Anne Hutchinson, Spiritual Foremother

From the trial of Anne Hutchinson (1637). Excerpted from the book The Puritans in America: A Narrative Anthology, pages 154-163):

Mr. Winthrop, governor: Mrs. Hutchinson, you are called here as one of those that have troubled the peace of the commonwealth and the churches here; you are known to be a woman that hath had a great share in the promoting and divulging of those opinions that are causes of this trouble…you have maintained a meeting and an assembly in your house that hath been condemned by the general assembly as a thing not tolerable nor comely in the sight of God nor fitting for your sex, and notwithstanding that was cried down you have continued the same. Therefore we have thought good to send for you to understand how things are, that if you be in an erroneous way we may reduce you that so you may become a profitable member here among us, otherwise if you be obstinate in your course that then the court may take such course that you may trouble us no further. Therefore I would intreat you to express whether you do not hold and assent in practice to those opinions and factions that have been handled in court already, that is to say, whether you do not justify Mr. Wheelwright’s sermon and petition.

Mrs. Hutchinson: I am called here to answer before you but I hear no things laid to my charge.

Gov. I have told you some already and more I can tell you.

Mrs. Hutchinson: Name one Sir.

Gov. Have I not named some already?

Mrs. Hutchinson: What have I said or done?

Gov. Why for your doings, this you did harbor and countenance those that are parties in this faction that you have heard of.

Mrs. H. That’s matter of conscience, Sir.

Gov. Your conscience you must keep or it must be kept for you.

….

Gov. Let us state the case and then we may know what to do. That which is laid to Mrs. Hutchinson’s charge is this, that she had traduced the magistrates and ministers of this jurisdiction, that she hath said the ministers preached a covenant of works and Mr. Cotton a covenant of grace, and that they were not able ministers of the gospel, and she excuses it that she made it a private conference and with a promise of secrecy, &c. Now this is charged upon her, and they therefore sent for her seeing she made it her table talk, and then she said the fear of man was a snare and therefore she would not be affeared of them.

Mrs. H. This that yourself hath spoken, I desire that they may take their oaths upon.

Gov. That that we should put the reverend elders unto is this, that they would deliver upon oath that which they can remember themselves.

Mr. Shepherd: I know no reason of the oath but the importunity of this gentlewoman.

….

Here other witnesses, including Mr. Cotton testify to Mrs. Hutchinson’s speech and beliefs spoken in their presence.

Gov. They affirm that Mrs. Hutchinson did say they were not able ministers of the new testament.

Mr. Cotton: I do not remember it.

Mrs. H. If you please to give me leave I shall give you the ground of what I know to be true….I bless the Lord, he hath let me see which was the clear ministry and which the wrong. Since that time I confess I have been more choice and he hath let me to distinguish between the voice of my beloved and the voice of Moses, the voice of John Baptist and the voice of antichrist, for all those voices are spoken of in scripture. Now if you do condemn me for speaking what in my conscience I know to be truth I must commit myself unto the Lord.

Mr. Nowell: How do you know that that was the spirit?

Mrs. H. How did Abraham know that it was God that bid him offer his son, being a breach of the sixth commandment?

Dep. Gov. By an immediate voice.

Mrs. H. So to me by an immediate revelation.

Dep. Gov. How! an immediate revelation.

Mrs. H. By the voice of his own spirit to my soul. I will give you another scripture, Jeremiah 46:17-28–out of which the Lord showed me what he would do for me and the rest of his servants. –But after he was pleased to reveal himself to me I did presently like Abraham run to Hagar. And after that he did let me see the atheism of my own heart, for which I begged of the Lord that it might not remain in my heart, and being thus, he did shew me this (a twelvemonth after) which I told you of before. Ever since that time I have been confident of what he hath revealed unto me…

Dep. Gov. I desire Mr. Cotton to tell us whether you do approve of Mrs. Hutchinson’s revelations as she hath laid them down.

Mr. Cotton: I know not whether I do understand her, but this I say, if she doth expect a deliverance in a way of providence–then I cannot deny it.

In later testimony, Cotton and other ministers concede their unwillingness to support Mrs. Hutchinson against the other ministers whom she did not support.

Anne Hutchinson, daughter of a minister, had come to Massachusetts Bay with her husband to follow the deposed Church of England minister, John Cotton. The Hutchinsons settled into the new community where Anne visited the ill and payed calls on women during childbirth. Like those at the infamous Salem colony, she began holding meetings in her own home in which people discussed their spiritual experiences and their interpretations of scripture and soon “a murmur of discontent began to be heard concerning the spiritual guardians of the community” (“The Examination of Anne Hutchinson). Anne spoke out against the clergy in her community out of a sense that the established clergy had grown spiritually cold and was far removed from the laity. She believed in grace, not works, and let all know it. She claimed to interpret the scriptures for herself, which in that time was akin to being labeled a prophetess. During an era when only a few men claimed that right, heresy was the usual charge. After she was forced to admit in court that God had revealed himself to her by “an immediate voice,” the court declared her delusional and heretical. Even Cotton, the minister she supported and followed from Boston, refused to come to her defense at the crucial moment. She was expelled from her community and sent to Rhode Island where she was eventually killed by Indians during the Dutch-Indian war.

I find it fascinating that in America, where many religious people fled to begin new communities which promoted spiritual freedom, that that right was still not afforded to women. Not only were they enjoined to learn through their husbands alone, but they were doubly condemned to never interpret the scriptures for themselves. God would never deign to speak to a woman it was believed (the Quakers were the one group that always allowed women rights in their community from their beginning). I cannot believe that after nearly 370 years, nothing much has changed for women in fundamentalist churches. Thank God for Anne Hutchinson and other progressive Christians who actually listen to Spirit when it moves and aren’t afraid to say so.