Researching and writing about puritan poet Anne Bradstreet

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Anne Hutchinson: Our First Miss America

Go, girl!
"Therrrre she iiiiiis, Miss America . . . "

If any woman gained that title, it would be Anne Hutchinson, the woman who was put on trial for heresy, and whose clever and spirited defense of herself (alone, in front of and surrounded by the Puritan male hierarchy) has gone down in the annals of history as a landmark for both freedom of religion and women's rights.  Look at her!  Chin up, straight back, standing up to those who were trying to shut her down!  And ooooh, those looks on the faces of her accusers -- anger, outrage.  And don't you think there's a suggestion of complacency and arrogance too, especially in the posture of the fellow with the cane?  Her accusers are all in shadow, mere sketches; we don't need their names or their stories to understand this picture.  And frankly, the story works better as a story if we don't have their names or their tales.

Still, I've wondered at times . . . can I say this?  I've wondered if Anne Hutchinson was really so much above reproach.  We tend to read her story as the simple tale of a clever defiant woman who was thrown out of Massachusetts Bay because -- she was so clever.  And she was defiant.  And of course, because that cleverness and defiance came in a female package.  We see her as an early feminist, who had the misfortune of being born in a place and time that could not bear a strong, independent spirit in a woman. So out she went.

Well, as usual, there's more to the story than that.  Tell you what, I'll tell a bit of it, and you can decide if we've got the correct read on Mrs. Hutchinson.

Anne Hutchinson was part of a religious movement that has gone down in history with the awkward name of  antinomianism.  Antinomianism was a reaction against the legalistic tendency in Puritanism.  If we were divide religious experience and practice into two parts -- one being righteous living and good works, and the other being deeply felt spiritual feelings and spiritual experience -- then the Puritans were the first and the antinomians were the second.  Not that spirit was absent in Puritanism, or morality absent in antinomianism.  Both had some of both.  But if we think of religion as a spectrum, with good works and lots of rules on one side, and spiritual experience on the other, then Puritans were clumped on one end, and antinomians on the other.

That was the spirit of the times.  A small, energized minority in England felt strongly that religious reform must happen in England, or all would be lost.  But they disagreed with each other.  Puritanism was the largest segment of these reformers, saying that the Church of England was lost in its formality and  pomp, and that England was morally going down the tubes. They advocated a form of Christianity that was simple and rigorous and based on the teachings of the Bible.  As they grew in numbers,  the antinomian movement emerged as a critique of Puritanism.  They advocated a more experiential Christianity, where spiritual experience guided just what was believed.  So we might say that Puritans focused their spiritual life on the mind, and the antinomians, the heart or the feelings.

And shouldn't religious practice have both?  Yes, yes.  But this is 17th-century England -- we don't get both.  This is how the conflict played out in that time and place.

Antinomians rather hid out at times among Puritans, and a fair flock of them came over in the Puritan migration to New England in the 1630s.  (Not just one woman, ahem.)

Anne Hutchinson arrived in Massachusetts in 1633, three years after the first group arrived (which included my good buddy, Anne Bradstreet).  She was following her minister, John Cotton, for whom she had a great deal of respect.  She arrived with eleven or so of her children, and oh, yes, her husband, too.  Mr. Hutchinson doesn't come into the story much . . . a meek and mild man, he must have been.

The new frontier society that they arrived in had yet to adhere, and its survival as a community was not yet certain.  A couple years after Hutchinson arrived, the colony was rocked by conflict when Salem minister Roger Williams accused the Massachusetts churches of being heretic, and said either they had to completely renounce all other English churches -- or else.  He was expelled from the colony in 1636.  (I've blogged on Williams; check those posts out if you want the full story on him.)

That year or the year following, John Cotton (now minister of Boston Church) sparked something of a revival in his preaching on free grace.  "Free grace" means that it isn't following the rules or living a good life that gets you into Heaven; it is the free grace and acceptance of God.  This liberating doctrine is at the heart of Christianity, and everyone in Boston starts feeling better for kneeling before a loving, accepting God rather than a score-keeping God.  So nobody's mad at each other yet.  Given that law and spirit are both part of orthodox Christianity, this sort of back-and-forth in a church's life is common enough.  Sometimes the focus is more on the rules end of things -- sometimes more on the heart-feeling end.

Here's where the antinomians started taking it too far.  They said that living a good life has nothing at all to do with Christianity.  To parody their position so that you get the point -- if you're a serial murderer and drown kittens every day before breakfast, you might still be one of the chosen of God, and if you died right after you murdered someone and drowned their kitten -- you'd go straight to the arms of Jesus.  Lifestyle on earth has NOTHING to do with your spiritual condition or eternal destination.

OK, they didn't actually go quite that far.  When she was on trial, I don't think Hutchinson ever gave a straight answer to the question of, could a person who is evil in his behavior and completely unrepentant actually be saved and be one of the righteous ones of God.  But she (and others) did affirm that you can't tell who is saved by their behavior at all.  Orthodox Christianity teaches that, while good works don't save, you should be able to see evidence of the indwelling spirit in a person by their good life.  The antinomians said nothin' doin'.  Salvation is not evidenced by a good life.

So, O Massachusetts, your ministers may all be reprobate.  You can't tell who's in or who's out by their good lives.  Your governor, too, and your government officials, might all be sons of the Devil.

And this sort of thing mattered in this community.  Massachusetts was founded for the purpose of living out Christianity in community.  But you can't live out Christianity in community if you can't even tell who is truly a Christian.  The antinomian conflict struck at the heart of the Puritan experiment.  Antinomians obliquely claimed that you can't have an experiment in a Christian state since you have no way of knowing who is actually regenerated by God and truly saved.

Except some people can tell who is saved.  Some can discern it spiritually, said Hutchinson.  Certain people can tell.  Hutchinson put herself in that group, as among those who have this special spiritual gift. Aha.

Several trials then went down.  John Cotton went on trial, was acquitted and stayed in the colony.  The governor of the colony, Henry Vane, went on trial, and was expelled.  Hutchinson went on trial, and out she went.  Almost 80 people were expelled from Massachusetts over this affair.

Feeling grateful for the First Amendment?  Me, too.  But let's keep our 17th-century hats on.  No First Amendment; no standards for religious freedom, yet; and a colony founded for a religious purpose, of a given religious stripe.

So was Hutchinson's gender of no matter at all in this whole affair?  No, it mattered; it made her "crime" all the greater.  More on that next time.

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