The trial of Anne Hutchinson

Part 3 of our series on Puritan heretic Anne Hutchinson focuses on her fall. After Hutchinson’s brother-in-law Wheelwright’s sermon at the Boston church in January 1637, in which he said all those under the covenant of works were the “great enemies of Christ” and ought to be “killed with the word of the Lord,” Wheelwright was found guilty of sedition (May 1637). Hutchinson’s followers rallied to Wheelwright’s cause, signing a petition in his favor. This petition was in line with the nature of their beliefs: it claimed Wheelwright had done nothing wrong; that anything he said in that sermon was the voice of the Holy Spirit that lived within him; recalled that all the great saints had been wrongly attacked by human courts; and ended with a threat—“we beseech you to consider the danger of meddling against the prophets of God… if you hurt any of his members… it were better that a millstone were hanged about your necks, and that you were cast into the sea…”.

The Court allowed the petition to be read, then proceeded to the charges against Wheelwright, which were slandering the magistrates, ministers, and church members of the colony by saying they were Antichrists under a covenant of works; and for causing civil disturbance with his preaching. Wheelwright, who showed up to the Court over an hour late, denied he had ever said anyone was an enemy of Christ, and denied that his preaching was a source of the accusations, political division, and physical rioting taking place in Boston. The Court presented him with evidence to the contrary, then sentenced him to banishment for creating civil unrest (“troubles of the civil state”).

After this, nine of Hutchinson’s and Wheelwright’s followers were charged with civil disturbance, and all were fined and disenfranchised; one was also banished. Then Anne Hutchinson was tried.

Much is made of this because Hutchinson was a woman. But women appeared in Puritan courts constantly, as plaintiffs and defendants, and were given equal treatment. And if we read the court transcripts we see that Hutchinson was accused of exactly the same things as the men—slandering the ministers. Yes, her weekly meetings were also charged against her, but not because women couldn’t have meetings. The charges were that a) she attracted hundreds of people, which created civil unrest by fueling mobs; b) she did not use her meetings to parse sermons but to attack ministers and others; and c) that she took it upon herself to instruct men of higher rank than herself. The last point is the only one that we can describe as sexist. Otherwise, Hutchinson received the same chance to speak for and defend herself against the charges, to see evidence, and to repent—all those on trial were given the chance to recant, and one of the nine men originally sentenced to banishment had his sentence reduced when he apologized for showing contempt for the court.

Over two days, November 2-3, Hutchinson was tried. She was a very intelligent person who handled her defense well, but after lengthy questioning she was accused in court by ministers who had met with her in the spring of slandering them to their faces. She denied this charge, and called on John Cotton, the one minister she had not slandered, to testify on her behalf.  He hesitated. Cotton declared that “he was much grieved that she should make such comparison between him and his brethren, but yet he took her meaning to be only of a gradual difference”. That is, perhaps what Hutchinson had meant to say was that although the other ministers weren’t as good as him, they weren’t damned. But then Cotton said that since he did not remember everything that was said, he would take the word of the other ministers who remembered Hutchinson saying they were under a covenant of works. Perhaps Cotton trembled to commit perjury in court. Maybe he could not look at the faces of the ministers all around him and claim that they had lied. For whatever reason, Cotton validated the testimony of the other ministers, albeit as weakly as he possibly could, and did what he could to shield Hutchinson.

Hutchinson erupted in fury, demanding again that the ministers be forced to swear an oath that they were telling the truth. “Whereupon the court being weary of the clamor, and that all mouths might be stopped, required three of the ministers to take an oath, and thereupon they confirmed their former testimony.”

Seeing all hope of human help dissolving, Hutchinson began talking about how God had revealed himself to her, “and made her know what she had to do”. Winthrop, “perceiving whereabout she went, interrupted her, and would have kept her to the matter in hand, but seeing her very unwilling to be taken off, he permitted her to proceed.” The last thing Winthrop wanted was to give a soapbox to this charismatic woman. He saw that the Court was at last making headway on the charge of slandering the ministers, and wanted to keep that “matter in hand” now that there was sworn testimony that Hutchinson had committed sedition. We will never know what she did or said to make it clear to him that she was “very unwilling to be taken off”, but Hutchinson succeeded in being allowed to make her statement, and it is here that she condemned herself to banishment.

She began to preach her doctrine in the court, describing “the manner of God’s dealing with her, and how he revealed himself to her, and made her know what she had to do.” Hutchinson said she fought against the realization that all ministers were hypocrites for a full year before God

“…let me see how I did oppose Christ Jesus… and showed me the atheism of my own heart, and how I did turn in upon a covenant of works and oppose Christ Jesus; from which time the Lord did discover to me all sorts of ministers, and how they taught, and to know what voice I heard… and thenceforth I was the more careful whom I heard, for after our teacher Mr. Cotton and my brother Wheelwright were put down, there was none in England that I durst hear… [when they left for America, she followed, although] “it was revealed to me… that there I should be persecuted and suffer much trouble.” [But God revealed another scripture]: “Fear not Jacob my servant, for I am with thee, I will make a full end of all the Nations… then the Lord did reveal himself to me, sitting upon a throne of justice, and all the world appearing before him, and though I must come to New England, yet I must not fear or be dismayed… The Lord spake this to me with a strong hand, and instructed me that I should not walk in the way of this people…”

Here Hutchinson is making two claims: first, that God revealed himself to her and therefore she is among the saved; second, that God showed her the whole world subjected to his justice, including New England, which God counted among the damned, and therefore she “should not walk in the way of [that] people.” Both claims are explosive. She went on to compare herself to Daniel in the lions’ den, and ended with a direct threat to the colony:

“…therefore take heed what ye go about to do unto me, for you have no power over my body, neither can you do me any harm, for I am in the hands of the eternal Jehovah my savior, I am at his appointment, the bounds of my habitation are cast in heaven, no further do I esteem of any mortal man, than creatures in his hand, I fear none but the great Jehovah, which hath foretold me of these things, and I do verily believe that he will deliver me out of your hands, therefore take heed how you proceed against me; for I know that for this you go about to do to me, God will ruin you and your posterity, and this whole state.”

In this threat the magistrates heard the original of all the threats the Antinomians had previously made against them, including the petition presented before Wheelwright’s sentencing just days before.  Hutchinson’s speech damned her in several ways, civil and religious: it threatened violence against the state; it claimed direct revelation from God; it slandered the ministers; and it stated that Hutchinson was above human law. Any one of these claims would have justified banishment; put together, they shocked the magistrates and ministers who heard them deeply.

This was heresy and treason, a rejection of Puritan religion and a threat to the civil state, and easily merited banishment, the sentence she received. Her followers in Boston tried to save her, saying that she must have been tricked by the judges into making a statement she didn’t really believe. But when they met with her, Hutchinson reaffirmed her heresy, and made even bolder statements than before. Reluctantly, her church let her go.

Winthrop stayed the sentence of banishment that November because Hutchinson was pregnant. She did not leave Boston until March. Anne Hutchinson went to Rhode Island, where she managed to alienate even Roger Williams, and then to Long Island, where she died in an attack by Native Americans in 1643.

The judges in Hutchinson’s trial were tough, and they were hard on her. No quarter was given her for being a woman. They treated her as they would any heretic. But I think it’s hard to say she was treated unfairly. She got the same treatment as the men who came before her, and the same chance to lighten her sentence. She refused to recant, and expressed scorn for those who tried to reason with her both after her trial and months later, during her banishment, when a group was sent down to meet with her and see if she could be brought back into the fold.

Hutchinson has gone down in history as a demure maiden with downcast eyes facing mean, angry old Puritan men in black coats. Even the most adoring of Winthrop biographers (and one who is a reliable historian), Edmund Morgan, castigates Winthrop for “persecuting” a brave and wonderful woman, and calls the trial he presided over as  “the least attractive” of Winthrop’s life.

But we can find little to admire in a person who wanted to damn the world, believed she was God, and nurtured dissension and mistrust amongst her fellows. The fact that she was a woman should not sway the rational historian. If it had been only Wheelwright and the other nine men, I doubt the whole incident of Antinomian dispute in 1636-37 would be known outside the circle of Puritan historians. Anne Hutchinson was a negative figure in American history who received a fair trial and accepted her sentence, gladly removing herself from people she saw as instruments of Satan. Any positive view of her role in our founding is hard to come by.

12 thoughts on “The trial of Anne Hutchinson

  1. Thanks for this article/research. My son was to read a very biased report on Hutchinson and then explain how they would feel (being persecuted) and why the puritans had such religious intolerance. I felt the assignment was leading and antireligion. Now I can present another truth to this story and possibly defend what I feel was nothing less than a resolve for religious freedom in this great country of ours. Had Anne been a Muslim, involved in antinomianism, would she have been alive to be banished?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello Linda. It’s always surprising to me how much today’s schools focus on Anne Hutchinson–her story is often the only thing students ever learn about the Puritans. That’s why getting the whole story is so important.


  2. To presume Anne Hutchinson was a “negative figure” to my review of history from the view of a ‘Covenant of Grace’ Christian, couldn’t be more at odds with your conclusion.

    The Lord’s prophetic Word of judgment against this spirit and the posterity who adhered to it could not be more evident than to see the judgment in the history of Boston/Cambridge/Harvard up until this very day. What you may consider a vindication (i.e., the worldly success of this region) is in reality a damnable delusion.

    If you view history of Spiritual issues without being a Christian, you are blinded to the truth of God’s Grace. I pray you come to saving Grace, should that be the case and experience what Jesus said in John 9:39.

    May God be gracious unto you and speak His deliverance into your hear.

    Bo McDaniel


  3. I am not sure whether I have ever read so much nonsense. Hutchinson attacked men who thought they were God and thought they ‘knew the truth.’ To question the bible is essential to maintaining a freedom of religion. Hutchinson is remembered, thankfully, as a someone who advocated a freedom of speech and religion. At no point, does she claim that she believed she was God. This is filled with inaccuracy and the analysis is motivated by the backwards belief that the bible, or the meaning the meaning of the bible, should not open to interpretation. If you are an APUSH student, please read this as an example of how to carry out biased and inaccurate analysis.


    1. Hello Billy; thanks for writing. Can you point us to the primary sources that back your claim that the leaders of the MBC “thought they were God”, and your claim that Hutchinson advocated freedom or speech and religion? Thanks!


  4. I see from the transcript that Anne had an accurate appreciation for authority.

    Gov.: Well, we see how it is. We must therefore put it away from you or restrain you from maintaining this course.

    Mrs H. If you have a rule for it from God’s word you may.

    Gov.: We are your judges, and not you ours and we must compel you to it.

    Mrs. H.: If it please you by authority to put it down I will freely let you for I am subject to your authority….

    Which seems clearly counter to the antinomian teaching.

    My conclusion, upon reading the transcript of the trial, is that Anne refused to agree with the judgement that she had broken God’s law.


    1. Ah, the snare of ellipses… they are always a trap. It’s not you, UC, who put them in here; when you go online you find this excerpt with ellipses right there. But If you fill in the blank in this excerpt, it is clarifying, so let’s do that. Winthrop has been saying to Hutchinson that the meetings she has been holding have been the single source of “prejudicial” opinions amongst the people; they have “flown off from magistrates and ministers and this since they have come to you”. Hutchinson replies “I do not believe that to be so.” In this way, she is making it a matter of opinion: you think one thing about my meetings, I think another. Winthrop responds basically by saying it’s not a matter of opinion when the government decides on a matter; when he says “we” see how it is, he means the court assembled. The court sees a danger and therefore she must stop (they will restrain her).

      Hutchinson responds by playing a Puritan card by saying “If you have a rule for it from God’s word you may”; that is, if it specifically says in the Bible “Anne Hutchinson’s meetings are dangerous and ill-founded and she must stop”, then she will stop. The Puritans held that no human law could contradict biblical law, so she is saying the court’s law is invalid if it can’t point to a passage in the Bible that forbids her specifically from holding meetings. At another point in her trial when her judges use the Bible against her, she complains “must my name be writ therein?” (that is, does the Bible have to say “Anne Hutchinson can have meetings”?), but here she wants it the other way. If the Bible doesn’t say “Anne Hutchinson can’t”, then she can.

      Winthrop replies that it’s up to the court to decide what jibes with God’s law, not her, and makes the reasonable assertion that human courts have to have power on Earth. Hutchinson’s reply is a jab: she is basically saying Oh, if you’re setting yourself—not God—up as the highest authority, then I guess I have to obey you. She is subject to their authority because she lives in their commonwealth, so even if they are evil she is forced to obey them.

      Now here’s what’s in the ellipses: Simon Bradstreet (husband of poet Anne Bradstreet) asks her, “do you think this is lawful? for then this will follow that all other women that do not are in a sin.” By “this” he means her meetings. He’s pressing her point: if she thinks the court is abusing its authority by stopping her meetings, then she must think her meetings are lawful. And if so, she must condemn all women who do not think her meetings are lawful as sinning.

      This was a good question, because Hutchinson depended upon the support of women to maintain her position of religious authority. So she answers “I conceive this is a free will offering.” By which she goes both ways: the court would have the authority to prosecute any meeting that she insisted upon having, or forced others to attend, but it shouldn’t have authority over her meetings because they are voluntary on her part—a free will offering—and she doesn’t force anyone to attend.

      Bradstreet replies, “If it be a free will offering you ought to forbear it because it gives offence.”
      AH: Sir, in regard of myself I could, but for others I do not yet see light but shall further consider of it.
      SB: I am not against all women’s meetings but do think them to be lawful.

      So Bradstreet says if you’re doing this voluntarily, why don’t you stop having the meetings when you see how much trouble and division they cause? And Hutchinson says “I myself don’t need to hold them—I could stop any time—but other people seem to need them.” When she says “I do not yet see light” she means I can’t see right now that it would do others good to stop the meetings. And Bradstreet begins to say that women’s meetings are not unlawful (which they were not, of course), and it’s hard to say where he might have gone, trying to soften Hutchinson’s stance, when Deputy Governor Dudley (Bradstreet’s father-in-law) barges in and starts hammering on the fact that men were at the meetings; i.e., this isn’t just about what women are doing, it’s affecting everyone.

      What’s in the ellipses is important because it shows that the judges were a) not against women’s meetings, and b) able to get Hutchinson to admit that she held the meetings because she thought they were necessary to others’ salvation. Thus Hutchinson herself was necessary to others’ salvation, and not the ministers she described at those meetings as useless and hypocrites who were not saved themselves.

      So, UC, you’re right that AH did not believe she had broken God’s law, but more to the point, she refused to acknowledge the integrity of human law—of civil courts and human beings. Her line about “I am subject to your authority” was a taunt: in that court, she had no choice but to suffer the edicts of an invalid, human institution that could do whatever it wanted with her body (put her in jail, exile her) but had no authority at all over her conscience or soul. This is what radical antinomians believed: those with God’s grace should be able to do whatever they wanted, including breaking human laws against rape, murder, stealing, etc., without being punished by human courts because they were above human law—they were Christ on Earth. You always need to read with full context when you go into Puritan documents, and this trial transcript is no exception.


  5. I appreciate the reply. I admit it took some digging to find more complete transcripts of the proceedings. I would very much like to read the complete transcript. Do you have a link to it?

    Personally, I’ve met contemporary antinomians. Their attitude is just as you described: they are above every law of man and therefore above every man. They would not even suggest they submit to authority that is not valid by their own judgment.

    I get that Anne would not admit to error as to God’s law (as I’ve already said) but I don’t see her replies as necessarily taunts. To her (it would seem) the Biblical resolution was clear enough: she would have to abide by the judgment of the court and, given her propensity to obey scripture, would do so. In fact, she did obey the judgement once rendered.

    And, to her credit, Mr. Cotton did not agree to their assumptions of what she said and what was meant by her own words. Mr. Cotton, you no doubt know, remained in good standing with community and increased in influence after the trial.

    I also appreciate the main driving force behind institutionalism: 1st preserve the institution. This is often done with pro-institutional prejudice. It is not uncommon, therefore, that judgments of things other than that which supports the institution begin with bias.


    1. I haven’t found the full proceedings online; the best bet is still David D. Hall’s compendium The Antinomian Controversy 1636-1638, of which the trial transcript is just one part (he goes through chronologically from start to finish with all the primary resource documents we have from the crisis).


    1. Hello Jesus; there were witnesses, but not quite in the sense we know it. We’ll let noted Puritan scholar Francis Bremer explain it: “The conduct of the [trial] was very different from what we would expect in the 21st century but not that different from what was customary in English quarter [courts] and in the court proceedings of Massachusetts in the 17th century. The task of the magistrates [the higher level of the legislature, sort of like our Senate] was to inquire as well as to judge, and other members of the court could interject questions and statements.” [from Bremer’s John Winthrop: America’s Forgotten Founding Father, p. 296).

      So Hutchinson took questions from the members of the court and testified on her own behalf, without the support of witnesses. Basically, in 17th-century Massachusetts courts, the defendant and the accuser both represented themselves, and witnesses were brought in only if it was a case where something had to be proved to have happened: if someone accused someone else of stealing, for example, that accuser had to bring in at least two witnesses who saw it happen. The defendant didn’t really bring in witnesses because he didn’t have anything to prove—the burden of proof was on the accuser.

      Since Hutchinson was charged with slandering the ministers, many of the colony’s ministers were brought to court as witnesses. They were asked to testify as to what statements Hutchinson had made when they met with her earlier, in order to prove the charge of slander. Hutchinson had no witnesses because she didn’t have to prove she didn’t slander the ministers.


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