A depiction of Anne Hutchinson on her way to trail.
Photo courtesy Richard Forliano
With George Pietarinen,
author of “Anne Hutchinson,
A Puritan Woman of Courage.” This is the third in a series
of articles on the Colonial
and Revolutionary History
While the Puritans left Europe to escape religious persecution, this did not lead to a belief in tolerance for others. The Puritans, like many true believers, felt that their way was the only way.
But soon, dissension and strife were threatening the unity necessary for the colony to survive. A protracted, bloody and tragic struggle against the Pequot Native American tribe created tensions between those who supported the war and those who did not. Ministers like Roger Williams and John Witherspoon who held views opposed to the ruling theocracy found themselves banished into the wilderness. Anne Hutchison had lived in Boston for only three years when she too ran afoul of the authorities.
Deputy Gov. Thomas Dooley tried to place sole blame on the strife that was dividing the colony on the actions and beliefs of Anne Hutchinson, saying, “Three years ago we were all in peace… Mrs. Hutchinson from the time she came has made a disturbance.”
In the late fall of 1637, Anne Hutchinson was brought to trial in a court presided over by Gov. John Winthrop and the most powerful ministers in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The charges against Anne were serious. She had troubled the peace of the commonwealth and churches by holding meetings at her house. Moreover, she had counselled her followers not to participate in the struggle against the Pequot.
The trial began in November 1637 as winter was approaching. During the first days of the trial, this proud, brilliant and educated woman outmaneuvered the accusers who were attempting to prosecute her. She had learned theology and a command of scripture in England from her minister father, Francis Marbury, who had also been imprisoned for religious views that were similar to the very men who were prosecuting her. Anne cleverly avoided confessing to the charge leveled against her. She insisted that the ministers leveling accusations against her take an oath on the Bible to tell the truth. Effortlessly quoting scripture, she avoided the most serious charge of accusing ministers of advocating a covenant of works over a covenant of grace.
Acquittal seemed like the clear option when Anne made a very damaging statement to her accusers, saying, “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 out of our hands. 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.”
She claimed to have received direct revelations from God and was exempt from the mandates of the court, blasphemy to the Puritans of that time. The final source of all authority was the Bible. It was the function of the clergy to guide their followers in the paths of righteousness. Anne claimed that God spoke to her directly, which cast into doubt the need for clergy. In a sense, she had confessed to her guilt.
Why at a moment of triumph did Anne make such a colossal blunder? Did she simply crack under pressure, or was it a matter of not being able to speak the truth? Either way, she was doomed. Anne spent the next four months under house arrest, unable to see her children. In March 1638, weakened and sickly, Anne recanted some of her views following the advice of two ministers she respected. But in the end, the court not only banished Anne but cast her into eternal damnation by excommunicating her. In a long, six-day April snowstorm, Anne and her children made the arduous trip to join her husband in Providence, R.I.
What do prominent historians say about the legacy of Anne Hutchinson and her trial? Daniel Boorstein, one of America’s prominent 20th century historians, claimed that if the court had treated her differently, “they would have merited praise as precursors of modern liberalism, but they would not have founded a nation.”
Anne was saying that the minister and the church were no longer needed. Edmund Morgan, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian who granted the unfairness of the trial, said, “Once Hutchinson proclaimed a belief in immediate revelation, it was quite impossible for her to remain part of the Puritan commonwealth.”
Eve LaPlante, a direct descendant of Anne Hutchinson and author of “American Jezebel,” a best-selling work of nonfiction in 2004, believes it might have been better for the judges to banish her without a trial.
“By carefully recording and saving her extensive testimony, the judges inadvertently gave her what few women of her time enjoyed: a lasting voice. The trial that led to her imprisonment lets her speak to us nearly four centuries later,” LaPlante said.
The divisions caused by the trial of Anne Hutchinson gave rise to the establishment of America’s first college. Hutchinson was the true midwife of Harvard. To paraphrase an article in an issue of Harvard Magazine published in 2002, the colony determined to provide for the education of a new generation of ministers and theologians who would secure New England’s peace from future seditious Mrs. Hutchinsons.
Hutchinson had taken on the Puritan theocracy and although she lost her trial, centuries later we can only admire her strength of conviction and courage. With the establishment of Harvard College, ministers received better training and the colony continued to survive.
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