Anne M. Hutchinson

Inducted: 1997
Born: 1591
Died: 1643

Anne Hutchinson was born in Lincolnshire, England, in 1591, the daughter of an English clergyman named Francis Marbury, who was censured by the Anglican Church for his Puritan leanings (the Puritans wanted to purify the Church of England from any vestiges of the rejected Roman Catholic religion). In August 1612, the well-bred and educated Anne married William Hutchinson, the son of a prosperous merchant. During the next twenty-two years, she dutifully bore her husband fourteen children. Then, in 1634, with the Puritans in disfavor because of the High Church leanings of King Charles I, the Hutchinson family set sail for Boston.

Anne’s early religious training, her vigorous intellect, and her restless and inquiring mind led her to take a leading part in the theological life of her intensely religious community. At first, she held informal meetings of women at her home, and on these occasions, she would discuss the lengthy sermons of the previous Sunday. This activity was unobjectionable. Gradually, however, she began to lecture and expound her own religious beliefs to audiences of sixty to eighty listeners, including men. This practice caused a furor.

Mrs. Hutchinson and the Reverend John Cotton and John Wheelwright preached a new doctrine called “a covenant of grace.” This view, held by a small minority of Puritans, asserted that salvation came principally through the individual’s own personal awareness of God’s divine grace and love. It challenged the orthodox “covenant of works,” which was embraced by established, formal churches whose members gave evidence of their predestined salvation by their works and their status in the community.

Hutchinson and her associates denied that Christian freedom should be restricted by a need to seek evidence of election or salvation in obedience to God’s law as interpreted by “hypocritical ministers.” Since they placed their own intuitive interpretation of God’s law above the civil and religious laws devised by man, those who believed in the covenant of grace were derisively labeled Antinomians, a word that comes from the Greek anti (against) and nomos (law).

It has been said of seventeenth-century religion that the Anglicans discarded the pope; the Puritans (Congregationalists) then discarded the bishops in favor of a formal, theologically trained clergy, but the Baptists were content with an ad hoc inspirational ministry to spread the word of God.

Hutchinson’s view, emphasizing the direct connection between man (or woman) and God, undermined the authority and importance of the established religious and civil leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony (who contended that society ought to be governed by Christian magistrates) because she discounted the need for a specially designated and highly educated ministry. In fact, the Antinomians (and their theological successors, the Quakers) dispensed with the clergy altogether and stressed the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and direct relations with God without the need for human intermediaries.

Such dogmas as Antinomianism and Quakerism shook the Bible Commonwealth of Massachusetts to its foundations. When advanced by a female (some labeled Anne Hutchinson a witch and the “American Jesabel”), they were even more pernicious. Hutchinson suffered excommunication and banishment for her beliefs, so she, her husband, and numerous religious followers, including William Coddington, sought refuge in the Narragansett Bay region, an area that Puritans dubbed New England’s “moral sewer.”

Soon after she arrived at Portsmouth in the spring of 1638, she clashed with her coreligionist William Coddington, who held Indian title to Aquidneck Island in his own name. Through the intercession of fellow exile Roger Williams, Coddington, a prominent merchant of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, had purchased all of Aquidneck Island from the Narragansett Indians (who had seized it from the Wampanoags) as an Antinomian refuge in 1638. Joining with the equally rebellious Samuel Gorton, who later founded Warwick, Hutchinson ousted Coddington from power, so he went to the southern tip of the island and established the town of Newport in 1639.

Although bested temporarily, the very ambitious Coddington was not beaten, for within a year, he had cleverly engineered a consolidation of the two island towns under a common administration in which he was “governor.” Gorton and at least eleven other Portsmouth settlers responded to Coddington’s resumption of power by plotting armed rebellion against him. These Portsmouth dissidents were ultimately banished from the island. Anne Hutchinson soon broke with the Gortonists over the use of violence, and she and her husband joined the Newport settlement.

Shortly after that, her fortunes plummeted disastrously. William Hutchinson died, her religious leadership waned, and Massachusetts threatened to absorb the Rhode Island settlements. Disgruntled and disillusioned, she sought refuge in the Dutch colony of New Netherlands in 1642. In the late summer of 1643, her home (near present-day Pelham Bay, New York) was raided by Indians, who killed her, two of her sons, and three of her daughters in a brutal fashion.

The Massachusetts clergy rejoiced over the gruesome murders. The Reverend Peter Bulkeley spoke for most orthodox Puritans when he pronounced this eulogy: “Let her damned heresies . . . and the just vengeance of God, by which she perished, terrify all her seduced followers from having any more to do with her heaven.” The Bay Colony divines considered Anne Hutchinson’s death to be the symbolic death of Antinomianism. Still, the new religion of the Quakers found many recruits among her followers–William Coddington, her political rival, being the most notable.

Portsmouth’s foundress was a remarkable individual. The double oppressions she faced–life in a male-dominated society and biological bondage to her own amazing fertility–were impediments to leadership that Anne Hutchinson successfully overcame. After she arrived in Portsmouth and throughout the remainder of the century, women publicly taught and preached throughout Rhode Island; in part because of her example, the colony’s men protected the liberty of women to teach, preach, and attend religious services of their choosing. It would not be hyperbole to call Mistress Anne America’s first great female leader. An indomitable mind, a zeal for equality, and an energy that kept her constantly in motion indicate that this seventeenth-century prophetess was the archetype of the late-twentieth-century woman.

Massachusetts has recanted. Admitting its unjust treatment of Mrs. Hutchinson, it commissioned the famous sculptor Cyrus E. Dallin to fashion a statue of her, enfolding a child within her robes. That artwork now occupies a hallowed niche in the Massachusetts State House for passersby to view and ponder.

Anne Hutchinson was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 1997.
For additional reading:
Rhode Island’s Founders: From Settlement to Statehood, by Dr. Patrick T. Conley.

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