Posted in discernment, theology

Puritan Wives: Anne Hutchinson- Screeching usurper, or passionate devotee?

By Elizabeth Prata

You know how some people jokingly say he or she ‘broke the internet’? Well, Anne Hutchinson broke the colony.

History hasn’t been that kind to Puritan wife Anne Hutchinson. She is either portrayed as an oppressed early feminist denied her identity, or a screeching harridan who deserved what she got. She has been called a heroine, an American Jezebel, an instrument of satan, poison, and a great imposter (the negative ones were all from John Winthrop).

Of course the truth is somewhere in the middle.

The introductory entry in this series on Puritan Wives is here. If you’d like to read some background to the Puritan emigration and founding of Massachusetts Bay Colony, you can read that link.

Sometimes we think of our historical brethren as backward or uneducated, but in fact Puritan Massachusetts was populated with highly literate people, and that included the women, unusual for the time. The 1600s was an era when women were mainly quiet at home, revered, but out of the public eye. However, Hutchinson was loud and active. An intelligent, complex, wayward mother of 15 children, she was tried and banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Exiled at age 47 in 1638 and left with nowhere to go, she traipsed to Rhode Island where she was welcomed by that colony’s founder, also-exiled Roger Williams.

That was the end of the end of the Antinomian controversy but not the end of Anne Hutchinson.

Anne was born Anne Marbury in 1591 in Alford, England. Her father was an Anglican cleric. Being literate himself and a teacher, he educated Anne to the fullest.

The family moved to London and lived there a while, but when Anne married childhood friend William Hutchinson she moved back to Alford. There, they enjoyed John Cotton’s sermons. Cotton was an outstanding theologian and a dynamic preacher, a combination not often found. Cotton was extremely well thought of.

Cotton was an Anglican preacher who had served for 20 years by the time the Hutchinsons met up with him. He believed the Church needed reforms, such as divesting itself of ritual and ceremony, but did not want to separate from it. He wanted to change it from within. As time went on, though, his consistent attitude against the framework of the Anglican church and his continual speaking against it eventually exceeded the leniency his overseers gave him, and pressure forced him out. He sailed for Massachusetts in 1633.

Devastated, Anne prompted her husband to follow Cotton. In 1634, the Hutchinsons packed up their 14 children and decided to follow Cotton to the new Colony that had been established just 13 years prior.

The Hutchinsons and William’s brother-in-law, John Wheelwright, were quickly accepted into the life of the colony. Anne was a midwife, and she met and discipled many women on her normal rounds. Being articulate and a deep thinker, many women sought her commentary on the Bible. Anne soon began holding weekly meetings at her home, commenting on Cotton’s sermons.

So far, so good. A woman ministering to her fellow sisters in body and soul is what the Bible tells us ladies to do. (Titus 2:3-4). Mothering in midwifery and ministering spiritually to sisters in the colony is a good thing.

However, it wasn’t long before notoriety and interest caused men to attend her meetings, which were ever-expanding. Anne’s commentary was insightful, but a woman leading men in preaching and teaching, even in the privacy of a home, is a dangerous endeavor spiritually. The tendency to usurp is great, and that is what Anne did when she taught and preached to men.

Does sin ever only get worse? Yes. Eventually, Anne did not restrict her home meetings’ topics solely to dissecting/discussing her pastor’s sermons, she strayed into dissecting other ministers’ sermons, too, usually negatively. She criticized heavily.

More men began showing up, women too. Her ‘talks’ gravitated to mainly criticism of everyone else besides her favorite, John Cotton. She began to call names, and impugn character. She hinted that some were antichrists. She said that these other pastors were preaching a covenant of works, while the only true pastor, Cotton, was preaching rightly, the covenant of grace.

In looking at the two sides of the theological debate, it seems to me that both sides were right and both sides were wrong. However, the nuances of this soon-to-be schism are not the purview of this essay, and besides, many other people smarter than me have written on it.

My goal is to look at Anne Hutchinson’s life, and the effects of a rebellious woman’s actions and how they harm the body.

Several of the named pastors naturally took a dim view of her preaching, and there was a meeting held to discuss what to do. John Winthrop, the spiritual leader of the Puritans at that time, was equally, if not more angered.

And the sin deepened. Soon Hutchinson began to encourage women to rise up and walk out of sermons that preached doctrines with which she did not agree. Walking out is a disdainful, rebellious act. But many women did it.

The meetings continued, only growing in number. Anne’s dissections of others’ sermons, were not God-glorifying nor encouraging to pastors. Nor did they focus on educating the attendees and enlighten them as to Jesus as Savior. Nor did they prompt the people to good works. They were simply to point out the pastor’s errors and to cement her own position which she believed to be righteous. Think of the worst discernment ministries running today, who lack love, and who never lift up but only tear down, and that was the situation between 1636-1638 with Anne.

Anne was spurred on by people who should know better.

A male admirer put it this way-

“I’ll bring you to a woman who preaches better gospel than any of your black-coats who have been at the ninnyversity, a woman of another kind of spirit who has had many revelations of things to come….I had rather such a one who speaks from the mere notion of the Spirit without any study at all than any of your learned scholars.” (Source)

One of Anne’s doctrines was that a person did not need any clergy, but could be guided by their own inner light. Anne was correct that the Spirit dwelling in us illuminates the scriptures to our mind, but incorrect that we need no clergy at all to explain the scriptures to us.

Note that “Inner light” is a Quaker term. Quakerism was rising at the time, in fact, another woman, Mary Dyer, supported Hutchinson but was later hanged as a rebel. The Quakers did not believe in baptism, formal prayer and the Lord’s Supper, nor did they believe in an ordained ministry. Each member was a minister in his or her own right, women were essentially treated as men in matters of spirituality, and they relied on an “Inner Light of Christ” as their source of spiritual inspiration, according to Dyer’s Wiki entry.

The equality of men and women in Quakerism, the lack of ordained ministry (to whom church members submit) and the inner light were all things Hutchinson would have been attracted to. It was this the admirer above was hinting at. Quakerism was anathema to Puritans and they enacted many laws against it.

Right, the statue of Hutchinson on the Massachusetts State House at 24 Beacon Street, Boston, MA. Still so controversial 375 years after death, and almost 100 years after the statue was commissioned, the original recipient, the Public Library, refused it and the Legislature ignored it for 2 years. It was finally installed in 2005. Story here: A heretic’s overdue honor

And Anne’s sin just deepened and deepened. It wasn’t long before Hutchinson began spouting personal revelations and prophecies. The apex of this was at her trial for sedition and heresy. Anne’s behavior had spawned a schism, had encouraged women to rebel, and caused a region-wide argument on the finer points of works v. grace. It also exiled her brother-in-law, John Wheelwright. It damaged Cotton’s reputation for years to come. The colony itself was suffering over this to the point of collapse. Winthrop’s “city on a hill” was only after a few years mired in petty bickering and politically unstable, caused no less by a woman. She had to be stopped.

Hutchinson was put on trial, after various attempts to get her to stop, recant, and repent. Hutchinson held firm. In her trial, she bested every single man in a theological debate, including Winthrop, who never forgave her as we’ll see later.

It might have gone her way, except at the last, she overstepped, and claimed that God Himself had told her these things. The initial charge of sedition was not met with a preponderance of evidence, due to her skill in theological combat. However when Hutchinson insisted God spoke to her personally, she was charged with blasphemy and exiled. In the spring, she moved to nearby Rhode Island and founded Portsmouth. Her husband and many of her children were already there.

Anne Hutchinson is noted as “a woman of conscience who yielded to no authority”, as quoted in this book about fellow Puritan preacher William Wentworth. Today’s feminists laud Hutchinson’s stance, but Christians know that is not the way. Of course we yield to authority.

Her friend and pastor John Cotton noted the missteps and sins Hutchinson committed,

Three things I told her made her spiritual estate unclear to me.
1. That her Faith was not begotten nor (by her relation) scarce at any time strengthened, by publicke Ministry, but by private Meditations, or Revelations, onely….
2. That she clearly discerned her Justification (as she professed:) but little or nothing at all, her Sanctification: though (she said) she believed such a thing there was by plain Scripture….
3. That she was more sharply censorious of other men’s spiritual estates and hearts, then the servants of God are wont to be, who are more taken up with judging of themselves before the Lord, then of others. Source: The New England Antinomian Controversy, Monergism

The first two are part of the theological controversy, but it’s the third I’d like to draw your attention to. Hutchinson rebelled against the scriptures, namely 1 Timothy 2:12 by teaching men. She and was unconcerned and unrepentant about it. She also failed to submit to her leaders, as Hebrews 13:17 says to do. Open and constant criticism of your leaders by disparaging them and encouraging walk-outs, is sin. (Also 1 Thessalonians 5:12, 1 Corinthians 16:16). Anne seems to have been unconcerned about the rift she was causing, and the word submit didn’t seem to be in her vocabulary. When she knew she was causing a problem, she did not repent, but persisted. This violated Romans 12:16, as she did not live in harmony with one another and failed to be humble. See also 1 Peter 3:8.

Left, John Cotton by John Smibert

Hutchinson was seen even by her lone supporter as overly judgmental and critical, as John Cotton enumerated in his list, #3.

How many Proverbs did Anne Hutchinson violate? She was not the meek, kind, quiet woman Proverbs calls us to be. She did not tend to her house (Proverbs 14:1). She was contentious, quarrelsome, and loud.

The woman of folly is boisterous, She is naive and knows nothing. (Proverbs 9:13).

When we step outside God’s ordained spheres for us, chaos ensues. I’m not speaking solely of women stepping into leadership or usurping men. Children are called to live in obedience to their parents. Men are supposed to lead the household. John Winthrop wrote of Anne’s husband William,

a man of very mild temper and weak parts, and wholly guided by his wife,

[Of interest: Where is Beth Moore’s Husband? 90-second NoCo Radio video clip]

There are spheres for all of us, and when we set them aside for our own glory or our own purposes, even for a deeply held conviction or our conscience, chaos comes.

Anne’s positive influence could have been great. She was mother of 15 children, many of them boys. Her insights and strong theological knowledge could have raised up a new generation of founding fathers for our nation. If Anne had remained in her mid-wifery and women’s Bible study sphere, and tended to her home, who knows what might have come of it.

As it was, there were a few positives from the negatives of the Anne Hutchinson controversy. Winthrop sought a colonial confederation to unite the colonies. The men banded together and established Harvard College, initially a seminary to train up the generation of men, as this quote indicates,

To provide a bulwark against remnants of Hutchinson’s free-grace theology, just two weeks after she was banished the General Court of Massachusetts finally released funds in November 1637 to establish the “College at Newtowne” (renamed Harvard in 1639)

Third, it spurred Roger Williams to deepen his conviction that there should be a “wall of separation” between church and state. Hutchinson was tried as a seditionist and a heretic, and eventually convicted of blasphemy. Williams thought that-

the magistrate should not punish religious infractions—meant that the civil authority should not be the same as the ecclesiastical authority. The second idea—that people should have freedom of opinion on religious matters—he called “soul-liberty.” It is one of the foundations for the religion clauses of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Williams’ use of the phrase “wall of separation” in describing his preferred relationship between religion and other matters is credited as the first use of that phrase, and Thomas Jefferson’s source in later writing of the wall of separation between church and state in a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802.

It was effectively the end of the city on the hill Winthrop had wanted to establish. His theocracy was no more.

Banishment from Mass. Bay Colony. Wikimedia. It took 6 days to walk to RI

Hutchinson was not the only bad actor in this debacle. John Winthrop behaved badly too. (Among others). Anne was in her mid-forties when the trial occurred. She was either pregnant during the trial or shortly after. She emigrated to Rhode Island the spring after the trial ended and shortly afterward, gave birth. The issue from the birth was not a baby but what is believed to have been a hydatidiform mole, or molar pregnancy. It was a mass of tumors, not a baby. Knowing the outcome of it being publicly known, the Hutchinsons had it quickly and secretly buried. However, Winthrop heard about it, sought the grave, got it exhumed, and used the tragedy as ‘proof’ that his stance was right. He wrote of it widely: ‘see how the wisdom of God fitted this judgment to her sin every way, for look—as she had vented misshapen opinions, so she must bring forth deformed monsters.”

[Of interest: Anne Hutchinson’s Monstrous Birth and the Pathologies of Obstetrics]

This to me, is a total lack of charity and speaks ill of his own character. Later, when it appeared that Massachusetts was set to annex Rhode Island (it never happened), fearing reprisals, Anne and her children (her husband had passed away by then) moved out of Winthrop’s reach and into New York, the Netherlands’ territory. A year later, Anne and all but one of her children were killed in an Indian massacre. Many New England pastors wrote gloating reports of her death. Winthrop called her upon her death “An American Jezebel.” I pray that today’s pastors are more charitable and loving toward their own sectarian.

If you’re a woman beset by conscience due to doctrinal difference with your pastor, what should you do? Well, not usurp the men, criticize openly, and encourage walkouts. Certainly don’t put words into God’s mouth that your stance is directly from Him.

First, decide if your difference is a salvific one or a secondary or tertiary issue. Next, pray, for your pastor, but for yourself too. Pray for wisdom and enlightenment. Perhaps you are wrong!

Then, be patient. You’re not the only one to have spotted an issue that threatens the church. Perhaps other men are working on it behind the scenes. Not everything depends on you. Be patient.

If it continues or worsens, then make an appointment to see the pastor, with your husband if possible. Ask questions to learn, don’t go in with guns blazing thinking you know it all. Ask, be an eager hearer.

Return home and be more patient. Let the information you’ve gained sink in, consult your husband, and read the Bible. Pray some more. Resist the temptation to gossip about it to mount up soldiers for your side.

As time goes on you might be relieved to find the Lord has resolved this issue, or you might find it worsening and have to make decisions. If you decide to leave your church, leave well.

Anne Hutchinson was an amazing colonialist who had much to offer the colony and her church. Unfortunately, she went outside the bounds of the ordained spheres for a woman and she caused upset, schism, and was a negative role model. There’s no doubt though, she was formidable and earned a place in American history. As a wife, though, the more negative Proverbs speak of her and women like her than do the positive ones.

Be peaceable, And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, (2 Timothy 2:24)


A few resources I used for background, sources for you too

Revising what we have done amisse’: John Cotton and John Wheelwright, 1640
The William and Mary Quarterly

The Antinomian Controversy 1636-1638: A Documentary History, by David D. Hall, Editor

William Wentworth: Puritan Preacher by Susan Ostburg

Rebels and Renegades: A Chronology of Social and Political Dissent in the United States by Neil Hamilton

Anne Hutchinson Preaching in Her House in Boston, illustration published in Harper’s Monthly, circa February 1901