Trials, Travails and Theological Tumult: Anne Hutchinson and the First Parish in Cambridge
Three hundred and sixty eight years ago, in an unheated building like we experienced in this room a number of Sundays this winter, Anne Hutchinson stood before this congregation to be tried. Her crime? Teaching, preaching, sharing the message of God as she understood it, within the privacy of her own home. This in and of itself would not have been an issue, but when her popularity grew beyond the women, and men began to come and hear her speak, this crossed the boundaries of what is acceptable for a 17th century Boston woman.
Not many people now know Anne Hutchinson's story. Even I, who studied this period of religious history in my ministerial training, just remember Anne and Mary Dyer's stories shared briefly as women who were persecuted for their faith. Yet I am convinced now that Anne Hutchinson is a woman who has had one of the most profound influences on American politics from the earliest years of our nation up until the work of Susan B. Anthony and the suffragists in the mid-nineteenth century.
She was a woman living in colonial New England where no woman had the right to vote, hold office, teach outside her home, or even sign a document. She had no status, no authority. Yet Anne was a woman of power: not power through her relationship to her father, husband or son, but power through her own intellect, passion, and courage to speak her mind to the male ministers and authorities of the day.
When I came to serve as your minister eight years ago it was not lost on me that I was a woman, being called to preach from the pulpit that silenced Anne so many centuries ago. I have always been pleased by my tie to her and the ability we have to claim a piece of her heritage. Yet until I read the book, American Jezebel, by Eve LaPlante, I did not really know her story or truly appreciate what Anne Hutchinson represented to woman of her time or the legacy she gave to our nation. As the First Parish and First Church in Cambridge, I feel we have an obligation to know and share her story and to not allow this woman to be forgotten in history.
In November of 1637 Anne was a little older than I, 46 year old. She was born and raised in England, the daughter of a Puritan preacher. Her husband was a well-to-do merchant and they moved to the Massachucetts Bay Colony three years earlier, fleeing Puritan persecution. She had born 15 children and at the time of her trial believed she was pregnant with her 16th. They came to Boston, following their beloved minister, John Cotton, who had arrived a year before on the same ship as Thomas Hooker, the first minister of our congregation here in Cambridge, then called Newtown. [In fact the renowned John Cotton was given the prestigious church in Boston to serve even though there was already a minister there, while Rev. Hooker was sent here to the boondocks across the Charles.]
Anne and her husband Will Hutchinson settled on Shawmut peninsula and in fact the footprint of her house still stands as the former Old Corner Bookstore on the corner of Washington and School Streets in Boston. Across the street lived the Governor, John Winthrop, and their beloved minister, John Cotton, and his church, the First Church of Boston, was just down the street. In England, Will and Anne had traveled six hours each way to hear him preach on Sundays, for Anne was quite picky in her ministers and who was qualified to preach God's word. Indeed this was her downfall here in America.
Anne soon became a well-respected member of the Boston community. She was an experienced midwife and nurse and there was hardly a family who did not know her care first hand. She also cared for matters of the spirit and would hold weekly meetings in her home, teaching the gospel to the women of the community. These gatherings were called "gossipings" and were encouraged by the ministers as a way for women to understand the teachings of the Lord. But Anne was different than most women who held gossipings.
Anne was bright, articulate, and well educated. She knew the Bible as well as all of the Cambridge educated ministers in the colony and could quote and use scripture to substantiate her religious beliefs better than most. How does a 17th century woman obtain such an education? Her father was a prominent Puritan minister of the Church of England and ran a school for boys. He also ran into trouble for his nonconforming, Puritan religious views and for several years was placed under house arrest. What's a man to do who has a calling to preach and teach and has no audience...he taught his own children, most especially the quick witted and intelligent Anne.
All would have continued well for the Hutchinsons in the New World if Anne had not been such a gifted preacher and teacher herself. It was no longer just the women who were attracted to her gossipings, but the men of the town came as well. In fact she developed a large following of people who became known as Hutchinsonians. Anne became critical of a number of clergy in the community and would correct the errors in their sermons during her weekly teachings. She even stood and walked out on the sermon of John Cotton's colleague, John Wilson, a rather audacious act for a community that saw no separation of church and state and required all citizens to attend church. At that time women were banned from all activities in the church, leading worship, voting, even talking and had to enter and sit in a segregated area from the men. But Anne's male followers would stay following the sermon for the "talkback" and debate the minister using Anne's arguments. [You see why we do not have "talkbacks" here!]
This climate of religious questioning became troubling for Governor John Winthrop. The Massachusetts Bay Colony was established not for religious freedom, but so that the Puritans could freely practice their religion. They saw themselves as leading a 2nd Reformation, purifying the Church of England from its popish ways: no churches filled with idolatries, no kneeling to take communion, no buying one's way to salvation with donations to the church or good works. They saw themselves as descendants of the ancient Hebrews, God's chosen people and successors of Israel. John Winthrop saw himself as a Moses leading a new Exodus. It is amazing how quickly the religiously persecuted can become the persecutors. John Winthrop and the religious leaders of the time could not permit a woman to question their authority and undermine their attempts to create God's perfect community.
So Anne was brought to trial in Cambridge. At that time the First Parish was a simple square Meeting House with no windows, no heat, and a thatched roof. Our first Meeting House was a place of worship, the town hall, and the General Court. We were situated on the corner of Mt. Auburn and Dunster Streets thenand you can still see a plaque outside a men's clothing store marking its location.
Winthrop called the trial to be held in Cambridge because he knew that she had too large a following in Boston and it would be impossible to get a conviction there. Winthrop served as chief prosecutor and judge of the trial and served with a panel of ministers that included our other first minister in Cambridge, the Rev. Thomas Shepard who had come to New England, escaping persecution just the year before. [Why we have two first ministers is a story for another time.]
It was an unusually cold November and indeed someone had just frozen to death trying to cross the Charles River in a sciff only a few days before. Anne and her husband rose early on that November morning to walk down to the Charlestown ferry, cross the river and then walk the five miles down what is now Cambridge Street to the Meeting House located in the center of Newtown. They could not travel by horse because the roads were too icy.
The trial lasted two days and Anne was required to stand the entire time before her accuser, the Governor Winthrop. She was permitted no lawyer, no witnesses, no legal advice and even her husband could not stand with her and speak in her defense. As you may have heard in the reading the charges against her were vague, although I confess to you the 17th century language is hard to grasp. They could not accuse her of a crime against the state or sedition since as a woman she had no public role. They could not punish her with disenfranchisement for she had no official voice and could not vote. In fact Anne Hutchinson's clever mind, quick wit, and knowledge of the scriptures enabled her to hold her own in debate with the ministers and indeed by the end of the second day it appeared they could not prove any case against her.
It looked as if the trial would end and she would be set free, when something came over her and she couldn't resist the opportunity... to teach the men. She launched into a sermon correcting the gathered ministers on the errors of their theology and teaching them the true message of the Lord. Winthrop began to stop her for being out order when he realized she was tying her own noose.
She was convicted of "being a woman not fit for our society" and banished from the colony. She was imprisoned until her 2nd trial that spring, which determined if she was to be denied membership in her church. She was convicted again, and as she left she said to the congregation, "The Lord judges not as man judges. Better to be cast out of the church than to deny Christ." She and most of her family, and many of her followers, walked for 6 days to Rhode Island were they had been invited to settle by the previously banished Roger Williams. She and Roger Williams established the colony of Rhode Island with a guarantee of religious freedom, and whose language leads directly to the First Amendment of our Constitution of the United States, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."
Our Meeting House looks nothing like our First Parish house on the corner of Dunster and Mount Auburn. Our worship, hymns, even our seven principles would seem foreign even abhorrent to Anne and her followers in the 17th century. She would not have seen herself as a feminist, a radical or a liberal. She never questioned her role or the role of women in her society. Yet her legacy has had an impact that can be felt through the centuries and lives on with us in our community today.
Hutchinson had a strong sense of the Holy Spirit and felt God working through her. She had confidence in herself and her ability to know God. While the Reformationstook priests out of the role as mediator for God, it was still understood that ministers were needed to interpret God's will and no ordinary man (and certainly no woman) could receive direct revelation with the Holy Spirit. LaPlante writes:
Hutchinson had a pioneering sense of her self and her destiny, which is extraordinary in a woman of the seventeenth century, to whom so little authority was allowed. Hutchinson's desire to look within for guidance is characteristic of a distinctively American faith in the power of the individual conscience. In this confidence in the power of her own views, she presaged not only the early Quakers but also the nineteenth-century Transcendentalist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the "oppositional quality" in such classic literature of the American Renaissance as Nathaniel Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter and Uncle Tom's Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe.
Here in Harvard Square is a more tangible remnant of her legacy. Several days after the trial of Anne Hutchinson, the Massachusetts General Court voted to establish the colony's first college. Here orthodox ministers could indoctrinate young men before they fell under the influence of Hutchinsonian thinking. It was determined that the college should be situated in Newtown next to Thomas Shepard's church since he had become such an out-spoken critic of her teachings and theology. The Reverend Peter Gomes, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals at Harvard wrote, "As a result of her heresy, the colony determined to provide for the education of a new generation of ministers and theologians who would secure New England's civil and theological peace against future seditious Mrs. Hutchinsons."
In many ways, John Winthrop's obsession with pursuing and convicting Anne Hutchinson did her the greatest service in preserving her legacy. If not for her trials and the detailed transcripts recording the proceedings, we would never have been able to hear Anne's gifted mind, experience her raw courage in the face of such adversity, and spirit and calling of a woman of her day.
Here in this congregation, 386 years ago, Anne Hutchinson was tried and convicted of being a woman not fit for our society. Her heresy was to dare to speak the truth of her passion and her faith as the Spirit inspired her. Our role in her history is not a proud one, yet it is in this way we are linked. I believe that this obliges us to know her story, reclaim it, credit her with all the gifts she gave us, and to carry on her legacy.
Last January, Anne Hutchinson's tenth great-grandson was sworn in once again as President of these United States [after defeating Winthrop's descendent, John Kerry]. His message was calling for us to provide for liberty for all people everywhere. And yet he does this by promulgating an atmosphere of fear and hatred and taking actions that limit liberties in the name of security. As John Winthrop felt his colony threatened by foreign invasion, native unrest, theological divisions, and royal displeasure. His fear became a reality as the king lost confidence in his leadership and the charter to the colony was revoked.
During Bush's years in office he has nursed our nation on messages of the dangers of evil axis whose governments and leaders are beyond diplomacy, activist judges who threaten to destroy family life as we know it, and domestic crises like the urgent loss of social security that requires quick under-examined responses that will impact us for generations. If we have learned anything from Hutchinson's story, than it is to courageously face our judges speaking from the spirit within, the truth as we understand it. To question authority, allowing none to be silenced, and work for religious freedom for all people.
After four years of peace in Rhode Island, it seemed as if the new colony would soon come into the control of the Massachusetts Bay colony and so Anne determined it was once again time to move on where she would no longer be under Winthrop's scrutiny and hostility. Her husband had died that year, and so she traveled with seven of her children to northern New Amsterdam, an area just North of the Bronx.
Anne had always lived peaceful with the native people and she and her followers condemned and refused to fight in all of the Indian wars. She refused to believe any harm would come to her from the local tribe. When her Dutch neighbors warned her of an imminent attack and that she should take her family and hide, she refused. But the Siwanoy Indians who arrived that day did not her and her peaceful ways. They scalped and slaughtered Anne and her family all except her 9 year old daughter Susan who managed to escape. Susan was adopted by the Siwanoy and raised as their own until as an adult she returned to Boston and her family there.
In 1987, 350 years after her conviction, Governor Michael Dukakis pardoned Anne Hutchinson. Her legacy lives on today, not only in her many descendents who have helped shape and continue to shape our nation, but the lessons she taught us by her words and her deeds. First Parish in Cambridge, First Church in Cambridge, I charge you to embrace Anne Hutchinson's passion, vision, courage and wisdom. Seek the fire of passion and your faith. Do not accept authority for authority's sake, but speak from your heart and live by your values. Anne's story is our story and we have an obligation to keep it alive.
Closing Words - May no one be silenced for sharing the joy of their spirit and their faith, and may we each be blessed find that joy within ourselves, and courage to share our light with the world.