The Trial of Anne Hutchinson

Anne Hutchinson was a Puritan. She and her husband, William, left England in the 1630s, to follow their pastor, John Cotton, to New England, to help establish what Governor John Winthrop called “a city upon a hill.”

The visionaries of the Massachusetts Bay Colony were hoping to build a Christian community, an embodiment of the true church, that would call the Church of England, back in their homeland, to return to the pattern as revealed and described in the pages of the New Testament. New England would become a beacon of light, living out a biblically grounded establishment of Christendom, that all the world could see. Through the combined efforts of both church and state, God would be glorified, as his people sought to be obedient. But by admitting Anne Hutchinson into their midst, the Puritan fathers of New England faced a severe challenge, more than what they bargained for.

Anne Hutchinson on Trial

Mrs. Hutchinson, a midwife, who herself bore 15 children, became well-known in the Massachusetts Puritan community, offering assistance particularly with her skills in handling pregnancy and parenting. But she became dismayed by some of the preaching in the Boston churches.

Anne Hutchinson formed a meeting in her home, designed to help other women in the colony process what was preached about the previous Sunday. Her command of Scripture was impressive, as she had vigorously studied and memorized Scripture, since she was a young girl. Her father, yet another Puritan clergyman back in England, had been put on trial for heresy, for criticizing his Anglican superiors, for their overly Roman Catholic-like, traditionalist errors. Anne Hutchinson shared her father’s disdain for the lax practices of the Church of England, and sought to ground her theology with  a comprehensive knowledge of the Bible.

Word soon got out that Anne Hutchinson disproved of what she thought was a covenant of works, being taught by some of Boston’s preachers. Like most Puritans, Anne Hutchinson believed that Adam was under a covenant of works, whereby Adam was required to satisfy the demands of divine law and human order. But she also believed that after Adam’s sin, a new covenant of grace was promised by God, and given to humans by faith, through the finished work of Jesus Christ’s death on the Cross.

According to Ephesians 2:8-10, the works performed by a Christian were to be considered as a fruit, or byproduct, of God’s free act of grace, given to the believer. But whereas most Puritan preachers insisted that such works were merely a means of giving evidence of God’s grace at work, of giving assurance that one is indeed a member of God’s elect, Anne Hutchinson was not convinced that Boston’s preachers understood this correctly. The colony’s rules, enforced by the magistrate of the state, requiring everyone to attend church every week, only reinforced her view that Massachusetts had fallen into legalism. She was convinced that Boston’s preaching establishment had lapsed back into Roman Catholic-like thinking, sneaking human works back in, as a condition of one’s salvation.

Curious men began to appear at the Bible studies in Anne Hutchinson’s home, and the civil authorities became alarmed by the dissension caused by her teachings. Her sharpest critics accused her of “antinomianism,” of teaching against God’s purpose for the law and morality. Charges were drafted by Governor John Winthrop and other governing authorities, and Mrs. Hutchinson was brought up for trial.

When challenged by her accusers, Anne Hutchinson responded back, inquiring why the biblical model for dealing with such cases, according to Matthew 18:15-18, had not been followed. Why had she not been confronted in private, before being brought before a public trial?

When charged with violating 1 Timothy 2:12, that a woman was forbidden from teaching or exercising authority over a man, and thus requiring that woman to remain quiet, Anne Hutchinson shot back by quoting from Titus 2:3-5, that the older women were encouraged by Paul to teach the younger women. Her meetings were designed for women, and not for men. The men that came to Anne Hutchinson’s meetings came of their own free will, and not by any encouragement made by her.

The Puritan fathers of Massachusetts had met their match in Anne Hutchinson, and the authorities feared a breakdown in church conformity, perceiving a threat to the unity of the colony. But when pressed further by the authorities, as to why she felt she was confident that her understanding was correct, as opposed to the majority of Boston’s ministers, Anne Hutchinson stepped on a theological landmine.

She replied with a question to her accusers: “How did Abraham know that it was God that bid him offer his son, being a breach of the Sixth Commandment?” When her interlocutors answered by admitting that Abraham had heard “an immediate voice,” she too claimed that God had given her “an immediate revelation.”

A direct revelation from God? Was this what Anne Hutchinson was claiming? Did this not go beyond the authority of Sacred Scripture? Would this not threaten to undo the social cohesion of the “city upon a hill?”

Anne Hutchinson was now trapped, by her own theological rigor. Even John Cotton, her beloved pastor, whom she adored, and followed to New England, turned against her. She was forced to recant and repent of her theological errors. But the Massachusetts authorities were not convinced that Anne Hutchinson had truly repented, believing that she was lying. As a result, Anne Hutchinson was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Anne Hutchinson and her husband were forced to flee from Boston. After a stay for several years in Rhode Island, her husband died. The remaining Hutchinson family then settled in New York. A few years later, a wave of anti-colonist fervor arose from among nearby Native Americans. Anne Hutchinson pledged to put her trust in God, and refused to leave. Tragically, a massacre by these Indians led to her death. Five of her children were scalped to death, along with Anne Hutchinson. Then her home was burned down. Back in Boston, critics of Anne Hutchinson looked upon her death, and the others in her family, as a sign of judgment by God, against her heretical opinions.

Though often thought of today in secular history as a prototypical “feminist,” and even a type of free-thinker, Anne Hutchinson was far from being an egalitarian of any sort, and surely not a radical. She firmly remained committed to affirming the principle of men, and men only, serving in the position of being elders and/or overseers in the local church. But such spiritual authority would only be respected if such leaders were truly submitted to the teachings of God’s Word.

Though much of the 17th century’s, Puritan theological context remains unfamiliar to many Christians now, it might be fair to say that Anne Hutchinson’s theology aligns well with the contemporary “Free Grace Movement,” that rejects the so-called concept of “Lordship Salvation.” Advocates of “Lordship Salvation” contend that you can not accept Jesus as your Savior, without also accepting Jesus as your Lord. In other words, you either accept Jesus as both Lord and Savior, or you have failed to accept the true Gospel. Reminiscent of Anne Hutchinson, advocates of “Free Grace” today believe that “Lordship Salvation” is somehow smuggling a salvation by works theology into salvation. However, “Lordship Salvation” critics of the “Free Grace Movement” maintain that this approach diminishes the Gospel, by failing to call others to repentance from their sins.

So, did Anne Hutchinson truly fall within this theological error? No matter how one answers this question, the testimony of history shows that such theological disputes can be very difficult to resolve amicably, when the interests of the church become deeply intertwined with the interests of the state.

This blog post was inspired by reading John M. Barry’s, Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul, chapter 21 (p. 243ff), where Barry discusses the story of Anne Hutchinson, a key figure during the early American Puritan era.



About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

One response to “The Trial of Anne Hutchinson

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: