“Now if you do condemn me for speaking what in my conscience I know to be truth I must commit myself unto the Lord.”
The 1637 trial of Anne Hutchinson touches on issues of religion, gender roles, and the need to maintain unity, order, and religious conformity in the newly founded Massachusetts Bay Colony (1630). Hutchinson’s trial was the most dramatic episode in what is known as the Antinomian Controversy of 1636 to 1638, which concerned the question of whether she and several leading ministers believed in the salvation of souls through the grace of God or salvation through good works. Taken to its logical extreme, antinomianism suggests that a sanctified person is not subject to man’s law, thus posing a challenge to social order.
In addition, Hutchinson was accused of stepping out of a woman’s proper place by holding private meetings at her home to discuss each week’s sermons with various men and women of Boston. An intelligent and well-educated woman, Hutchinson’s opinions were influential. Her support of less orthodox ministers was seen as a threat to the authority of the theologically orthodox leaders of the colony.
In November 1637, the forty-six-year-old Hutchinson appeared before the General Court of Massachusetts. In court, Governor John Winthrop charged Hutchinson with disrupting the peace and unity of the colony by endorsing a theological argument the Puritan leadership considered questionable, as well as with criticizing leading ministers. Hutchinson was also accused of promoting her opinions at meetings attended by both men and women at her home. The purpose of the trial, Winthrop announced, was to determine whether she could be corrected and thus made “a profitable member here among us,” or, if she did not reform, “then the court may take such a course that you may trouble us no further.” In other words, the trial would determine whether Hutchinson would be punished and allowed to remain in Massachusetts, or banished altogether.
The colony of Massachusetts was established in 1630, just seven years before Hutchinson was put on trial. Led by lawyer John Winthrop, the English Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Company planned to establish a purified version of the Church of England and a model community. The colony would be led by Puritan church members, and citizens were expected to conform to Puritan religious and social ideals.
It did not take long, however, for theological diversity to appear in the colony. In 1635, Roger Williams was put on trial for arguing that the Puritans should separate entirely from the Church of England. He was banished and founded Rhode Island in 1636. Two ministers, John Wheelwright and John Cotton, were also examined prior to Anne Hutchinson’s trial. Wheelwright was called before the General Court, censured, and banished. Winthrop considered Hutchinson to be the root of the antinomian problem and expected the controversy to be solved by her subsequent banishment.
Hutchinson’s departure did not end the Puritan founders’ struggle to maintain conformity and theological orthodoxy, however. For generations, the civil and religious leaders of the colony tried to enforce their vision, with diminishing results. The story of Hutchinson, a woman who publicly stood firm in her own unorthodox beliefs, has gripped the attention of theologians, historians, and novelists for centuries. Nathaniel Hawthorne, for example, modeled the character of Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter (1850) on Hutchinson. The transcript of Hutchinson’s trial, likely recorded by someone at the trial itself, has been frequently reprinted and offers information about several issues in the Puritan colonies.
Anne Hutchinson’s trial involved most of the leading Puritans in Massachusetts. There were forty magistrates and eight ministers attending her trial before the General Court, including the sitting governor, John Winthrop, and lieutenant governor, Thomas Dudley. Hutchinson’s minister and teacher, the respected clergyman John Cotton, was also there. Many of the participants had known each other before they left England. The Hutchinson and Dudley families were members of Cotton’s congregation in Boston, England, and Cotton was the minister called upon to bless the first group of Puritans on the cusp of their departure to the New World in 1630.
Winthrop, Cotton, Dudley, and Hutchinson were all members of the educated Puritan elite in the new town of Boston, Massachusetts. Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, was serving his fifth term as governor at the time of Hutchinson’s trial. Winthrop was a lawyer and pious Puritan whose sermon “A Model of Christian Charity,” delivered en route to the New World, laid out many of the primary tenets of the New England mind. Winthrop’s journal is a primary source for the history of New England and demonstrates his interest in Hutchinson’s fate until the end of her life. Dudley arrived with John Winthrop and served the colony as its first lieutenant governor.
Cotton was one of the leading Puritan ministers in both England and the colonies. Cotton was converted to Puritanism at the University of Cambridge, where he earned a bachelor of divinity degree in 1613. As an Anglican vicar in Boston, England, Cotton’s reputation as a preacher grew. Despite his nonconformist views, he was usually adept at avoiding conflict, a skill that he demonstrated during Hutchinson’s trial in 1637.
Anne Hutchinson and her husband, William Hutchinson, were among those who heard the popular Cotton preach in England. Hutchinson, born in Lincolnshire in 1591, was the daughter of Bridget Dryden and Francis Marbury, a Puritan minister who was tried for heresy in London in 1578. Hutchinson was well-educated for a woman of the era and intelligent, quick-witted, and deeply religious. She delighted in studying and discussing theology and led women’s meetings at her home to discuss each week’s sermons. These meetings were sometimes attended by men as well.
The mother of twelve living children, Hutchinson was pregnant for the sixteenth time when she stood trial. She miscarried the following spring. After her trial and subsequent banishment, Hutchinson and her family moved first to Rhode Island and then to New Amsterdam (later New York). In 1643, the now-widowed Hutchinson and all but one member of her household, her daughter Susanna, were killed by Siwanoy warriors, victims of an ongoing war between Dutch settlers and local American Indian tribes.
The transcript of Anne Hutchinson’s 1637 civil trial offers a fascinating glimpse into some of the pressing issues of colonial Massachusetts. Hutchinson was accused of disturbing “the peace of the commonwealth and the churches,” which were not light charges at a time when religious and civil conformity were seen as necessary for the future of the fledgling community.
Despite the gravity of these accusations, Hutchinson was not initially charged with violating a law. Instead, as a reading of the transcript reveals, Winthrop brought Hutchinson before the General Court of Massachusetts to force her into publicly admitting that she had questioned the quality of sermons and theology of the colony’s leading orthodox ministers and suggested that they did not clearly preach “salvation by grace.” Further, he noted that Hutchinson had influenced the opinions of many elite Bostonians with her arguments and behaved inappropriately for a woman.
Although she ably defended herself in front of the court without the assistance of a lawyer, Hutchinson’s desire to give her own opinions won out at the end of the two-day trial. After Hutchinson revealed that she believed that God had spoken to her directly, the Court found that she was not fit for society and should be banished from the colony. In this trial and a second church trial in 1638, Hutchinson herself gave the court the ammunition that they needed to find her guilty of sedition.
The Case against Anne Hutchinson
On a cold November morning in 1637, John Winthrop, newly reelected governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, opened the trial against Anne Hutchinson with several accusations but no legal charges. Hutchinson, he stated, caused a disturbance in the community by criticizing established, orthodox ministers in the colony and by holding meetings at her home attended by both men and women. Even worse, she supported and endorsed the preaching of less orthodox ministers like John Wheelwright, who had recently been banished from the colony. The purpose of the trial, Winthrop announced, was to determine how the authorities should proceed in regard to Hutchinson’s behavior. The choice that the court had was between punishing her and letting her remain in the colonies, or removing her from the colony completely by banishing her.
It is clear from the questions of the court and from Hutchinson’s answers that she was familiar with the issues with which she was charged and adept at sidestepping the charges. From the start, the transcript shows Winthrop’s difficulty in stating the indictment and getting Hutchinson to admit to acting against the law. In response to his opening statement, for example, Hutchinson claimed that she heard “no things laid to my charge.” His reply was, “I have told you some already and more I can tell you.” Asked to name a charge, Winthrop questioned her alleged support of Wheelwright, who had preached that pious Christians could receive direct revelations from God, without ministerial intervention.
Furthermore, in a sermon that ultimately got him banished from the colony, Wheelwright had suggested that the standard view of local Puritan divines (ministers) was wrong. The majority view was that, although God alone can save souls—salvation by grace and not by good deeds—it is possible to determine if a person is sanctimonious, or a “saint,” and thus allowed to participate in the church, by his or her beneficent work in the community. Wheelwright had argued that the appearance of good works cannot indicate the state of a person’s soul. His sermon essentially pointed out a flaw in the other ministers’ belief that sanctimony and salvation are not the same thing. Puritans were supposed to believe in predestination: the salvation of the soul through a “covenant of grace,” not through a “covenant of works.”
As can be seen from the back-and-forth questioning recorded in the transcript, Winthrop tried to get Hutchinson to admit that she endorsed the banished Wheelwright and his supporters, but she deftly parried his questions. Looking for a law that he could accuse her of breaking, Winthrop finally announced that she violated the fifth of the Ten Commandments: She had dishonored the “fathers of the commonwealth” by entertaining Wheelwright’s supporters and his opinions. When Hutchinson continued to argue with him, Winthrop changed the topic by dismissively saying that he would not continue to argue with a woman, or “those of your sex.”
As the trial went on, Hutchinson’s accusers clarified and escalated the charges against her. Deputy Governor Thomas Dudley directly accused Hutchinson of speaking in derogative terms about local ministers. According to Dudley, Hutchinson suggested that the only minister in the colony who preached the true Puritan theology, a “covenant of grace,” was her teacher John Cotton. Dudley also claimed that at the women’s meetings Hutchinson held at her home, she promoted the opinions of Cotton and disparaged the opinions of the other ministers. Hutchinson greatly influenced members of the community through her opinions and her meetings; she was therefore the cause of the current theological dissent in the colony. “About three years ago we were all in peace,” Dudley argued, but Hutchinson, “from that time she came hath made a disturbance.” Since she was the foundation of the problem, “why we must take away the foundation and the building will fall.” In other words, if Hutchinson were removed from the colony, there would be no more problems.
According to both Winthrop and Dudley, the source of Hutchinson’s influence was the meetings that she held at her home. Earlier in the year, Hutchinson had been banned from holding these meetings despite the fact that it was common practice in the colony. As Hutchinson herself said at the trial, before she came to Massachusetts Bay Colony, women in England held such gatherings to discuss and analyze the weekly sermons. Hutchinson had initially elected not to attend the meetings, but was advised by a friend to join one so that people could not accuse her of being too proud. Eventually, men began to attend the meeting at Hutchinson’s house, including the previous governor, Henry Vane. In an era when women did not have legal status or an official public voice, Hutchinson’s influence on the opinions of politicians and other leading male citizens was open to criticism. Thus, at Hutchinson’s trial, Dudley elaborated on this theme: “It appears by this woman’s meeting that Mrs. Hutchinson hath so forestalled the minds of many by their resort to her meeting that now she hath a potent party in the country.”
The problem with Hutchinson’s meetings was twofold. First, the men and women who attended her meetings found her opinions—which were not in total alignment with orthodoxy—so influential that they found the strength to disagree with prevailing opinions, creating a “potent party.” Second, Hutchinson was teaching men along with women. While it was appropriate for her to teach women in a society with well-defined gender roles, it was not considered acceptable for her to teach men. Winthrop included the matter of the meetings in his initial charge against Hutchinson by noting that the authorities had already told her to cease holding them, “as a thing not tolerable nor comely in the sight of God nor fitting for your sex.” Hutchinson was stepping out of her place as a woman in society. Even more irritating to the colonial leadership was the fact that her opinions carried weight.
In the middle of the trial, Winthrop clearly stated the charges against Hutchinson, adding a theological charge to the original accusations. Namely, he accused Hutchinson of saying that “the ministers preached a covenant of works and Mr. Cotton a covenant of grace.” Winthrop noted that the only defense Hutchinson offered was that her conversations were private ones and not public declarations. The next step in the trial was to hear the witnesses who stood for Hutchinson’s defense.
Anne Hutchinson’s Defense
Hutchinson’s defense consisted of her own testimony and that of three witnesses. Hutchinson verbally defended herself against her accusers in back-and-forth engagement with them. She was a quick-witted and intelligent woman and, for the most part, avoided being drawn into incriminating herself in the trial. Her rhetorical strategy was to ask the court to clarify the charges against her and to prove that she said what she was accused of saying. In some cases, Hutchinson attempted to correct her questioners, as when Dudley suggested that ministers who do not preach a covenant of grace must then be preaching a covenant of works. Not so, Hutchinson replied, noting that it was possible for one minister to preach “more clearly than another.” When Dudley pressed her to answer a theological question about works and the way of salvation, Hutchinson quickly answered that she would not answer questions “of that sort.” A religious debate would not have been to her advantage when she was already under suspicion of being unorthodox.
Another of Hutchinson’s defense strategies was to claim that her opinions were not intended to be repeated in public, and thus were not libelous or seditious. As a woman, Hutchinson did not have legal rights; her claim of private conversation helped remind the court that she had behaved properly by acting in private rather than taking on a public role. This did not prove to be an effective defense, however, and Winthrop simply dismissed it as an excuse.
On the second day of Hutchinson’s trial, the court was persuaded to call three witnesses for Hutchinson: John Coggeshall, Thomas Leverett, and her minister, John Cotton. Hutchinson and the others had been called before Puritan ministers almost a year before to resolve many of the same issues brought up at this trial; during the trial they were to testify about that earlier meeting. Coggeshall’s testimony was brief, and he ceased to speak when one of the ministers, Hugh Peter, exclaimed in outrage at his defense of Hutchinson.
The witness who had the most at stake was Cotton, who had himself been questioned on points of theological orthodoxy. Cotton was conciliatory in his testimony, at first suggesting that he did not recall all that was said at the earlier meeting. He did remember, however, that Hutchinson was questioned at the previous meeting about some comparisons that she had made between his sermons and those of the other ministers. Cotton noted that any comparisons of this sort made him uncomfortable and that he would not go so far as to make distinctions between his theology and the rest of the ministry. Hutchinson, however, had claimed that she saw a difference. In order to smooth over the issue, Cotton stated that he did not think that the other ministers found this so objectionable, but they clearly had taken more offense to her statements than he previously thought. After this rather weak argument, Cotton ultimately did speak out in defense of his parishioner. In his opinion, Hutchinson did not say that the rest of the ministers preached a covenant of works.
Near the trial’s end, Hutchinson eloquently spoke on her own behalf. Until this point in the trial, she had restricted herself to answering questions. On the second day, begging the court’s permission, Hutchinson spoke about how she came to be a Puritan. When she had at first considered becoming a Separatist, she turned to prayer to consider which direction she should take. She told the ministers that she was directed by God to the proper scriptural passage, which helped her make her decision. Since then, she had been able to distinguish his voice from other biblical voices. Anticipating that the ministers would not approve of these comments, she added, “Now if you do condemn me for speaking what in my conscience I know to be truth I must commit myself unto the Lord.” After previously defending herself on the grounds that her private thoughts were not intended to be public, Hutchinson herself began to make them so by speaking her conscience.
Following her statement, Hutchinson answered questions to confirm her belief that God spoke to her directly. In the face of the court’s astonishment at her statements, Hutchinson went even further, saying that she knew she would encounter hardship one day because God had told her that she would “meet with affliction.” She believed, however, that he would deliver her from it. Finally, she indicated that the ministers, the colony, and their descendants would be cursed “if you go on in this course.” She knew these things because God showed her, and she no longer feared what men could do to her because she relied solely upon God.
Hutchinson’s claims of direct revelation and prophesy were the final straw for her defense, and the court rapidly concluded that she was a dangerous influence on society. She was forthwith sentenced to house arrest and subsequent banishment. Hutchinson had previously been deemed a disruptive influence when she was suspected of unorthodox beliefs and of undermining the colony’s ministers. Her assertion that God spoke to her directly and showed her the future was more than disruptive, however; it was heretical. Her statement that she did not fear man’s law also made her potentially uncontrollable and dangerous.
In the end, Hutchinson was convicted on her own testimony. She ably deflected the accusations of the colony’s leading men for almost two days by maintaining her composure and her right to hold her own opinions privately. She was able to call upon the support of one of the most revered ministers in the colony, Reverend John Cotton. Before Hutchinson gave her final testimony, it appeared likely that the results of her trial would be inconclusive. It is not clear why Hutchinson finally felt compelled to speak out about her beliefs, but the trial’s transcript does show that Hutchinson’s desire to speak her conscience led to her conviction.
Anne Hutchinson’s 1637 trial and transcript contain several themes that have resonated through the centuries. During Hutchinson’s time, people who were familiar with her trial interpreted it as an example of religious heresy and a challenge to the stability of the new colony. In modern times, scholars have viewed Hutchinson’s trial as an example of how society handles dissent and of an individual’s right to speak his or her conscience.
Hutchinson’s story was well known during the seventeenth century. The Massachusetts Bay Colony leadership used it as an example of how decisively they handled challenges such as religious dissent, disorderly conduct, and heretical thought. Her trial later became understood as the central episode in the Antinomian Controversy, expounded on in works such as John Winthrop’s Antinomians and Familists Condemned by the Synod of Elders in New England (1644). Historians have noted that the Antinomian Controversy involved many more individuals than Hutchinson and her supporters and that it took place over a longer period of time. Still, the authorities’ reaction to Hutchinson shows how vulnerable they felt the colony to be in the face of criticism back in England and at home. The “noble experiment” of the colony was only seven years old at the time of the Hutchinson trial; any threat to its social order was taken as a serious threat to its survival.
By far the most prominent theme for modern readers, however, is the view of Hutchinson as a spokeswoman for civil liberty. A statue of Anne Hutchinson erected in 1922 in Boston, Massachusetts, makes this clear. It is inscribed, “In Memory of Anne Marbury Hutchinson . . . Courageous Exponent of Civil Liberty and Religious Toleration.” Hutchinson’s claim that she must speak “what in my conscience I know to be truth” has had great appeal to Americans who see civil liberty, religious toleration, and freedom of speech as founding beliefs of the nation. This theme has seemed especially relevant at times in the past when the government took action against individual dissenting citizens, such as in the 1950s anti-Communist crusade of Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Committee on Un-American Activities, and in the nonviolent civil disobedience of the 1960s. Thus, the story of Anne Hutchinson’s trial, as revealed in its court transcript, both offers a glimpse into past conflicts over religion and social order and speaks to these issues beyond her time.
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