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Anne Hutchison: Pioneer, Preacher, and Early Advocate for Women

Kristine has a B.A. in journalism from Penn State University and an M.A. in specializing in American history from the University of Michigan

Anne Marbury Hutchinson

Anne Marbury Hutchinson

Throughout history, women who dared to defy conventions and speak their minds were often punished and ostracized by society. By today’s standards, however, these brave females are seen as courageous and as advocates for women. One such woman is Anne Hutchinson.

A wife and mother who gained a religious following by speaking out about the roles of women, Anne is credited with helping to found the colony that eventually became Rhode Island. During her time, however, she was seen as a heretic and was nicknamed the “American Jezebel.”

Early Years

Anne Marbury was born in 1591 in Lincolnshire, England. Before her birth, her father, Francis Marbury, was a Puritan minister who was tried for heresy by the Church of England in 1578, according to the History.com article, “Anne Hutchinson.”

Marbury was put on trial for repeatedly criticizing the church and was subsequently imprisoned for two years. After his release, his criticisms continued and he was again prosecuted and sentenced to three years house arrest the same year Anne was born, according to History.com.

Following her father's death, Anne married her childhood friend and successful cloth merchant William Hutchinson in 1612. She became known as both a midwife and herbalist in her village of Alford, England. According to the WomensHistory.com article "Anne Hutchinson," she would give birth to more than a dozen children between 1614 and 1638.

Like most women of her time, Anne received no formal education. Encouraged by her father, Anne was an avid reader who developed strong opinions and deep convictions.

Religious Persecution

Anne and her husband soon became followers of a Puritan minister named John Cotton. Cotton espoused the belief that mercy is preordained by God, but damnation is earned by our earthly behavior. His beliefs along, with his encouragement of reforms in the Church of England, soon caught the attention of church leaders.

At the same time, Anne began preaching on her own to the women in the church. Cotton supported her efforts since this encouraged more women to follow his teachings.

When King Charles I took the throne in 1626, the Church of England began widespread prosecutions of those they considered “heretics”—namely Puritans. By 1633, large numbers of Puritans were either in hiding or had left England. Among those was Cotton, who fled to Boston that same year.

A large number of Puritans fleeing the country led British authorities to close the borders of England and threaten to imprison those who wished to leave. They also made threats against those citizens already living in Massachusetts, believing that the colony was opposed to the rule of King Charles, according to History.com.

The New World

In 1634, Anne and her husband and 10 children eluded British authorities and escaped to the New World, joining Cotton in Boston. Anne worked with a group of women who served as healers and midwives, while her husband became a magistrate.

While working as a healer, Anne began to develop her own religious philosophy, believing that anyone—male or female—who was touched by the divine spirit should be able to spread the word of God. She espoused that anyone could attain entrance into heaven by developing a personal relationship with God.

Sin, she reasoned, would not prevent someone from entering heaven as long as they had a true relationship with God. This belief was in direct conflict with Puritan doctrines, which, according to the Brittanic.com article “Anne Hutchinson," taught that strict observance of institutionalized beliefs and adherence to instructions of church ministers was the key to eternal salvation.

A Woman Preacher

Although she began spreading these teachings only among women, soon men were also showing up to hear Anne preach. She was holding two meetings a week by 1636 with up to 80 people in attendance, including Massachusetts Governor Henry Vane.

After a year, Anne drew some unwanted attention from leaders of the Puritan church in Boston, who believe that preaching should be left solely to men. They also feared her beliefs would encourage dissension in the colony and spark a rebellion against church and colony rules.

As opposition against Anne grew among colony leaders, female spies were sent to report on her sermons. Leaders opposing Anne included Massachusetts Governor John Winthrop—who was recently re-elected to head the colony—and even Cotton himself, who believed that Anne was now becoming a church separatist.

The Trial

Although she was ordered to stop holding meetings in her home, Anne ignored the church leadership and continued preaching. In 1637, while pregnant with her sixteenth child, Anne was called before the Massachusetts General Court, presided over by Winthrop.

Several members of the colony testified against Anne, including Cotton himself. Charged with sedition and heresy, she was personally interrogated by Winthrop. He leveled charges of defamation against her for questioning the Biblical teachings of church ministers, according to the Biography.com article “Anne Hutchison."

Anne, however, refused to back down. She defiantly answered Winthrop’s questions by challenging him with questions of her own. Incensed, Winthrop condemned her as insolent and stated that a woman preaching to men was an act “not fitting for your sex."

A depiction of Anne Hutchinson at trial in Massachusetts Bay by artist Edwin Abbey Austin, circa. 1876-1881

A depiction of Anne Hutchinson at trial in Massachusetts Bay by artist Edwin Abbey Austin, circa. 1876-1881

The Verdict

Although Anne successfully defended herself for two days and exhibited much prowess on her knowledge of the Bible, her fate was sealed when she claimed her beliefs and sermons were a result of “speaking directly with God” and her persecution would result in ruin and retribution to both the colony and the court.

Seeing this as a direct challenge to the authority of the colony's men, Anne was declared a heretic. According to Biography.com, she and her family, along with any who still supported her, were removed from positions of authority, forced to surrender any arms they owned, and banished from the colony. Anne was excommunicated from the Church of Boston.

A New Colony

She was placed under house arrest and remained there for the duration of the winter in 1638. In March of that year, the Hutchinsons and 30 other families left Boston for the island of Aquidneck. They were among the first settlers in this area and founded the town of Portsmouth in the territory that would later become Rhode Island.

The colonists were determined to establish a settlement free from religious oversight. Installing Will Hutchison as their first governor, they proceeded to draft a constitution—called the Portsmouth Compact—establishing that “a most flourishing civil state may stand and best be maintained… with a full liberty in religious concernments,” according to the Gazette 2.0 article “On This Day."

Later upheld by a Royal Charter drafted in 1663, it is the first known civic document to contain provisions for religious freedom in the colonies.

A Tragic Birth

Although Anne and her family had left Boston, her accusers refused to leave her alone. In June of 1638, Anne gave birth to a deformed and stillborn baby. Upon hearing the news, Cotton declared that this was a punishment for her heresy.

As rumors spread that she had given birth to a “demon,” an incident came to light where Anne, as a midwife, had presided over the birth of another stillborn child the year before. Winthrop and Cotton both began to spread rumors that she had never presided over the birth of a child that was not deformed or “a monster.” Winthrop went so far as to claim that these babies had been “devil-like, clawed creatures,” according to History.com.

Following the death of William Hutchinson in 1642, a group of ministers from Massachusetts visited Anne to persuade her to renounce her views. They also falsely informed her that the Massachusetts government would soon take over the Rhode Island territory in which she lived, subjecting her to further scrutiny and potential persecution.

A Fresh Start

Hoping to be free from the influence of Massachusetts officials, Anne and much of her family, including her young children still living at home, relocated to New Amsterdam, the Dutch colony that later became New York City. The family resided on what is now Long Island Sound.

According to the book American Jezebel: The Uncommon Life of Anne Hutchinson, the Woman Who Defied the Puritans by Eve LaPlante, a warning was given to the settlers in the summer of 1643 that an attack by the Siwanoy tribe was imminent. Aggressive policies by the settlers had led to tension with the native tribe.

The settlers left the area, except for Anne and her family. According to LaPlante (who is a descendant of the Hutchinsons), she believed her passive views could dissuade the warriors and keep those in her household from harm. Anne and her family had also treated the natives in the area with tolerance and respect, unlike many of their neighbors.

A Family Destroyed

But Anne underestimated the Siwanoy warriors, who resented the intrusion upon their native lands. When they reached the Hutchison farm, Anne, six of her children, and several of her servants were axed to death. Their bodies were burned when the warriors set the farm on fire, according to LaPlante.

Only one of Anne’s children was spared. Nine-year-old Susan was picking berries when she heard the screams of her family and hid behind a large boulder. She was discovered by the Siwanoy and taken to their encampment, where she was adopted by the chief, Wampage.

Wampage renamed himself “Anne-Hoeck” in homage to the murder of Anne Hutchinson. Susan would remain with the Siwanoy until age 18. After she was found and retrieved by one of her older brothers, she returned to Boston and married a local man.

A Pioneer Memorialized

In honor of Anne and Wampage, a nearby parcel of land was named Anne-Hoeck’s Neck. A river adjacent to the land was named the Hutchinson River, and the parkway running next to it is known as the Hutchinson River Parkway.

Winthrop, who had never relented in his criticism and persecution of Anne, was elated at her murder and believed she received a much-deserved ending. According to Biography.com, he labeled Anne “American Jezebel” in an essay he wrote celebrating her death and expressed satisfaction at the manner of her passing.

Although her views ultimately led to the circumstances of her demise, Anne Hutchinson is honored as one of America’s early defenders of women in a staunchly patriarchal society. A spiritual leader who stood up to both male authority and conventional gender roles, she is memorialized for both her indomitable spirit and her tragic death.

Sources

Biography.com (2019, August 21). “Anne Hutchinson.” https://www.biography.com/religious-figure/anne-hutchinson

Brittanic.com (2021, January 5). “Anne Hutchinson.” https://www.britannica.com/biography/Anne-Hutchinson

History.com (2019, August 15). “Anne Hutchinson.” https://www.history.com/topics/colonial-america/anne-hutchinson

LaPlante, Eve (2004). American Jezebel: The Uncommon Life of Anne Hutchinson, the Woman Who Defied the Puritans. Harper One Publishers, San Francisco, CA.

National Women’s History Museum (2015). “Anne Hutchinson.” https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/anne-hutchinson

Wiggan, Jamie (2020, August 19). “On this day… August 20, 1643 'Founding Mother' Anne Hutchinson killed by Siwanoy Indians.” Gazette 2.0. https://www.gazette20.com/post/on-this-day-august-20-1643-founding-mother-anne-hutchinson-killed-by-siwanoy-indians

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