Sunday, August 28, 2011

Anne Hutchinson

The Awesome Woman of the Day is Anne Hutchinson (1591-1643), a Puritan living in New England who defied the male church and secular authorities by evolving a belief system according to her own conscience and by leading a Bible discussion group for women. Hutchinson stood by her beliefs, and represented herself bravely at two trials by men who considered her a Jezebel and heretic. In addition to holding and spreading theological beliefs contrary to what men were preaching, Hutchinson and her husband were also deeply opposed to the slavery and brutality being practiced against the Native Americans, for whom they expressed love and appreciation.

Anne also challenged notions that women were intellectually or spiritually inferior, that they ought not think for themselves, and that they were in a childlike relationship to their husbands, governors and religious leaders. Banished from the Massachusetts colony where she had sought religious freedom, and then banished again from the Rhode Island colony where she and like-minded friends had fled, she and all but one of her children were massacred by the very Natives she loved -- who did not know who she was and were in violent rebellion against the cruelty and greed of the white people who lived in the area.

In southern New York, the Hutchinson River is her namesake. It was while driving up the Hutchinson River Parkway with my young daughter years back that I noticed a bronze plaque on a stone bridge that mentioned the origin of the river's name. We looked up Anne Hutchinson when we got home and my daughter wrote a paper about her for an elementary school project. Anne Hutchinson not only served as an early role model for my daughter, her story has ever since inspired me immensely and her belief in the primacy of one's conscience in the search for truth and for a connection to a God sparked my first interest in learning more about Christian philosophy.

"As I understand it, laws, commands, rules and edicts are for those who have not the light which makes plain the pathway." --Anne Hutchinson

Anne Marbury was born in England and lived there until she was 43 years old, almost all her life. In her early years she was influenced by her father, a clergyman who did time in jail for protesting what he considered to be a nepotistic system of selecting church clergy, most of whom he considered to be unqualified. Anne was home-schooled and read from her father's libary. She clearly admired her father's assertiveness and ideals, learning to question church authority, to defend the right to live according to one's conscience and to speak out against corruption. She married William Hutchinson at the age of 21 and took on the role of wife and mother, but remained deeply interested in questions of theology. She and her family began attending the services of the Reformationist Reverend Joseph Cotton, a minister in the new Puritan movement that decried the corruption of the Catholic church.

In the year 1634, the Hutchinsons, and the 15 children Anne had borne, followed Joseph Cotton to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the new Puritan stronghold in the New World. While the notion is commonly held that New England colonies were established according to the principle of religious freedom, the only "freedom" was for colony founders to establish and enforce their own preferred flavor of Christianity. Alternate beliefs were not tolerated. The stifling rules and religious interpretations laid down by colonial governors and their clerical cohorts were imposed on the entire colony. Further, the only acceptable role for women was to serve as child-bearers and submissive subjects of their husbands. Given the stultifying atmosphere vis-à-vis Anne's independent mind, she was destined to be in the role of agitator, dissenter, and branded woman throughout the tumultuous nine years that she lived in America.

When Hutchinson arrived in Massachusetts, there were religious discussion groups for men at which women were not welcome. So she started a discussion group of her own, for women. Rather than repeating the theology as preached and written down by men, she relied on her own deep study of the Bible and the resulting revelations to her own heart and mind, and brought those revelations into the discussion.

Some of her religious tenets were revolutionary for the times, going beyond the reforms the Puritans had built into their new religion. Whereas the leaders of the Massachusetts colony preached a "covenant of works," which laid out very specific actions and behaviors a person must adhere to in order to find salvation, Hutchinson believed in a "covenant of grace," in which humans are saved merely through their faith.  These were beliefs she had learned from Rev. Cotton. But she was even more radical, and believed that faith was not about accepting Christ but rather was about recognizing that Christ had been in one's heart all along. And she stepped even further outside of accepted teachings, in that she believed in a personal closeness to God that did not require interpretation by, and was not a legitimate subject of judgement by, self-appointed church authorities. In her way of seeing it, God revealed himself to individuals without the aid of clergy.

Hutchinson's discussion groups were very popular. Soon men began to attend, too, and as many as 80 people were showing up to study with her. Her fearless independence of mind was a major challenge to the status-quo of the colony's leaders, as was her breaking of the strict Puritan mores that prohibited men and women meeting together, and the fact that so many women were stepping away from their families briefly in order to attend her meetings. This led to her being brought up on charges of heresy and she stood trial twice, while in an advanced pregnancy once again, 50 years before the Puritan misogyny reached its peak with the Salem witch trials.

Hutchinson represented herself at both her civil and church trials, never wavering, never showing fear, and responding to charges with rejoinders that showed shrewd understanding of the law, astute insight into the hypocrisy of the patriarchal control of women's lives, and incredible allegiance to her own truth. The key charge against her in the civil trial was that she had violated the Fifth Commandment, in an argument that cast the "fathers of the colony" as parents. Thus, in a classic use of church doctrine as a means for the powerful to maintain the status quo, she was branded as a heretical dissenter and banished from the colony -- but not before she also had to stand a religious trial in which she was accused of "lewd and lascivious conduct" for holding meetings whose attendees were both men and women. The result of this trial was excommunication.

Anne, William and their children fled to the colony of Rhode Island which at first was a haven for people who had stepped outside of Puritanical rule, yet quickly became yet another example of a powerful man instituting harsh theocratic policies. By this time Anne was led by her experience, logic and meditations on Scripture to a philosophy of individualist anarchism, in which individuals are free to evolve their own morality, ideology, and religious beliefs. (Note that William Gibson, born more than a hundred years later, is credited with being one of the early influences on the school of individualist anarchism, whereas Anne Hutchinson had arrived at a similar set of socio-religious-political beliefs on her own under the most contrary circumstances possible.)

William died in 1642 and Anne decided to move once again, this time to the Dutch-held colony of Eastchester Bay (now in the Bronx). Some of her friends and family moved with her, which attests to her strength as a thought-leader. In 1643 she, her servants, and all but one of the five children who had moved with her were massacred by Mahican Indians who were in rebellion against the local Dutch colonists.

In 1987, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis pardoned Anne Hutchinson, revoking the order of banishment by Governor Winthrop 350 years earlier.

Sources: (this site includes partial transcript of her trial, worth a look!)