This article is excerpted from Conceived in Liberty (1975), chapter 22, “Suppressing Heresy: The Flight of Anne Hutchinson.” An MP3 audio file of this chapter, narrated by Floy Lilley, is available for download.
Very shortly after the expulsion of Roger Williams, the Massachusetts Bay Colony was rent far more widely by another heresy with roots deep in the colony the “antinomianism” of Mrs. Anne Hutchinson. A major reason for the crisis that Anne Hutchinson’s heresy posed for Massachusetts was that she occupied a high place in the colony’s oligarchy. Arriving in Massachusetts in 1634, she and her husband lived close to Governor Winthrop’s mansion in Boston and participated in Boston’s high society. A friend of the eminent Reverend John Cotton, she first confined her religious activities to expatiating on Cotton’s sermons. Soon, however, Mrs. Hutchinson developed a religious doctrine of her own, now known as antinomianism. She preached the necessity for an inner light to come to any individual chosen as one of God’s elect. Such talk marked her as far more of a religious individualist than the Massachusetts leaders. Salvation came only through a covenant of grace emerging from the inner light, and was not at all revealed in a covenant of works, the essence of which is good works on earth. This meant that the fanatically ascetic sanctification imposed by the Puritans was no evidence whatever that one was of the elect. Furthermore, Anne Hutchinson made it plain that she regarded many Puritan leaders as not of the elect. She also came to assert that she had received direct revelations from God.
In contrast to Williams’ few Salem followers, Anne Hutchinson had rapid and sweeping success in converting her fellow citizens. John Cotton now became a follower of hers, as did young Sir Henry Vane, chosen governor by the General Court in 1636, and Anne’s brother-in-law, Rev. John Wheelwright. Indeed, John Winthrop (deputy governor in 1636) wrote disgustedly that virtually the entire church at Boston had become her converts. As bitter enemies of Anne, there remained especially Winthrop and the senior minister of Boston, John Wilson. Mrs. Hutchinson failed in her attempt to oust Wilson from his post, but she did succeed in having him censured by his own congregation.
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The Hutchinsonian movement began, if inadvertently, to pose political problems for the oligarchy as well. The conscription of soldiers for a war against the Indians met resistance from Boston Hutchinsonians, on the ground that the military chaplain, Rev. John Wilson, was under a “covenant of works” rather than of grace.
The anti-Hutchinson forces moved first against the fiery Reverend Mr. Wheelwright; the General Court narrowly convicted him of sedition and contempt in March 1637. But the sentencing of Wheelwright was postponed. The turning point of the Hutchinson affair came with the May election of 1637, which the Winthrop forces managed to win by shifting its site from pro-Hutchinson Boston to Newtown (now Cambridge). The election pitted Sir Henry Vane against former governor Winthrop and Thomas Dudley, running for his old post of deputy governor. With the election turning on the Hutchinson issue, Vane carried Boston but lost the other towns heavily. Winthrop, Dudley, and the majority of the magistrates, or assistants, were carried by the conservative, anti-Hutchinson faction a not surprising victory when we consider that suffrage was restricted to the ranks of accepted church members.
This overwhelming defeat spelled swift suppression for the antinomian heretics. Quickly the new General Court passed a law that penalized strangers and was directed against a group of Hutchinsonians known to be on their way from England. Disheartened, Sir Henry Vane gave up the struggle and returned to England. Seeing the way the wind was blowing, John Cotton promptly deserted his old disciple, abjectly recanted his “heresies,” and at a Newtown synod denounced 91 antinomian opinions as unwholesome or blasphemous. Vane was gone and Cotton an apostate, but there was still the Reverend Mr. Wheelwright. The already convicted Wheelwright was again hauled before the General Court and sentenced to banishment from the colony. Wheelwright walked through the snows to New Hampshire in the north, where he founded the settlement of Exeter. When by 1643 Massachusetts had appropriated the New Hampshire towns, Wheelwright fled to Maine. But by 1646 Wheelwright had recanted, bewailed his own “vehement and censorious spirit,” and was allowed back into Massachusetts.
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Having vented their fury on the major followers and isolated the leader, the Puritan oligarchs proceeded to the culminating point of the drama: the trial and persecution of Anne Hutchinson herself. There was no independent judiciary in the colonies; the supreme judicial arm in Massachusetts was the legislative body, the General Court, at this time a unicameral legislature presided over by the governor. Anne Hutchinson was hauled up for “trial,” or rather public examination, before the General Court in November 1637. Anne’s enemies on the General Court duly “tried” her, convicted her of sedition and contempt, and banished her from the colony. Governor Winthrop summarized the proceedings thus: “The Court hath already declared themselves concerning … the troublesomeness of her spirit, and the dangers of her course amongst us, which is not to be suffered.”
Winthrop then called for a vote that Mrs. Hutchinson “is unfit for our society and … that she shall be banished out of our liberties and imprisoned till she be sent away….” Only two members voted against her banishment.
Winthrop refused to answer: “Say no more. The court knows wherefore, and is satisfied.” It was apparently enough for the court to be satisfied; no justification before the bar of reason, natural justice, or the public was deemed necessary.
The General Court now proceeded against all the leading Hutchinsonians, concentrating on 60 Bostonians who had previously signed a moderate petition denying that Reverend Wheelwright had stirred up sedition among them. Two members of the General Court, both of whom had spoken up for Mrs. Hutchinson at the trial, were expelled from the court and banished from the colony. Many people were disfranchised, and 75 citizens were disarmed, on the pretext that the Hutchinsonians were plotting to follow the path of the German Anabaptists of old and rise up in armed revolt. The “reasoning” as expounded by Dudley at the Hutchinson trial was that the German Anabaptists had also claimed to enjoy private revelations. Hutchinsonian military officers were forced to recant, but the determined Captain John Underhill refused to do so and was duly banished.
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Anne Hutchinson’s ordeal was still not ended. Spared banishment during the rugged winter, she was imprisoned at the home of one of her major enemies, and the elders attempted, throughout the winter, to argue her out of her convictions. Finally, they subjected her to an ecclesiastical trial the following March. Tormented, ill, and exhausted, Mrs. Hutchinson momentarily recanted, but as she continued to be denounced, her spirits returned and she put forth her views again.
To save himself from the fate meted out to the other Hutchinsonians, John Cotton now apparently felt that his personal recantation was not enough, so he joined the pack rending Mrs. Hutchinson at the ecclesiastical trial. This man, whom Anne Hutchinson had revered and followed to the New World, now turned on her savagely, wailing that he had been duped, denouncing her as a liar and for conduct tending eventually to infidelity.
The Boston ecclesiastical court then pronounced excommunication upon Anne, and it was the peculiar satisfaction of the Reverend John Wilson, her most bitter enemy, to deliver the sentence:
I do cast you out and in the name of Christ, I do deliver you up to Satan, that you may learn no more to blaspheme, to seduce and to lie, and I do account you from this time forth to be a heathen and a Publican … therefore I command you in the name of Christ Jesus and of His Church as a Leper to withdraw yourself out of the Congregation.
The undaunted Anne Hutchinson had the last word: “Better to be cast out of the Church than to deny Christ.”
While Anne was undergoing imprisonment and subsequent excommunication, the leaders of the Hutchinsonian movement gathered together to flee the colony, and to prepare a home for themselves and Anne away from the developing reign of terror in Massachusetts. On March 7, 1638, 19 men, including Anne’s husband, William Hutchinson, gathered at the home of the eminent Boston merchant William Coddington, one of the wealthiest men in the colony and its former treasurer. In a solemn compact, the 19 formed themselves into a “Bodie Politick,” choosing Coddington as their judge.
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The Hutchinsonians first intended to go to Long Island or Jersey to make their home, but they were persuaded by Roger Williams to settle in the Rhode Island area. On Williams’ friendly advice, Coddington purchased the island of Aquidneck from the Indians, and founded on the island the settlement of Pocasset (now Portsmouth). Anne, ill and exhausted, joined her husband at Aquidneck in April as soon as her trial was over.
The enormous significance of Roger Williams’ successful flight and settlement of Providence two years before was now becoming evident. For Williams’ example held out a beacon light of liberty to all the free spirits caught in the vast prison house that was Massachusetts Bay. By the happy accident of the demise of the Council for New England, the land south of Massachusetts Bay and west of Plymouth was free land, free of proprietary and effective royal government alike. It was a haven for religious liberty and for diverse sects and groupings, and for an extension of the logic of liberty as well; for once liberty is pursued and experienced, it is difficult to hobble its uttermost expansion.
When the ill Anne Hutchinson arrived at her haven in Aquidneck, the many months of persecution had left their mark and she suffered a miscarriage, as did her beautiful young follower Mary Dyer, who had stood up to walk out of the Boston church with the excommunicated Anne. The Puritan leaders of Massachusetts Bay, preoccupied for years afterward with the Hutchinsonian menace, characteristically gloated in righteous satisfaction at the misfortunes of Anne and Mary. The theocrats were jubilant and the Reverend John Cotton, Governor Winthrop and the Reverend Thomas Weld all hailed Anne’s and Mary’s sufferings as the evident judgment of God. It was typical of the Puritans to hail the misfortunes of their enemies as God’s judgment, and to dismiss any kindness shown them by others as simply God’s will and therefore requiring no gratitude to those showing it.
Massachusetts Bay continued, indeed, in a state of hysteria over the Hutchinsonian heresy for a number of years. Anne’s followers and sympathizers were fined, whipped, and banished, and five years later Robert Potter was executed for being a Hutchinsonian. It was also typical that, with Anne outside their jurisdiction, the Boston church leaders should send a committee to Aquidneck to try to persuade her of the error of her ways. If they could no longer inflict violence upon Anne, they could at least badger and harass her. It is not surprising that the beleaguered Anne gave the committee short shrift, kicked it out of her home, and denounced the Boston church as a “whore and a strumpet.”
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In Pocasset, Anne was spiritual leader of the flock and Coddington temporal leader. The Pocasset government was chosen by the assembled freeholders, and, like Providence, the government had to consent to the arrival of any newcomers to the colony. But Anne Hutchinson was becoming more and more concerned for the principle of freedom of conscience rather than for propagating her own religious views. She began to see that Coddington and his associates were launching a new theocracy of their own in the infant colony. For Coddington was “judge” of the settlement, basing his decrees and decisions on the “word of God,” as interpreted by himself. And Anne began to chafe at the state control that Coddington was increasingly imposing.
Coddington based his seizure of power on the flimsy legalism of his being the sole name on the deed of purchase of Aquidneck from the Indians. Therefore, he claimed for himself all the rights of a feudal lord owning the whole island, owning and renting out the lots of all the settlers, and asserting authority over all land grants.
At the beginning of 1639, Anne Hutchinson led a movement that successfully modified the Pocasset constitution; the change gave the body of freemen a veto over the actions of the governor, and the right to elect three “elders” to share the governor’s powers. Thus, the increasingly dictatorial rule of Coddington was checked.
Coddington reacted most ungraciously to this limitation on his power, and he appointed a constable to keep watch on any “manifest breaches of the law of God that tend to civil disturbance.” Had Anne Hutchinson fled the theocracy of Massachusetts only to see a miniature raise its head in her new home?
Finally, in April, the Hutchinson forces insisted, at the Pocasset town meeting, on a new election for governor a demand that startled Coddington, who expected to remain in office indefinitely and without the fuss and bother of elections. Vigorous pressure by the freemen on Coddington finally won the demand for elections, and William Hutchinson was elected by a large majority. Coddington and his followers, including Nicholas Easton, John Coggeshall, William Dyer, and John Clarke, abandoned Pocasset and founded the new settlement of Newport, at the southern end of Aquidneck Island.
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The victorious Hutchinsonians adopted a new compact of government and changed the name of the town to Portsmouth. Oligarchical distinctions were eliminated, and all the male inhabitants signed the new compact. Provision was made for jury trial, and church and state were at last separated. There was no provision, for example, in the new civil compact about the “word of God,” the only rule by which Coddington had made his decisions. Anne Hutchinson had been rapidly learning firsthand about state persecution, and freedom of religion for all Christians was now guaranteed. William Hutchinson was chosen new chief judge of the colony.
The power-hungry Coddington now mounted an armed attempt to rule over Portsmouth, but was forcibly ejected by the Hutchinsonians. Soon, however, Coddington was able to arrest William Hutchinson and order his disfranchisement. Anne and her husband were again victims of harassment and persecution.
A year later, on March 12, 1640, the two groups came to an agreement and the settlements of Portsmouth and Newport (the latter by now being the larger of the two) united, primarily on the libertarian principles of Portsmouth. Coddington was chosen governor, however, and William Hutchinson one of his assistants. The separate towns were allowed to retain their autonomy, and the laws were to be made by the citizens rather than by an oligarchy. And a year later, in May 1641, the Aquidneck government declared, “It is ordered that none shall be accounted as delinquent for doctrine.”
Religious liberty had been officially decreed in Aquidneck. The settlements of Providence and Aquidneck had raised the banner of freedom for all religious creeds. In this free air, diversity of religion came to proliferate in the colony.
Soon, however, Mrs. Anne Hutchinson, ruminating in the free air of Rhode Island on the meaning of her experience, came to an astounding and startling conclusion and one that pushed the logic of Roger Williams’ libertarianism far beyond the master. For, as Williams reported in bewilderment, Anne now persuaded her husband to give up his leading post as assistant in the Aquidneck government, “because of the opinion, which she had newly taken up, of the unlawfulness of magistry.”
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In short, the logic of liberty and a deeper meditation on scripture had both led Anne to the ultimate bounds of libertarian thought: to individualist anarchism. No magistracy whatever was lawful. As Anne’s biographer Winifred Rugg put it,
She was supremely convinced that the Christian held within his own breast the assurance of salvation…. For such persons magistrates were obviously superfluous. As for the other, they were to be converted, not coerced.
To the Puritans of Massachusetts, Aquidneck was an abominable “Isle of Errours” and the Rhode Island settlements were “Rogue’s Land.” Massachusetts began to plot to assert its jurisdiction over these pestiferous settlements and to crush the havens of liberty. Indians were egged on to raid the Providence and Aquidneck territories. Massachusetts then shut off all trade with the Rhode Islanders, who were thus forced to turn to the neighboring Dutch settlements of New Netherland for supplies. A son and son-in-law of Anne’s, visiting Boston, were seized and very heavily fined by the authorities, and then banished from Massachusetts on pain of death.
In 1642, soon after his resignation from public office, William Hutchinson died. Deprived of her husband and mainstay, disgusted with all government, and deeply worried about Massachusetts’s threatened encroachments on Rhode Island (and knowing also that the Bay Colony was now regarding her as a witch and therefore deserving of death), Anne decided to leave once more. Taking a few members of her family and a few dozen disciples, Anne Hutchinson left Rhode Island to go to Long Island, in New Netherland, and finally to settle in the wilderness of Pelham Bay. There, in late summer of 1643, Anne and her family were murdered by a band of Indians, engaged in armed struggle with the Dutch. William’s and Anne’s deaths were hailed and gloated over by the Puritan oligarchy of Massachusetts Bay. To the unconcealed delight of the divines of Massachusetts, Anne Hutchinson had, finally, been physically destroyed; but the spirit of liberty that she embodied and kindled was to outlast the despotic theocracy of Massachusetts Bay. Perhaps, in the light of history, the victory in the unequal contest was Anne Hutchinson’s.
Even in the short run, Massachusetts Bay was soon to meet again the spirit of Anne Hutchinson the emphasis on the inner light, on individual conscience, on liberty in the new sect of Quakers, a sect joined by many Hutchinsonians, including William Coddington and Mary Dyer, and in the Baptists, headed by Anne Hutchinson’s sister, Catherine Scott, and by the Hutchinsonian Dr. John Clarke.