The amazingly scrupulous records we have of Anne Hutchinson’s trial in early November of 1637 tantalize me into wishing I could have been there. Hers was a religious culture and ours is pluralist and secular, but the troubling issues from back then have analogies now. In facing state (John Winthrop) and church (John Cotton), she represented dissent against establishment. As so often since, neither side looked good, and, from other angles, both sides made a case. They fought over the covenant of grace and the covenant of works, ideas almost incomprehensible to many today. Yet they are signal issues about liberty and license versus law and responsibility, and remain alive.
Why go to Europe for Joan of Arc when in America someone on trial also claimed to have heard voices? That is, instead of sticking to the letter of the text, she claimed the spirit spoke directly. What are claims of authority even now? How much do we, must we, live by the book? And there are classic woman-man issues here. Without question, her accusers-prosecutors-judgessentencers, who were one and the same persons, and who banished her, were harder on her because she was a woman, not a mere dissenter or heretic.
The personalities draw me: Anne Hutchinson—gifted, charismatic, often wild, destined to be killed in an Indian massacre. John Winthrop—judgmental and yet enthralled. John Cotton—half leaning toward Hutchinson but not daring to be caught there. Here was a combat of minds and spirits more interesting than massacres or wars; it still haunts.