Anne Hutchinson bewitches most college students. When analyzing her trial transcripts, with her clever and sarcastic repartee with Massachusetts Bay Governor John Winthrop and the Puritan ministers, they come to admire her greatly. Whiggishness creeps into their interpretation of her words and actions, seeing her as a harbinger of contemporary liberty. They believe that the fact she was a woman motivated the prosecution, that the episode demonstrates the victory of authoritarianism over freedom, and that Hutchinson was a martyr for free speech. On the flip side, they see Winthrop as a bully and colonial dictator, a Mussolini in knee britches. This understanding, however, filtered through the prism of twenty-first century anxieties, belies the complexity of those events and its leading personalities. Hutchinson was a deeply problematic figure.

A decade after the founding of Plymouth, hundreds of English Puritans led by John Winthrop settled slightly north in what would become Massachusetts Bay Colony and the city of Boston. Puritanism was a slippery faith with numerous internal differences amongst its adherents; however, as historian Evan Haefeli observed, “everybody had their own version of what it meant to be a puritan.” This type of unity—uniform agreement across an entire society to “agree to disagree” and gloss over divisions—is ultimately untenable, as it is impossible to maintain identity without something to identify against. In New England, they missed the old enemies.

It turns out that even puritans were not always sure who was puritan. They were much better at figuring out who was not, but even that could be difficult . . . They lacked a local anti-type. In England, puritans always had others against whom they could maintain their vital distinctiveness. There were masses of the profane and unregenerate, the dreaded Arminians, and the so-called “church papists,” not to mention actual Catholics. In Massachusetts, there were no ungodly around to rail at and reform. How could one be a puritan in a society made up exclusively of puritans?

By the mid-1630s, with the pressure of the Pequot War, English politics marching toward civil war, and colonial land squabbles, Massachusetts faced the danger of indifferentism, what Cardinal Henry Manning in a later age would describe as “passively living on under the traditions in which they were born, without so much as a formal or conscious intellectual perception of the nature of a Church.” The extremities of the Boston Antinomians presented fertile and opportune ground for firming up Puritan identity.[1]

Led by Reverend Thomas Shepherd and later Governor Winthrop, Massachusetts authorities accused the New England Antinomians of heresy and sedition. The first charge was that Antinomians believed no connection existed between sanctification and justification, that there were no visible signs one was saved. God placed the Holy Spirit inside the saved, and with fierce introspection people could detect whether it lived within them. This led to concerns that they advocated “immediate personal communication with the Holy Ghost” rather than the Word as written in the Bible. The likely result of immediate revelation—what Winthrop called “the most desperate enthusiasm in the world”—constituted the second charge, that it would encourage moral laxity or impiety. All believers would become passive and merely await their eternal reward rather than scrutinizing Scripture for hints of salvation. Considering the aforementioned threats to Massachusetts, passiveness represented a grave danger. In addition, immediate revelation made ministers irrelevant, as well as government. It represented “the utter subversion both of Churches and civil state,” Winthrop wrote. Why have churches or a state at all if colonial citizens ordered their lives through the varieties of immediate revelation, rather than through religious and political institutions intended for a people who “see through a glass darkly?”[2]

Among the Antinomians was a young mother named Anne Hutchinson. The daughter of an English preacher, the well-educated Hutchinson traveled to Boston with her wealthy merchant husband in 1634 and in their new home—the largest in Boston, constructed with materials shipped across the Atlantic—she began holding preaching sessions expressing the radical Puritanism of “immediate revelation.” Further, she accused many ministers of harboring a belief in salvation by works rather than the “free grace” of God, a serious charge nearly akin to calling them secret Catholics. Her descendent, Massachusetts Governor Thomas Hutchinson, wrote in the 1760s,

Mrs. Hutchinson thought fit to set up a meeting of the sisters also, where she repeated the sermons preached the Lord’s day before, adding her remarks and expositions. Her lectures made much noise, and sixty or eighty principal women attended them. At first, they were generally approved of. After some time, it appeared she had distinguished the ministers and members of churches through the country; a small part of them under a covenant of grace, the rest under a covenant of works. The whole colony was soon divided into two parties.

The Antinomian party—Winthrop’s lieutenant governor called them “a potent party in the country”—soon controlled the majority of the Boston church.[3]

The crackdown began in 1637 with the trial of Hutchinson’s brother-in-law, the Reverend John Wheelwright, arguably a more important figure in Antinomianism than Hutchinson herself. A fiery sermonizer, he accused Puritan ministers of preaching salvation by works—“We must lay loade upon them, we must kille them with the words of the Lorde”—and was banished. He later traveled north to found Exeter, New Hampshire. Her civil trial came next, at which Governor Winthrop and the Puritan ministers made three accusations: she broke the Fifth commandment of honoring fathers and mothers (Winthrop et al. considered themselves the fathers of the Commonwealth), of holding breakaway prayer meetings at her house, and insulting the Massachusetts ministers.[4]

Upon questioning, it became apparent that Hutchinson was a formidable defendant, quick witted and theologically nimble. On the second accusation, for example, despite giving Biblical examples of women tutoring in the faith, the ministers claimed these inadequate for her case. She asked mockingly if they inferred her name must appear in the Bible to legitimize such meetings: “Must I shew my name written within?” Try as they might, they could not easily prove charges against her, since her prayer meetings were held privately and most evidence of her guilt came second hand. Ultimately, Hutchinson spoke the words in court they suspected she uttered in private. Under close questioning, she admitted to believing in immediate revelation and, even more damning, claimed the Lord revealed coming punishment for her accusers:

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. . . . But now having seen him which is invisible I fear not what man can do unto me.

Hutchinson was banished from the colony, like Wheelwright before her. Winthrop later wrote that Hutchinson had “freely and fully discovered herself.” At a church trial later, she admitted to a list of theological errors, but upon banishment in Rhode Island retracted them and began a “guerilla holy war against the Boston church.” In one letter to Boston, she claimed that Massachusetts Puritan ministers “spoke with the voice of Balaam, the false prophet of Revelation, and Massachusetts’s churches, Boston included, were not to be the preparatory vehicles for the Millennium; they would suffer Babylon’s doom.” Thereafter came more tragedy. In 1643, Hutchinson and most of her family were killed in an Indian raid.[5]

It is easy to see why Hutchinson emerges as a hero in this David and Goliath tale, but the drama is far more complex. Her heroism as a colonial pre-feminist is complicated by her own defense; she claimed her meetings demonstrated she acted within the traditional roles of Christian women as described in the Bible. She upheld Boston’s social norms. Public preaching was men’s business, while private preaching was the domain of women at home. In addition, focusing so intently on her gender neglects her considerable intelligence and rhetorical skills, all of which Winthrop and the ministers admitted were hers, albeit in the service of malice.[6]

Claims that Hutchinson’s trial symbolized the clash of liberty and authority also fall short. Winthrop believed that politics was ultimately a theological exercise and liberty meant doing as God intended—liberty to choose the good, not “doing as one likes.” Indeed, this reflected his entire political philosophy, as set out in his 1630 sermon “Modell of Christian Charity.” The immutable natural inequality of men on earth derived from his fallen nature and danger faced societies seeking to disrupt this order, whether through democracy or some kind of leveling. As historian Richard M. Gamble relates, Winthrop’s ideas on natural inequality or “social hierarchy” derived from God’s wisdom, power, and greatness: “His wisdom by means of earthly ‘variety and difference; His power by means of the ‘ordering or arranging of the differences; and His greatness by means of the delegation of his kingly authority to the rich and eminent whom He authorizes to act as the stewards of His blessings to men of all ranks.” The working of the Holy Spirit then assisted in “restraining the wicked,” “enabling the ‘great ones’ ” to rule with love and charity, and counseling the lowly to “practice the fruit of faith, patience, and obedience.” The social hierarchy of God demonstrated that men were linked in organic dependencies and shared common “brotherly affection.” Those in authority were not blessed because of “their own innate goodness” but because God created them “as instruments in the outworking of God’s common grace and the activity of the Holy Spirit.”[7]

Winthrop’s actions against Hutchinson were consistent with these precepts of what made a good ruler. Her use of “immediate revelation” endangered the Commonwealth’s guiding institutions of church and state and threatened to substitute in their place an anarchic spiritual individualism of passive citizens, vigilant only in condemning those skeptical of their ethereal inspirations. Faced with existential threats, a fledgling frontier community clinging to the Atlantic coast could hardly afford a set of Puritan Gnostics believing only the next world matters and that here is nothing. For Winthrop, God placed rulers on earth to defend his people from the forces of disorder represented by Anne Hutchinson. Had Hutchinson and her followers won the argument, there is every reason to believe they would have banished their opponents as sellouts burnishing a watered-down faith. The rigorously orthodox Hutchinson was no early advocate of liberal tolerance. On the other hand, Winthrop wanted her to admit her errors and return to the fold. As historian Michael Winship describes it, “They wanted her back because she had an unfathomably precious immortal soul that hung in the balance . . . this was no twentieth-century show trial; they wanted her to come back in a way that honored her integrity and freedom as a human being.”[8]

Lastly, neither Winthrop nor Hutchinson supported liberty of speech. Winthrop’s code of a good ruler prevented any speech that endangered God’s commonwealth and the faith of citizens. After all, she was brought to trial on charges of speaking too freely, of defaming the fathers of the commonwealth and calling their authority into question. Yet, Hutchinson did not make her criticisms to demonstrate the need for free speech in Massachusetts, that the exposition of every religious idea should be open for discussion in a colonial marketplace of ideas. She attacked the ministers for preaching salvation through works for precisely the same reason Winthrop prosecuted her—to shut them up. Puritans like Hutchinson were not twenty-first century liberals.

It is hard not to sympathize with Anne Hutchinson when we understand her tragedy after 1638. When she suffered a miscarriage and birthed a badly malformed child in Rhode Island, word spread and Winthrop declared her difficulties evidence of spiritual deformity. The feelings were raw and bitter on both sides. The tale of her family’s massacre at the hand of Indians is likewise difficult to read. Her work in Boston, however, was more complex, involving legitimate threats to Massachusetts Bay Colony significant enough to warrant trial and banishment. Contemporary admiration of Hutchinson as a forerunner of feminism, tolerance, and free speech runs contrary to the strict requirements of her Puritan creed. In his 1958 biography of Winthrop, The Puritan Dilemma, Edmund Morgan concluded that Anne Hutchinson and her followers who believed in immediate revelation exemplified “seventeenth century nihilism.” It is hard to disagree with that conclusion.[9]

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[1] Evan Haefeli, “America Discovers English Puritanism,” Reviews in American History, 31 (March 2003) 27; Henry Edward Manning, “The Relations of England to Christianity,” Sermons on Ecclesiastical Subjects (London, 1863) 40.

[2] Michael Winship. Making Heretics: Militant Protestantism and Free Grace in Massachusetts, 1636-1641 (Princeton, NJ, 2002) 181, 184. Winship believes Shepherd was a prime mover of the campaign against Antinomianism in Massachusetts.

[3] Thomas Hutchinson. History of the Colony of Massachuset’s Bay (London, 1863) 56; Winship, Making Heretics, 172.

[4] Edmund Morgan. The Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop (Boston, 1958) 143, 184.

[5] Winship, Making Heretics, 180, 210, 241; the transcript of Hutchinson’s trial can be found here.

[6] Ibid, 171-172.

[7] Richard Gamble. In Search of the City on a Hill: The Making and Unmaking of an American Myth (London, 2012) 36-37.

[8] Winship, Making Heretics, 206.

[9] Morgan, Puritan Dilemma, 134-154.

The featured image is an illustration of Anne Hutchinson from Elbert Hubbard’s Little Journeys to the Homes of Great Reformers (1916).

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