5 months pregnant. 46 years old. Standing all day, two days in a row. Badgered by the most powerful men in her colony, Puritans of power and assurance, who were threatened by her teaching. No woman could teach, they said. And she must not prophesy. And she certainly must not preach! She should simply—shut up.
But Anne Hutchinson didn’t just shut up. In 1637, she faced down the Dobsons and the Falwells of her day, standing trial for defying the Puritan ministry and government. She held her ground with a remarkable mix of logic, rhetoric, and faith.
If you’ve ever gotten discouraged about challenging sexism, theocracy, and fundamentalist power, take a lesson from Anne Hutchinson: never, ever, let them shut you up.
Born in 1591 in Lincolnshire, England, Anne was the daughter of a clergyman, Francis Marbury. She was doubtless educated at home, since girls might spend a few years attending school, but they were not allowed at English universities. Even amongst the educated, some subjects were considered quite inappropriate for girls: Latin and Greek, for example. And since many scholarly texts were published only in Latin and Greek, women were shut out of most advanced studies.
But Anne may have been different. Judging from her later words, it seems possible that Anne was schooled in some of the more “masculine” studies of her day: rhetoric and theology, perhaps. She was certainly highly literate in English, and had a great grasp of Biblical studies.
“Unfeminine” or not, her intellect was no barrier to finding a husband, and in 1612 she married William Hutchinson, also from Lincolnshire but now a successful merchant in London.
Anne Hutchinson, Puritan Convert
As their family grew and their business prospered, Anne and William came under the spell of John Cotton, an energetic preacher with opinions labeled “Puritan.” A significant minority in the Church of England, these ardent believers thought that the English (Anglican) Church was not “pure” enough. In other words, although it was Protestant, it was not Protestant enough.
According to Puritans, it held too many remnants of the old Catholic order–vestments, ritual, and bishops appointed by the king and enforcing his edicts. They also believed that salvation is pre-determined by God; our actions in life do not “earn” us salvation or damnation.
Despite this, each community must work to be pure and follow God’s will collectively, not to earn salvation but to please God. They were deeply concerned with “improving” their communities to be more Godly, with no sports on Sundays, no Maypoles and no Christmas (all pagan, according to the Puritans). They believed if the kingdom did not become more godly, this was a sign of its damnation. Playwright Ben Johnson (one of Shakespeare’s competitors) wrote a “Puritan” character called “Zeale-of-the-Land-Busy,” which gives us a sense of how outsiders viewed this sect: industrious and irritating.
The Puritan Crisis
Under the reign of Charles I, beginning in 1625, tensions flared between “Puritans” and other Anglican factions. The king encouraged his bishops to enforce doctrinal and ritual conformity.
Clergyman who would not abide by the rules would have to step down. Fines for blasphemy and speaking against the royal family were strictly enforced.
For those of Puritan belief, it seemed that the entire kingdom was falling into heresy and straying from God’s will–a situation that could only lead to disaster. A small group of Puritans responded by setting up a colony in the New World, Massachusetts Bay, where they could build a Godly community.
Anne Hutchinson, Midwife and Teacher
As devout Puritans, it is little surprise that Anne and William Hutchinson decided to undertake the arduous journey to Massachusetts Bay in 1634. Their favorite preacher, John Cotton, had fled their the year before in 1633.
Along with ten of their children, they settled into the colony, where both of them enjoyed positions of respect. William was elected a magistrate in 1635, and Anne practiced as a midwife.
Midwives were respected female leaders in English communities. They had to be officially licensed as to their good character, and were some of the only women who might be expected to testify in court on a regular basis (on matters of paternity suits or accusations of infanticide, usually), much like the coroner or sheriff might testify. Midwives were just about the only female “public official” in 17th century England.
So it’s not surprising that Anne was a leader. She held women’s meetings in her home to explain sermons to her less-well-educated Puritan sisters. She must have been a dynamic and inspiring teacher, for soon the women of the town brought their husbands to hear her words.
Anne’s meetings attracted the interest of prominent figures like Sir Henry Vane the Younger, a 22- year-old Puritan aristocrat who would be elected governor of the colony in 1636. As many as 80 people a night crowded into her little home, spilling out into the street; her meetings were sometimes more popular than the sermons they were interpreting.
Anne Hutchinson, Puritan Rebel
Hutchinson did not hesitate to criticize the ministers of the Bay. She argued that the ministers and leaders of the Bay were becoming excessively focused on “good works,” ignoring the fact that, as Protestants, they believed in salvation though God’s grace alone.
She emphasized the need to commune directly with the Spirit, and suggested that focusing heavily on their sinful natures was leading the Puritan community astray. She denied that children were full of sin, challenging the idea of Original Sin. Trust in God should always be first and foremost, according to Hutchinson, not adherence to laws set up by men (even godly men!).
Such words were ill-received by those she singled out. Hutchinson’s timing was unfortunate.The colony had already been rocked by a raging disagreement between minster Roger Williams (who advocated “soul freedom,” or freedom of conscience) and the majority of the theocracy, which demanded proof of salvation before allowing men to participate in civil government.
In 1637, Hutchinson’s fan Henry Vane lost the governorship to John Winthrop, first governor of the colony and one of those who opposed Hutchinson’s meetings. Winthrop and his supporters pounced on the chance to silence Hutchinson.
Probably motivated by some combination of all three, the colony’s leaders put Hutchinson on trial in 1637. In her mid-forties and pregnant with her 14th (or 15th) child, she stood for two days hours under withering questions and gave clear, cool well-constructed answers that her questioners had trouble deflecting.
The clergy denied her entire ability to teach (for women should not teach men, they said), and Hutchinson responded with a spirited and intelligent discussion of women as Biblical prophets. Then she defended her claim to be inspired by God with wit and passion.
Enraged by this, the judges sentenced Anne to house arrest. John Cotton backed away form supporting her and his betrayal almost certainly sealed her fate.
She was banished and put under house arrest for three months at the home of one of the judges. There she came under almost constant scrutiny and pressure to recant. She withstood it all A second church trial ensued, at which Anne was excommunicated for heresy.
Anne Hutchinson, Prophet in Exile
She and her family, and several loyal followers, were forced to abandon Massachusetts and set up again in the wilderness of Rhode Island, where Roger Williams welcomed dissenters of all stripes, including those, like Hutchinson, with whom he disagreed.
Anne still had no privacy. In the fall of 1638, she had miscarried; somehow her old nemesis John Winthrop was able to get a report on the miscarriage, saying it was a “monstrous birth,” representing her “monstrous” opinions.
Was her banishment a sign of God’s favor, or the cruel act of an illegitimate theocracy? Even her death in 1643 was part of a wider debate. Murdered by members of the Siwanoy tribe in Long Island Sound, her death was either a just punishment (according to Winthrop) or more blood on the hands of the Massachusetts government (according to Hutchinson’s supporters.)
Hutchinson’s legacy remains debated and complex. She is undeniably inspiring for her intelligence and courage in the face of overwhelming authoritarian oppression. Further, her insistence on being open to the Spirit of God led several of her followers to embrace Quaker beliefs and establish some of the first Quaker congregations in the colonies.
In 1987, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis pardoned her, reversing her banishment 350 years before. Her statue now stands before the State House in Boston, affirming her key role as one of our Founding Mothers.