Anne Hutchinson

Posted on December 26, 2013


In 1637 one of the most celebrated trials in early American history was held in Boston At the end of it, Anne Hutchinson, the mother of fifteen children, was most unceremoniously booted out of the Massachusetts Bay Colony presided over the Puritans building their “city on upon a hill,” or the New Jerusalem.

Anne Hutchinson is often named as the most significant/important woman in colonial America, so if you’ve heard of John Smith, John Winthrop or perhaps George Washington, you should know a bit about Anne Hutchinson.

The Massachusetts Bay Colony, presided over by John Winthrop, was made up largely of Puritans, a strain of Protestantism in England that was most avowedly and openly “Puritanical” in its constitution and behavior. As such, it strikes us today as seething with intolerance, bigotry, and prejudice.

Anne Hutchinson was, on the other hand, a strong woman, who knew her Bible and was not afraid of stating explicitly and with passion what it said, even if it contradicted the collected wisdom of the ministers in the colony. For doing this, she was excommunicated from the Church and banished from the colony. And there was no defense by claiming the First Amendment to the Constitution.  That wouldn’t come for more than 150 years.

She crossed the Atlantic to the Massachusetts colony in 1634 with her husband William, who was almost always overshadowed by his aggressive, some would say defiant, wife. Her style rankled the colony’s leaders, perhaps, more than anything else, because she was a woman who spoke her mind in a decidedly male-oriented society. But she was a preacher’s daughter who had been home schooled by a mother who believed, in the age of the great Queen Elizabeth, that women should be just as educated and fit as the queen.

Anne taught her followers in what we today would recognize as home Bible studies. While the pastors still did all the preaching, Anne and others followed up on the sermons and discussed them “to enquire more seriously after The Lord Jesus Christ.’ These “conventicles” became immensely popular, not only among women, but also with husbands and other men drawn to her weekly meetings at her home.

At these meetings Hutchinson elaborated on Scripture, insisting that an “intuition of the [Holy] Spirit” was absolutely essential to salvation. Or, to put it another way, salvation was not a measure of good works, but of grace, or the freely given gift of God to man. One could not work one’s way into God’s grace, but once Salvation was conferred on those chosen by God, then good works might follow as evidence of one’s salvation.

There were some theological issues at stake, principally the old one of how does one get saved? Predestination played a role in this dispute there in the wilderness of a raw New England community in the 1630s. The Puritans by and large believed that God predestined some to eternal salvation, while others were going the other way, all determined by God’s sovereign will.

Furthermore, mainline Puritans leadership also subscribed generally to the principle that one’s good works was evidence of salvation, and so good works—feeding the poor, taking care of the widows, working in the soup kitchen, etc.–were recognized as one avenue to salvation. God rewarded good works with success in family, business and life, and so if you were successful, that was prima facie evidence of good works, and of God’s salvation. Hutchinson, and others, like Martin Luther who kicked off the Reformation a century before, claimed that only God’s grace, freely given by God, was the path to salvation. The intervention of the Holy Spirit in their lives was the transformative agent, not works.

There are labels for all of these positions, and anti-positions. The controversy between Hutchinson and her friends and supporters—some of the most powerful ministers in the colony by the way—was long called the Antinomian Controversy, but is now labeled the Free Grace Controversy, since “antinomian” is probably too arcane for most modern readers.

To Winthrop and others, Hutchinson seemed to be claiming that once the Holy Spirit inhabited them, they were free from the law, or “anti nomian.” This contradicted his sense of order and discipline and he accused Hutchinson of blasphemy and even heresy.

Most students of what happened next are pretty certain that the differences between Hutchinson and Winthrop—and their respective followers—are but minor theological hairsplitting. What was really at stake was men’s dominance of the Puritan colony, and a woman’s claim to authority in a place reserved for men.

So they put her on trial in 1637, the principal accusation being “traducing [contradicting] the ministers,” and banished her from the colony. The Boston church also held a similar “trial” in 1638 and excommunicated her for good measure.

In the trial, Winthrop failed miserably to find any true Scriptural basis for the accusations and Hutchinson defended herself with great knowledge and wit. But the Synod which “tried” her had already reached its conclusions before the public event.

Hutchinson packed her bags and most of her children and headed down to Roger Williams’s newly founded colony of Rhode Island to escape the persecution. Within a few years the hand of Massachusetts Puritans reached down even into Rhode Island and she moved further south to the Dutch colony of New Netherland, now most of New York City.

Before her new home was finished somewhere in today’s Bronx to house her family, local Indians, miffed with the arrival of so many intruders and cheated by some of the Dutch and English settlers, dressed up in skins and war gear and massacred Hutchinson and all her children but one in 1643.

Winthrop crowed that God had vindicated the decision of his colony to expel such a contumacious and disturbing heretic. She had suffered several painful stillbirths and miscarriages late in her life also and Winthrop threw that on her as well as proof of vindication.

If Hutchinson was guilty of anything, it was her conviction that she was a servant of only God and his Holy Spirit, not of Puritan divines such as Winthrop who saw in her a challenge to their authority and sense of order. She could be, and was, very forthright and clear spoken.

When it was apparent that she was losing in her trial, she struck out at her accusers in a way almost guaranteed to bring the house down on her head.

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 Saviour… I fear none but the great Jehovah, which hath foretold me of these things, and I do verily believe that he will deliver me…Therefore take heed how you proceed against me—for I know that, for this you go about to do to me, God will ruin you and your posterity and this whole state.

Or, a modernized version: You have power over my body but the Lord Jesus hath power over my body and soul; and assure yourselves thus much, you do as much as in you lies to put the Lord Jesus Christ from you, and if you go on in this course you begin, you will bring a curse upon you and your posterity, and the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.

She was, in fact, persecuted for so boldly speaking her mind on Scripture and its true meaning, and, to add fuel to the fire of heresy, for being a woman doing it.

Her sisters, American women, have resurrected her memory over the centuries and placed her in the pantheon of women who made a difference. Condemned in an age of prejudice and intolerance, she helped lay the foundations of those modern precepts of liberty, freedom, and equality woven into our Constitution.

Published as Hutchinson Challenged Puritan Leaders in my column The Port Rail, Sunday Feb. 16, 2014 in The Tuscaloosa News