Anne Hutchinson Versus Massachusetts

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As well as having a sharp mind and tongue, Mrs. Hutchinson was a woman of practical bent. She had borne many children herself, and she knew how to help other women through their confinements. An accomplished herbalist, she seems to have known as much about medicine as anyone in those times. And, together with her other virtues, this talented woman knew how to speak the language of religious comfort to the sick. This all played its part in her growing influence in the nascent town of Boston.

But whatever its causes, her influence grew to surprising proportions. Winthrop credited her with gathering at least sixty women at the weekly meetings she began to hold in her house. And, as she admitted at her trial (with no little danger to herself, for women were not considered fit to teach men), some males had attended meetings in her house. All in all, according to Winthrop, “she had more resort to her for counsel about matter of conscience, and clearing up men’s spiritual estates, than any minister … in the country.”

At first these gatherings were nothing more than discussions about the sermons of the week, a “godly” activity much encouraged in a Puritan society. But with Anne Hutchinson discussion became commentary, and commentary became criticism. In short, she began to attack the clergy, only the Reverend John Cotton and her own brother-in-law, the Reverend John Wheelwright, being excepted.

Mistress Hutchinson was an individualist living in an authoritarian age. Given her make-up, it was perhaps inevitable that she would attack the orthodoxy on those very matters of faith which constituted the foundation of the state. The concrete issue of Anne Hutchinson’s trial was whether she had accused the clergy of preaching “a covenant of works” instead of “a covenant of grace.” It was by raising this charge at her meetings that Mrs. Hutchinson had “troubled the peace of the commonwealth and the churches here.” To accuse the ministry of preaching a covenant of works was, in the temper -of the time and place, to destroy it if the accusation stuck.

The Puritans adhered to the Calvinist doctrine that sinful man was saved by God’s grace alone. No man could do a thing, no matter how worthy or wonderful, to effect his own salvation. To stress the point that God saved whomsoever He desired with no help from man or church was, in essence, to preach a covenant of grace. A “covenant of works” was the contemptuous Puritan term for the antithesis of Calvinist teaching—the doctrine that a man by his own good works could achieve the salvation of God. To the Puritans (Anne Hutchinson included) this was blasphemy, for it detracted from that all-sovereign and perfect will of God by which He had in the beginning predetermined the entire future of the universe. To put it bluntly, the Calvinist doctrine of predestination held that you were already either saved or damned and that, in either case, there was nothing you could do about it.

Not only was this doctrine somewhat less than comforting to anyone who had doubts about his state of grace; it also left something to be desired from a social point of view. What incentive was there to live a moral and useful life if one had already been picked, willy-nilly, for heaven or hell? The town drunk might in the end turn out to be among the saved, and the governor among the damned. The Puritan divines, who were also the colony’s rulers, therefore devised a system that, although it left the statement of the doctrine intact, reduced its formidable practical impact. They decided that they could look to the outward signs of a man’s life—among which would be his good works—as the evidence, or lack of evidence, of his salvation by God’s grace. Thus in Massachusetts the clergy, among their other duties, became the earthly arbiters to decide what people had in fact been saved by God’s grace. When a person applied for church membership, he was examined at great length to determine whether his behavior suggested a state of grace. If the clergy and the laity of the church agreed that the applicant had been saved, he was thereupon admitted to membership. It was this feature of Puritan practice in Massachusetts that Anne Hutchinson denounced as in effect preaching a covenant of works.

But she went even further. Not only did she accuse the ministers of preaching a covenant of works, but she also asserted that they were incapable of preaching a covenant of grace. It is little wonder that these leaders, being thus called both deluded and incompetent, responded as they did. Mrs. Hutchinson’s accusations also robbed church members of their hardearned assurances of salvation. In a commonwealth founded on the rock of a ministry supposed to know its business, this was highly subversive.