Posted on 22 October 2020
Ann Hutchinson (1591 – 1643) was a radical preacher in colonial America who became famous for the Antinomian Controversy.
The word ‘antinomianism’ literally means “against or opposed to the law” and, in a religious sense, it means not following religious authority. In 1637, it would be in Boston, Massachusetts, that Hutchinson would go on trial for breaking the religious law of day – an event that would make her the best-known woman in colonial America.
From Lincolnshire To Boston
Born in Alford, Lincolnshire, Anne was born to religious dissenting parents. In 1612, aged 21, she married William Hutchinson and they had more than a dozen children. Despite having no formal education, as was common for women in 17th-century England, Hutchinson was an avid reader and theological thinker.
She became inspired inspired by Reverend John Cotton, a vicar at the nearby Lincolnshire parish. After Cotton began preaching Puritan beliefs, he was removed from his pulpit and forced to emigrate in 1633.
Cotton joined the Puritan-led Massachusetts Bay Colony and started preaching at the First Church of Boston. At the time of his arrival, there were around 80 members of the church and within a few months Cotton had increased this to over 120.
Spurred by Cotton’s success, a year later in 1634, Hutchinson joined him in Boston with her husband and children. Aged 43 and trained as a midwife, she began holding weekly meetings for women in her home discussing the theology of Cotton’s sermons. Her meetings became so popular that an average of 60 women were soon attending and a separate men’s meeting was set up.
As the meetings flourished, Hutchinson began expressing her own views that God’s salvation didn’t lie in following religious law, rather salvation could only be given by the Spirit.
However, Hutchinson’s popularity disturbed the colony’s religious leaders.
At a time when men ruled and women were to remain silent, Hutchinson asserted her right to preach, which her husband avidly supported. However, her former mentor, Reverend Cotton, turned on her, describing her meetings as a “promiscuous and filthy coming together of men and women.”
Hutchinson was put on trial for slandering Boston’s Puritan ministers and troubling “the peace of the commonwealth and churches ” by holding weekly meetings in her home. She was accused of rather being a “husband than a wife and a preacher than a hearer; and a Magistrate than a subject. The trial was presided over by Governor John Winthrop, the third governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, who was a Puritan lawyer that would later be involved in the hanging of Mary Dyer.
In her defense, Hutchinson said:
“You have no power over my body, neither can you do me any harm—for I am in the hands of the eternal Jehovah, my Saviour, I am at his appointment, the bounds of my habitation are cast in heaven, no further do I esteem of any mortal man than creatures in his hand, I fear none but the great Jehovah, which hath foretold me of these things, and I do verily believe that he will deliver me out of your hands. Therefore take heed how you proceed against me—for I know that, for this you go about to do to me, God will ruin you and your posterity and this whole state.”
By saying that “God will ruin you” to those accusing her, Hutchinson had completely sealed her fate. Even before the trial began the verdict was near certain – she was a female preacher, at a time when this went against the religious morals of the day, and she held unlicensed meetings.
In asserting the right to defend herself in court, the leaders of the Puritan-led colony feared Hutchinson would inspire a rebellion. Also, Hutchinson could be used as a single scapegoat for the colony’s failings. From their point of view, Hutchinson had to be found guilty – and she was.
The verdict of the court was that Hutchinson was both a heretic and an instrument of the devil, who should condemned to banishment for being “a woman not fit for our society.”
In March, 1638, Hutchinson was excommunicated and banished from the colony. The Hutchinsons moved to Roger Williams’ more liberal colony of Rhode Island. In 1642, following the death of her husband, Hutchinson relocated to the Dutch colony of New Netherlands (now New York), and settled on Long Island Sound.
There, she and her family, with the exception of one daughter, were killed in an Indian massacre. Initially, historians thought the attack was in response to whites taking Indian lands, however, some historians also speculate that it may have been provoked by Puritans.
Hutchinson remains a key figure in the history of religious freedom in England’s American colonies and the history of women in ministry, challenging the authority of the ministers. She is honored by Massachusetts with a statue outside the State House that has a plaque calling her a ‘courageous exponent of civil liberty and religious toleration’.
Image from www.history.com