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.
Hutchinson and Harvard
Part 1 of this three-part series looks at who Anne Hutchinson was and what she believed. Part 2 explores her influence on Puritan Boston and Cambridge. Part 3 will examine her relationship to the founding of Harvard.
Hutchinson and Harvard
One thing that can be learned from the controversy surrounding Anne Hutchinson is that the leadership of 1630's Massachusetts were absolutely determined to remain in power. They led their new religious community with the doctrine that there is only one right way to practice their faith. It is natural, then, that they would want to establish a theology school, where those who were already in power and in the mainstream could mold the next generation of leaders. Puritans had always advocated an educated ministry – they preferred university-educated ministers who had received extensive training in how to interpret the bible, and they complained that the Anglicans did not prioritize such training.1
The General Court passed an act in October 1636 declaring that the colony would found a school. At the time, the Court included Hutchinson's followers and her opponents. The Governor was Henry Vane and the Deputy-governor was John Winthrop. William Hutchinson was also a member.2 The act stated that 200 pounds would be given to found “a school or college” by the government the next year (1637), and 200 more pounds would be given at a later date, and that the court would decide on the locations and building plans in the following session. The language of the act was vague – “a school or college” did not necessarily mean a university.3
The General Court did not decide on a location or building plans in the following session, in December of 1636. It had a much more pressing matter on its hands: many people believed that the young colony was not going to survive the religious controversy that had overtaken it. the Anne Hutchinson trial. On December 10, 1636, William Hutchinson, Anne's husband, was discharged from his office as a deputy of the General Court at the request of a number of churches.4 Around the same time, John Winthrop and several of the mainstream Puritan ministers had a meeting with Anne Hutchinson, privately examining her and asking her directly what she believed about their religious teachings. The debate that she had with them solidified many ministers' belief that she was an enemy and a heretic, but she continued in her role as a dissenting leader until she was put on trial the following year.
In the meantime, the political leadership of the colony did quite a bit of shuffling around. For the May 1637 elections, the anti-Hutchinsonians had a slim but real majority, and they ensured that the court be transferred to Cambridge (then Newtowne), where they truly had a majority. The vote happened on the Cambridge Common, and some of the members stood in the area that is now Harvard Yard. John Winthrop was elected Governor, and Thomas Dudley, another anti-Hutchinsonian, became Deputy-governor.5 That summer, some of William Hutchinson's family arrived in Massachusetts. As a response, the court passed the Alien Act, stating that newcomers to Massachusetts needed the court's permission to stay longer than three weeks.6
On November 2, 1637, the General Court of Massachusetts met in Newtowne. It discharged several of its lower officials – all strong Hutchinson supporters – on technicalities that were legally not related to the Hutchinson case.7 It banished a few more of her supporters. It also swore in a few new members of the Court, recent immigrants, including one John Harvard. The last order of business for the day was picking up where they had left off the previous December, and arraigning Anne Hutchinson.
In Massachusetts at the time, a woman was not entitled to any legal counsel. Hutchinson was to be her own lawyer. She did not try to convince the court that she was justified in criticizing the ministers or that her criticism was correct. If after three years of her influential religious leadership in the community, she hadn't converted these men to her her beliefs, she would not have been able to do it in her trial. Instead, she focused on the fact that only her actions and not her private views could be a basis for convicting her, her belief that the ministers could not prove their claims, and her claim to a right to host religious discussion in her home.8
Governor Winthrop requested testimony from the ministers Hutchinson was supposed to have maligned, but they were all hesitant, perhaps fearing that she could out-argue them. Six ministers did testify, but of course, they had not been present at those meetings in her home where the bulk of the criticism took place. Although a transcript had been taken of the first time she spoke before the court, the previous year, and the ministers claimed she had maligned them that day, none of them could produce that transcript. 9
When Winthrop asked Hutchinson how she could deny that she had spoken against Puritan ministers, when those ministers had just testified that she had slandered them, she would not relent. Her response seems almost childish in its simplicity, but it was very effective: she told him to prove it.10 The court was struck by the defiance of this woman telling men to prove their claims, and (perhaps more importantly) of this layperson telling ministers to prove their claims. However, if you consider her demand for what it was, it was quite reasonable by our modern sensibilities. She expected the burden of proof to be on her accusers, not on the accused.
It is very likely that Hutchinson could not have avoided being convicted. She argued eloquently and with just as much knowledge of the Bible as her adversaries, and yet she did not sway them. Partway through the trial, though, she made a claim that almost certainly worked against her. Pressed to explain how she could know that her reading of scripture on the matter of grace was correct, she swore that God himself had revealed religious wisdom to her on several occasions.11 There are religious traditions that accept the idea of an ordinary person talking with God, but Puritanism was not one of them. To her opponents, and possibly even to her friends, Hutchinson's claim of personal revalation was blasphemous.12
Late in the trial, John Cotton, the very minister that Hutchinson had spent so many of her meetings defending and bolstering, turned on her. He claimed that while he had once sympathized with her, she had gone too far.13 It is not clear whether he sincerely felt this way or whether he felt he could no longer stand on the side that he saw was losing, but he famously castigated Hutchinson, “Your opinions frett like a Gangrene and spread like a Leprosie, and will eate out the very Bowells of Religion.” 14
While Hutchinson still had supporters, they were dwindling because of banishment or because they saw how powerful the opposition was. As was expected, the General Court got behind Governor Winthrop, who called her revelations “delusion” and who felt that eliminating her as a leader was the only way to protect the colony from corruption and controversy.15 As it was not technically a religious institution, the court could not convict her of heresy; she was banished from the colony for “being a woman not fit for our society.”16
Later in November, the court followed through on its year-old plan to decide on a location for the school, and it passed an order that the college would be at Newtowne. One of the reasons for this choice of location was the local pastor. Thomas Shepard was a strong and charismatic preacher who disagreed with Hutchinson, and he may have been the reason that Cambridge was an anti-Hutchinson stronghold.17 At its following session, the court chose the group that was to become the school's Board of Overseers. There was heavy overlap with the leadership of the Colony; the Board included both Winthrop and Dudley, and some personal friends of Thomas Shepard. Perhaps most interestingly, the newly anti-Hutchinson John Cotton was on the board as well.18
The college opened in late summer of 1638. In September of that year, John Harvard died and left his books and half of his estate to the new school. John Harvard had arrived in Massachusetts in 1637.19 While no record exists of Harvard's views on the Hutchinson controversy, it is very likely he sided against her. John Harvard lived in Charlestown, and he and his wife were members of the church there. At some point in the year after Harvard arrived in Massachusetts, he began assisting with ministerial work at that church, although he was never ordained.20 The minister of that church was none other than Hutchinson's early nemesis Zechariah Symmes.
The information in the historical record can't prove that Harvard was founded because of Hutchinson, or even that the form it took was influenced by the controversy surrounding her. The initial idea and act to create a school in Massachusetts did come before Hutchinson's trial. However, many of her biographers and many historians of Harvard support the idea that she was the impetus that got the school going.21 She was perhaps the most serious threat to the homogeneous religious community that the Puritan leaders envisioned, and a colony-sponsored school for ministers could help them regain control. The shift in political balance from 1636-1637, which occurred largely in reaction to the Hutchinson controversy, probably also made a difference in the religious character in the new school.
Hutchinson was certainly not the only Puritan dissident. John Cotton was very influential; in fact, Hutchinson's ideological role was largely as his supporter. However, he was more willing to reconcile with Puritan leaders, which made him less of a threat. John Wheelwright caused quite a stir, and it's possible that his case, or future cases such as his, would have inspired Massachusetts to start a university to prevent future Wheelwrights from taking over.
Of course, it may also be argued that Harvard was inevitable: a growing settlement in the New World that was invested in its future and valued education was bound to start a university at some point. History has no absolutes. However, based on what did happen, it seems that Anne Hutchinson, who taught religion in her home to a growing crowd of admirers and defended herself in court with scripture and good rhetoric, was vital to the timing and the character of Harvard's founding.
1 LaPlante, Eve. American Jezebel: The Uncommon Life of Anne Hutchinson, the Woman Who Defied the Puritans, (New York: HarperCollins, 2004)
2Morison, Samuel Eliot. The Founding of Harvard College, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1935) 166.
8Anne Hutchinson trial transcript.
10Anne Hutchinson trial transcript.
11Anne Hutchinson trial transcript.
14Quoted in LaPlante 190.
16Anne Hutchinson trial transcript.
21Including LaPlante, Morison, Peter G. Gomes (author of “Anne Hutchinson: brief life of Harvard's midwife,” Harvard Magazine, November-December 2002), and others.