- Historic Sites
Anne Hutchinson Versus Massachusetts
She was, said Governor Winthrop, an American Jezebel
June 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 4
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.
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.
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.…”
“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.”
“Sir, I do not believe that to be so.”
“Well, we see how it is. We must therefore put it away from you or restrain you from maintaining this course.”
“If you have a rule for it from God’s word, you may.”
“We are your judges and not you ours,” Winthrop exploded, “and we must compel you to it.”
Governor Winthrop was, for a Puritan, a man of magnanimous spirit. He also possessed great ability. Yet so far he had made little headway with Anne Hutchinson. It was probably with great relief that he allowed his cantankerous deputy governor to assume direction of the trial. The mean and petty-minded Thomas Dudley was soon to display a much greater capacity for the unpleasant business at hand.
Dudley, with telling succinctness, restated the charges against Mrs. Hutchinson: “… About three years ago, we were all in peace. Mrs. Hutchinson from that time she came hath made a disturbance.… But now it appears by this woman’s meeting that Mrs. Hutchinson hath so forestalled the minds of many by their resort to her meeting that now she hath a potent party in the country.… And if she in particular hath disparaged all our ministers in the land that they have preached a covenant of works, and only Mr. Cotton a covenant of grace, why! this is not to be suffered.”
This was the first mention made in the trial of the two covenants. It is surprising that Winthrop had said nothing about them. But Anne Hutchinson remained confident and challenged Dudley as boldly as she had Winthrop. “I pray, sir, prove it that I said they preached nothing but a covenant of works.… Did I ever say they preached a covenant of works then?”
“If they do not preach a covenant of grace—clearly, then they preach a covenant of works.”
“No sir. One may preach a covenant of grace more clearly than another. So I said.”
Thomas Dudley had fared no better than John Winthrop in making the defendant “lay open herself.” But at least he had framed the most important issue of the trial, and the accused had been forced to reveal the nature of her defense somewhat earlier than she probably wanted to.
Now the deputy governor put a question that seemed to contain the nub of the whole case. “I do but ask you this: when the ministers do preach a covenant of works, do they preach a way of salvation?” But it was really an ambiguous question, and Anne did the only thing she could do: she refused to answer. “I did not come hither to answer questions ofthat sort,” she proclaimed.
There was nothing else for him to do but to present his evidence, and he did so. Apparently—or so Mrs. Hutchinson made it seem—it came as a surprise to her when he called as witnesses six ministers who had, the year before, remonstrated with her about her meetings. She claimed that their discussion with her was to be held in confidence. But Winthrop quickly ruled that there had been no basis for any confidence. What the six ministers had to state was more than sufficient evidence for the charges against her. The gist of their testimony was that she had told them that only the Reverend John Cotton preached a covenant of grace; that they preached a covenant of works; that they were not able ministers of the New Testament; and that they could not preach a covenant of grace because ihey were not sealed of the Holy Spirit to do so. She might just as well have called them Pharisees. The trial had taken an ugly turn against the woman who had had the indiscretion to give such vent to her convictions about the ministers.
Anne Hutchinson did her best to deny what she could of this testimony. But for her to prevail required more than denying the testimony of—as Winthrop put it—“six undeniable ministers.” Although the day had started badly, Winthrop was pleased with its outcome. With evident satisfaction he said, “Mrs. Hutchinson, the court you see hath laboured to bring you to acknowledge the error of your way that so you might be reduced. The time now grows late. We shall therefore give you a little more time to consider of it and therefore desire that you attend the court again in the morning.”
Back from Newtown, across the tidal basin and mud flats of the Charles River, back upon the small and hilly cape of land that held the town of Boston—dotted only here and there with a few feeble lights in the autumn darkness—back in the temporary sanctuary of her home, there was much indeed that Anne Hutchinson could “consider of.” By the flame of a candle she must have pored over whatever papers she had that concerned her trial. As she did so it could not have failed to remind her of all the events of her three years in Boston.
She could have wished that young Sir Harry Vane were still there, but he had returned to England. If he had still been governor, her good “Brother Wheelwright” would not have been tried and sentenced to banishment for a fiery sermon he had preached in January. And after his trial those men who had signed a petition asking mercy for him found that Winthrop would deal with them, too. Aspinwall, Coddington, Coggeshall, and Captain John Underhill were all being called to account.
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.
Dudley had just restated the charge that Anne had disparaged the ministers as unable to rightly preach the New Testament; Cotton had replied that he did not remember it. Had Anne Hutchinson been able to content herself with renewing her demand for the ministers’ oath, she might well have walked out of the court a free woman. But she chose this moment to declaim a confession of faith. The Lord had given her to see, she said, that those who did not rightly preach the covenant of grace had the spirit of Antichrist, and “upon this he did discover the ministry unto me and ever since, I bless the Lord, he hath let me see which was the clear ministry and which the wrong.… Now if you do condemn me for speaking what in my conscience I know to be truth, I must commit myself unto the Lord.”
Dudley, who had sized up the defendant more shrewdly than anyone else, immediately pressed his advantage. He began to taunt her, driving this now overwrought woman into traps that she had previously avoided with great skill. When she claimed she could distinguish between right and wrong ministries by an immediate revelation, he encouraged her to go on by asking, “How! an immediate revelation?”
With that, Mistress Hutchinson launched into a tirade bordering on hysteria. She called on Scripture to support her claims and compared herself to Daniel in the lions’ den. It was an apt comparison but hardly one to charm the court. She closed by screaming, “You have power over my body but the Lord Jesus hath power over my body and soul. And assure yourselves thus much: you do as much as in you lies to put the Lord Jesus Christ from you. And if you go on in this course you begin, you will bring a curse upon you and your posterity! And the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it!”
In the shocked silence that followed this outburst, Dudley turned to the court and asked sarcastically: “What is the Scripture she brings?” Then Israel Stoughton, who earlier had favored administering the oath to the ministers, declared: “Behold, I turn away from you.” The tide of opinion was now running against Anne Hutchinson.
John Winthrop now triumphantly addressed the court: “We have been hearkening about the trial of this thing and now the mercy of God by a providence hath answered our desires and made her to lay open her self and the ground of all these disturbances to be by revelations.… And that is the means by which she hath very much abused the country that they shall look for revelations and are not bound to the ministry of the Word, but God will teach them by immediate revelations. And this has been the ground of all these tumults and troubles, and I would that all those were all cut off from us that trouble us.” And after further unflattering remarks Winthrop summed up: “I am persuaded that the revelation she brings forth is delusion.” The transcript then reads “All the court but some two or three ministers cry out, ‘We all believe it—we all believe it.’ ”
However unnecessary it may now have been, there was one remaining scruple to be satisfied. Winthrop asked the ministers to take the oath. The transcript reads “Here now was a. great whispering among the ministers. Some drew back, others were animated on.” Three of them then took the oath and testified to more or less the same effect as before. The heresy of Anne Hutchinson, which had been presumed throughout, was now officially established.
William Coddington, beseeching the court not “so to force things along,” courageously maintained her defense until the end. “No man may be a judge and an accuser too,” he cried out. But his efforts were useless. All but three members of the court voted to banish her.
John Winthrop solemnly pronounced the sentence of the court: “Mrs. Hutchinson … you are banished from out of our jurisdiction as being a woman not fit for our society, and are to be imprisoned till the court shall send you away.”
It was not possible to banish Anne Hutchinson immediately. First she had to be excommunicated, and this raised an inconvenient complication. The power of excommunication, by established New England practice, was held by the whole congregation. But since Anne Hutchinson still had a considerable following in the Boston church, it was a good question whether the congregation actually would do the job. The ministers, fully recognizing the challenge they faced, made their preparations with great care.
Anne was confined in a house in Roxbury (out of the reach of her Boston following), where, as Winthrop put it, “divers of the elders and others resorted to her.” This went on for more than three months, and the visitations seem to have succeeded in breaking down her resistance. On March 15, 1638, a defeated and debilitated Anne Hutchinson was called before the congregation of the church in Boston. As teacher of the Boston church the Reverend John Cotton presided.
Various of her “errors” were read to her, and she was asked whether she would renounce them or not. Although she still showed faint signs of her old fire, she seemed to have given up. It must have been a crushing experience for her to hear John Cotton say, “… let me warn you … the dishonour you have brought unto God by these unsound tenets of yours is far greater than all the honour you have brought to him, and the evil of your opinions doth outweigh all the good of your doings. Consider how many poor souls you have misled.”
Winthrop, who was present and who took a minor part in these proceedings, wrote in his journal, “Mr. Cotton pronounced the sentence of admonition with great solemnity, and with much zeal and detestation of her errors and pride of spirit.” When the great John Cotton turned against her, Anne Hutchinson’s last hope was extinguished.
On March 22, 1638, Anne Hutchinson stated to the congregation of the church of Boston, “As my sin hath been open, so I think it needful to acknowledge how I came to fall into these errors. Instead of looking upon myself I looked at men. … I spake rashly and unadvisedly. I do not allow [that is, sanction] the slighting of ministers, nor of the Scriptures, nor any thing that is set up by God.”
This confession did make an impression on John Cotton, and perhaps he briefly hoped that Anne might be spared excommunication after all. When it was asked if her confession could be repeated for those who had not heard it, he said, “The sum of what she said is this: … She doth utterly disallow herself and condemn herself for [her] carriage. And she confesseth the root of all was the height and pride of her spirit. [As] for her slighting the ministers, she is heartily sorry for it … and desires all that she hath offended to pray to God for her to give her a heart to be more truly humbled.” Any good this might have done, however, was quickly wiped out by Anne herself. With a flash of her old stubbornness she spoke up and said: “My judgment is not altered, though my expression alters.”
This gave the ministers exactly what they needed. One after the other, while the great Cotton remained silent, they all stated their opinions. What they had to say is best summed up by the words of the Reverend Thomas Shepard: “Yea, this day she hath showed herself to be a notorious imposter. It is a trick of as notorious subtlety as ever was held in the church to say … that she all this while hath not altered her judgment, but only her expressions.” And the Reverend John Wilson pointedly added that it would be a sin against God not to rid themselves of a woman who could tell such a lie.
John Cotton saw what was expected of him, and he remained silent no longer. Whatever Anne Hutchinson may have been to him, he now joined the majority of the ministers. “I see this pride of heart is not healed but is working still,” he said. “God hath let her fall into a manifest lie, yea, to make a lie. And … I think we are bound upon this ground to remove her from us and not to retain her any longer, seeing that she doth prevaricate in her words, as that her judgment is one thing and her expression another.”
As the sin of telling a lie was considered a matter of practice rather than doctrine, Cotton turned the proceedings over to Pastor Wilson, who wasted no further time. Before any member of the church could express dissent, the pastor quickly pronounced the sentence of excommunication, calling her a heathen, a publican, and a leper.
The transcript of Anne Hutchinson’s second trial comes to an end with the pastor’s command to her to depart. Writing of this moment at a later time, Winthrop related the following: “In her going forth, one standing at the door said, ‘The Lord sanctify this unto you,’ to whom she made answer, ‘The Lord judgeth not as man judgeth. Better to be cast out of the church than to deny Christ.’ ”
Two or three days after her excommunication Governor Winthrop sent Anne a warrant ordering her departure from the jurisdiction before the end of the month. Anne Hutchinson sailed to what is now Quincy and thence walked overland through the wilderness to Roger Williams’ Providence Plantations. With her family and a number of her followers she settled on the island of Aquidneck in what is now Portsmouth, Rhode Island. The faithful Coddington became governor of her colony.
But the strain of her prosecution and the hardship of her journey in her pregnant condition had been too much for her. She fell sick, and when the time of her delivery came, she had a stillbirth. Rumors quickly spread that the stillborn child was “a monster.”
The “monstrous birth” of Anne Hutchinson’s child became the instrument for a sharp attack upon her. Even Cotton preached two sermons on the subject. The story was bruited about Massachusetts for the rest of the century, so that impressionable minds could not fail to draw the desired moral: God had punished Anne for her heresy. Long after the child had been buried, it lived as a ghost to haunt all would-be nonconformists.
Mrs. Hutchinson never fully recovered from the shocks of her experience. Although surrounded by her family, followers, and friends in the colony and presumably enjoying some happiness, she left Rhode Island after her husband’s death in 1642 and went to the New Netherlands. Her tragedy was soon to run its full course. Finally settling near the present limits of NewYork City (her name is perpetuated by the Hutchinson River Parkway), she and five of her children were massacred there by Indians in 1643. Writing of her death, the Reverend Thomas Welde asserted that the Indians had gone to more barbaric lengths than usual: “And therefore God’s hand is the more apparently scene herein, to pick out this wofull woman, to make her and those belonging to her, an unheard of heavie example of their cruelty above al others.”
John Winthrop later described Anne as an “American Jezebel.” He could not have failed to think that like Ahab’s wicked wife, who had led another chosen people in the way of false worship, Mrs. Hutchinson had also met a violent end as part of God’s judgment. In any event, the trial and banishment of Anne Hutchinson were only the beginning of the Puritan theocracy’s repression of religious and social deviation. Her punishment was relatively mild, but it foreshadowed the fate of the unhappy “witches” who were to die by hanging in the hysteria that swept over the colony at the end of the seventeenth century; and it was to be another hundred years before true freedom of conscience would be tolerated in Massachusetts.