Dear readers -- starting this week, Cambridge Considered officially updates every other Sunday instead of every other Saturday. Back to Anne Hutchinson for two more posts!
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 looks 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's Powerful Influence
The Puritans who settled in Boston, Cambridge, and the surrounding areas in the 1630s were governed by the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. As was common for colonies at the time, the founders of the colony obtained a charter from the King of England to run a settlement that was legally a company, and the voting members were technically shareholders. The General Court consisted of men admitted individually to the governing body. They had to be members of a puritan church. The governor, deputy-governor and lesser offices were elected annually from the members. In theory, the general court and the church elders were fully separate organizations, however, the members of the court and of the churches were the same, and they elected similar groups. 1 (For more information on early Cambridge, see this post.)
The original leaders of the Massachusetts Bay colony, including Governor John Winthrop, shared a more or less agreed-upon set of Puritan views. These are the “established” religious views discussed in "Anne Hutchinson, Heretic". Followers of the established form of Puritanism had a majority in the General Court of Massachusetts, but not a strong one. In the first several years of immigration from England, there were a number of religious leaders, all of whom had disagreements with the Anglican church. They were all Puritans, but they were also all dissenters, and they were not as unified in their views as their leaders might hope. Cambridge (then Newtowne) had considerable representation in the “traditional” form of Puritanism (such as it was), but Boston had a growing population of ministers and laypeople who taught religion outside of the mainstream. In church, they were lead by the Reverend John Cotton, but Anne Hutchinson, with no formal religious education, was just as much a leader of the movement.
By 1636, Boston had a strong dissenting population. Just as she had in England, Hutchison hosted weekly religious study for women in her home, and as time went on, she began adding her own commentary to her explanations of religious topics. Her following grew until women almost filled the room, and the women began inviting men to join them. Like many early New England homes, hers only had one chair, which she sat in while her listeners sat on the floor or stood. When men began attending Hutchinson's sessions, some political and religious leaders, John Winthrop in particular, took notice. They began to fear her powerful influence. Her enemies included some of the most prominent men in the colony – but so did her following. Henry Vane, who became governor of the colony in 1636, regularly attended her meetings. When he attended, someone brought an extra chair so he would not be on the floor; whether or not the symbolism was intentional, Hutchinson and the governor were seated side by side.2
Ministers without Hutchinson's favor felt a strong loss of support. They believed, often correctly, that it was Hutchinson's doing when parishioners walked out during a sermon. Some, including John Wilson, also complained that church attendees asked questions after the sermon that challenged the minister's authority, on Hutchinson's urging. However, this may have been an exaggerated complaint, as Puritan worship traditionally included an opportunity for men to ask questions after the sermon.3
The theological debate that Hutchinson sparked in the gatherings in her home is often called New England's Antinomian controversy. In Protestantism, Antinomianism is the belief that some religious laws have exceptions, or that they do not apply to everyone. Hutchinson's beliefs could be called Antinomian because she believed in a salvation by grace alone. This effectively meant that a person who had God's grace could not be damned for his or her actions. So, while Hutchinson did not argue that a saved person had no need for religious laws, some people felt that she did. Within Protestant tradition, calling a viewpoint Antinomian can be akin to calling it heresy, and this is what Hutchinson's contemporaries meant by applying the term to her.
The colony was dividing itself into two camps, and many leaders began to worry that the colony would be ripped apart by controversy.4 In March of 1637, the General Court censured Reverend John Wheelwright, a Hutchinsonian, for contempt of state and sedition. At a later meeting, a group brought a petition in support of Wheelwright, and the ensuing argument actually came to blows.5 At a General Court meeting in 1636, it was suggested that Vane was to blame for the growing conflict over Hutchinson and for other conflicts in the colony. The governor resigned, reportedly after bursting into tears.6
By 1637, trouble was truly brewing in Massachusetts, as the General Court became increasingly divided over Hutchinson and the rest of the dissenters. Finally, they put her on trial. At the same time as they were debating a covenant of grace and a covenant of works, Puritans were starting to consider establishing a colony-wide school of some sort. As a group, they valued education, and so far the New World had no way of educating its new ministers -- they all had to immigrate from England. However, the type of school and where it would be located were yet to be determined. Anne Hutchinson's trial was almost certainly a strong influence on what happened with the school that would become Harvard.
1Morison, Samuel Eliot. The Founding of Harvard College, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1935) 155.
2 LaPlante, Eve. American Jezebel: The Uncommon Life of Anne Hutchinson, the Woman Who Defied the Puritans, (New York: HarperCollins, 2004) 47.