The Puritans of the early Massachusetts Bay Colony formed a tightly knit community with a common belief system enforced by civil and ecclesiastical law. Yet, as the colony began to grow, divergent interpretations of scripture and the relationship between society and religion began to emerge, to the consternation of the Puritan clergy. Among the dissenters was Anne Hutchinson (1591–1643), whose radical interpretations of church doctrine directly challenged the authority of the Puritan establishment to regulate the secular and religious lives of the Massachusetts Bay settlers. Hutchinson was a follower of Minister John Cotton, whose teachings emphasized salvation by grace, bestowed directly by God upon worthy individuals, over salvation by works, which implied obedience to religious and secular authority. Hutchinson interpreted the teachings of Cotton as suggesting that those possessed with divine grace are not obligated to obey the laws of church or state. In defiance of Puritan traditions barring women from the pulpit, Hutchinson preached this doctrine, known as antinomianism, during informal meetings in her home, drawing the ire of Puritan authorities for the content of her teachings and the fact that her congregations included both men and women.
Puritan authorities first unsuccessfully tried to get Hutchinson to change her views, then arrested her brother-in-law on heresy charges. Yet Hutchinson persisted in her teachings and was arrested for heresy in November 1637 and sentenced to banishment from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, a sentence that was deferred pending an ecclesiastical trial held in March 1638. During her trial, Hutchinson befuddled her Puritan inquisitors with her intellectual acuity, engaging them in spirited theological debate for several days before declaring that her beliefs were the product of divine revelation, a clear heresy under Puritan law. She was excommunicated from the church and the sentence of banishment was imposed. A pregnant Hutchinson then fled on foot with her husband and children to the colony of Rhode Island, which had been founded by another Puritan dissenter, Roger Williams, banished from Massachusetts three years earlier under similar circumstances. There Hutchinson and her followers established a settlement that would become Portsmouth, Rhode Island. Following the death of her husband in 1642, Hutchinson moved to New York, where she and all but one of her family members were killed by Native Americans in 1643.
The trial of Anne Hutchinson is often cited as a seminal event in the shaping of American concepts of religious freedom and gender equality. By challenging the theocratic government of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Anne Hutchinson followed in the footsteps of fellow outcast Roger Williams in questioning the relationship between church and state and the role of civil authority in regulating the private beliefs of individuals, giving rise to a longstanding debate that would inspire constitutional prohibitions of government establishment of religion in the new United States, as well as myriad legislative acts and court decisions that collectively established clear boundaries between American religious and civil institutions. By defying the circumscribed roles assigned to women in Puritan society, Hutchinson also became a pioneer in the struggle for women’s rights.
MICHAEL H. BURCHETT
References and Further Reading
See also Puritans; Quakers and Religious Liberty