Anne Hutchinson and the Antinomian Controversy

John Cotton came to Massachusetts from Boston, England. He was a respected minister, although his teachings on the matter of justification and sanctification ran more towards the position that we’re calling “antinomian” than most of his fellow ministers. Anne Hutchinson, herself the daughter of a controversial minister, had been an admirer of Cotton, and sometimes a visitor to his church. She responded very strongly to the controversial elements in Cotton’s theology, being already inclined towards mysticism and at least open to some of the more controversial currents in English Christianity. Unhappy that her inspiration had gone to New England, she convinced her husband, apparently an amiable and somewhat meek character, to emigrate as well.

Anne Hutchinson was sharp and not meek, though she could apparently be amiable. Her religious views were noted as suspect by some even on shipboard, travelling to Massachusetts. But she adapted herself well to the culture of the Bay Colony, which included much discussion of local sermons, and her home became a meetingplace for discussions by both men and women. She also made herself useful, making visits to women in the community, aiding in childbirth and such. In time, it became clear that she was at odds with many of the ministers in the colony, largely over the question of whether the federal theology adequately represented the covenant of grace. John Cotton seemed correct to her, as did her brother-in-law, John Wheelwright, but the rest were found wanting. Word of her opinions spread quickly in the small community, and John Cotton was asked to clarify his opinions in a series of written exchanges with his fellow ministers. He was largely able to defend his position and maintain his orthodoxy, but Wheelwright stirred things up again with a controversial “Fast Day Sermon” condemning those who did not agree with his position regarding justification and grace. Eventually, he was tried for acts detrimental to the peace of the community. Anne Hutchinson was brought to trial for neglecting the commandment to “honor thy father and mother,” with the church elders standing in the place of the slighted “spiritual parents.”

In response to questions about the nature of the meetings she had hosted, Hutchinson was able to claim that she had done nothing unlawful. She was accused of teaching men, which would have been considered unlawful in the community, but denied it. The portions of the examination we read deal largely with questions of doctrine and church discipline which seem arcane now, and we can see the Governor belittle Hutchinson for being a woman and for failing to conform to the expectations of established authorities. It’s hard to say whether she could have been condemned based on that exchange. However, when she claims that she holds some of her opinions because they come from direct, divine revelation, all the details of the early debate pale in the face of what seems a major heresy. One of the questions that most divides Christian denominations is the role that the holy spirit plays in the life of believers, and whether direct communication or various other “fruits” or “gift of the spirit” still play a role in God’s work. The rational Christianity of the puritans left little room for these “enthusiasms,” which were assumed to be the work of infernal, rather than divine, powers. Her claim to mystical experience is what damns Anne Hutchinson in the eyes of her judges, and their judgment is summary from that point on.

Technically, however, none of the “antinomians” could be disarmed, excommunicated or banished without facing the judgment of their full church community, and Anne Hutchinson, after a period of virtual house arrest, had one final trial to face before she was “delivered to Satan” and forced to move to Rhode Island with a group of dissenters (which included an ancestor of mine, Samuel Wilebore). That trial was a very strange affair. It opens with a debate between Hutchinson and the ministers on very specific points of doctrine, mostly concerning whether or not the body which is ultimately resurrected is the same body as that which dies, and about the ways in which the souls of humans differ from those of animals. The shift of ground seems strategic, and the differences largely innocent. Hutchinson quotes scripture to introduce three terms–body, soul, and spirit–where her examiners only see two. After some debate, she actually relents and acknowledges that perhaps, in that regard, she has been in error. There are some indications that the church members are somewhat sympathetic to the defendent. But the grilling continues, and Hutchinson’s apologies are considered inadequate by some of the examiners. There are some moments that are amusing or chilling, depending on your perspective, as when Hutchinson responds that she had “only asked a question,” and one of the ministers feels the need to remind the crowd how many of the worst errors and iniquities have come from asking questions. The message there is clear enough, as is the growing concern of some of the clergy not to let the public debate on some key topics go on too long. The endgame comes after one of the ministers has claimed that a denial of the continuity of the body through the resurrection would lead to a dissolution of marriage bonds and thus to “community of women.” Anne Hutchinson is warned that, though she may not yet have been unfaithful to her husband, her doctrinal errors will inevitably lead her to that sin. As it’s hard to support an accused free-lover in a well-ordered Christian community, assent to Hutchinson’s banishment and excommunication is soon accomplished.

Other contemporary accounts of the controversy anticipate elements of the witch craze, as when Mary Dyer, one of Hutchinson’s faction and later a martyr to Massachusetts anti-Quaker laws, is described as having given birth to a monstrous baby–and Hutchinson to have given birth to more than thirty such monsters in a single birthing.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2637 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.