Anne Hutchinson: victim or villain?

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