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Anne Hutchinson - New England "Heretic"

Quote: "As I do understand it, laws, commands, rules and edicts are for those who have not the light which makes plain the pathway. He who has God's grace in his heart cannot go astray." (Anne Hutchinson)

She was considered a dangerous woman, a much greater threat to the community than the ordinary "gossip" or "scold" who often found her way into the Massachusetts Bay Selectmen's Minutes. She was intelligent and articulate and commanded a hearing that few others enjoyed.

Born in Lincolnshire, England, Anne Marbury Hutchinson (1591 - 1643) is the daughter of an Anglican cleric who was twice imprisoned for his dissenting beliefs and his criticism of the incompetence of the clergy. Young Anne was home-schooled in her father's library, and like him she challenges the authority of the Church of England. In 1612, the year after her father died, she marries William Hutchinson, an up-and-coming merchant. She and her husband remain in England, where she mostly has children and studies the Bible. Later, they move to Boston.

Middle-aged and the mother of fifteen children, Hutchinson is an intelligent and thoughtful woman, highly respected in the community. Her "heresy" is to challenge the religious establishment, especially on the issue of liberty of conscience. But her challenge is also related to gender, though she is not a seventeenth-century feminist, as some writers have suggested.

Initially, her activities do not create controversy. She holds weekly meetings in her home with neighborhood women, offering advice on childcare and homemaking and making comments on the Sunday sermon. Soon word spreads and more women attend—so many that they cannot be accommodated in her home without scheduling extra meetings. Women return home and tell their husbands, and the men begin to attend as well, fulfilling the fears of the authorities.

The authorities have good reason to oppose her. She is critical of the Boston ministers, spreading the word that the only ones who are truly elect are John Cotton and her brother-in-law, John Wheelwright. In her mind, the Puritan "covenant of works" represents no more than a man-made code of legal requirements that has no place in true religion, which, she insists, is a "covenant of grace" as one is guided by the Spirit through one's conscience. She testifies to special revelations from God, revelations that Puritans simply cannot tolerate.

That she would make such claims is serious offense, but that she has a following who fill her house at weekly meetings calls for court action. Indeed, the dozens of people who crowd into her home to listen to her sermon critiques and biblical expositions include, according to a contemporary observer, "some of the magistrates, some gentlemen, some scholars and men of learning."

By 1637, only three years after arriving with her family, Hutchinson is branded a "Jezebel" who is spreading "abominable" teachings, a "thing not tolerable nor comely in the sight of God, nor fitting for [her] sex." That same year, at age forty-six and several months into her fifteenth and final pregnancy, she is called before the General Court of Massachusetts. She might have been intimidated by their charges of insubordination, but she stands her ground.

The court issues a sentence of banishment, but she is permitted to remain in Boston under house arrest until spring. O March 22, 1638, she appears again and makes concessions, including an admission of saying "rash and ungrounded" things against the magistrates. But after further questioning and wrangling, the effort to "bring her to see her sin" was "all in vain, [and] the church, with one consent, cast her out." With her excommunication, "her spirits, which seemed before to be somewhat dejected, revived again, and she gloried in her sufferings, saying, that it was the greatest happiness, next to Christ, that ever befell her."

On March 28, under the orders of Governor Winthrop, Hutchinson left Boston for Providence, where her husband had purchased land from the Indians. Following an agonizing miscarriage soon after her exile, the Puritan leaders went to great lengths to besmirch her reputation. But if a miscarriage was not enough to prove her reprobation, her untimely death was. After she and her family had moved to Long Island, word came back to Boston vindicating her detractors and warning any other would-be heretics, that "the Indians set upon them, and slew her and all the family . . .; and therefore God's hand is the more apparently seene herein, to pick out this wofull woman . . . "

Today's reading is from Parade of Faith: A Biographical History of the Christian Church by Ruth Tucker. © 2010 by Zondervan. Used with permission. All rights reserved. The book's title must be included when sharing the above content on social media.

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