Advocate for Religious Freedom
By Anne Adams
John Winthrop, governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, called her an “American Jezebel” but others have seen her as a courageous advocate for religious freedom in a restrictive society. Yet despite how history views her, Anne Hutchinson was indeed unique for her time, in not just in holding divergent religious views but in suffering the banishment that came from having them.
Anne Marbury was born in England in 1591, the daughter of a dissatisfied and outspoken clergyman. His complaints that the Church of England appointed unfit ministers brought brief imprisonment so he eventually ceased speaking out. Anne was educated at home, where she immersed herself in her father’s theological library, and inspired by this and her father’s example, she developed the courage and independence that she would later demonstrate.
Anne married Will Hutchinson at age 21 and as they began their family, Anne became drawn to a minister named John Cotton who came to support the Puritan movement. .
The Church of England had been established some years earlier as part of a separation from the Roman Catholic Church when King Henry VIII sought a divorce to marry the woman he hoped would give him the son he lacked. In the years that followed England had had a dedicated Protestant boy-king, an adamantly Catholic queen and then a moderate Protestant queen who tried to reduce the animosity between her Protestant and Catholic subjects. Yet there were still those who believed of the Church of England, which was supposed to be Protestant, had too much Roman Catholic influence in doctrine and worship. This group wanted to “purify” it of that influence – hence their name.
Anne and Will Hutchinson and their children traveled several miles from their home on Sundays to hear John Cotton preach. He advocated Puritan doctrines, but also spoke about the possibility of attaining religious and economic freedom in the new world of America . Then when Cotton led a group to the new Puritan-based colony at Massachusetts Bay in 1634 the Hutchinson family was among them, joining some 21,000 other Puritans who would immigrate to America from 1630 to 1642…
Besides their desire to “purify” the church from what they saw as too much of a Catholic influence the Puritans also advocated a simpler system of worship with fewer sacraments. However, once in Massachusetts , the Puritan church-centered colonial government began to take seriously their example to be a “city on a hill” or example for their faith to the world and that meant there had to be strictly enforced rules of conduct. It also meant that they felt they could not tolerate any sort of deviation from the established Puritan church beliefs and that was where Anne faced her challenge.
Anne’s beliefs came partly from John Cotton’s sermons but also from her own study and thought. Among her beliefs that varied from the Puritan doctrines were the concepts that salvation came through their faith alone, that enslaving the Indians was wrong and that God revealed himself directly to each believer without the need of clergy. This last idea could be construed as a threat to the authority of the Puritan theocracy that was Massachusetts Bay Colony but what seemed even more of a threat to them was that it was a woman who held the view. For it was widely accepted that only men had the intelligence and perception necessary to deal with theology and that women were not only incapable of such mental ability but that their only proper occupation was that of wife and mother. .
However, Anne did not start out publicly dissenting and for several years lived quietly and unobtrusively. She expressed her views only in her home and to other women when they gathered to discuss the sermons or Biblical topics. Many women liked the intellectual stimulation they received in the discussions but as more and more women attended her meetings they attracted the concerns of the colony officials.
“That though women might meet… to pray and edify one another,” wrote Winthrop, “yet such an assembly…where sixty or more did meet every week, and one woman (in a prophetical way, by resolving questions of doctrine, and expounding the scripture) took upon her the whole exercise, was agreed to be disorderly, and without rule.” So Anne was first charged with conducting disorderly meetings, yet as time passed gradually the Puritans began to feel her beliefs were not only heretical but also seditious. Winthrop defined their opposition: “The two capital errors with which she was charged were these: That the Holy Ghost dwells personally in a justified person and that nothing of sanctification can help to evidence to believers their justification.” Winthrop firmly believed women should be submissive and in his diary he called her an “American jezebel” a reference to the evil queen in the Bible who persecuted God’s prophets. This was an interesting term to use for a woman widely loved and respected for her Christian service to her neighbors just because she expressed her religions opinions.
Originally Anne had enjoyed support from some of the colonial leaders but gradually this faded. John Cotton recanted and even came to criticize her as she was brought to trial. Yet although she defended herself ably, citing appropriate scriptures, it was eventually her own remarks that condemned her. As historian Samuel Eliot Morrison put it: “She declared, even boasted, of her personal revelations from the Almighty, and that was to confess the worst….” The Puritans taught that there was no divine revelation after the Bible was closed, and so she was sentenced to banishment from the colony as “being a woman not fit for our society.”
After her banishment and excommunication Anne and her family left Massachusetts Bay Colony in early 1638 and settled in what is now Rhode Island , then moved to Long Island , There in 1642 she and her family were massacred in an Indian raid, an end that no doubt made some Puritan leaders see as a divine judgment.
Some historians feel that the Puritans felt they had to stifle dissent because it presented a test or even a challenge to their authority, and this they could not tolerate when community unity and conformity was so important in a remote wilderness. Yet what the Puritans may have seen as a threat, history may well view as a demonstration of the courage of one woman with a sense of freedom.