Anne Hutchinson Versus Massachusetts

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In contrast to the ordained clergy, Anne Hutchinson told her adherents, she herself preached a pure covenant of grace. She claimed she received direct revelations from the Holy Ghost, which, as the horrified Winthrop later reported it, gave her infallible knowledge of the salvation of her followers. “If she had but one half hour’s talk with a man, she would tell whether he were elect or not.” In a day when hell gaped beneath the feet of every mortal, every man and woman longed to hear of his salvation from the highest authority available. Here then was Anne Hutchinson’s tremendous message: if the ministry could not honestly give the people knowledge of their salvation, she could.

Being a clergyman’s daughter, a keen Bible scholar, and a “student” of Mr. Cotton as well as a brilliant woman, Anne Hutchinson was able to offer a mass of theological argument to support her heavenly credentials. The extensiveness of her doctrine may be judged from the fact that the synod that had been convened at Newtown in the summer of 1637 to deal with her heresies condemned no fewer than “eighty opinions, some blasphemous, others erroneous, and all unsafe.” It also condemned her meetings as disorderly “where sixty or more did meet every week, and one woman (… by resolving questions of doctrine, and expounding scripture) took upon her the whole exercise.”

As her chief points of doctrine Mrs. Hutchinson denied that sanctification (that is, a good life) was any proof of salvation, and she asserted instead that only the indwelling of the Holy Ghost constituted such proof. With the very first mention of her name in his journal these were the items listed by Winthrop as her “two dangerous errors.” It is not hard to see why. If good works, or a good life, were not the outward evidence of a person’s salvation, what objective basis was left in the Puritan scheme of things?

Men, as well as women, became Mrs. Hutchinson’s adherents. Among them were some of the colony’s notables, including William Aspinwall, John Coggeshall, and William Coddington, who was at one time treasurer of the commonwealth. But the most eminent of her adherents had been the young Sir Henry Vane, son of a privy councillor to King Charles and easily the foremost aristocrat of the colony. Although he was later to play a most important role in the Puritan Revolution in England, it was his connection with royalty that led to his being elected governor within seven months after his arrival in October, 1635. Such prominent people as these, together with others like the Reverend John Wheelwright, constituted Anne Hutchinson’s faction—a faction that, Winthrop felt, threatened the power of the established order.

This was the background of the struggle that had now crowded the meetinghouse at Newtown with anxious spectators. As John Winthrop finished making his long statement their eyes were now fastened upon the person of the accused. One may well imagine that as Winthrop himself stared at her the aristocratic features of his face—the thin lips and pointed nose and beard—appeared colder than usual. He had labored selflessly to build this Puritan commonwealth on the firm foundation of the Word. To him this pestilential woman, this emissary from the underworld, was doing her utmost to ensnare the people in an evil trap and thereby overthrow that foundation.

But Mrs. Hutchinson was unimpressed. With that histrionic sense common to many religious leaders, which she abundantly possessed, she probably waited so that the room would become perfectly quiet. Then she calmly replied: “I am called here to answer before you, but I hear no things laid to my charge.”

It was a simple but brilliant opening. It jolted Winthrop by its effrontery, and he spluttered back, “I have told you some already and more I can tell you.”

“Name one, sir,” was Mrs. Hutchinson’s quick challenge.

“Why! for your doings, this: you did harbour and countenance those that are parties in this faction that you have heard of.…”

“What law have I broken?”

“Why, the fifth commandment.…”

“Wherein?”

“Why, in entertaining them.”

“What breach of law is that, sir?”

“Why, dishonoring of parents!” (By this, Winthrop meant to say that she had dishonored the fathers of the state and the elders of the church.)

“But put the case, sir,” she replied, “that I do fear the Lord and my parents. May not I entertain them that fear the Lord [just] because my parents will not give me leave?”

Winthrop had no answer except to burst out, “We do not mean to discourse with those of your sex.” The defendant had piqued his masculine vanity, and the depth of it may be judged by another of his outbursts, which followed shortly. “We do not call you to teach the court but to lay open yourself.” To make her “lay open herself”—to confess her sins—was the main purpose of the trial.

After more fruitless argument with the accused, Winthrop made another statement. “Your course is not to be suffered. … It is to seduce many honest persons that are called to those meetings.… We see no rule of God for this. We see not that any should have authority to set up any other exercises besides what authority hath already set up. And so what hurt comes of this, you will be guilty of and we for suffering you.”