Hutchinson is known chiefly for her role in the antinomian controversy in Massachusetts Bay Colony. Her participation in so public an event, though rare for premodern women, was not unique. From the early Christian era, female activism in religious life gave some women high visibility, thus preserving their voices in the historical record. The splintering of the Puritan movement in seventeenth-century England gave women broader scope for leadership as lay preachers, visionaries, and petitioners.
Like many of her contemporaries, Hutchinson left no correspondence, journal, or published works. Only the documents of the antinomian controversy, principally the record of her two trials before the General Court (November 1637) and the Church of Boston (March 1638), provide the primary source material for interpreting her mental world. Close readings of these documents have enabled historians to understand the political, theological, and gender issues at the root of this colonial crisis.
Several factors contributed to Hutchinson’s social authority in early Boston. Born in Alford, Lincolnshire, England, she was the daughter of Bridget Dryden and the dissenting Anglican clergyman Francis Marbury. As the second daughter of the Marburys’ thirteen children, Anne developed her talents for domestic leadership and the use of herbal medicines early in life. From her father she received an education in theology and conscientious dissent. The Marburys moved to London in 1605, but when Anne married the merchant William Hutchinson in 1612 the couple returned to Alford to live. They began traveling to St. Botolph’s in Lincolnshire to hear the charismatic preaching of John Cotton. During these years, too, Hutchinson gave birth to twelve children; another would be born in Boston, Massachusetts. Following Cotton’s suppression for his Puritan views, he migrated to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1633. Bereft at the loss of his inspiring ministry, Hutchinson persuaded her husband to remove their family to Boston, Massachusetts, in September 1634, where their gentry status and piety assured them a prominent position in the Puritan colony. Two years later, however, Anne Hutchinson and John Cotton found themselves at the center of a religious and political contest.
The antinomian controversy of 1636-1638 broke out in the waning months of a religious revival led by Cotton when a spiritual malaise gripped the colonists. Hutchinson had been holding biweekly devotional meetings to discuss Cotton’s sermons at her home, which drew as many as sixty people. She brought attention to Cotton’s spirit-centered theology, championing him and her brother-in-law John Wheelwright as true Christian ministers against the “legal” preachers who taught that a moral life was sufficient grounds for salvation. With Cotton and Wheelwright, Hutchinson believed that redemption was God’s gift to his elect and could not be earned by human effort: the soul remained passive to the work of divine grace in the drama of salvation.
The effect of Hutchinson’s meetings was divisive, and her supporters composed a significant faction in the colony. A ministerial synod examined Cotton and cleared him from the charge of heresy; the investigation then focused on Hutchinson and Wheelwright. In contrast to Cotton, Hutchinson and her brother-in-law took their radical spirituality to an extreme position. Cotton’s style was mediative; theirs was adversarial. Consequently, Hutchinson and her supporters were banished by the General Court of Massachusetts; and the result of her trial by the Church of Boston was excommunication. The Hutchinsons went to Aquidneck in Narragansett Bay. In 1642 when William Hutchinson died, his widow and the six youngest children moved to New York where all but one daughter were killed in an Indian raid in 1643.
The domestic setting for Hutchinson’s leadership is key to understanding the role of premodern women in religious life. It was among her female neighbors in need of her medical skills that she first communicated her controversial religious ideas. Her devotional meetings were also common practice among the early Puritans. Like many religious movements, early Puritanism was a household religion. With its institutionalization, women lost the authority they had exercised in the formative domestic phase. Such was the case in Massachusetts where John Winthrop and company were intent on building a godly society protected by the coordinate powers of church and state. The enterprise demanded a new emphasis on outward morality, or sanctification, that would bolster the authority of both ministers and magistrates. But Hutchinson’s prophetic stress on the indwelling Holy Spirit, although an authentic strain of Puritan belief, empowered the laity at the expense of the ministry. Moreover, her claim to immediate revelation was especially threatening to the advocates of law and order. A generation later a similar contest would be waged against the Quakers, some of whom had been among Hutchinson’s supporters.
Francis J. Bremer, ed., Anne Hutchinson: Troubler of the Puritan Zion (1981); David D. Hall, ed., The Antinomian Controversy, 1636-1638: A Documentary History, rev. ed. (1990); Amy Lang, Prophetic Woman: Anne Hutchinson and the Problem of Dissent in the Literature of New England (1987).
Barbara Ritter Dailey
The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.