Anne Hutchinson Versus Massachusetts

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It would have been no pleasant thing for any defendant to hear John Winthrop, governor of the Massachusetts colony, declaim the serious charges brought against Anne Hutchinson at her trial in 1637. In the Puritan society of early Massachusetts they were among the gravest that could be imagined. As recorded by the court reporter, they seem to evoke the gravity with which John Winthrop must have delivered them: “Mrs. Hutchinson, you are called here as one of those that have troubled the peace of the commonwealth and the churches here. You are known to be a woman that hath had a great share in the promoting and divulging of those opinions that are causes of this trouble.… You have spoken divers things, as we have been informed, very prejudicial to the honour of the churches and ministers thereof. And 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.”

Anne Hutchinson, forty-five years old, stood listening to these charges on a November day when the New England fall had turned to its bleakest season. She faced her adversaries in the somber meetinghouse in Newtown, later to be called Cambridge. It was a square, rude building with small windows admitting little light. The grays, browns, and blacks of Mrs. Hutchinson’s surroundings were relieved only by the pallor of earnest English faces all focussed on her. But despite the severity of the setting, the meetinghouse was crowded to capacity with people eager to see how this woman, who had stirred the greatest storm yet in the young colony, would acquit herself. For people who eschewed the theatre as sinful the Newtown meetinghouse had become the stage for an exciting performance.

From what we know of Anne Hutchinson, she probably did not flinch for a moment upon hearing the charges against her. She was a woman of keen intelligence and strong personality, possessed of stubborn convictions not the least of which was that she had found direct favor with God. Even Winthrop, writing in his journal, begrudgingly described her as “a woman of a ready wit and bold spirit,” and he had good reason to know. But nowhere in his writings did it ever occur to him to describe what she looked like. Puritans were like that.

The daughter of a clergyman, Anne Hutchinson had been born Anne Marbury in Lincolnshire, England. By the time of her trial she had borne her husband, William Hutchinson, thirteen children; she was now expecting her fourteenth. Husband, wife, and children had arrived in Boston in September, 1634, on the ship Griffin , and Anne had been the motivating force that had started them on the long and arduous voyage to the New World. She had felt the need to follow their former minister, the Reverend John Cotton, to Massachusetts. His departure had caused a spiritual crisis in her life, for there had been no other minister in England whom she felt she could trust to preach the Word without adulteration. Once her beloved Mr. Cotton had left their native land, there had been no doubt in her mind that she must join him in the New World.

Her journey had taken her now to stand before the Great and General Court of Massachusetts to be accused of traducing the ministry, as sure an act of sedition as could be imagined in a community where the church was, in effect, the government. It appears, though not conclusively, that the ministers who were to be witnesses against her were also her judges, and they must have constituted a fearsome and awesome presence.

John Winthrop continued to recite his statement. “We have thought good to send for you to understand how things are, that if you be in an erroneous way, we may reduce you that so you may become a profitable member here among us. Otherwise, if you be obstinate … then the court may take such course that you may trouble us no further.” The defendant paid close attention to him, as did, presumably, everyone in the room.

Among the listeners was the Reverend Mr. Cotton. He was a man of fifty-two whose light curly hair fell to his shoulders, framing a benign countenance. He was an eloquent preacher and had the reputation of being one of the greatest of Puritan scholars; it had been a momentous event to welcome him to the Bay Colony in 1633. The Reverend John Wilson was already pastor of the Boston church when he arrived; Cotton had been called to be its “teacher.” It was an equally important position and gave broad scope to his preaching. In his journal Winthrop described Cotton’s almost immediate success: “It pleased the Lord to give special testimony of his presence in the church of Boston, after Mr. Cotton was called to office there. More were converted and added to that church, than to all the other churches in the bay.… Divers profane and notorious evil persons came and confessed their sins, and were comfortably received into the bosom of the church.” But as much as Anne Hutchinson, too, admired Cotton’s preaching, the one uncertainty that may have disturbed her as her trial opened was the question of what role her idol might play in it.

Cotton had long admired Mrs. Hutchinson. He thought she too did great good works for the Christian faith. When, after her arrival in Boston, she had experienced some trouble in being admitted to church membership, Cotton quickly smoothed matters over. By no means unaware of her intense esteem of him, Cotton had been truly glad to see her near at hand once again. Yet the troubles leading to her trial were related to that esteem.