With Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson is the most famous American religious separatist of the seventeenth century. She, with Williams, is also one of the first Americans to be publicly subjected to a methodical manipulation and eventual banishment by the defenders of New England orthodoxy, a process that, for some commentators, verged on a conspiracy.
Had it not been for Hutchinson’s chief opponent, John Winthrop, the influential governor of Massachusetts Bay, there is a chance that the controversy would have never boiled over and that Hutchinson and her followers would have permanently altered the basic nature of the Puritan church. But Hutchinson left New Englanders not with an assurance of providence, but rather a long-lasting unease over the unfortunate turn of events that led to her trial and banishment.
Impatient with the lukewarm spirit of her church in Lincolnshire, Hutchinson and her family followed her preacher, John Cotton, to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1634. Initially, the situation in Boston suited Hutchinson well; she was pleased that, unlike her Lincolnshire church, the Congregationalist churches in Boston were neither state sanctioned nor composed “automatically” of members of the community, but rather of those believers who attested to the spirit. After a time, Hutchinson was admitted to the church, and she began meeting with women periodically to discuss the sermons of Cotton and John Wilson, a second minister of the Boston church.
A close reader of scriptures and a thoroughgoing mystic, Hutchinson began to amplify Cotton’s sermons and to criticize Wilson’s. Where Cotton’s sermons emphasized free grace as the only condition of salvation and the idea that the Holy Spirit dwells in all Christians, Wilson’s emphasized good works as a necessary condition for sanctity.
Good works, Hutchinson taught, are the fruits of, not the condition for, salvation. She began to state that others in the Massachusetts congregation, like many members of the Church of England, were not saved because they were too reliant on a sanctity derived from works.
Hutchinson’s meetings grew in attendance and frequency, and they began to attract an influential, well-to-do following throughout Boston that included Henry Vane, then the governor of the colony. In June 1636, Hutchinson’s brother-in-law John Wheelwright, a minister who shared Hutchinson’s views on “free grace” and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, arrived from England as the controversy was developing.
Hutchinson’s followers, who by this time comprised the majority, proposed that the church be reformed and that Wheelwright be appointed as the second teacher. John Winthrop, the once and future governor of Massachusetts Bay and firm adherent to an exclusionist theology, strongly opposed the appointment and was successful in blocking it.
He believed that Wheelwright and the Hutchinsonians were straying so far from orthodoxy that they threatened to tear apart the nonseparatist fabric of the Puritan community. When a deputation of clergy visited Hutchinson in December 1636, they were disturbed to hear Hutchinson express doubts whether the ministers of Massachusetts were saved (excepting, of course, Cotton and Wheelwright).
Hutchinson was intelligent and persuasive, but her perceived air of superiority must have seemed to the church fathers especially inappropriate coming from a woman. Winthrop in particular had no patience for women who (as he wrote in his journal) “meddle in such things as are proper for men, whose minds are stronger.”
In Winthrop’s view—and there is no reason to believe he was mistaken—if Hutchinson’s critique of the Church of England was allowed to go unchallenged, nothing would keep her from critiquing and undoing the Massachusetts churches.
Her views were held by the leaders of the colony to be Antinomian (“against the law”). Winthrop and others charged that the Antinomians looked for guidance too much from the untrained, unregulated self and not enough from the church and its ministers.
As election time for a new governor drew near at the beginning of 1637, political maneuvering by Winthrop and other colony leaders relocated the elections to Newtown (now Cambridge) and thus took away the Antinomian majority vote.
Winthrop was elected governor, while Vane was voted out of public office. After the shift in power was completed, a synod of all the ministers in the Bay was called that proclaimed the errors of the dissidents, including those of Hutchinson and the Antinomians.
The General Court banished Wheelwright, who moved north to New Hampshire territory. Next, the General Court turned to Hutchinson herself. Her offense was political as well as religious, and she was indicted for “traducing the ministers and their ministry.”
Hutchinson was given two trials: one for disturbing the peace by the state and the other for heresy by the church. Winthrop cross-examined Hutchinson, and she began to lose her public support as the trials wore on.
Hutchinson did little to keep that support in place by making the controversial claim that God spoke to her “by immediate revelation.” Such a statement was a recognized heresy in the Puritan church, and, arguably, any orthodox Protestant community, for self-preservation, would have reacted to Hutchinson in the same way the Massachusetts Bay Colony did.
Hutchinson was excommunicated from the church—ironically, by the sanction of Cotton, who, after being forced to choose between the Antinomians and the status quo, joined the rest of the court in condemning her—and she was driven from Boston in March 1638. Hutchinson’s followers were made to admit their errors by being forbidden to bear arms—a strong sentence in the day.
After Hutchinson’s banishment, an account of the proceedings was sent to England to show that Massachusetts had no toleration for Antinomianism. Hutchinson withdrew to Rhode Island. When she miscarried later that year, Winthrop and others throughout New England took it as a conclusive sign of providential justice. Later the Hutchinsons relocated to New York. Her death there at the hands of the Indians in 1643 confirmed again for many in Boston that her judgment had been just.
Although some modern historians defend Winthrop’s handling of the Antinomian controversy as a necessary act of self-preservation, others critique it as deplorable, and see it as one of the more sordid instances of the Puritan era’s sexism and intolerance, even if Hutchinson displayed a degree of intolerance herself.