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.

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