"American Jezebel" by Eve LaPlante

A new biography heralds Anne Hutchinson, the proto-feminist pioneer who defied the theocracy of 17th century Massachusetts and paved the way for religious freedom in America.

Published March 26, 2004 9:00PM (EST)

America has never been one nation under God, not even at the very beginning, and no one proved that more definitively than Anne Hutchinson, the Puritan dissident. A founding mother in every sense of the word, she immigrated to America in 1634 and she is the direct ancestor of three presidents, one Democrat (Franklin Delano Roosevelt, her sixth great-grandson) and two Republicans (George W. Bush, her tenth great-grandson, and his father). At the dawn of the nation, Hutchinson set the tone for American religion; faith would be the source of furious controversy and hot accusations, a power that binds our people together and a force that tears us apart. Since then, everything -- and nothing -- has changed.

Hutchinson had only been in Boston -- where she settled with her wealthy textile trader husband, Will -- for a year or two before she became a troublemaker in the eyes of the local authorities. It was John Winthrop, the first governor of Massachusetts and her neighbor, who gave her the "American Jezebel" label that Eve LaPlante, another direct descendant of Hutchinson's, uses as a title for her new biography. Nowadays, a Jezebel is simply a hussy -- and eventually, inevitably, some aspersions would be cast on Anne Hutchinson's chastity -- but by comparing her to the biblical queen who worshipped Phoenician gods while her husband Ahab favored Jehovah, Winthrop meant to call Hutchinson a false prophet.

In 1647, Hutchinson was dragged before one of those nightmarishly stacked colonial courts (similar to the ones the Salem Witch Trial defendants would face 45 years later), and ordered to recant her "heresies." Her trial is the centerpiece of "American Jezebel," and the most famous event in Hutchinson's life; it's been likened to the trial of Joan of Arc. Hutchinson considered herself a latter-day Daniel in the lions' den, but Jesus before the Pharisees also comes to mind (though Hutchinson would never have dared compare herself to Christ). According to historian Edmund Morgan, Hutchinson proved herself to be "brilliant," and "the intellectual superior" of the magistrates "in everything except political judgment, in everything except the sense of what is possible in this world."

Astonishingly, she nearly won an acquittal, but in the end, as was probably always intended by the Massachusetts authorities, she was banished. She left to become one of the co-founders of Rhode Island and a symbol of the fight for freedom of conscience for generations to come. This is all the more impressive when you consider that, at 46, she was pregnant for the 16th time during her trial.

What was Hutchinson's heresy? The question is tricky and, some historians argue, largely irrelevant. What irked the leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony was the following Hutchinson had acquired for the scriptural discussion groups she conducted in her home. The daughter of an unorthodox preacher who ran afoul of the authorities in England in his outspoken youth, she had high standards in ministers and no compunction about criticizing those who fell short. The panel of magistrates Hutchinson appeared before included several of the ministers she had disparaged and their allies as well. She undermined their leadership and, in the eyes of Winthrop, threatened the very future of the settlement. "Whereas there was much love and union and sweet agreement amongst us before she came," said one of her judges, "yet since [then] all union and love hath been broken, and there hath been censurings and judgings and condemnings of one another." Anne Hutchinson had to go.

Whatever their significance, LaPlante makes a valiant and remarkably successful effort to explain the doctrinal differences between Hutchinson and her accusers. All these people were religious fanatics by most contemporary standards, hardcore Calvinist Congregationalists who believed in the predestined salvation of select souls and the inevitable damnation of the rest. The quarrel among them lay in the significance of "works," that is, pious observances such as attending church and other virtuous activities. To Hutchinson's mind, the magistrates put too much emphasis on good behavior, which of course included obedience to church authorities. Her sympathies lay closer to Antinomianism, which held that true Christians, as the beneficiaries of God's irrevocable grace -- the only power capable of saving an otherwise hopelessly corrupt and degraded humanity -- were not bound by worldly laws.

This didn't mean that Hutchinson condoned immoral behavior -- she was an extremely pious person by most standards -- she just didn't recognize the magistrates' authority to dictate how the godly should behave. Or the suggestion that those who disobeyed them might not be saved, a notion she considered too close to a "covenant of works." As LaPlante points out, Hutchinson "saw God in the spirit and in inspiration" and "focused on an individual's intimate relationship with Christ, the indwelling spirit." In this, she was a pioneer. Her "desire to look within for guidance is characteristic of the distinctively American faith in the power of the individual conscience," LaPlante writes. Hutchinson set an example not only for the early Quakers (who drew members from the ranks of her followers) but also the Transcendentalists and perhaps even the mix-and-match spirituality of today.

When Hutchinson's supporters established their settlement in Rhode Island after her banishment in 1638, they drafted an agreement called the Portsmouth Compact, which stated that "no person within the said colony, at any time hereafter, shall be in any wise molested, punished, disquieted or called into question on matters of religion -- so long as he keeps the peace." Along with a similar item in the 1634 charter of the colony of Maryland, this rule contributed directly to the portion of the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States guaranteeing freedom of religion. (Hutchinson has also been given indirect credit for the founding of Harvard College, created by the Massachusetts establishment to educate young clergymen on how to fend off the likes of Anne.)

But for those historians, such as David Hall, who see the persecution of Hutchinson as "not about matters of doctrine, but about power and freedom of conscience," her real transgression lay in her challenge to the ruling powers of the colony, and this was inextricably tied to her sex. A midwife (who delivered Winthrop's own child shortly before he presided over her trial), she counseled her patients at moments of great vulnerability and impressed many Bostonian women with her charismatic command of the scripture. This led to women's meetings at Hutchinson's home, more or less condoned by the authorities. But then the women began to bring their husbands, including some of the most influential men in the colony. As a woman, Hutchinson wasn't allowed to speak out in church, but her male followers had the right to question the ministers she disapproved of, often to embarrassing effect. One congregation nearly mutinied when a Winthrop crony was appointed to lead it.

If Hutchinson had been born a man, some historians argue, she might have found a place in her society as a minister. She might have carved out a life like that of John Cotton, the unorthodox founder of Congregationalism, Hutchinson's teacher and the man her family had followed to Boston when he was forced to leave England. On the other hand, she might have turned out like the renegade Rev. Roger Williams, another early settler of Rhode Island, who was driven out of Boston for voicing a variety of objectionable views, most notably the belief that the English had no right to claim Indian lands or subject Native Americans to forced conversions. Williams conducted a pamphlet feud with Cotton, set off when he published "The Bloody Tenet of Persecution," a tract in support of religious freedom. Cotton then put out "The Bloody Tenet Washed and Made White in the Blood of the Lamb." Williams responded with "The Bloody Tenet Made Yet More Bloody by Mr. Cotton's Endeavor to Wash It White in the Blood of the Lamb."

Nevertheless, a major component of the complaint against Hutchinson was voiced by one of the magistrates when he scolded, "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." She could have played none of the more powerful roles without also being a man. To have any public profile at all was considered shameful in a woman, and here even her admirers -- such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, who wrote about Hutchinson and found a model for the adulterous Hester Prynne in her defiance -- can't seem to avoid confusing her outspokenness with an entirely different kind of brazen behavior. Hutchinson's enemies tried to smear her with utterly unfounded accusations of "Familism," affiliation with a sect advocating free love, but even more sympathetic observers linked her notoriety with, as Hawthorne wrote, "a flash of carnal pride."

There's not the slightest reason to suspect Hutchinson of sexual transgression. Her marriage appears to have been long and happy, and her husband, when asked to persuade her back to the church, refused, describing her as "a dear saint and a servant of God." LaPlante, who is particularly good on the sexual mores of the Puritans, notes that, while adultery was a capital offense in the colony, the colonists weren't conventionally priggish. They believed that conception couldn't occur unless the female partner experienced pleasure. The fact that Anne Hutchinson got pregnant roughly once every 18 months for the 22 years of her marriage indicates a particularly gratifying relationship and an incredible physical stamina, but it hardly suggests a seductress. Yet the fact that she was willing to stand before the court and debate religious matters got somehow mixed up with whorishness in the mind of more than one male observer.

This, as LaPlante writes, traces the vein of an ongoing ambivalence about powerful public women in America. At the time, the ever-resourceful Hutchinson tried to use it in her defense. Since, as a woman, she could by definition have no public voice, everything that she had said in her home meetings and conversing with ministers was spoken in private, and therefore not necessarily a matter for a public court. If there was shame in hauling a woman and her thoughts into the commons, she was certainly not the guilty party. Cotton initially backed her up. But at the moment when Hutchinson seemed to have beaten the odds and escaped punishment, she reversed her luck by deciding to lecture the entire assembly on her own spiritual journey and beliefs.

It's precisely because this statement, unlike Hutchinson's private teachings, was spoken publicly that we still have it, and her testimony is virtually the only documentation of a woman's voice from that time. (She was the first woman ever tried in an American court.) "In the paper record of early America," LaPlante writes, "it is almost as though women did not exist." What Hutchinson lost in personal comfort as a result of being cast into exile, she gained in a legacy. LaPlante believes that Hutchinson, who read a transcript of the previous day's trial before she launched into her admonition of the magistrates the following day, knew this and was galvanized by seeing her ideas officially transcribed for posterity. If she had not made the seemingly self-defeating choice to expound on them further, she would be only dimly remembered today. Whatever martyrdom she suffered was less on behalf of her Antinomian beliefs than it was for freedom of religion itself. Ironically, that gives even an embattled atheist reason to refer to this Puritan wife as "a dear saint."

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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