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 came 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.”
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 go 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.