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People & Ideas: Anne Hutchinson

Anne Hutchinson

Smart, outspoken and opinionated, Anne Hutchinson was the daughter of an English minister, well versed in the Bible and devoted to the teaching of the popular preacher John Cotton. In 1634, Anne and her family arrived in Boston, where her husband built a house directly across the street from the renowned and respected three-time governor of Massachusetts, John Winthrop.

Trained as a midwife and nurse, Hutchinson began to hold small meetings in her home to discuss John Cotton's sermons. Soon the meetings were attracting up to 60 people -- men and women. For a woman to engage theological discussions posed a subtle challenge to the patriarchy that governed the Bay Colony. From across the street, John Winthrop characterized Hutchinson as "a woman of haughty and fierce carriage, of a nimble wit and active spirit, and a very voluble tongue, more bold than a man."

Hutchinson gave Winthrop ample reason to worry. In the fall of 1636, she accused Puritan ministers of making salvation dependent on an individual's good works rather than on divine grace, which was contrary to Puritan teaching. The ministers denied this charge, arguing that good works are evidence of conversion and salvation, not the grounds of salvation. They argued that they were therefore not teaching a Covenant of Works.

Hutchinson persisted, arguing that assurance of salvation came from a mystical experience of grace -- "an inward conviction of the coming of the Spirit." She believed that by teaching that good works were evidence of true conversion and salvation, ministers were still preaching a Covenant of Works rather than a Covenant of Grace.

Hutchinson went further, claiming that God had communicated to her by direct revelations and declaring that she was capable of interpreting the Scriptures on her own.

Hutchinson's charges constituted a frontal attack on the spiritual authority of both the church and society. For Puritans, the ultimate source of authority was the Bible as it was interpreted by duly authorized ministers. Hutchinson's claim that she possessed the authority to interpret the Bible challenged this basic principle. Even more galling was her claim that she received immediate revelations from God. Her challenge to official doctrine threatened to tear the Massachusetts Bay Colony apart.

In November 1637, Hutchinson was brought before the General Court, the colony's principal governing body, on charges of sedition. Winthrop questioned her closely, but she eluded his grasp. The court adjourned.

The following day Hutchinson changed her position. She freely acknowledged that God spoke to her directly. This claim constituted blasphemy. Now the court had grounds to punish her. The assembly voted and handed down its judgment: banishment.

Anne and her husband, William, found refuge in Roger Williams' colony in Providence, R.I. Hutchinson's experience speaks to a persistent question: What is the source of religious authority? Is it the individual or the community? Who decides? How much dissent can a religious community tolerate? What are the limits, if any?

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Published October 11, 2010

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