She hath made a disturbance
By daring to preach and teach, Anne Hutchinson posed the first great threat to Puritan government in the New World.
Early in "Civil Disobedience," Henry David Thoreau wonders why government refuses to "cherish its wise minority." He asks, "Why does it always crucify Christ and excommunicate Copernicus and Luther, and pronounce Washington and Franklin rebels?"Skip to next paragraph
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His friend Margaret Fuller might have wryly asked why the martyrs who come to mind are all men. After all, until relatively recently, women were silenced long before their ideas could enjoy even the benefit of being denounced.
How ironic that the first great political crisis of the Puritans' errand in the New World should have erupted over the preaching of a wealthy, well-connected, upstanding mother. Anne Hutchinson arrived in Boston with her husband and 11 children in 1634. She was a student of the colony's most powerful minister and a friend of the richest man in Boston. She and her family moved into a new house across the street from the governor, whose wife she assisted in childbirth. Anne's descendants eventually would include Franklin Delano Roosevelt and George W. Bush. But 3-1/2 years after her arrival in Boston, she was denounced as "an instrument of Satan" and banished.
Eve LaPlante, the author of this fascinating biography and yet another of Hutchinson's illustrious descendants, takes her title from the normally temperate writings of Massachusetts' first governor, John Winthrop. Looking back at Mistress Hutchinson's expulsion as the salvation of Massachusetts, he referred to her as the "American Jezebel," a woman unmatched "since that mentioned in the Revelation."
LaPlante claims, "Unlike most previous commentators, I aim neither to disdain nor to exalt my central character." But considering the facts of the case - and particularly the remarkable transcript of her two trials (one nominally judicial, the other ecclesiastical) - it's impossible to avoid a little exaltation.
Without taking anything away from Hutchinson's originality, LaPlante notes that Anne had been well prepared for her notorious ordeal by her father, who had suffered a similar fate in England. Francis Marbury was a Cambridge-educated clergyman who repeatedly annoyed Anglican church officials by criticizing both the theology and the training of other ministers. Jailed three times before Anne was born, he was under house arrest during her childhood, allowing him to concentrate on teaching his children. Their central textbook at home was the transcript of his own trial.
That unusual training helps explain Hutchinson's dazzling performance during her prosecution almost 60 years later in Newtown (now Cambridge, Mass). Denied any legal advice or counsel and pregnant for the 16th time, this first female defendant in the New World was called to stand before 40 magistrates for two days of relentless questioning and condemnation. She defended herself with alternating wit, humility, and defiance, parrying every Bible verse thrust at her with references of her own.
The charge was multifaceted and shifted as she effectively defended herself, but the root of all the objections concerned increasingly popular meetings she held in her house each week to lecture on the Scriptures.
Women were generally allowed such "pious gossip," but Hutchinson's seminars had begun to attract men, too, and she had grown more vocal about her objections to almost all the ministers in Massachusetts. Ultimately, she claimed that she could discern the final prospects of others' souls, make prophesies, and receive revelations.