Anne Hutchinson Versus Massachusetts

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But there was one ominous event by which Anne Hutchinson doubtless was baffled. It concerned the Reverend John Cotton, who in her eyes was incapable of wrongdoing. At first Cotton had refused to join in the condemnation of all eighty errors attributed to her by the synod. And those he balked at condemning included some of the most objectionable. But Cotton finally adopted the synod’s statement of condemned errors completely. Probably he did so because he felt that Anne was sure to be found guilty, and he could no longer afford to be regarded as her mentor. Too intelligent a man not to know what he was doing, he well understood the blow he had thus dealt his admirer.

But whatever her thoughts about past events Mrs. Hutchinson found time that night to deal with her immediate problem. Although the ministers’ testimony against her had been damaging in the extreme, it had not been given under oath, and she now plotted a way around it. The next morning, back in court, she boldly stated, “The ministers come in their own cause. Now the Lord hath said that an oath is the end of all controversy. Though there be a sufficient number of witnesses, yet they are not according to the Word. Therefore, I desire they may speak upon oath.”

Winthrop tried to ignore her demand. But this woman was no one to be brushed aside. She went on to say, “I have since I went home perused some notes out of what Mr. Wilson did then write and I find things not to be as hath been alledged.” She was referring to notes that Wilson had written after the occasion of the ministers’ remonstrance. Although neither she nor the Reverend John Wilson had the notes in court, the effect of it all was to throw doubt on the ministers’ testimony. In these circumstances her demand for the oath loomed large.

One Simon Bradstreet pointed out that if by chance the ministers had misunderstood Anne’s doctrines, “You would make them to sin if you urge them to swear.” But this was precisely the pressure she wanted the ministers subjected to, pressure to make them hedge their testimony and destroy its effect. She insisted upon the oath. “If they accuse me, I desire it may be upon oath.” Then she struck from the other flank: “There are some that will take their oaths to the contrary.” She was gaining ground; she had pushed the ministers into a tight spot.

There was a growing commotion in her favor in the court after Winthrop called out, “Let those that are not satisfied in the court speak.” The transcript reads “Many say:—We are not satisfied.” Ever a realist, Winthrop decided to give way. “I would speak this to Mrs. Hutchinson. If the ministers shall take an oath, will you sit down satisfied?”

Having virtually forced this concession from the unwilling Winthrop, Anne made a mistake. Her reply was “I can’t be—notwithstanding oaths—satisfied against my own conscience.” This seemed to be the answer of a person whose self-assurance had become an arrogant contempt of those not in agreement with her, and it weakened the effect of her demand for an oath.

After some further argument it was decided to first call the witnesses appearing on behalf of Mrs. Hutchinson. No oath was administered to them. The first, John Coggeshall, did his ineffective best. As he was already under the threat of banishment for having disturbed the peace, his state of mind may easily be imagined. But having been present at her meeting with the ministers, he stated that the accused had not said all that they had charged against her. Whereupon one of the ministers, Hugh Peter—later a chaplain in Cromwell’s army—exclaimed, “How dare you look into the court to say such a word.”

“Mr. Peter takes upon him to forbid me,” Coggeshall said. “I shall be silent.” And he was.

The next witness was Thomas Leverett. A ruling elder of the Boston church, he had also been present at the meeting of Mrs. Hutchinson and the ministers. He stated that she had merely said the other ministers did not preach a covenant of grace so clearly as did Mr. Cotton. If that could have been substantiated, Anne Hutchinson might have overcome the prejudgment of the court against her. But even Leverett’s testimony, standing alone, was hardly sufficient to refute that of six “godly elders.”

Now came the most important witness of all, John Cotton. A prudent man, Cotton opened his testimony by laying out his line of retreat in case he should find himself in trouble: “I did not think I should be called to bear witness in this cause, and therefore did not labour to call to remembrance what was done.” He went on to say he was sorry that the comparison between his brethren and him had ever been made. But on the important issue he did stand by the accused. “And I must say that I did not find her saying they were under a covenant of works, nor that she said they did preach a covenant of works.”

That the ministers were concerned by this testimony was demonstrated when Peter began to cross-examine Cotton. Some of the theological points they argued along the way are obscure, but Cotton seems to have held his own. One wonders what was going on in the mind of the defendant all this while. Certainly she failed to realize that things were going her way. Had it been otherwise, she would not have intervened at this point to make her second and final mistake.