Anne Hutchinson was an influential Puritan spiritual leader in colonial New England who challenged the religious doctrines of her time. Through the popularity of her preaching, and her unorthodox beliefs, Hutchinson garnered the disapproval of the elders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In direct violation of Puritan doctrine and church structure, she believed heaven was open to those who worshipped God through a personal connection, without the need for any church intervention. These and other beliefs caused Hutchinson and her family to be banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Anne was born in 1591 in Lincolnshire, England. Her father, Francis Marbury, was a Puritan minister who insisted his daughter learn to read.
In 1578, Marbury was tried for heresy by the church after making repeated critical comments and was jailed for two years. He was again prosecuted for criticizing the church and was sentenced to three years house arrest the year Anne was born.
After her father’s death, Anne married childhood friend and cloth merchant William Hutchinson in 1612 and began to work in Alford as a midwife and herbalist. Around the same period, Anne started teaching Bible sessions in her home with other women.
The Hutchinsons became followers of Puritan minister John Cotton, who preached that mercy is preordained by God, but damnation is determined by earthly behavior.
Anne Hutchinson began to vigorously spread Cotton’s message to other women, with Cotton’s approval, since more women would often enter his congregation after following Anne’s persuasiveness.
Puritans Flee Persecution
The ascent of King Charles I in 1626 led to the persecution of certain Protestant sects by the Anglican Church of England. Puritans fled in large numbers beginning in 1630: One of the first of these included John Winthrop, future governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Cotton was questioned by the Court of High Commission over concerns that his preaching about church reform was causing dissent. Cotton immediately went into hiding and fled to Boston in 1633.
Believing Massachusetts was in opposition to the king, British authorities closed borders and stopped emigrants from leaving under threat of prosecution.
At the age of 43 in 1634, Hutchinson and her family, which included 10 children, dodged British authorities and joined Cotton in Boston in 1634, following her revelation to do so while reading the Bible.
A Popular Preacher
Her husband rose to prominence in Boston, becoming a magistrate, while Anne Hutchinson joined with a group of women who worked as healers, treating illness and assisting in childbirth.
Cotton immediately worked to cement his power in the New World and engineered the congregational structure of church worship, with Hutchinson in his inner circle.
It was during her involvement with the healing group that Hutchinson developed the religious philosophy that became the focus of her American preaching. She believed that heaven was attainable to anyone who worshipped God directly, through a personal connection.
Hutchinson also preached that behavior, and therefore sin, did not affect whether someone went to heaven. These beliefs were in direct violation of Puritan doctrine.
Hutchinson expanded on her ideas in sermons and people flocked to listen to her, including men. By 1636, she was holding two meetings a week with as many as 80 people at each meeting, including Henry Vane, the governor of Massachusetts.
Hutchinson's Dangerous Ideas
After a year of preaching, Hutchinson started to receive negative attention from the Puritan leadership who believed preaching was only for men and thought Hutchinson’s ideas were dangerous. They also felt that her stance against sin could promote dissension in the colony and encourage people to refuse to work and act against church and colony rules.
Those who rose up in opposition to her were Governor John Winthrop and John Cotton, who feared Hutchinson was becoming a church separatist. Both sent female spies to her sermons.
Cotton gathered with other colony clergies to pass resolutions designed to end religious dissidence. One resolution specifically forbade meetings in Hutchinson’s home – but she ignored the order.
Why Was Anne Hutchinson Banished?
In 1637, Hutchinson—several months into a pregnancy—was called to appear before the General Court, with Winthrop presiding and Cotton testifying against her.
A debate over the next two days saw Hutchinson performing well before the group of men when challenged on Biblical prowess, but her final argument sealed her fate. It was a lengthy statement of her philosophy and history, an account of speaking directly with God that concluded with a prophecy of the ruin of the court and the colony in retribution for their persecution of Hutchinson.
The men saw this as a challenge to their authority, and Hutchinson was proclaimed a heretic. She and her family were banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and any supporters in positions of authority were removed. All supporters were forced to surrender their arms.
Hutchinson remained under house arrest until winter ended. In March 1638 the Hutchinson family, along with 30 other families, left for the island of Aquidneck in the Rhode Island territory at the suggestion of Roger Williams, where they founded Portsmouth.
The men of the Massachusetts Bay Colony didn’t stop trying to harm Hutchinson’s reputation.
After her pregnancy ended in June with the stillbirth of a severely deformed baby, rumors were spread that Hutchinson had given birth to a demon, spurred on by Winthrop. Cotton preached that the stillbirth was her punishment from God.
The defamation went beyond her own labor. One minister claimed Hutchinson had never delivered a normal baby as a midwife, that all were monsters. Governor Winthrop offered physical descriptions of many babies supposedly born to Anne’s followers as devil-like, clawed creatures.
After William’s death in 1642, ministers from Massachusetts were dispatched to force her to renounce her beliefs and coerce her into believing that Massachusetts would soon take over the Rhode Island territory.
Wishing to escape Massachusetts’ meddling, Hutchinson and her children moved to the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam (now New York), homesteading on Long Island Sound.
One afternoon in the summer of 1643, Hutchinson’s family was attacked by Native American Siwanoy warriors at their home. Fifteen people including Hutchinson were axed to death, their bodies burned.
Hearing of Hutchinson’s death, John Winthrop, who had never stopped monitoring her movements, expressed that his prayers had been answered and that an instrument of the devil had been dealt with justly.
Even after her death, he held a grudge against her and later wrote a hostile essay about Hutchinson, calling her “American Jezebel.”
At the time of the attack, Hutchinson’s nine-year-old daughter Susan was picking berries and hid within the crevice of a large boulder known locally as Split Rock. According to local lore, she was later kidnapped by the Siwanoy tribe and adopted by the chief, Wampage, who renamed himself ‘Anne-Hoeck,’ in Anne Hutchinson’s honor.
Susan remained with the Siwanoy for another nine years, eventually returning to Boston and marrying a settler there.
Hutchinson River Parkway
In memory of Anne Hutchinson and Wampage, a neighboring parcel of land was given the name “Anne-Hoeck’s Neck.”
The adjacent river was christened the Hutchinson River, later joined by a major New York City-area highway next to it called the Hutchinson River Parkway. A plaque honoring Anne Hutchinson was installed on Split Rock in 1911 but was soon stolen.