Anne Hutchinson – Running Afoul of the State Church

The “separation of church and state” has been a continuing issue in our American history. Most often it comes up with regard to our public schools. Over the years, these issues have ended up in the courts, with things being decided in the favor of keeping religion out of the schools, but the issues never really go away. Still prayers are said before football games, at graduations, and even as late as 2004 the school board of Dover, Pennsylvania tried to introduce Creationism into the high school biology classroom in the form of Intelligent Design.

I’m not surprised that the effort continues. The United States is one of the most religious nations on earth with hundreds of different religions and Christian denominations.  What does surprise me, however, is that the effort is usually led by evangelical Christians. The reason this surprises me is that evangelical Christians were in large part the driving force behind the First Amendment clause being written into the Constitution.

We don’t have a state religion in the United States, but that wasn’t always the case. During colonial America, many colonies did have official religions that were supported by the state and tax money. In the north, the Congregationalist church (formerly the Puritans) was the official church of Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire, in the south, the Anglican Church was the official church of Maryland, Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia. There certainly were states without an official religion, most notably Rhode Island which was established on the principle of freedom of religion. But in many of these colonies, evangelicals found themselves at odds with the established churches. One person who is of particular importance to the idea of “separation of church and state” is Jeremiah Moore. Taking up the cause of Moore and many other Baptist preachers who had been arrested for preaching without a license in Virginia, Thomas Jefferson would introduce a bill into the legislature that would eventually be passed and sever the tie between the Anglican Church and the state of Virginia. He would then go on, with others, to insist on the addition of a clause in the Constitution that ensured freedom of religion.

Evangelicalism is characterized by the belief that you can have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. Although Evangelicalism didn’t really begin as a movement until the 1730s, the idea that you could have this communion with God through the Holy Spirit did exist. One woman who believed and taught this idea is Anne Hutchinson.

Anne Hutchinson, born Anne Marbury in 1591, was the daughter of an Anglican minister in England. Her father had strong Puritan leanings and was censured by the church on more than one occasion. He spent time in prison for his preaching and for a time was under house arrest. He was a strong believer in education and in a time that it was unusual for women to be educated, he taught both his boys and his girls.  At the age of 21, not long after her father’s death, Anne married William Hutchinson. Together they began to follow the teachings of John Cotton and John Wheelwright. These two ministers preached similar messages emphasizing grace and a “moment of conversion”, and deemphasizing a salvation based on works.

By 1633, Cotton’s message, which didn’t strictly adhere to the Anglican Church doctrines, was attracting attention from the church and he found it necessary to flee to America. After a time, Anne felt the Spirit leading her to follow Cotton to Massachusetts and she and William, with their 11 children, sailed for Boston in 1634. They flourished in Boston. William was successful in trade, and Anne found a place in the community helping others and attending childbirths where women often congregated. At some point, she began to share with these women the message she had learned from Cotton and Wheelwright.

Men would often congregate to discuss recent sermons and theology, but there were no such meetings for women. As more and more women became interested in what Anne had to say, she began to have meetings for them in her home. This eventually led to meetings twice a week attended by as many as 80 people. They would review the sermon, discuss it’s meaning, and often disagree with it. Anne began to espouse her own teachings. Principle among them was the “covenant of grace” as opposed to the “covenant of works.” She emphasized “an intuition of the Spirit” or “a personal revelation” as the true evidence of a person’s salvation rather than their good behavior.

In 1636, it became clear to officials in Boston, that many people were developing opinions that weren’t considered orthodox within the church. The fault for this was laid at the feet of Cotton, Hutchinson, and Wheelwright (who had recently arrived from England.) A number of meetings were held, particularly with Cotton, to try to sort out what his specific teachings were and where they differed from the official church doctrine. (This controversy still exists today between different denominations, with some emphasizing that works have nothing to do with the state of your salvation, and others emphasizing that your faith is not assured unless there is evidence of the fruit of good works.)  By late 1636, things came to a head and Hutchinson and her followers were accused of heresy.

Anne was accused of antinomianism and familism. Antinomianism literally means “against the law” and Familism was a sect that emphasized a feeling of divine love. Both of these ideas were considered to be dangerous for fear that they could lead to immoral behavior. Neither accusation is really accurate. While Anne believed that she and others like her, received salvation purely by the grace of God and that this could be experienced and felt by the believer, thereby providing “proof” to the individual, they were not immoral people. By all accounts, Anne was highly respected in the community and very active in helping people, in spite of having a large family of her own.

By 1637 when Anne came to trial, her primary accuser John Winthrop had become governor of Massachusetts. He feared that if the people in the colony did not remain “pure” that God would not protect them. It was a difficult life for the settlers. Just before Anne’s trial, the settlers had engaged in a war with the Pequot Indians. Many Puritans believed that Indian attacks, poor crops, natural disasters, or any misfortune was God’s judgment for sin.  Another aspect of this trial was that Anne had risen to a place in the community that Winthrop did not deem “fitting to her sex.” Men had begun to attend Anne’s meetings. In fact, one of her admirers was the previous governor of the colony, Sir Henry Vane. It was not considered proper for a woman to teach men. Cotton, in an attempt to distance himself from Anne, even accused her of promoting licentious behavior by having men and women together in her home for these meetings. The entire situation was filled with politics, fear of judgment, and probably no small amount of misogyny.

On the first day of the trial, Anne met their arguments point for point, probably frustrating them greatly. However, on the second day, Anne gave them her message. She told them that she was assured of her salvation because of a “personal revelation.” The court deemed her a heretic and sentenced her to banishment from Massachusetts. She remained under house arrest throughout the winter in the home of Joseph Weld in Roxbury. It was a severe winter in which she was separated from her family.

In the spring, a church trial was held, in which Anne was excommunicated. During the winter, William and some other men made plans to leave Massachusetts. Twenty-three men would ultimately sign what became known as the Portsmouth Compact. They purchased Aquiddeck Island from the Narragansetts and formed a new settlement. This was near Providence Plantations which had been established by Roger Williams with specific provisions for freedom of religion.

At some point after the death of William in 1641, Anne and some of her family moved to a place in eastern New York. Here she and all but one of her children and other family members were massacred by the Indians. She had had good relationships with the Narragansett Indians in Portsmouth and may not have realized how tense the relationships were in her new home. Her daughter Susanna was away from the house and by some accounts was captured and held for several years before being ransomed by to her remaining family in Boston.

As with many historical figures Anne’s life is viewed through many lenses. She is seen as a heretic, a libertine, and a feminist, or as a woman who simply followed the dictates of her conscience. She definitely stepped out of the generally accepted role of women in Puritan society. Ultimately, she was a victim of both secular and church politics, but she was also a woman who insisted on her religious liberty.

Life of Anne Hutchinson: With a Sketch of the Antinomian Controversy in Massachusetts by George E. Ellis
God In America – PBS special

About Susan Ozmore

I'm a blogger, freelance writer, and former teacher. After 12 years in the telecommunications industry, I taught math and science. I have, however, always loved history! So now I am indulging by reading many great books and sharing what I learn. As Harry Truman said, "The only thing new is the history you don't know." Please comment, I would love to receive your feedback. Thanks for reading.
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