Old Stone Bank History of Rhode Island: Anne Hutchinson

Old Stone Bank History of Rhode Island: Anne Hutchinson

Anne Hutchinson portrait, circa 1916.
(Little Journeys to the Homes of Great Reformers by Elbert Hubbard, 1916).

Instigator of strife and dissension.
by John Williams Haley

This article comes from The Old Stone Bank History of Rhode Island, Vol. III, pages 30-33, published by the Providence Institution for Savings, 1939. Transcribed by Beth Hurd for non-commercial use only.

In any fairly complete review of the Rhode Island narrative, one of the first individuals to draw the spotlight of attention from Roger Williams, once the Providence settlement was established, we find to be a woman, a woman of remarkable vision, power, and spirit, and also the mother of fourteen children. Her name was Mrs. Anne Hutchinson, probably the first American champion of women's rights, and probably the first of her sex to challenge openly the inherited authorities, privileges, and prerogatives of the so-called "stronger" sex. Her life story is interesting; certain of her ideas concerning spiritual matters are difficult to interpret, but she influenced events and their turnings not only in Rhode Island but in the infant nation during the very beginnings of American history.

Anne Marbury was born in England at some time during the last years of the reign of Queen Elizabeth; it is generally agreed that the date of her birth was in the neighborhood of 1594, when religious controversies were approaching their height in that troubled nation. Her father was a Puritan minister, preaching both in Lincolnshire and in London. Her mother was a sister of Sir Edward [sic] Dryden, father of the poet, and Anne was said to have enjoyed every advantage of education and culture that the time afforded. While she was still a child, Queen Elizabeth died and James I became the King. King James desired most intensely "an ordered and obedient Church, its synods that met at the royal will, its courts that carried out the royal ordinances, its bishops that held themselves to be royal officers." The Puritans disputed this royal policy of making men obey the word of the crown in matters both civil and spiritual, but their objections availed little except continued and more severe persecution.

At an early age Anne Marbury married William Hutchinson, described as "a very honest, peaceable man of good estate" and later referred to by Governor Winthrop as "a man of a very mild temper and weak parts, and wholly guided by his wife." During the last few years that Mr. and Mrs. Hutchinson spent in England, Anne must have been well aware of the fact that people all about her were engaged in a relentless struggle for their rights against the Crown. Everywhere people were studying the Bible, pondering over its meanings, rebelling against the arbitrary dictates of the Bishops. Since her father was a Puritan clergyman, she probably shared his sorrow over the persecution of her friend, the Reverend John Cotton, and this incident in her life may have aroused her indignation to the point where she resolved to leave England and follow Cotton across the ocean to the new world where she and her family could continue to benefit by his teachings. At any rate, she left England with her husband and a large brood of children in 1634 and made the crossing to Boston on the ship Griffin, and it has been recorded that the family fortune brought along to America amounted to nearly one thousand guineas in gold.

Until the new Hutchinson home could be built in Boston, Anne and some of her many children found shelter in the home of her beloved idol, the Reverend John Cotton, and for the three years that the family remained in Boston the homestead was directly across the street from that of John Winthrop, and soon the Hutchinson fireside became "the social center of the town." Anne proved to be not only a capable, energetic, and amiable person, but also an efficient nurse. As she went from home to home on errands of mercy, she would talk with the young women unto whom she ministered, and gradually won their complete affection and respect. In fact, both men and women welcomed her intellectual and magnetic personality, for she had a vigorous mind, dauntless courage and a natural gift for leadership.

To what did such unusual attributes in a woman in those days lead? To trouble of course, since not even the men dared to question authority or to speak their own minds when it came to matters of religion and personal liberty. And this is how it all started. Three hundred years ago in Boston the women of that community participated fully in the long, very long Sunday religious services, and they also might be present at the Saturday evening services. Naturally the women mingled with the numerous assemblies for constituting churches, for ordaining ministers and elders, but there were certain meetings for religious discourse from which they were excluded. Whether she resented this occasional exclusion of her sex, or whether she was prompted by a desire to supply a deficiency, Anne Hutchinson instituted a series of meetings for members of her own sex. This novel enterprise of hers met with favor rather than with disapprobation, at first. As many as one hundred women would attend these meetings, and for a period she held two each week. The nominal purpose of these meetings was for the review and interpretation of the sermons delivered by Mr. Cotton on Sunday, and at his usual Thursday lecture. It can be rightfully claimed that, through her leadership of this group, Anne Hutchinson thereby became the first organizer of the earliest women's club in the world. How long it was before these meetings invited criticism is not certain, but, certainly, by the end of the first two years of Mrs. Hutchinson's abode in Boston, she was being severely regarded as an instigator of strife and dissension.

Anne Hutchinson preaching at home, 1901.
Anne Hutchinson preaching at home. (Harper's Monthly, February 1901/Library of Congress).

And she found herself in trouble with the authorities not because she was the organizer of special meetings for the women of the community, but because she took advantage of these periodic gatherings to expound some very peculiar and decidedly seditious doctrines for the times. Rather difficult to comprehend in this enlightened age, these ideas had considerable justification when they are considered in the light of what is actually known about Puritans and their customs. Using simple terms, Anne Hutchinson preached that it was not necessary to look holy in order to hold deep religious feelings. Or, even in plainer terms, she exhorted her followers to justify themselves before God through their hearts, minds, and works, and she openly condemned those who were content to seek salvation through pious expressions, grave and reverend bearing, sombre dress, and other outward forms of religious manifestation. Inward sanctification she called "The Covenant of Grace," outward sanctification, "The Covenant of Works." Anne Hutchinson continued to place considerable force upon the prime necessity of adopting the Covenant of Grace, besides, she finally singled out those clergymen in the Colony who advocated this Covenant and those who did not advocate it. The ministers whom she criticized, directly or indirectly, were much offended. Trouble was brewing for Anne Hutchinson from many sources in spite of the fact that her sympathizers and ardent supporters rapidly increased in numbers, and all the while she continued to preach, condemn, denounce, and upbraid those in authority who failed to recognize the rights of individual man. From her privately conceived Covenant of Works she went on to preach that all classes of people—clergy and laity, the rich and poor, the educated and uneducated—stood as equals before the law with rights as to life, liberty, and justice, unabridged, except as forfeited by crime or lost by incompetency.

Anne Hutchinson on Trial by Abbey, 1901.
"Anne Hutchinson on Trial" by Edwin Austin Abbey (1901). (famous-trials.com).

Soon the doctrines of this apostle brought official denunciation upon her head. She was tried by a court of the church and condemned for her obnoxious pronouncements, and she was next summoned before the supreme civil tribunal, at which, however, the most eminent of the clergy were present, and appear to have taken a very active part as witnesses and advisers. This general court of Massachusetts met on November 2, 1637; her sentence of excommunication was followed by one of banishment, and on March 28, 1638, Anne Hutchinson and her husband and approximately eighteen persons from Boston who sympathized with her—besides the members of her own family—departed for that haven for all souls distressed for conscience's sake, Rhode Island, and here the party was graciously welcomed by the first advocate of human rights in America, the first champion of free speech, Roger Williams.

In Providence, Mrs. Hutchinson drew around her a goodly number of people, including Quakers and Baptists, and these listened to her discourses with great interest. Later the ministers of the Bay Colony dispatched three of their members to Providence to inform the exiles that if they would recant all belief in the Covenant of Grace they could return. Anne met these emissaries in a kindly manner, the conference lasted two days and then the three departed, reporting their mission hopeless. Roger Williams liked Mrs. Hutchinson and was much in sympathy with her although he did not adopt all of her views. He thought that in view of her great usefulness as a nurse and neighbor she should be allowed to speak when she chose and say what she wished. "Because," as he said, "if it be a lie it will die, and if it be truth, we ought to know it."

In a short while Roger Williams succeeded in inducing Anne Hutchinson and her company to abandon her original idea of journeying on to Long Island or Delaware and there to found a permanent settlement. Through the efforts and encouragement of Roger Williams the group decided to form a settlement on the Island of Aquidneck, or the Island of Rhode Island (the present area comprising Portsmouth, Middletown, and Newport). Subsequently, the island was purchased from the Indians and the settlement grew rapidly as other persons were forced to leave Boston by the arbitrary measures of the authorities. At Aquidneck, as at Providence, was established a government which recognized the great principle of soul liberty; and the little colony continued to increase and prosper under this benign influence of spiritual freedom, and at length became so populous as to send out settlers to the adjacent shores.

A pocket park—Anne Hutchinson Memorial/Founder's Brook—near the site of the original Portsmouth settlement commemorates Anne Hutchinson, Mary Dyer, the Portsmouth Compact, and the founders of Portsmouth. (October 18, 2014).

After the death of her husband, which occurred in 1642, Mrs. Hutchinson moved to New York where her life was suddenly ended by a tragedy. In August, 1643, Anne Hutchinson and the fifteen members of her household at the time, with one exception, perished at the hands of the Indians. There is much more to tell about that settlement on the Island of Aquidneck; many of those who accompanied this outstanding woman leader of her times played important parts in the history of the area that is today known as Rhode Island; but you have heard the surprising story of the one who led the way. Her career in this vicinity was not so exciting and full of human interest as was her period of residence in Massachusetts. However, she takes her place among the immortals of these pleasant shores that harbored both leaders and followers who had the courage of their convictions and who risked all to enjoy religious freedom which they believed was the basic principle of a free state.

Return to Old Stone Bank History of Rhode Island index.

John Williams Haley (1897-1963), former vice president of the Narragansett Brewing Company, was best known for his weekly radio program, "The Rhode Island Historian," which ran from 1927 to about 1953 on WJAR. Several hundred of his radio scripts were published in pamphlet form by the Providence Institute for Savings ("The Old Stone Bank"), and many were later reprinted in the four-volume Old Stone Bank History of Rhode Island.

Editor's Notes

The identification of Anne Hutchinson's uncle as "Sir Edward Dryden" is incorrect. Her uncle was Sir Erasmus Dryden, and he was the grandfather of the famous poet, not the father. John Dryden's father, also named Erasmus, was Anne's first cousin.

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