by Suzanne Scoggins, Director of Women's History
March 3, 2011 · Comments Off
Anne Hutchinson (c. 1591-1643) was at the center of the first great theological crisis in Puritan New England: the Antinomian Controversy. A brilliant and outspoken woman who refused to bow to male supremacy, Hutchinson challenged the tyrannical Puritan government and championed freedom of conscience. She has been called the first feminist in the New World, but she was also a model for the religious and civil liberty of all citizens.
Although her exact birth date is uncertain, on July 20, 1591, the infant Anne Marbury was baptized in Alford, Lincolnshire, England. The first female religious leader among North America’s early European settlers, Anne Marbury Hutchinson was the daughter of an outspoken clergyman silenced for criticizing the Church of England. Better educated than most men of the day, she spent her youth immersed in her father’s library.
At twenty-one, Anne Marbury married William Hutchinson and began bearing the first of their fourteen children. The Hutchinsons became adherents of the preaching and teachings of John Cotton, a Puritan minister who left England for America. In 1634, the Hutchinson family followed Cotton to New England, where religious and political authority overlapped.
Serving as a skilled herbalist and midwife in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Anne Hutchinson began meeting with other women for prayer and religious discussion. Her charisma and intelligence soon also drew men, including ministers and magistrates, to her gatherings, where she developed an emphasis on the individual’s relationship with God, stressing personal revelation over institutionalized observances and absolute reliance on God’s grace rather than on good works as the means to salvation. Hutchinson’s views challenged religious orthodoxy, while her growing power as a female spiritual leader threatened established gender roles.
Called for a civil trial before the General Court of Massachusetts in November 1637, Hutchinson ably defended herself against charges that she had defamed the colony’s ministers and as a woman had dared to teach men. Her extensive knowledge of Scripture, her eloquence, and her intelligence allowed Hutchinson to debate with more skill than her accusers. Yet because Hutchinson claimed direct revelation from God and argued that “laws, commands, rules, and edicts are for those who have not the light which makes plain the pathway,” she was convicted and banished from the colony, a sentence confirmed along with formal excommunication in the ecclesiastical trial that followed.
Refusing to recant, Hutchinson accepted exile and in 1638 migrated with her family to Roger Williams’ new colony of Rhode Island, where she helped found the town of Portsmouth. After her husband died in 1642, Hutchinson moved to Dutch territory near Long Island Sound (an area now known as Co-op City, along New York’s Hutchinson River Parkway, which is named for Anne Hutchinson). There in 1643 Hutchinson and all but one of her younger children were killed by Siwanoy Indians, possibly with the encouragement of Puritan authorities. “Proud Jezebel has at last been cast down,” was the supposed comment of Hutchinson’s nemesis, Massachusetts Governor John Winthrop.