“You have maintained a meeting and an assembly in your house that hath been condemned by the general assembly as a thing not tolerable nor comely in the sight of God nor fitting for your sex.” So spoke John Winthrop, governor of Massachusetts Colony, at the trial of Anne Hutchinson, Newtown (later Cambridge), 1637.
For more than a century, Americans have cherished the idea that their country was founded by people in search of religious freedom. And that idea is correct – to a point. The Puritans did emigrate to New England to escape persecution, but they were looking for freedom for themselves, not for those who did not follow or fit in with the tenets of their own brand of religion. Though no one was ever burned in New England for religious heresy, the Puritans were more than capable of inflicting other sorts of persecution.
Anne Marbury Hutchinson was born in England in 1591, and crossed the Atlantic with her husband and 15 children (!) in 1634 to settle Boston. A gifted midwife and healer, Anne was welcomed into the community and, always interested in theology, when she began holding study meetings for women in her home, she was esteemed as a model Puritan woman. A powerful speaker, Anne was soon attracting large audiences both male and female. At this point, her troubles began. For Anne’s views about God, salvation, and the ability of the faithful to communicate with the divine, were incendiary. According to St. Paul, women were expected to maintain silence at public meetings. Anne countered that her meetings were private. The Puritans held that ministers were the proper intermediaries through which God communicated with his people. Anne held that God often sent his revelations directly to many people. And, she believed, salvation came only if God willed it (grace), not as a result of good works (the Antinomian heresy).
In a society ruled by men who cherished order and authority, it was imperative that Anne be silenced. Her husband’s property was confiscated. In 1637, she was accused by a conference of ministers, tried for “traducing the ministers”, and found guilty by the General Court of Massachusetts, and placed under house arrest. In 1638, a religious tribunal tried her for blasphemy and lewd conduct (for having men and women together at her meetings).
Mrs. Hutchinson’s hearings were nothing short of sensational. For Anne was a brilliant thinker and a forceful, articulate speaker, and those learned men who accused her were hard put to refute her skilled and eloquent defense of herself. In addition to her religious crimes, the stillborn birth of her baby (perhaps because of the stresses she was undergoing as well as her age, early 40’s) was held against her. Described as a monster, many felt that the loss of the deformed infant was a clear sign of God’s displeasure. John Winthrop stated with vehemence, “You have been more a Husband than a Wife and a preacher than a hearer; and a Magistrate than a subject.” The judgment: “Mrs. Hutchinson, the sentence of the court you hear is that you are banished from out of our jurisdiction as being a woman not fit for our society, and are to be imprisoned till the court shall send you away.”
Anne Hutchinson refused to recant and was sent into exile. In the spring of 1638 she, her family, and her most devoted adherents left Massachusetts Bay for Providence Plantation (Rhode Island), founded by Roger Williams, a man more dedicated to the ideal of religious tolerance. After her husband died, she moved to New Amsterdam(New York). There, in 1643, she and five of her children were killed in an Indian raid. John Winthrop viewed her violent death as a sign of God’s final judgment on her blasphemy.
Winthrop characterized Anne Hutchinson as “a woman of haughty and fierce carriage, a nimble wit and active spirit, a very voluble tongue, more bold than a man.” Was her persecution and banishment the result of her religious nonconformity or her challenge to male dominance and authority? This is a question that has been debated for more than 300 years.
Some literary critics trace the development of the character of Hester Prynne in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter to Hutchinson’s persecution in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In southern New York State, the Hutchinson River and the Hutchinson River Parkway are named in her honor
Those interested in learning more about Anne Hutchinson are directed to: