The Passion of Anne Hutchinson

From The Wall Street Journal:

How did a dispute within a small breakaway group of Protestants over a seemingly obscure point of theology become an iconic episode in American history? The issue was whether one could earn eternal salvation through godly behavior, or whether the gift of saving grace is bestowed without regard to a person’s conduct. To the side led by Anne Hutchinson, the difference was between a popish “covenant of works” and a true “covenant of grace.” To the other, headed by John Winthrop, “free grace” portended “antinomianism,” a world of free love and social disorder in which the laws of church and state did not apply to true believers.

The protagonists, as Marilyn J. Westerkamp shows in “The Passion of Anne Hutchinson,” (Oxford, 312 pages, $29.95) were worthy adversaries. Winthrop, the leader of the Great Puritan Migration to Massachusetts Bay, was the colony’s frequent governor and the man whose vision of a “city upon a hill” became the stuff of presidential speeches. Hutchinson (1591–1643), the daughter of a dissenting minister, was a charismatic matron with a reputation for piety. Caught in the middle was the Rev. John Cotton, a Cambridge-educated divine with a foot in each camp. Resonating through the centuries, the controversy plays out in the parties’ own voices in diaries and trial transcripts.

Hutchinson herself speaks to the modern interest in women’s history. Called by the scholar Michael Winship “the most famous—or infamous—English woman in colonial American history,” she has been cast as a martyr for religious freedom, a victim of the patriarchy, or a sacrifice to social order at a time when Massachusetts was threatened by belligerent Native Americans and a hostile Crown. She was a prophet, a Jezebel or both.

Hutchinson arrived in Boston, age 43, in September 1634, on board the same ship that a year earlier had brought her adored pastor, John Cotton, to the New World. Accompanying her was her husband, William, a successful cloth merchant, 10 of their 11 surviving children, and a handful of relatives and servants. The Hutchinsons joined their eldest son, who had already crossed the Atlantic with Cotton. Among the wealthiest émigrés, they received a house lot across the street from Winthrop, grazing rights on Taylor’s Island in the middle of Boston Harbor, and 600 acres of farmland near what later became Quincy. William soon became a town selectman and a member of the General Court. Anne became a sought-after midwife and herbalist, known for edifying religious counsel in the birthing room.

. . . .

By 1636, Anne was holding weekly prayer meetings for women in her home. At first, the gatherings followed the English custom of female “conventicles,” but as Anne’s fame spread her constituency broadened to include men. Eventually Hutchinson presided over two “public lectures” each week, attended by 60 to 80 followers. Her message—an increasingly strident condemnation of all the local clergy except Cotton—only exacerbated her challenge to the standing order.

In October, the colony’s embattled ministers held a private session with Cotton, Hutchinson and her newly arrived brother-in-law, the Rev. John Wheelwright. Cotton was conciliatory; the other two less so. While conceding that “sanctification,” or good behavior, might be evidence of salvation, Hutchinson and Wheelwright added a new point of contention, asserting that “the person of the Holy Ghost” dwelled within the justified believer. The “indwelling spirit” had been a byword for anarchy since the Reformation. It was exactly what Winthrop and the other institutionalists feared, and they swung into action. Over the next year, Winthrop was swept back into office, Cotton walked the fine line between supporting Hutchinson and placating his fellow clergy, and Wheelwright was banished for seditious contempt of authority. Then, in November 1637, Hutchinson was tried before the civil magistrates for troubling the peace of the commonwealth and its churches.

The trial lasted two days and Hutchinson clearly had the better of it, parrying wits and biblical knowledge with the colony’s best. Then, at the end of the second day, Hutchinson upended the proceedings when she proclaimed that her understanding of grace had come “by an immediate revelation.” (Scholars have long debated why she handed victory to her opponents—was she claiming her prophetic mantle, reassuring her base or suffering from exhaustion? Cotton, to his credit, argued on her behalf that such private revelation was within the Puritan mainstream.) More devastating was the public prophesy that followed: “I fear none but the great Jehovah, which hath foretold me of these things,” she proclaimed. “I know that, for this you go about to do to me, God will ruin you and your posterity and this whole state.”

Hutchinson was convicted and banished from the colony, her departure delayed until she could be excommunicated by her Boston church. In the end, even Cotton renounced her. She moved to Rhode Island but when Massachusetts threatened to annex the region, she and a small group fled to Dutch territory, not far from what is now the Hutchinson River in the northern Bronx. In 1643, all save one child were massacred by the local Native Americans. The leaders of Massachusetts Bay exulted: “The Lord heard our groans to heaven, and freed us from our great and sore affliction . . . this woeful woman.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

PG notes that a great many histories of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, established in 1620 with the landing of the first passengers from The Mayflower, tend to show the colonists as consistently virtuous people.

They certainly displayed substantial toughness, finally coming ashore in late December.

The Mayflower arrived in November of 1620, hence, the Thanksgiving celebration that was held in 1621 to celebrate a year’s survival. However, there was no place to live on shore, so work crews ferried back and forth from the ship until late-December.

Only very crude shelters could be constructed on shore, but they were better than staying on an intensely cold, leaky and filthy ship, being thrown about during nasty New England winter storms, which were much colder and more severe than passengers had experienced in England or Holland.

In addition to those who had died during the voyage across the Atlantic, 45 of the 102 passengers who were on the Mayflower when it sighted land died during the first winter due to illness (likely a disease called leptospirosis, caused by leptospira bacteria that is spread by rat urine) poor nutrition and housing. A number of orphan children were taken in by families whose adult members had survived.

Based on PG’s reading, no one who made it through the first winter could have thought of themselves as among the privileged classes. He suspects a great many fervently wished they had never made the voyage. Even in the spring, their lives were miserable.

The colonists would have been much more likely to have died absent the miraculous appearance of Tisquantum, or Squanto, an English-speaking Native American. Squanto was a member of the Pawtuxet tribe who had been captured and enslaved by an earlier English explorer prior to his escape.

Unfortunately, the Pawtuxet tribe and other tribes were not immune to either leptospirosis or other European illnesses circulating among the settlers. These illnesses caused a great loss of life (almost certainly in much greater numbers than Mayflower passenger deaths) among the Native Americans in Massachusetts and adjoining areas. These large numbers of Native American deaths opened up a lot of vacant land for use by the Plymouth colonists and those who followed.

For those who may wish to assign blame for these deaths to the English settlers and crew, no one in Europe, let alone the Mayflower passengers, had any idea about the sources and causes of these types of illnesses. Evidence that microorganisms could cause disease wouldn’t be discovered until more than 250 years later. (Robert Koch, Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, 1905)

That said, European diseases were invisible allies of a lot of different European explorers by decimating various Native American tribes. See, for example, Hernán Cortés and 500 Spanish soldiers. They managed to conquer the Aztec capitol, Tenochtitlan, estimated population, 200,000, in 1521. Tenochtitlan ruled an empire estimated to include 16 million people. By far the most important weapon was one about which Cortés knew nothing – smallpox.

PG remembers that some wealthy New England families cited their ancestors who arrived on the Mayflower as evidence of high breeding. Perhaps this belief still circulates in some circles, but both the Pilgrims (a minority) and non-Pilgrims were nobody’s idea of aristocrats in their own minds or in the minds of anyone in England who was aware of their existence.

Both PG and Mrs. PG have Mayflower ancestors. However, while we have enjoyed learning about them, neither of us feel more elevated by them than we do by the illiterate Swedes (PG) and the illiterate and impoverished Russians (Mrs. PG) who arrived in the United states in the late 1800’s/early 1900’s.

Further regarding Mayflower descendant’s superior breeding, it’s estimated that about one in seven Americans living today are descendants of those who arrived on the Mayflower.

PG’s suggestion (for any who may be interested) is to celebrate and be grateful for your progenitors, regardless of how humble or grand they may be.

It may help to know that however grand some of your ancestors may seem, the nature of family trees is that the number of ancestors doubles with each generation one traces back. There aren’t enough kings, queens, dukes or duchesses to fill anyone’s family tree. (And that’s not even considering the number of your ancestors who were illegitimate children.)

4 thoughts on “The Passion of Anne Hutchinson”

  1. Well, I have no proven Mayflower ancestors, although there were probably one or two back there. Just not enough documentation. Closest my mother ever came was one of the founders of Yale – also a somewhat passionate clergyman. (I have used him as an example to my children on occasion – to note how lucky they were that his descendants are quite a bit different. One of his beliefs was that disrespect of your parents should be a capital offense…)

    Someone may make that connection in the future, though. Mom was satisfied with proving her right to be a member of the “elite” Daughters of the American Revolution – her, the daughter of a small Midwest town pool hall and bar owner.

    Reply
    • Given the number of Revolutionary War soldiers who survived and population math, a zillion people qualify for the DAR today as well. That doesn’t mean that you can’t be proud of your ancestors, however.

      Reply
      • My father-in-law came from a wealthy New England WASP family. My mother-in-law comes from a hard-scrabble Alabama farming family.

        The interesting result is that my wife has documentation for the Mayflower Compact, the DAR, and the Daughters of the Confederacy… none of which has she bothered to join.

        On the other hand, touring Civil War battlefields with my wife and MiL was very interesting:
        “Great-Uncle so-and-so died on that hill over there, fighting for the South.”
        “Great-great-uncle something-else died on the third day of the battle on that other hill over the other way, fighting for the North.”
        Etc. etc.

        Reply
  2. Interesting post. Not about the Mayflower as I am a “zero generation” immigrant with no connection to it, but rather about Anne Hutchinson. I dramatized her death (at the hands of the Siwanoy band) in Part IV of my “New York 1609” (Omnibus) novel. The gruesomeness of the slaughter was hard to forget as I was writing so I researched and included it as an example of the tensions and conflicts that occurred at the time during what’s known as “Kieft’s War,” which had a big impact on the future of NYC.

    Reply

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