Finding your roots: aka Ted Danson and more Anne Hutchinson myth-making

Posted on October 18, 2017. Filed under: 17th century America, Historians, Puritans, Slavery, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Way back in 2014 we turned our attention to the PBS series Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. The series in itself is interesting, but we had two issues with that particular episode: it presented myths as history; and some of its guests were remarkably—suspiciously, even–ignorant of extremely well-known stories of American history. (To be fair, TLC’s series “Who do you think you are?” had the same issues.)

The problems this time were with actor Ted Danson. Danson is descended from Anne Hutchinson. If there is one Puritan most Americans have heard of, it is Hutchinson, because we are taught in school that she was a heroic early feminist who was arrested for hosting meetings with other women in her home to pray, which was illegal in Puritan times, and that she was accused of treason and feminism. In court she ably defended herself against sexist Puritan leaders and stood up for liberty of conscience, but was cruelly banished.

If you are a constant reader of the HP you know that we have covered Hutchinson pretty thoroughly, particularly in our three-part Truth v. Myth series What did Anne Hutchinson believe? So we won’t go deeply into that here, but give you an excerpt (which is still pretty long, but not three whole posts’ worth). If you already know the truth about Hutchinson, skip this primer and move on to our episode recap below it:

Hutchinson believed that God would suddenly appear to you and let you know if you were saved. God would approach you directly. …This [made] sermons, ministers, study groups, and prayer obsolete. None of these things were necessary if God was simply going to tell you if you were saved.

Even more dangerously, Hutchinson believed that if you were saved, Christ dwelled within you—literally. You became Christ. This was her interpretation of the scripture “Jesus Christ is come in the flesh”. Therefore, those who were truly saved could not do wrong: if they lied, or stole, or even killed someone, it could not be counted as sin because all these were acts of Christ himself. Hutchinson, therefore, wanted to overthrow the law itself. Christ is not subject to human law, so no one who is truly saved can be subject to the law.

…The cult-like qualities of Hutchinson’s beliefs become clear. Anyone in her group, and of course she herself, was perfected by becoming Christ and could do no wrong, was not bound by any law, and had no social or legal obligations to anyone outside the group. She alone could tell who was really saved, and, crucially, anyone who criticized her or her followers was clearly the Antichrist…

So often Hutchinson is portrayed by historians as a generous and compassionate soul who wanted everyone to have a personal relationship with God, but was struck down by mean and sexist Puritans who told people they were dirt in God’s eyes. This comes from a failure to read the documents of her time, including her own court testimony and the petitions written by her followers, which make it very clear that there was no such thing as a personal relationship with God for Hutchinson: you either were God yourself or you were the antichrist, and she was ready to declare 90% of the Puritans to be antichrists and deal with them accordingly.

The meetings Hutchinson held in her home in which she expounded her beliefs quickly grew to include up to 80 of people at at time anxious to know their status. We are often told that the Puritan hierarchy cracked down on her because she was a woman, and women could not hold these kinds of meetings, but this is untrue. Women could and did hold meetings to discuss sermons they heard, and those meetings were allowed, even at the height of the Hutchinson controversy. The problem with Anne Hutchinson’s meetings was that she did not use them to parse sermons but to claim that all of the ministers in New England were sinners, unfit to preach, except for John Cotton, minister at Boston and her beloved mentor.

…Much is made of Hutchinson’s trial because she 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.

…Over two days, 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 began talking about how God had revealed herself to her, “and made her know what she had to do”. Governor John 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 until God

“…let me see how I did oppose Christ Jesus… [God] revealed to me… that [in New England] I should be persecuted and suffer much trouble… 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.”

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 easily merited the sentence of banishment. 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 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.

There is the true story of Anne Hutchinson in a nutshell. We firmly believe that she would be bitterly disappointed, even outraged, to find out that she is remembered as a feminist fighting for women’s rights, or as a crusader for freedom of religion. Hutchinson was promoting something much, much larger—the godship of believers, and her own being as Christ on earth. She would not have considered herself a woman, but Christ made flesh, above the human body and human law. And she did not believe in any kind of religious freedom.

Ted Danson, however, was fed a pack of myths about his ancestor Anne Hutchinson. To watch the episode, from which we quote below, go to the Finding Your Roots website.

Gates begins with a truthful retelling of the story of Hutchinson’s beloved minister John Cotton and his flight from persecution in England to New England. But then, as Gates focuses on Hutchinson, it goes downhill:

GATES: Anne wasn’t your ordinary Puritan. Soon after her arrival in Massachusetts, she began organizing meetings in her home to pray with other women. She was taking a huge risk. This was not done. She was organizing women to think, to read. To interpret.

DANSON: Well done. Well done. I like that.

GATES: And not everyone, Ted, was amused.

DANSON: No, I imagine not. How’d her husband do?

GATES: Let’s find out how the whole town did.

DANSON: Oh really? Oh no, don’t burn her. Please don’t burn her.

—We realize, at this point, that Ted Danson has no idea who Anne Hutchinson is. This is so surprising. She is, as we’ve said, the one Puritan you can be sure everyone has heard of. But Danson has no idea that Hutchinson even got into trouble for her “illegal” meetings, let alone that she became famous for them.

We should stop to say that we liked Ted Danson a lot in this episode, notably when he refused to soften his rejection of a slaveholding ancestor even as Gates tried twice to get him to do so since that ancestor let the person he enslaved work for wages and buy his freedom. “No, I get it,” Danson said, cutting Gates off. It just didn’t change things, and we appreciated seeing Danson stand by that understanding.

Gates continues with a bit of truth: that Hutchinson began using her meetings to criticize the ministers. If he was told this by his researchers, why did he pretend that her meetings caused trouble because she encouraged women to “think and read”? Clearly the Finding Your Roots team knows zero about the Puritans, or else they would know that all Puritans, man and woman, boy and girl, were not only urged but required to learn to read, so they could read their Bibles, and that “thinking” and interpreting were the bread and butter of all Puritan society and religion–for everyone.

“It was heresy, man, it was so radical,” Gates continues, but he doesn’t know why. He thinks it was heresy and radical because she was a woman. But as we see from the many men who also stood trial, anyone who slandered the ministers was in trouble in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Slander was, and is, a crime. The heresy wasn’t about feminism, it was about theology.

“This woman is famous,” Gates remarks; “Big-time famous.” But Danson does not get any light bulbs. “I love this,” he says, clearly referring to the fact that he is learning about this woman for the first time. It’s just baffling. Zooey Deschanel on TLC had never heard of the Fugitive Slave Act, and Mary Steenburgen, in the same PBS episode as her husband Danson, had never heard of the infamous and horrific Andersonville prisoner of war camp of the Civil War, and that’s pretty bad. But Anne Hutchinson? We thought everyone had heard of her by now.

Gates says that Hutchinson created a crisis by claiming that God spoke to her directly and by saying that she could interpret Scripture on her own. Again, the first is true, and the second was beyond commonplace for women in Puritan New England. It was something you were required to do—it’s fair to say that a Puritan woman who failed to interpret Scripture was more likely to be hassled by her society.

Gates has Danson read a bit of the trial transcript, including Winthrop’s statement that Hutchinson was on trial for her meetings which were “not comely in the sight of God, nor fitting for your sex.” Those are two separate things: meeting to slander the ministers was not acceptable in the sight of God. Teaching men in the meetings, as she did, was not fitting for a woman. But Gates repeats the last statement to “prove” that the trial was all about women not being allowed to meet, read, or even think, which leads Danson to say “Shame, shame on them.”

Gates then says Hutchinson was arrested for disturbing the peace, slandering the ministers, holding unauthorized home meetings, “and finally, just being a woman with too much sass.” The truth is that she was tried for slandering the ministers only, and the sass comment really denigrates not only the true story of Hutchinson, but her intelligence and integrity: even if her views were fairly repellent, she was honest about them and believed in them. She believed she was on a godly mission. None of this has anything to do with being a “sassy lady,” and calling her that erases Hutchinson as a person and replaces her with a stereotype that is, ironically, sexist.

“The men who judged her come to America for religious freedom,” Gates goes on. “Talk about hypocrites!” The first claim is not true—the Puritans came to America to practice their own religion freely, which is very different–and the second is ridiculous. Slander has nothing to do with religious freedom. She did slander the ministers, but it was the act of slander, not the target of the slander, that mattered.

Sadly, this pack of lies does a terrible number on Danson, who says “It’s funny; I’m more emotional now and angry about this than pretty much anything I’ve read so far.” That includes the story of his ancestor being a slaveholder. Shockingly, Gates replies, “Yeah, you should be.” If anyone should walk away from this show angry about something, it’s breeding human beings for sale, not some cooked-up story about puritan sexism.

Gates then has Danson read a section of the trial transcript we have above in our excerpt:

DANSON: “You have no power over my body, neither can you do me any harm…” [emotional sound] Wow. “…for I am in the hands of the eternal Jehovah my savior, I am at his appointment 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.”

Well, she fought back! “You may kill me, but you and the whole state are going to do down.”

GATES: Yeah.

DANSON: I love the first part: “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.”

GATES: It’s extraordinary.

DANSON: It almost felt like Joan of Arc–you have no power over my body.

GATES: Very much a Joan of Arc kind of figure.

DANSON: Very happy, very happy about that.

—The full quote from Hutchinson, of course, is more damning and less “Joan of Arc”. The part Danson skipped is in bold:

…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.

It’s pretty clear why this part was carefully trimmed by the researchers for Danson. It shows Hutchinson speaking as Christ in the flesh. She has no esteem for “any mortal man” because she is no longer mortal. She says, once again, the God has spoken directly to her, having “foretold me of these things.” And, as Danson ironically very clearly perceives, she is threatening the state (“the whole state is going to do down”). It is treason to threaten the civil state, and in the puritan civil state it was heresy to say God spoke to you directly and to call down his judgment on the state.

Gates concludes his fanciful retelling of the story by saying that Hutchinson spent the rest of her life “moving around the eastern seaboard”—a euphemism for being thrown out of Roger William’s colony in today’s Rhode Island for causing the same kind of civil and religious strife she had in Massachusetts. And he goes on to do two things at once: compound the error of his myth-making, and once again fail to awaken Ted Danson to the fact that Hutchinson is very famous. “This is a real heroine,” he says; “I mean, I learned about her in elementary school.” But Danson just replies by saying that while he admires men, he would always rather be with and talk to women. “It’s really interesting to know about Anne,” he concludes, still seeming to think she is a figure plucked from the darkness of history.

How we wish that Danson would learn the truth about his ancestor. He would learn about the first serious challenge to the puritan state in America, how it rose to that challenge and used it to craft the first separation of church and state in English America, and how one intelligent and charismatic person can turn a society on its head. He doesn’t have to be ashamed of Hutchinson. But knowing the real story would tell him so much more about who she really was, and why she really matters, within his family tree and beyond.

 

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Crash Course on the Puritans: so close, John Green!

Posted on March 9, 2015. Filed under: 17th century America, American history, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , , |

We decided to watch the Crash Course “When is Thanksgiving? Colonizing America, Crash Course U.S. History #2” because this CC series is so popular with young Americans. It started out so well! Nice explanation of the unequal labor system that developed in Virginia and clear explanations for it. Plus he differentiated between Pilgrims and Puritans, which you know we appreciate.

But he hit the seemingly inevitable rocks of myth as soon as he really got into the Pilgrim/Puritan section, beginning of course with a weird and incorrect reason for the Pilgrims leaving the Netherlands. He said the Dutch were “too corrupt” for the Pilgrims. At least this was a new one we hadn’t ever heard before (the usual reason being that the English didn’t want their children becoming Dutch). The real reason was that the Netherlands was about to resume fighting its religious war with Catholic Spain, and the English did not want to get in the middle of that (especially if Spain won and immediately persecuted all Protestants). The English were also barely tolerated by the Dutch, because Pilgrim religious practice was very radical.

Green also says the Pilgrims were trying to go to Virginia and got blown off course to Massachusetts, which is not true.

He then ridicules the Pilgrims for not bringing enough food and for bringing no farm animals. If you have ever seen the Mayflower replica at Plymouth, you’ll know that there was simply no room in that small ship for farm animals. Later, when animals were brought over, they frequently died on the way over from the terrible conditions—just like the people. And the Pilgrims did bring food, but much of it was spoiled by seawater leaking into the casks. No one leaves for “the wilderness” without bringing food. They just didn’t have the best of containers.

On to the Puritans, and a decent explanation of Congregationalism marred by the following misapplication of the City on a Hill section of the John Winthrop sermon “A Model of Christian Charity”, in which Green conflates the 19th-century Americans’ interpretation of the sermon as saying that America and later the U.S. were “exceptional” and a model for other nations to adopt. See our post clarifying what Winthrop really meant.

So far, it’s not too bad. But then we take an unfortunate left turn into pure myth. (Green says these courses are written by his high school history teacher; what gives?) He says that in Puritan society a small “church elite” held power and that there were separate rights for freemen, women, children, and servants. The church elite idea comes from the fact that one had to be a church member to vote or hold political office in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and the myth that so few people were members that they formed an elite, and the myth on top of myth that that was the original intent.

You did have to be a church member to become a freeman, but the number of men who became freemen was not fractional. Research is ongoing because the original myth of a tiny fraction of freemen in the colony that was first put about by Thomas Lechford, a disaffected colonist who went back to England in the 1640s, has only recently been addressed by historians, who are finding that Lechford’s complaint that only 1 in 5 colonists was a church member is grossly exaggerated. The real problem is that, like Americans today, many Puritan men did not want to become freemen because they did not want the obligations and duties of a freeman (voting, participating in government) so they went to church all their lives but never became members. (Many did, however, vote illegally and participate in their town governments despite the requirement.)

HP readers know that we go over the rights developed and recorded by the MBC in 1641 in our series on the Body of Liberties, and we address the rights of minority populations in that series. Women, children, and servants were subject to many of the same laws as freeman and other male inhabitants, but also had some special protections to offset their traditionally unequal status in society.

Then Green goes deep into the realm of fantasy to say that Roger Williams was banished for saying everyone should be able to practice whatever religion they wanted. This is like saying Frederick Douglass thought slavery was good for black Americans. It’s beyond untrue. Williams, as we explain in our series devoted to him, was banished for saying the king of England who gave the Puritans their charter in America was an antichrist. This was treason, and could have gotten the whole colony scotched. No one was less interested in religious freedom than RW at the time of his banishment. It was much, much later in what is now Rhode Island that he began to entertain religious tolerance (but not for Catholics or Quakers).

And not for Anne Hutchinson, either, who was not banished for “being a woman preaching unorthodox ideas” but for inciting a civil war in the colony by claiming that God spoke directly to her and told her who was saved and who was not, and that everyone running the colony was not. She was not “banished to New York”; she originally went to Providence but after she began inciting the same civil war there, Roger Williams kicked her out and she went to what is now New York.

So ends Green’s crash course. The underlying problem is not lazy scholarship but something he references at the very end: Americans “like to see ourselves as pioneers of religious freedom”. That is true. It is true because ever since the U.S. was founded, we have striven to offer true religious freedom, and that is a wonderful thing that set us apart from most nations. But the U.S. was founded in 1775—not 1607. It took a long time and a lot of populations mixing in the 13 colonies, and the advent of the Enlightenment in Europe, to get Americans to the point where they could entertain that idea. Religious freedom was not part of the political landscape in the 17th century. The Puritans did not leave England to establish freedom of religion. They left England so they could practice their own religion freely, which is very different. They were committed to protecting their religion and, hopefully, extending it to other lands. Why on earth, then, would they allow competing (and to their minds wrong) religions in their colonies?

Our job is to separate the modern American ideal of religious freedom from the early modern ideals of our 17th-century founders. We can’t blame them for failing to do something we thought of 150 years after they died. And we can’t teach our nation’s history as a series of failures to live up to 21st-century law, mores, and myths. Alas John Green—you need the shock pen after all.

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Roger Williams Transformed

Posted on September 22, 2010. Filed under: 17th century America, Puritans | Tags: , , , |

Part the last of Truth v. Myth on Roger Williams, in which Williams draws back from the abyss of isolation and becomes the man we remember so well today.

After creating such high standards for religious and spiritual practice that there were only two people left in the world for him who were worthy of taking communion—himself and his wife—Williams had some sort of breakthrough. He followed his train of thought to its logical conclusion, which is that no church in the fallen world, no church on Earth, can be pure. It’s just not possible. If the Earth is a sinful and fallen place, it cannot create a gathering of people who are entirely holy. One could not escape the “dung heap” of humanity, as Williams had previously described other people to John Winthrop.

It’s a moment of great danger for Williams. This realization could have led him to complete despair; suicide seems to be the only way out of this terrible situation for the man who cannot accept imperfection. But something pulled him through, whether it was Williams’ basic goodness, his realization of the great love and loyalty his followers had demonstrated in going to Narragansett with him, or perhaps the persuasion of his wife Mary, who so often goes unnamed and unnoticed in her husband’s famous story. Mary had followed Roger from England to America, from Boston to Salem, Salem to Plymouth and back again, and Salem to Narragansett country. Each time she had to help set up a new homestead and a new farm, while raising their many children and bearing many more. It is telling that even as he questioned the purity of everyone on Earth, Roger never once turned against his faithful wife. She must have been a loving and intelligent woman, and perhaps we do have her to thank, at least in part, for Williams’ turnaround.

Because Williams did do a 180 in Narragansett. The basic goodness and love of other people that characterized him broke through and he was able to decide that since he could not escape other, fallen, sinful people, he would join them. “Having a little before refused communion with all, save his own wife,” said Winthrop, Williams’ old friend, “now he would preach to and pray with all comers.”

And so he did. Williams threw open his tiny colony to anyone who wanted to join him and work together as one loving group. Winthrop shook his head once again at his young friend; to Winthrop, this “come one, come all” attitude was just as crazy as Williams’ original “no one is good enough” attitude. Puritans were careful to make sure their churches were attended by people trying to live holy lives. But Williams was welcoming anyone and everyone, even those who did not profess themselves to be trying to achieve holiness. In fact, many of his most loyal followers deserted Williams at this point. They had seen in him a man who would give them perfection, a man who could create a heaven on Earth; now he was throwing that chance away to live with the most sinful of people.

Word of Williams’ policies in Narragansett got around the MBC, and people decided Williams had snapped. He was an extremist, they saw; first seeking pure holiness, now seeking sinfulness. His appeal faded for most Puritans in the colony. But there were always a few people who found their way to what became Rhode Island, where Williams created a society that practiced tolerance for just about all people and beliefs. There were limits. As we have seen, even Williams could not welcome Quakers, and Anne Hutchinson, when banished from Boston, made herself very unwelcome in Providence.

But otherwise, Williams welcomed Native Americans, banishees from other colonies, and anyone seeking freedom to live as they wished so long as they did not harm others. The Roger Williams we know and love was born. His was an epic journey, one that Americans as a people re-enact each generation: moving from intolerance and the demand that everyone be like them to real democracy, liberty, and freedom.

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John Winthrop, villain?

Posted on January 23, 2009. Filed under: Puritans | Tags: , |

You can imagine my surprise to find this question in the list of prompts typed into search engines that led eventually to this blog.

It took me a moment to realize it must be about Anne Hutchinson; for those of you who are looking for evidence of Winthrop’s villainity, check out my Truth v. Myth series on Mrs. Hutchinson. Rest assured, you will find that Winthrop was no villain, Hutchinson no angel, and the Puritans more complex people than you might have imagined.

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The trial of Anne Hutchinson

Posted on May 29, 2008. Filed under: 17th century America, Puritans, Truth v. Myth | Tags: , , , , , , |

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 herself 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.

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Anne Hutchinson: victim or villain?

Posted on May 29, 2008. Filed under: 17th century America, Truth v. Myth | Tags: , , , , , , |

Welcome to part 2 of my Truth v. Myth series on Anne Hutchinson. We left off wondering how such a heretical Puritan could have gained such a following in Boston in 1635.

One reason was that Puritans, as Massachusetts Bay Colony Governor John Winthrop realized, were always on the verge of deciding the world was too sinful, and withdrawing from it to maintain their own purity and safety. Winthrop recognized this as an insult and a danger. An insult because it left the unsaved to their doom, and a danger because once people decide they must withdraw from the world, they go quickly down an endless spiral, rejecting more and more people as unfit, until they are completely isolated and literally alone.

Winthrop, like all good Puritans, knew that the righteous had a responsibility to live in the world and help other people achieve righteousness (if not salvation; only God could give that). He was constantly talking extremists down from the ledge of withdrawal.

Hutchinson’s beliefs were a form of that dangerous withdrawal. Hutchinson not only believed that she knew she was saved (God had told her), but that as a saved person, she was Christ himelf, above the law. Her task was not to help others but to judge them, and “deal with them” as antichrists. She decided and stated publicly that only the ministers John Cotton and John Wheelwright (her brother-in-law) were truly saved, and all the rest of the Puritan ministers in Boston were fallen sinners, not fit to preach. Hutchinson granted salvation to those who attended her meetings, and denied it to everyone else in the world.

Many Puritans gravitated to this withdrawal from the world, and were eager to achieve salvation by affiliation with Hutchinson. It was exactly the kind of withdrawal into a small circle of righteousness that damned the rest of the world that Winthrop knew was not only morally wrong, but could divide and seriously harm the colony.

For a year Hutchinson continued to grow in power. The new governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, young Henry Vane, joined her group and attended the weekly spiritual meetings in her home. The powerful Puritan church in Boston lost many members to Hutchinson when she denounced its pastor, John Wilson, as an unfit sinner. But in October 1636, when John Wheelwright was proposed to take Wilson’s place, the remaining church members rallied against him, sensing a dangerous takeover in the works. In December 1636, John Cotton and other Massachusetts ministers met with Hutchinson to try to get her to moderate her opinions. Cotton was not only the most powerful and revered minister in New England, but a personal hero of Hutchinson’s. She had followed him to New England when he was forced to flee England.

The meeting was standard Puritan procedure: if a person veered into heresy, her pastor was to meet with her, accompanied by the deacons of her church, to talk with her and help her back to the right path. If this failed, the erring person’s church would discuss the matter, and if all efforts at outreach failed, the person might be forced out of that congregation. At all times the person had the right, even the obligation, of explaining her views and defending herself. Often, the vote to force her out of the congregation had to be unanimous; if not, she stayed.

The ministerial group found Hutchinson unmoved by their counsels. Even as her husband was voted out of the General Court (the legislative and judicial body of the colony), Hutchinson’s power grew in Boston. In a sermon in January 1637, Wheelwright stated that everyone under a covenant of works (and that would be just about everyone) was a “great enemy of Christ,” who must be eliminated: “We must lay load upon them, we must kill them with the word of God.” (Morgan, The Puritan Dilemma, p. 134)

Here was withdrawal from and damnation of the world indeed. It was Puritanism going off the rails, and it would lead to the banishment of those who fostered it.

Next up in Part 3: The somehow-notorious trial of Anne Hutchinson

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Truth v. Myth: What did Anne Hutchinson believe?

Posted on May 27, 2008. Filed under: 17th century America, Puritans, Truth v. Myth | Tags: , , , , |

As a Puritan scholar, I am constantly amazed at the hero-worship surrounding Anne Hutchinson. Let’s set the record straight with a little truth v. myth. Here’s part 1.

Hutchinson was a Puritan who arrived in Boston in 1634. Like the other Puritans who were in Boston, Hutchinson had left England because she believed the country was about to be punished by God for failing to live up to its commission. The Puritans believed that every valid nation had a covenant with God in which it promised to obey God’s commandments and God’s word. This was called a commission. Most Puritans of the Great Migration left England because they feared that the country’s failure to purify the Anglican church (England’s established Protestant church) was a breach of its holy commission.

In this respect, Hutchinson was like her fellow Puritans in New England. But she held beliefs that made her a distinct minority, and even a heretic.

The Puritans believed that everyone should be on a journey to discover if they had been given God’s grace, and therefore were saved, and destined for Heaven. This was not a passive thing. No one knew if they were destined to receive God’s grace, and thus what the Puritans called “elect.” You had to find out your status by a well-laid out series of steps. Picture a ladder with several rungs.

First you heard sermons by a respectable Puritan minister. Then you went to study groups to discuss the sermon and get more out of it. Then you read the Bible, and looked for God’s word to you in it. You prayed, and were in constant communication and discussion with other Puritan seekers.

At the same time, you had to do good works. You had to be a fair and honest businessperson, a fair and kind family member, and a friend to the poor and downtrodden. Your dedication to God had to be evident in every part of your life.

Just when you felt you were succeeding in all this, and a little confident, you would most likely suddenly realize you were trying to earn salvation, God’s grace, through these efforts, and you would feel completely let down and depressed. Then you would start the whole process again, chastised, realizing that your good works and other efforts were done merely to make you more able to recognize God’s grace if and when it was given to you, not to earn that grace.

This exhaustive process was very active. You couldn’t be a passive Puritan, sitting back waiting to feel saved. While your exertions wouldn’t earn you salvation, they were the only way to make yourself ready for the gift of grace if it was to be given to you.

What Hutchinson believed was that this whole precious process, so communal and intellectual, was bogus. She believed it only encouraged people to believe that their efforts and their good works did indeed earn their salvation. This was what the Catholic church had taught for centuries, that good works earned you a place in Heaven, and the more works, the higher the place. This was called the covenant of works, and it was the direct opposite of the covenant of grace.

Hutchinson dismissed and rejected the whole Puritan ladder of opening oneself to grace as a covenant of works. She believed that God would suddenly appear to you and let you know if you were saved. God would approach you directly. This was high heresy to the Puritans because it was so passive. You just sat back, doing nothing, and God suddenly gave you private information about your soul. This belief in direct revelation struck at the social foundation of Puritanism, which required you to make the world a better place because of your faith by doing good works. You did the good works not to earn salvation, but to help others see the goodness of God, to help purify the world. It struck at the religious foundation of Puritanism by making sermons, ministers, study groups, and prayer obsolete. None of these things were necessary if God was simply going to tell you if you were saved.

Even more dangerously, Hutchinson believed that if you were saved, Christ dwelled within you—literally. You became Christ. This was her interpretation of the scripture “Jesus Christ is come in the flesh”. Therefore, those who were truly saved could not do wrong: if they lied, or stole, or even killed someone, it could not be counted as sin because all these were acts of Christ himself. Hutchinson, therefore, wanted to overthrow the law itself. Christ is not subject to human law, so no one who is truly saved can be subject to the law. This extended to areas like contracts, which Hutchinson rejected.

All those doubts Puritans had about whether they were saved? Those were not signs of healthy humility but proof that someone was not saved, according to Hutchinson, because if you are Christ then you can’t doubt Christ. Doing good works was not only unnecessary but another proof that you were not saved, because Christ did not have to do anything to be Christ—he just was.

Finally, and most explosively, Hutchinson held that you did not even have to believe in Jesus to have him dwell within you. The whole basis of Protestantism is, and was, salvation through faith in God alone. Faith was the only thing and everything. But Hutchinson denied this, saying that someone who did not believe in Jesus as the savior could still receive Jesus to dwell within her—if that was what Jesus chose to do, Jesus would do it. You might still heap scorn on all Jesus’ teachings, and commit heinous sins and crimes, because you had no faith in God, and be not just saved but Christ himself living on the earth, free from all law and human judgment.

The cult-like qualities of Hutchinson’s beliefs become clear. Anyone in her group, and of course she herself, was perfected by becoming Christ and could do no wrong, was not bound by any law, and had no social or legal obligations to anyone outside the group. She alone could tell who was really saved, and if she chose you you owed her everything and if she didn’t, you were her enemy. And, crucially, anyone who criticized her or her followers was clearly the Antichrist, in her words, under a covenant of works, and had to be “dealt with as such”. This could mean shunning people, publicly criticizing people (including during church services), or physically harming people; many of her followers rioted on an election day—May 17, 1637—when the Court would not delay voting for a lengthy petition protesting the charges against John Wheelwright (a minister and Anne Hutchinson’s brother-in-law, whom we’ll learn more about in the next post) to be read and debated.

So Hutchinson was a level-one heretic and a powerful force for civil disruption. So often she is portrayed by historians as a generous and compassionate soul who wanted everyone to have a personal relationship with God, but was struck down by mean and sexist Puritans who told people they were dirt in God’s eyes. This comes from a failure to read the documents of her time, including her own court testimony and the petitions written by her followers, which make it very clear that there was no such thing as a personal relationship with God for Hutchinson: you either were God yourself or you were the antichrist, and she was ready to declare 90% of the Puritans antichrist and deal with them accordingly.

The meetings Hutchinson held in her home in which she expounded her beliefs quickly grew to include hundreds of people anxious to know their status. We are often told that the Puritan hierarchy cracked down on her because she was a woman, and women could not hold these kinds of meetings, but this is untrue. Women could and did hold meetings to discuss sermons they heard, and those meetings were allowed, even at the height of the Hutchinson controversy. The problem with Anne Hutchinson’s meetings was that she did not use them to parse sermons but to say that all of the ministers in New England were sinners, unfit to preach, except for John Cotton, minister at Boston and her beloved mentor.

How did such a heretic find such a following in Puritan Boston? Find out in Part 2!

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