Two Weeks of Worthy Women: Anne Hutchinson

Liam suggested we look at Anne Hutchinson. I was unsuccessful in talking him into writing her up for us. So I’ll take a stab at it. As a figure of prominence in American history there is literally a ton of material on her. You could write a book. Doubtless, several people have.

So let’s set the stage for her …

Anne Marbury was born toward the end of the Elizabethan Age in England. Daughter of an Anglican deacon, she had more than a casual interest in theology. In her adult years, she found herself increasingly drawn to Puritanism. At age 43, she, her husband Will Hutchinson, and their family sailed to Boston.

Mrs Hutchinson did not find the Massachusetts Bay Colony as much of a utopia as its governor John Winthrop, and his followers were hoping to establish. She began a women’s discussion group in her home. The discussions resonated with women as well as men. So Anne was viewed as a threat not only to the Puritan faith, but also the good order of the colony. And while small women’s groups were permitted by the authorities, the size of Anne’s following was a concern.

As I understand it, Mrs Hutchinson’s theological view was that a person’s good works were not necessarily connected to the state of the person’s soul. Opponents accused her of “antinomianism,” or the charge that religious laws need not be followed if a believer had faith, and therefore was counted among the elect.

It might have been that the less-religious of Boston might have found Anne’s theology more appealing in that they could continue to conduct themselves as effective businessmen and need not focus overly much on the most stringent practices of the faith.

Mrs Hutchinson was brought to civil trial in the Fall of 1637. Matters were not going well for the prosecution when the accused made this statement:

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.

That was enough to turn what had been a frustrating legal proceeding into a win for the establishment.

Placed under arrest for the winter, Mrs Hutchinson was isolated from family and friends. A church trial commenced the following March, and if the Puritans needed any evidence, Mrs Hutchinson miscarried a severely malformed fetus. Her opponents were jubilant. They ordered her into exile. Her supporters had already read the tea leaves on this one, and they settled in present-day Rhode Island.

In response to a church delegation from Boston making one final attempt to “convert” her, she responded:

(T)he Church at Boston? I know no such church, neither will I own it. Call it the whore and strumpet of Boston, but no Church of Christ!

Mrs Hutchinson and her family did not stay long in the attempted community in Rhode Island. She eventually settled in New Netherland, in present-day Bronx. Natives had been on good terms with Hutchinson and her followers for years, but the Dutch were perceived as cruel and barbaric by the Natives there. Sometime in 1647, Hutchinson was slaughtered by marauders.

When word of her death reached Massachusetts, her opponents gloated. Colonial Governor John Winthrop:

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.

Aside from veneration of religious freedom advocates in the 19th century, and feminists in the 20th, what can we say of this final worthy woman in this series? Her tenacity and outspokenness in a male-dominated society vexed civil and religious authorities. If one is to entertain any thought of this “Jezebel” getting her just rewards, one would also have to comment on the utter failure of the Puritans to achieve their shining “city on a hill.” Their victims are seen as martyrs. Thanks to the witch trials, the Puritans themselves are considered caricatures and dupes.

The story of Anne Hutchinson may inform our present-day Catholic infighting along some of these lines and more. I’m more a believer in natural consequences than divine retribution.

Women religious, for example, are more highly regarded today than bishops not because they are persecuted women, or because they serve the poor more effectively. My sense is that they cultivate true relationships, and that their overall faith witness is more inspiring.

In their own circles, bishops are admired too. But they also suffer setbacks for public blunders that might easily be avoided. And that certainly extends to secular leaders, even those with wide followings.

One problem I see is the eagerness to pin the label “unworthy” on so many people. Those doing the pinning harm not only their objects, some of whom are quite innocent. They also harm themselves. And their goal, that of unity and harmony, is more often frustrated by the disruption they sow.

My own sense of the worthy women of whom I’ve read is that they can inspire a deeper single-mindedness where my faith is concerned. And to a person, they were more concerned about lifting up the lowly than they were devoted to taking down their rivals. And that seems to be a good lesson no matter what circle we inhabit. Happy Fourth to all.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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