehovah, who has foretold me of these things, and I do verily believe that he will deliver me out of your hands. Therefore take heed how you proceed against me - for I know that, for this you are about to do to me, God will ruin you and your posterity and this whole state.” It was her chance to teach the court a thing or two, but ultimately it was her undoing.
Believing Anne to be possessed by an unholy spirit, the court’s task was now made clearer. Her outburst was both rebellious and a contempt of court. Winthrop was not going to allow the assertions of his destructive figure to rewrite the history of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. John Winthrop moved to have Anne Hutchinson banished.
She was condemned to banishment “as being a woman not fit for our society.” Winthrop announced the verdict saying, “It is the Lord’s work, and it is marvelous in our eyes.” Anne was put under house arrest and not allowed to see her children. She had been isolated so that others would not be inspired by her words. After four months of detention, she was put on trial again, this time by the church itself. The ministers were trying to protect the orthodox doctrine of the Puritan church, and called Anne forward and read all of the many errors in her interpretation of the scriptures.
In a heartbreaking turn of events, John Cotton himself was called upon to deliver the church’s reprimand of Anne. He said, “It is the overwhelming conclusion of the ministers that Hutchinson’s unsound beliefs outweighed any good she has done, and that she endangered the spiritual welfare of the community . . . Therefore, I do admonish you, and also charge you in the name of Christ Jesus that you sadly consider the just hand of God against you, the great hurt you have done to the Churches, the great Dishonor you have brought to Jesus Christ, and the Evil that you have done to many a poor soul.”
A week later, Anne Hutchinson was forced to write a formal recantation of her unsound opinions. She stood in the church that she had attended and, in a subdued voice, read the denial of her previous beliefs. She admitted that she was wrong about the soul and the spirit, the resurrection of the body, and in predicting the destruction of the colony. Most shockingly she agreed that only the Covenant of Works was the true path to salvation.
Banishment from Massachusetts
Anne was excommunicated from the church and given three months to leave the colony. She and her children travelled to Providence, Rhode Island, at the invitation of Roger Williams, the founder of that colony. Not long after her family settled there, Massachusetts made some threats to annex a large portion of Rhode Island which compelled Anne to move once again, out of the reach of the magistrates and ministers of the Puritan church. She relocated to New Netherland, now New York City, after her husband died.
The Hutchinson family’s timing for their move was regrettable however. In 1643, a band of hostile Siwanoy warriors attacked the compound where the family lived. They killed all but one member of the family, cutting off the heads of several then burning the bodies. One nine-year-old daughter named Susanna was captured and taken to live with the tribe. Several years later, Susanna was ransomed and returned to other relatives. It has become known as the Hutchinson Massacre.
After Anne’s death, John Winthrop wrote, “Thus it had pleased the Lord to have compassion for his poor churches here, and to discover this great imposter, an instrument of Satan so fitted and trained to his service of interrupting the passage of his kingdom in this part of the world, and poisoning the churches here.”
While her interpretations of the scriptures were not all that different from mainstream Puritan beliefs, her criticisms of the prevailing power structure in Massachusetts ultimately brought her down.
Note 1: Many literary critics believe that the character of Hester Prynne in Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter” was based on Anne Hutchinson’s persecution in Massachusetts. While Hester Prynne seduced the minister of her community; Anne Hutchinson was the alleged heretic who seduced the Puritan community. If there is any real connection between the two, it is more likely that the fictionalization of Anne Hutchinson was used as the inspiration for the literary character of Hester.
Note 2: Anne Hutchinson is also a point of connection between notable people from the past and notable modern Americans. Her ancestors included Charlemagne, Alfred the Great, Edward I and Henry II of England, and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Her descendants include Stephan A. Douglas, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Franklin D. Roosevelt, George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush, and George Romney and Mitt Romney.