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?"
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.
LaPlante structures the most engaging half of her biography around the transcript of the first trial. Eager to record Hutchinson's abominations along with their own corrections, the Puritans inadvertently left a record of her outsmarting the assembled experts of the 17th-century New World. The transcript itself has long been an instrument of torture in anthologies of American history, and anyone who endured it as an undergraduate will doubt my claims about how electric it becomes in LaPlante's treatment. But it's not just that she edits it effectively and modernizes the spelling and grammar. As she moves through this biting debate, LaPlante brings it alive by effectively explaining the theological arcana, fleshing out the personalities involved, and filling in the relevant history. (A postscript about her experiences visiting Hutchinson sites in England and America provides a rare and charming glimpse into the pleasures of a historian's detective work.)
She's particularly good at delineating the judges' personalities and motives. Winthrop, for instance, comes off as petty and egotistical, but driven by a genuine concern for the survival of his nascent community. John Cotton, on the other hand, emerges as the master politician, expedient to a fault, playing both sides as long as he can before finally denying his old friend Anne to cleanse his own reputation.
Hutchinson is a classic feminist hero, of course, a woman who dared to speak (and disagree) when women weren't allowed to teach or preach. Many of her judges condemned her along straight gender lines, noting that she "had rather been a husband than a wife," that she was "more bold than a man," that she had behaved in a way "not comely in the sight of God nor fitting for her sex."
While acknowledging the misogyny that fueled this trial, LaPlante also illustrates the way Hutchinson cleverly played the gender card herself, falling back on her status as a women to argue that nothing she said was a matter of public import.
More important, LaPlante is willing to wade into the extraordinarily murky waters of this theological debate. (Even Winthrop acknowledged privately that he was challenged by the arguments involved.) That can make for tough reading, but it allows LaPlante to demonstrate the threat to the existing government posed by Hutchinson's radical Calvinism and her insistence on the validity of her own conscience. In other words, she wasn't persecuted just because she was a feisty woman, as some bland feminist critiques suggest. She was expelled because her spiritual claims threatened a fledgling government that took spiritual claims seriously.
The second half of the story, which details Hutchinson's banishment to Rhode Island is, perhaps inevitably, less dramatic and effective. And some cursory comments about the fate of contemporary women politicians are a reminder of how little LaPlante supplies in the way of tracing the complex influence of Hutchinson's ideas into the present day.
But those weaknesses are minor and take nothing away from the success of her presentation of the trials. What LaPlante has reconstructed here supplies a welcome new podium for a brave Puritan theologian who wouldn't hold her tongue.
• Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments about the book section to Ron Charles.