Early American Faith: Puritans vs. Antinomianism (Anne Hutchinson, “American Jezebel”)

When the Puritans settled New England they sought not only religious liberty but a strict and rigid society which they would nurture and govern.  So strict were their religious beliefs that anyone who might have one doctrinal difference would be considered a heretic.  Such was the case with what came to be known as the Antinomian or Free Grace Controversy.

AnneHutchinsonThe term “antinomian” means literally “one who is against the law” and one particular individual, Anne (Marbury) Hutchinson was at the center of the controversy.  Anne was born in England in 1591, the daughter of an Anglican minister who held strict beliefs similar to the Puritans.  Before Anne was born, Francis Marbury had challenged Anglican church authority which led to censure and imprisonment.  After his first wife died, he married Bridget Dryden, residing in Alford.  In 1605 the family moved to London, but Francis Marbury died in 1611 at the age of 55.

Anne married William Hutchinson not long after her father’s death and returned to Alford to live.  A new minister had just been installed in Boston, about twenty-one miles from Alford.  His name was John Cotton, a Puritan whose message differed from general Puritan doctrine – his emphasis was not on good works to obtain salvation, but that of “absolute grace”.  As often as they could, the Hutchinsons traveled to Boston to hear Cotton preach.  Another minister who greatly influenced the Hutchinsons was John Wheelright, William’s brother-in-law, who preached a similar message.

JohnCotton JohnWheelwright

John Cotton’s message was held in disdain with the Church of England, since essentially Puritans wanted to eliminate the ceremony of the Church and be allowed to govern themselves as each church’s parishioners dictated.  When Cotton was removed from ministry he fled to New England in 1633.  Anne was so distressed by the departure of her minister and unable to rest that she followed Cotton to New England.  In fact, the Hutchinsons allowed their oldest son, Edward, to accompany John Cotton prior to their own departure in 1634.

Anne felt strongly that the Spirit had told her to go with Cotton, “impressed by the evidence of divine providence.”  Rather than depart with John Cotton, Anne waited for the birth of her fourteenth child to depart England.  Will Hutchinson became a highly successfully merchant in Boston and the family attended the Boston church where Cotton had been installed as an associate pastor (along with John Wilson, the senior pastor).  The church grew under Cotton’s leadership and his unconventional message drew many to conversion.

As a midwife, Anne would broach the subject of her faith while attending to her patients.  She began to hold weekly meetings in her home to discuss Cotton’s sermons, and add her own commentary.  Soon the meetings grew to include men, hosting sixty or more people a week.  Anne’s own interpretations, although divergent from common church views, were nonetheless attracting a larger audience – Governor Henry Vane attended.   Anne’s emphasis was on an inner experience (“intuition of the Spirit”) rather than outward works which typically Puritans used to judge whether an individual was truly a Christian or not.  Thus, the emphasis was on grace rather than works.

As her influence increased, it drew the attention and disdain of the colony’s ministers – she was confusing the faithful, their parishioners.  Anne’s response came from the book of Titus:  “the elder women should instruct the younger.”  As the debates continued and tensions arose, the situation would become known as the Antinomian or Free Grace Controversy.  In 1635, John Wilson returned from a trip to England where he was attending some personal business.  This would be the first time Anne Hutchinson had heard him speak and she was not pleased since Wilson followed the stricter Puritan message of salvation by works.  She was so bold as to declare that Wilson lacked “the seal of the Spirit.”

JohnWilsonJohn Wilson’s message was no different from any other minister in the colony, except his co-minister John Cotton.  Anne Hutchinson and her followers found Wilson’s message so disagreeable that they would disrupt his sermons or get up and leave when he rose to speak.  In May of 1636, John Wheelwright and his family immigrated to Boston and immediately aligned himself with Cotton and his followers.  Wheelwright began preaching at another congregation and eventually drew the attention of John Wilson, who was then forced to act.

Seven ministers met with John Cotton and Anne Hutchinson privately on October 25, 1636, and while a consensus of agreement and clarification was reached, the controversy continued to escalate.  Charges of antinomianism arose, a serious charge since in a theological context the term could infer that moral law was not binding on Christians who were under grace.  A day of fasting was called on January 19, 1637 by the General Court.  A sermon preached by John Wheelwright on that day offended many ministers, but encouraged Anne and her followers.  It became apparent that something more radical must be done to address the controversy.

Governor Vane departed for England (never to return) in the summer of 1637 after being replaced by John Winthrop, and the time was right to proceed.  On November 2, John Wheelwright’s trial was held, resulting in his banishment from the colony.  Anne’s trial began on November 7 and she was accused of being one who “troubled the peace of the commonwealth and churches” and charged with “traducing the ministers” (slander).  Governor Winthrop presided over her trial but found it hard to make the case for the first charge, so the court moved on to the charge of slander.

Their strategy was to use Anne’s words spoken in the private October meeting against her – each of the ministers who had met with her and Cotton in October wrote their own versions which Anne agreed were essentially accurate.  The only objection she had was that the context of the meetings was not clear when presented at trial – her feeling was that when she made the statements they were to be kept private, and now they were being brought out in public to criticize and convict her.  However, the court was not interested in her arguments and concern for confidentiality.  She went so far as to ask that the ministers testify under oath as to the context and content of the October meeting.

AnneHutchinsonTrialJohn Cotton was called to testify as a witness for the court, although his testimony did not seem to incriminate Anne.  At one point, Anne decided to share her own thoughts:

You have no power over my body, neither can you do me any harm—for I am in the hands of the eternal Jehovah, my Saviour, I am at his appointment, the bounds of my habitation are cast in heaven, no further do I esteem of any mortal man than creatures in his hand, I fear none but the great Jehovah, which hath foretold me of these things, and I do verily believe that he will deliver me out of our hands. Therefore take heed how you proceed against me—for I know that, for this you go about to do to me, God will ruin you and your posterity and this whole state.

Before this point, Anne might have actually been winning or at the very least casting doubt on a somewhat shaky case.  Her bold statement was an affront to the court who took her statement to imply the colony’s ministers were not faithful preachers of the gospel – what she said was both seditious and contemptuous to them.  At the conclusion of the civil trial, Anne’s punishment was banishment.  She was held under house arrest and was to be gone by March of 1638.  She was not allowed to see her children and John Winthrop called her “the prisoner”.  Several ministers visited her during that winter in an attempt to reform her theology (and collect evidence against her as it would turn out).  One minister, Thomas Shepard, believed that she was a dangerous woman.

Following the house arrest, Anne (who was by then in poor health after a harsh winter) was called to a trial in her Boston church.  By this time most of her supporters were gone, including her husband and her children who had already left Boston.  Her accusers were determined to protect their strict doctrines and to pick apart her theology.  They grilled her for nine hours and even though John Cotton attempted to rise to her defense, the ministers still felt that even though she was a good person who did good works, her unsound theological beliefs could not be tolerated.

The next lecture day was scheduled for the following week and John Cotton was given permission to allow Anne to stay in his home in the interim.  He and another minister, John Davenport, worked with Anne that week to write a recantation for her to present to the court.  On March 22, she stood before the congregation and, subdued, recanted everything – even agreeing that she had been wrong about the doctrine of works.  With that, one would think that Anne might have her civil punishment reversed and be allowed to remain in Boston.

John Wilson went on to bring up other accusations which she was not willing to admit to.  She was accused of lying and almost curiously, John Winthrop came to her defense (along with a few of the ministers) who wanted to ensure the redemption of one who had previously done great evangelical works.  Thomas Shepard sharply disagreed, calling Ann a “notorious imposter” and liar.  With that outburst, the outcome of the trial was delivered by John Wilson:

Forasmuch as you, Mrs. Hutchinson, have highly transgressed and offended … and troubled the Church with your Errors and have drawen away many a poor soule, and have upheld your Revelations; and forasmuch as you have made a Lye … Therefor in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ … I doe cast you out and … deliver you up to Sathan … and account you from this time forth to be a Hethen and a Publican … I command you in the name of Christ Jesus and of this Church as a Leper to withdraw your selfe out of the Congregation.

Thus, Anne Hutchinson was not only banished from the colony but also excommunicated from the church.  Concurrently, many of her supporters were banished as well.

BanishmentWhile she was imprisoned and on trial, her husband William had arranged for his family to migrate to Roger William’s colony in Providence (later became Rhode Island).  By mid-April Anne was reunited with her family, having traveled on foot from Boston to Providence in the cold and snow.  In the summer of 1641, William Hutchinson died at age 55.

In 1642 Anne, along with seven of her children, son-in-law and servants, migrated to New York.  The timing of her decision could not have been more fateful.  The area where they settled was experiencing unrest with the Siwanoy natives.  Although the exact date of the horrible and tragic end of Anne’s life is not known (possibly in August of 1643), she was massacred along with most of her family by Siwanoy warriors.  According to Eve LaPlante, author of American Jezebel, the Uncommon Life of Anne Hutchinson, the Woman who Defied the Puritans:

[T]he Siwanoy seized and scalped Francis Hutchinson, William Collins, several servants, the two Annes (mother and daughter), and the younger children—William, Katherine, Mary, and Zuriel. As the story was later recounted in Boston, one of the Hutchinson’s daughters, “seeking to escape,” was caught “as she was getting over a hedge, and they drew her back again by the hair of the head to the stump of a tree, and there cut off her head with a hatchet.

HutchinsonMassacreGiven the harshness of her trials and sentencing, the reaction of some  Massachusetts citizens, although harsh, was hardly unsurprising:

The Lord heard our groans to heaven, and freed us from our great and sore affliction … I never heard that the Indians in those parts did ever before this commit the like outrage upon any one family or families; and therefore God’s hand is the more apparently seen herein, to pick out this woeful woman. (Reverend Thomas Weld)

Let her damned heresies, and the just vengeance of God, by which she perished, terrify all her seduced followers from having any more to do with her leaven.  (Reverend Peter Bulkley)

Thus it had pleased the Lord to have compassion of his poor churches here, and to discover this great imposter, an instrument of Satan so fitted and trained to his service for interrupting the passage [of his] kingdom in this part of the world, and poisoning the churches here …This American Jezebel kept her strength and reputation, even among the people of God, till the hand of civil justice laid hold on her, and then she began evidently to decline, and the faithful to be freed from her forgeries.  (John Winthrop)

Another group accused of antinomianism was the Quakers, the subject of next week’s article.

Discussion Topic:

Was Anne Hutchinson treated harshly and unfairly?

Everyone have a great day — someday it will be history!

© Sharon Hall (History Depot), 2014.

1 Comment


  1. George, The Cross-Eyed Preacher and The First Great Awakening (Part One) | Diggin' History - […] historians believe that so-called heretic Anne Hutchinson may have begun paving the way for an evangelist who later was…
  2. 2014 Sunday Favorites: Early American Faith and Hymnspiration | Diggin' History - […] Early American Faith: Puritans vs. Antinomianism (Anne Hutchinson, “American Jezebel”) (182) – To the Puritans, Anne Hutchinson was a…

Leave a Comment