Truth v. Myth: What did Anne Hutchinson believe?

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!