(Note: This is Part II of a three part essay on Anne Hutchinson. It was originally published as “Hutchinson followed her ideals on diversity” in the Newport Daily News on December 28, 2017.)
Three hundred eighty years ago, the Great and General Court of Massachusetts Bay Colony convicted Anne Hutchinson of heresy and banished her from the colony. More than just a founding mother of Portsmouth, she can be considered a founding mother of religious tolerance in America.
It was a cold November 7, 1637, when she was called before the General Court of Massachusetts, a group of 40 black-clad men at the meeting house in Cambridge, led by Governor John Winthrop. Hutchinson was 46 years old, pregnant, of average height, the mother of 12, and the grandmother of one. She was forced to stand while the men sat on benches.
She remained strong and steadfast during the two-day ordeal, fortified by her sure knowledge of divine succor. Before her husband, their eleven children, and she had departed England in 1634, she had had a vision of the adversity to come. She would find herself in the role of Daniel of the Old Testament. Daniel, a Jew, was serving in the administration of the Babylonian empire of King Darius. The other high administrators were jealous of his favored relationship with the king, and so they reported that Daniel had broken the law by praying to his Jewish god, Yahweh, rather than to him and the Babylonian gods. The king was forced to have Daniel thrown into a lions’ den; however, Daniel remained unharmed. King Darius was so stunned that he ordered Daniel released and also converted to Judaism.
“It was revealed to me,” Anne recalled, “that [some] should plot against me, and I should meet with affliction. But the Lord bid me not fear.” God said to her: “I am the same God that delivered Daniel out of the lions’ den. I will also deliver thee.”
The General Court combined the powers which our Constitution, 150 years later, divided into three branches: the executive, the legislative, and the judicial. As Eve LaPlante points out, “This court’s vast power over the populace limited people’s freedom to a degree that is unimaginable today. People were banned … from wearing any fur, lace, or colorful cloth, and all citizens, whether or not they were church members, were required to attend Sunday services.”
Throughout the two-day trial, the governor and other magistrates questioned her on her authority to conduct religious meetings, called “conventicles,” which had grown in size from a few women to 80 or so women and men. The magistrates and she both rooted their arguments in holy scripture, the ultimate source of knowledge and truth in that day. Religion infused each day of their lives, not just Sundays, and was the prism through which they interpreted reality.
The magistrates questioned her further about her reported criticism of the colony’s ministers, her denial of the importance of performing good works as a sign of salvation, and her claims of divinely-inspired prophecy, a gift which Puritans reserved solely for ministers.
Hutchinson skillfully parried these accusations with quotes from scripture. She argued that testimony given by some magistrates was based on private conversations. Women had no public role in Puritan society. She argued then that she could not be charged and condemned for private opinions and actions.
On the second day of trial, Hutchinson—emboldened by her performance on the first day and convinced of her divine support—could not resist speaking in a manner that would lead to her conviction: she began to preach to the court. In doing so in this public proceeding, she played into the hands of her enemies. Literary scholar Lad Tobin described her speech as a “final act of defiance.”
After being asked to explain how she knew she had received divine revelation, she answered: “By the voice of his own spirit to my soul.” She claimed: “… the Lord showed me what he would do for me and the rest of his servants!” … “And therefore I desire you ,…, to consider and look what you do. You have power over my body, but the Lord Jesus hath power over my body and soul.” She claimed direct connection with God, and this was heresy. She then prophesied the doom of the colony. “I know that for this you go about to do to me, God will ruin you and your posterity, and this whole state!”
With such forceful and heretical statements from Hutchinson, Winthrop had what he needed to convict her. Pointing at her, he exclaimed, “This has been the ground of all these tumults and troubles. This is the thing that has been the root of all the mischief.”
In the end, Hutchinson was charged with heresy for her claims of divine revelation and with sedition for her criticisms of the colony’s ministers. Winthrop concluded: “Mistress Hutchinson, the sentence of the court you hear is that you are banished from our jurisdiction as being a woman not fit for our society ….”
(See Part III.)
Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @Fred Zilian) is a writer, educator, and monthly column.
Conley, Patrick T. Rhode Island’s Founders (Charleston, SC: History Press, 2012).
LaPlante, Eve. American Jezebel (NY: Harper Collins, 2004).
Stensrud, Rockwell. Newport: A Lively Experiment, 1639-1969 (London: D Giles, 2015).
Winship, Michael. The Times and Trials of Anne Hutchinson: Puritans Divided. (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2005).