The Freedom of Heresy: Anne Hutchinson, Unbowed – Forgotten Freedom Fighters

Is there anything “out there” that is more authentic than the conscious voice of innermost being? Ponder the question as you will, but Anne Hutchinson was certain of her answer. It was not the laws of man, the church, the state, the black and white legality of any book, or the dictates of society to whom she offered obeisance. All these things were peripheral to the dictates of her own center, the voice of spirit.

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Embodying a wholeness that could not be bought in the marketplace of important titles and parades of “holiness”, this courageous woman discovered grace, divinity and authenticity in the most local of all places, inside herself. In 1637, she explained her perspective as follows: “As I do understand it, laws, commands, rules and edicts are for those who have not the light which makes plain the pathway.”

“The power of the Holy Spirit dwelleth perfectly in every believer, and the inward revelations of her own spirit and the conscious judgment of her own mind are of authority paramount to any word of God.” Charged as a heretic and denounced by a group of angry preachers and government officials for daring to disagree with them, Anne Hutchinson was not guilty of any real crime. She had not harmed anyone unless you consider voicing a dissenting viewpoint an injury. Even so, she was surveilled, put on trial, treated despicably, censured and banished.

While preachers and politicians pontificated behind podiums and perched themselves high above those to whom they spoke, Anne invited people into her home and moved among them. She spoke and people listened. She ministered to her neighbors, providing insight on spiritual and natural medical matters and her meetings were increasingly well attended. Thus, she was seen as a threat, and labelled by the all-male figureheads as “a woman unfit for our society”.

How dare someone question the status quo, and deign to disagree with them? Especially a woman. A heretical woman. And she certainly was, for the word itself is rooted in the Greek hairetikos, which means “able to choose”.

At her trial, Governor John Winthrop charged: “The groundwork of her revelations is the immediate revelation of the spirit and not by the ministry of the word and that is the means by which she hath very much abused the country.” This supposed abuse consisted of having spiritual perspectives that differed with those of local clergymen and teaching others in her home. When she stated that her own conscience was her authority, in an attempt to silence her, Winthrop warned: “Your conscience you must keep, or it must be kept for you.”

Evidently, it was acceptable that men in a far-off time purportedly had a direct revelation, which was later enshrined upon pages that were not to be questioned; but it was unacceptable for an individual to have their own direct spiritual experience and to talk about it freely. It appears Anne Hutchinson was only guilty of “thought crime”, free speech, and interpreting spirituality according to the dictates of her own conscience.

In the telling of Anne’s story, it is important to understand the climate of religious tyranny that pervaded her life and times. Brought to birth in the heat of July, 1591, and imbued with summer’s flowing fire for all her days, Anne Hutchinson learned much from both her father and her mother. Religious persecution was a stark reality of the time, and the separation between church and state was negligible. An individual could be tried, imprisoned or banished for merely disagreeing with religious dogmas and punished by the state for these “crimes”.

Even before Anne’s birth, her father Francis Marbury, who was a minister, incurred all of these consequences for stepping outside of the prevailing religious legality of his day. Anne’s mother, Bridget Dryden Marbury was a midwife who cared for and assisted women in the process of giving birth. This profession was one steeped in femininity, as its practitioners and immediate clients were female. A symbol of unbroken feminine mystique, midwifery carried with it a lineage of plant lore and remedies handed down by wise women, one to another. As such, although common in that day, midwifery was a profession sometimes viewed as suspect by the establishment who were outsiders to the methods and fellowship of its culture. It was within the marriage of the two vocations that Anne chose her own calling as a midwife, healer and minister.

At the age of 21, Anne married William Hutchinson, a fabric merchant and the couple became pregnant with the first of their many children. The Hutchinsons were intrigued by the religious teachings of John Cotton, a Puritan. When Cotton was persecuted and threatened for espousing divergent beliefs, and authorities threatened to imprison him, he and his family fled to America. The Hutchinsons followed, with the hope of continued fellowship and more religious freedom.

They eventually settled in Boston, and was here, in early colonial America that Anne herself began to draw both esteem from her peers and ire from the establishment. She began discussing spirituality with her friends and clients and adding commentary about the sermons that were being preached in the colony. Sought out more and more, she began holding meetings in her home.

The fact that Anne moved outside the accepted female roles and expanded her work to eventually include teaching both women and men enraged the other ministers who were already feeling undermined because of her willingness to point out inconsistencies in their sermons. In response they murmured that she was a witch, an imposter and an instrument of Satan, charging “You have stepped out of your place, you have rather been a husband than a wife, and a preacher than a hearer, and a magistrate than a subject.” Hutchinson stood by her own conscience. For this Christian mystic of the 1600’s, it was “Better to be cast out of the church than to deny Christ.” “But now having seen him which is invisible I fear not what man can do unto me.”

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It is not this article’s aim to delve deeply into the specificity of Anne Hutchinson’s beliefs. It is understood that some who may be reading are, perhaps, somewhat disinterested in the journeys of religious persons. Within that, I hope that the underlying purpose here is not overlooked. The freedom of all individuals to practice or not practice religion, and to do without being agressed upon for these choices, so long as they are not harming other individuals, is important. Whether Anne Hutchinson was “right” is not the focus of this article. The focal point is that she had rights, and she stood up for those rights, even if they were not recognized by the establishment.

Further, she did so unabashedly in a time and place where her femininity alone tended to invoke prejudice and place additional barriers in her way. Anne Hutchinson’s strength of character is worth celebrating. Her inspiring example as an early female contributor to the ideas of individuality, freedom of conscience and religious tolerance are here uplifted. She was a non-conformist in a time of conformity. She was a bold-spirited woman who did not abide by the rules prescribed by society when they did not suit her.

Despite the punishments and persecution heaped upon her by the politicians and clergy who were her contemporaries, she stands unbowed as a beacon of female leadership and fortitude among those of her time who appreciated her, and those of us, today, who read about her and admire her tenacity. While Anne’s persecutors had the upper hand in the churches and courts of yesteryear, history clearly vindicates her, and the true aggressors look like the tyrannical fools.

Brought to trial in 1637 for “transgressing the law of God and of the State” and “troubling the peace of the commonwealth and the churches”… Having “maintained a meeting and an assembly in your house that hath been condemned by the general assembly as a thing not tolerable nor comely in the sight of God nor fitting for your sex….”, to these silly accusations of wrongdoing, Anne Hutchinson replied: “I hear not things laid to my charge.”

It is somewhat entertaining to read her witty, knowledgeable and occasionally funny replies to the pedantic charges levied against her. For example, when being examined about her willingness to teach women and men and whosoever came to her, she inquired of her accusers “If you think it unlawful for me to teach women, why do you call me to teach the court?”

The satisfaction tends to evaporate a bit, though, when considering her ill-treatment. At the time of her trial, she was pregnant and had to walk miles to the place where the court was held. It was wintertime, and very cold both indoors and out. Anne was given no food and drink and questioned for hours on end while being made to stand in the midst of her seated accusers. During the long and laborious questioning, at one point, she fainted and had to be revived. While the trial commentary seems to illustrate she bested her adversaries in the substance of her discourse, the men of the court decided otherwise.

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Even so, her triumph stands, proudly. Anne Hutchinson’s achievements were many. Aside from the individuals she befriended and inspired, she a leader in the realm of freedom and self-determination for men and women alike. The courage to honor that which she believed to be true, possessing the carriage and grace to not back down, not to submit, and to do so while holding her head high letting no fabricated authority bow her tells us she was free.

Hopefully, we can recognize the fabricated and illegitimate power structures in our own midst, whatever they may be, and refuse to bow. Where we have given our power away, let us take it back, for those who move against our rights will always be on the wrong side of history, no matter what authority they attempt to claim. Where governmental or religious systems use intimidation and violence to reach their goals, they lack legitimacy and any authentic basis in morality. Those who would trample upon the rights of peaceful individuals to live their lives, practice or not practice religion as they will, to congregate, and to speak freely must not be rewarded with obedience. We are able to choose.

Sources:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anne_Hutchinson
Miller, Brandon Marie “Women of Colonial America: 13 Stories of Courage and Survival in the New World”
LaPlante, Eve “American Jezebel:The Uncommon Life of Anne Hutchinson, the Woman Who Defied the Puritans”
Charles Francis Adams, “Antinomianism in the Colony of Massachusetts Bay”
Michals, Debra. “Anne Hutchinson.” National Women’s History Museum. 2015.www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/anne-hutchinson.

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