Saturday, April 2, 2011

Anne Hutchinson, Heretic

     Some Cantabrigians believe that Anne Hutchinson, the religious dissenter who was among the first prominent settlers of Rhode Island, should also be credited with causing the Puritans to found Harvard. The General Court of Massachusetts decreed that there would be a school, then called “the College at New Towne,” in 1636. Anne Hutchinson's trial by the church leaders did not begin until 1637. However, until 1638, the school had no buildings, professors, or courses; it was merely an idea. That year, the year that John Harvard willed his library and half his fortune to the school, the first building was erected. Was Anne Hutchinson responsible for the transformation from idea to reality? The short answer, although some find it surprising, is yes. Of course, as with almost every historical question, the full story is more nuanced than yes or no.

Part 1 of this three-part series will look at who Anne Hutchinson was and what she believed. Part 2 will explore her influence on Puritan Boston and Cambridge. Part 3 will examine her relationship to the founding of Harvard.

Anne Hutchinson, Heretic

    Anne Hutchinson came from a family of religious dissenters. Her father, Francis Marbury, was an Anglican minister. As a young man, he was convicted of heresy by a church court and imprisoned several times, because he disagreed with the choices of many Anglican bishops.12 Her mother, Bridget Marbury, (nee Dryden), had relatives who were dissenters. 
    Bridget Marbury was a midwife, and she taught this skill to her daughter. Anne and her siblings were taught at home, and she became quite well-read.3 Anne married Will Hutchinson, whose family owned a textile business, in 1612.

     Despite her husband's relatively affluent income, Anne Hutchinson earned money as well, as a midwife. Both of them were well-respected within the community, and by the 1620's, Hutchinson had begun leading a religious study group in her home.4 These groups were not unusual among like-minded Anglicans. As Eve LaPlante, a biographer of Hutchinson's, has noted, leading religious discussions seems to have sprung naturally out of counseling patients through the life-and-death moments inherent in seventeenth-century childbirth.

     While living in England, the Hutchinsons became admirers and friends of the Reverend John Cotton. Cotton and a number of others in the area were growing frustrated with the Anglican establishment, believing that a number of their practices were sacrilegious. This group took Old Testament rules very seriously; they even considered Christmas celebrations to be inappropriately festive. Orthodox Anglicanism did not take kindly to these nonconformists, and they were often persecuted. The established church referred to this group as Puritans, meaning that they wanted to purify the church. Most dissenters rejected the name, because they felt that they were practicing true Christianity and the larger group of Anglicans were straying from their religion. This was a common theme in nearly all religious controversy of the period: each group believed that theirs was the one true Christianity.

      Puritans felt less and less safe in the Church of England in the first few decades of the seventeenth century, and it eventually pushed them to establish a settlement in the New World. In 1634, the Hutchinsons left their home to join this group in Massachusetts. During her transatlantic voyage, Hutchinson paid careful attention to the sermons of Reverend Zechariah Symmes. She began to disagree with Symmes's messages on a few important points, and soon, she spoke up about it. The minister was uncomfortable with being challenged by a layperson, and by a woman at that. When they arrived in Massachusetts, he reported her to the Deputy Governor. The only consequence at the time was that Hutchinson had to wait a week longer than her husband to be accepted as a member of the Boston church, but her opponents remembered this disturbance later on, during her trial. 5 In her new home Hutchinson soon took on the community roles that she had held in England: women turned to her for her help as a midwife and gathered in her home to discuss religion. The meetings started out simply as an opportunity for reflection on that Sunday's sermon in church, but as time went on, Hutchinson began to criticize the sermons more and more. In 1637, she was tried in the Massachusetts General Court for “traducing the church leaders” – essentially, she was charged with heresy. The trial took place at the meetinghouse in Cambridge.

     In her disagreements with local ministers, Hutchinson stretched the Puritan idea of “God's elect.” Puritans believed that they were only allowing those who God had saved, or “the elect,” into their churches. New members had to apply, and church leaders could grant them membership.6 This practice implied that church leaders had knowledge of who the elect were; however, Puritan leaders denied that laypeople could also see who was and was not saved. Hutchinson felt that if a minister was teaching religion incorrectly, he could not possibly be a member of God's elect. Thus, she began to argue that laypeople such as herself must also have access to some knowledge of who was and was not elect.7 This belief probably would have been heretic enough to get her tried on its own, but in fact, it was a symptom of a bigger issue. Hutchinson felt that some Puritan leaders were not elect, and were teaching a false version of Christianity.

     The distinctions than Hutchinson and the established church argued over can seem very fine to outsiders. One of the ways Hutchinson disagreed with the orthodox Puritan teachings was that she believed that they were emphasizing a covenant of works more than was appropriate. A covenant of works is the doctrine that actions during a person's lifetime can effect whether the person is saved. Its alternative is a covenant of grace, the doctrine that God has already chosen who is saved, and only God's choice can determine who has salvation. A large part of Hutchinson's trial was over the question of whether she ever stated that local ministers preached a covenant of works more than a covenant of grace. Hutchinson denied that she had ever made that claim. 

     The problem was that Hutchinson was not attempting to start a new sect that believed in a covenant of grace to the exclusion of a covenant of works. The problem was that the Puritans they had already done that, and reluctantly. In fact, the entire religious framework that both Hutchinson and her opponents operated within rejected the idea of starting new sects. All of them believed that there was one right set of rules to Christianity, and they believed that these were the rules they followed and anyone else was a dangerous heretic. Hutchinson felt that certain influential Puritan ministers were teaching incorrectly, and in this way, she could be described as being more Puritan than the Puritans.

  In the next post at Cambridge Considered, I'll take a look at why Anne Hutchinson's dissent shook seventeenth-century Boston and Cambridge, and how this disruption helped lead to the creation of Harvard.

1 LaPlante, Eve. American Jezebel: The Uncommon Life of Anne Hutchinson, the Woman Who Defied the Puritans, (New York: HarperCollins, 2004) 22.
2LaPlante 33.
3LaPlante 31.
4LaPlante 86.
5 LaPlante 64.
6 LaPlante 91.
7 LaPlante 105.

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