Anne Hutchinson, born in 1591, was the daughter of Francis Marbury, an Anglican minister. Although no Puritan himself, Marbury was outspoken in his criticism of the established church, mainly the appointment of undeserving ministers by an unconcerned hierarchy. He was imprisoned for his criticisms however later released to take a living at Alford, where he ministered throughout Anne’s childhood, influencing and teaching his eldest child in matters scriptural and theological. In 1605, the family moved to London, but in 1612 Anne married a former neighbor, William Hutchinson, and returned to Alford to start their family of 15 children. During this time, Anne turned out to be a Puritan, influenced particularly by the preaching of John Cotton in nearby Boston. In the meantime, she studied scripture and started the life of inner religious experience that would cause so much opposition later. She became persuaded that she could distinguish true preachers from false and, certainly, that there were in England merely two of the former: Cotton and her brother-in-law, John Wheelwright. Therefore when Wheelwright was “silenced” by the church authorities and Cotton left for New England in 1633, she turned again to scripture and found there a leading to follow Cotton; the family sailed for New England in 1634.
Not long after they had settled, Anne started holding weekly meetings with a small group of women to study the Bible and go over Cotton’s sermons. Soon a second weekly meeting was added, drawing men too, finally growing to an attendance of up to 80 people across the whole range of Boston’s social spectrum. It appears from later reports that Anne used them to explain her own insights and to criticize the other ministers, just as she found in her physical and psychological ministry as a nurse and midwife an opportunity to share her religious convictions. By 1636, the colony was divided into two parties: the “Hutchinsonians,” including Henry Vane, who had replaced John Winthrop for a time as governor, and most of the members of the Boston church; and their opponents, including Winthrop, most of the ministers, and several of the colonists outside Boston. (Marilyn J. Westerkamp, 1990)
The controversy was complex, for it was obvious in political and personal rivalries, and theological disagreements. Cotton was the most famous minister on the Hutchinson side, and he met with the other ministers in October 1636 to try to elucidate the issues; thus far there is no question that Anne Hutchinson’s theology and activities were the most divisive issues. In October, John Winthrop recorded in his Journal his first written reference to her, identifying her as
“a woman of a ready wit and bold spirit, [who] brought over with her two dangerous errors: 1. That the person of the Holy Ghost dwells in a justified person. 2. That no sanctification can help to evidence to us our justification”. (Jane Kamensky, 1999)
Two months afterward, the ministers summoned Anne to a private meeting at Cotton’s house to ascertain her views, even though no further action was taken against her at that time. By the end of December, the extent of the controversy can be seen in Winthrop’s report:
“Thus every occasion increased the contention and caused great alienation of minds; and the members of Boston (frequenting the lectures of other ministers) did make much disturbance by public questions, and objections to their doctrines, which did any way disagree from their opinions; and it began to be as common here to distinguish between men, as being under a covenant of grace or a covenant of works, as in other countries between Protestants and Papists”. (Jane Kamensky, 1999)
The Antinomian controversy was a critical episode in shaping the development of Puritanism in America; it was as well a critical incident in shaping Puritan views on women, and it raises a number of important genderrelated questions. Was Anne Hutchinson condemned because she was a woman? Yes and no. The core issues were theological and political. Both parties included persons of both sexes and from all ranks, including ministers. Men were as well convicted and banished by the court. However, from the viewpoint of the winners, Anne Hutchinson was the primary problem. Male leaders obviously deplored her influence on other women, and they could find justification for their anger and frustration with her ideas and activities in a long Christian tradition of distrust of women: since daughters of Eve, they were weak of faith and of intellect; they used their tricks to seduce men from truth and piety; scripture clearly enjoined their submission in a godly and well-ordered society. The records of the controversy are filled with comments condescending Anne and the women Antinomians for their unnatural behavior. Anne Hutchinson was not condemned exclusively for the reason that she was a woman, however her gender made her actions even more offensive, and the Puritan leadership drew far-reaching conclusions from the incident regarding women and their place.
For several years, historians accepted the winners’ judgment of the “American Jezebel.” In the 20th century, though, she has been portrayed by some as a martyr to religious intolerance or as a heroic defender of women’s rights against the patriarchy of church and state. In actual fact, she was neither a devil nor a saint. Her dissent may have, eventually and obliquely, contributed to the cause of religious toleration in America, however reasoned and principled toleration was no more a central motive of the Hutchinson party than it was of their opponents. They just lost the power struggle. Nor was she a self-conscious feminist in any modern sense. She was pushed over the course of the controversy into defending herself and her actions as a woman, particularly her right to preach or teach religious matters; to defend women’s rights per se, though, was not her initial goal. Her main motivation was religious conviction, as clear and fervently held as that of her opponents. However her beliefs had implications for women in a special way, mainly her stress on the primacy of the Holy Spirit and religious experience, as these undercut the traditional authority of leaders of church and state, a male monopoly. Women were not her merely supporters, but several were drawn to her cause, and the greater potential of her position for female theological independence may well have been an attraction. Lastly, even though the records of the controversy come from her opponents, their accounts cannot difficult to understand the portrait of a strong, intelligent, and witty woman, a worthy opponent of the best theological minds of her setting. (Michael P. Winship, 2002)
When the early Puritans came to New England, the future was, to a degree, open. They carried with them all the history of Christian misogynism and a tradition of female subordination and spiritual weakness. Yet they as well came, most immediately, from a turbulent religious situation in England in which they had been the dissenters, the critics of establishment and tradition. Women played a lively and vocal role in English Nonconformist churches in the first half of the 17th century, and male Nonconformists alternated between appreciation and suspicion of the women’s activities. Puritans too carried, as heirs of the Protestant Reformation, at least a theoretical potential for greater spiritual equality for women. Like men, women were a part of the priesthood of all believers, accountable directly to God for their faith. Women, like men, were encouraged to study the Bible and the state of their own souls. Admittedly, the Protestant reformers did not see such spiritual responsibilities as entailing lack of female subjection to male Protestant authorities, although wittingly or not, they had opened a door. (Elaine G. Breslaw, 2007)
Given that inheritance and the circumstances of the New World, with the chance there to shape an ideal, godly society, the Puritans might have customized some traditional views of women. Their guide was scripture, although scripture itself is ambiguous regarding women.
As Mary Maples Dunn concludes, “The people of England could, if they wanted, find in Paul a situation parallel to their own: a radical spiritual message of equality in tension with social custom. It was not certain how the tension between these two views of women would be resolved in New England, and in this situation, . . . many women engaged themselves in both experiments in church governance and in the discussion of doctrine”. (Mary Maples Dunn, 1980)
Certainly, Anne Hutchinson herself made extremely efficient use in her trial of scriptural precedents more favorable to women and their religious activities. If the circumstances for women was open in the early 1630s in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and if developments could have gone the direction of greater freedom for women (though definitely not radical or total equality, realistically), that option was dead by 1637–and mainly in reaction to Anne Hutchinson and the Antinomian controversy. Paradoxically, that reaction might have been less adamant had Anne Hutchinson “merely” challenged the status of women within church and society rather than the theological heart of God’s dealings with humanity, election, and authority, both of scripture and within the structures of the godly community. By the time of her church trial, issues of female insubordination were so intimately tied to what the Puritan authorities saw as a dangerous and unorthodox threat to their beliefs, their identity, as well as their God-given mission that any other woman who stepped out of her place would also be condemned. (Francis J. Bremer, ed, 1981).
Elaine G. Breslaw. “The Times and Trials of Anne Hutchinson”; The Historian, Vol. 69, 2007
Francis J. Bremer, ed., Anne Hutchinson: Troubler of the Puritan Zion; Huntington, N.Y.: Krieger, 1981.
Jane Kamensky. Governing the Tongue: The Politics of Speech in Early New England; Oxford University Press, 1999
Marilyn J. Westerkamp. “Anne Hutchinson, Sectarian Mysticism, and the Puritan Order”; Church History, Vol. 59, 1990
Mary Maples Dunn, “Saints and Sisters: Congregational and Quaker Women in the Early Colonial Period”, in Janet Wilson James, ed., Women in American Religion; Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1980, 30.
Michael P. Winship. Making Heretics: Militant Protestantism and Free Grace in Massachusetts, 1636-1641; Princeton University Press, 2002