(This is the third and final part of a series on Anne Hutchinson. All three essays were originally published in the Newport Daily News.)
Three hundred and eighty years ago, this month, Anne Hutchinson was put on trial before her church congregation and excommunicated. Several months earlier, the General Court of Massachusetts Bay Colony had convicted her of heresy and banished her from the colony, to take effect the following spring.
In 1634, Anne, her husband William, and their 11 children crossed the Atlantic and joined the Massachusetts Bay Colony, a near theocracy in which religious and political leadership were closely intertwined. Proving to be too great a threat to the male leadership, she was brought to trial in November, 1637, for conducting religious meetings in her home, for criticizing the colony’s all-male ministers, for denying the importance of performing good works as a sign of salvation, and for her claims of divinely inspired prophecy. Hutchinson was found guilty of heresy for her claims of direct divine revelation and of sedition for her criticisms of the colony’s ministers.
For these crimes the Court banished her from the colony “as being a woman not fit for our society;” however, she was allowed to remain in the colony until the following spring. Until her departure, the “prisoner”, as Governor John Winthrop called her, was required to remain isolated at the home of Joseph Weld in Roxbury. She took her Bible, her Herbal (guide to medicinal plants), and winter clothes. During these winter months, she studied scripture, sang psalms, prayed and meditated, and saw her mid-section grow with her 16th pregnancy.
At the same time, husband William and other male followers met secretly and made plans to begin a new settlement. They wanted good soil, access to fresh water and wood, a milder climate, and religious freedom from the Massachusetts colony.
Initially planning on Long Island or New Jersey, they decided to settle on Aquidneck Island, at the urging of Roger Williams, the founder of Providence. On March 7, 1638, a group of men—eventually 23—signed the Portsmouth Compact, incorporating themselves into a “body politic.” Anne’s husband, William, signed it third, behind William Coddington and John Clarke. With the help of Roger Williams, these men acquired the island from the Narragansett sachems (chieftains) Miantonomo and Canonicus, for a collection of beads, coats, and hoes. They decided to settle on the northeast section of the island, which the Indians called Pocasset. The settlers soon changed the name to Portsmouth, after the English port city from which some had sailed.
The church trial of Anne Hutchinson was held on March 15 and 22, 1638, in the Boston meetinghouse. The church leaders held documents which described her numerous “errors” in belief on such arcane subjects such as the mortality of the soul, the resurrection of the body on the last day, and the necessity of the saved to follow earthly laws.
On the first day, a number of church elders attacked her with vengeance. Thomas Shepard asserted that it was “not God’s spirit but her own spirit that hath guided her hitherto—a spirit of delusion and error!” … “For she is of a most dangerous spirit, and likely with her fluent tongue and forwardness in expression to seduce and draw away many….” John Cotton, the religious leader she had followed for over 20 years, gave her the final “admonishment.”
In a signed document on the second day of her trial, she noted her errors repentantly; however, many church elders continued to scold and reproach her. Reverend John Wilson said: “I look at her as a dangerous instrument of the Devil, raised up by Satan amongst us to raise up divisions and contentions, and to take away hearts and affections one from another.” He proceeded to cast her out of the church.
Followed by a number of her supporters, Hutchinson walked to the door, stopped, turned around and faced the elders and magistrates, and said: “The Lord judges not as man judges. Better to be cast out of the church than to deny Christ.”
On April 1, 1638, the banished Hutchinson, with horses, carts, family, and friends, began a six-day walk to Aquidneck Island. She traveled the last leg by boat and arrived at the new settlement in Portsmouth, described by Eve LaPlante as the “windswept marsh, beach, pastureland, and pebbled cove of her new home.”
Regrettably, under threat of Massachusetts asserting its control over Rhode Island, Hutchinson, with her husband’s death in 1641, decided to move to the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam (current day New York City) in 1642, where she and most of her family were killed in an attack by the Siwanoy native Americans the following year.
Today both a river and a parkway in southern New York bear her name. Gov. John Winthrop had labeled her “this American Jezebel”; in 1987, Gov. Michael Dukakis formally pardoned her. More than just a founding mother of Portsmouth, RI, Anne Hutchinson can be considered a founding mother of religious tolerance in America.
Founders’ Brook Park and the Anne Hutchinson Memorial stand off Boyd’s Lane in Portsmouth. There one finds a shaded glade with benches, marble markers with quotes from Hutchinson, the Founders’ Brook with a small waterfall, an herb garden in honor of Anne Hutchinson and Mary Dyer, and a copy of the compact which was the basis of Portsmouth’s government.
(For further reading: Eve LaPlante, American Jezebel. Thanks to Jim Garman for his assistance with this essay.)
Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor at Salve Regina University and a columnist for the Newport Daily News.