Anne Marbury Hutchinson (1591-1643)

Anne Hutchinson

Like most white women in North America at that time, Anne Hutchinson had been born in England during the reign of Elizabeth I. The daughter of a dissident minister, she grew up in the village of Alford in Lincolnshire, moved to London as a teenager, and returned to Alford when she married at twenty-one. Anne Marbury wed William Hutchinson, a merchant and member of a prominent family, in 1612.

In the seventeen years between 1614 and 1630, she gave birth to twelve babies, losing three to infant mortality. This heavy physical and emotional load did not lessen her intellectual life, however, for even though—like all women of her era—she had no access to formal education, Anne Hutchinson was a natural reader and thinker. 

Intellectual activity in her place and time largely meant theology, and Hutchinson was particularly taken with the views of Reverend John Cotton, vicar at the nearby Lincolnshire parish of Boston. She soon expanded upon his beliefs, and ultimately would place herself at the center of one of the raging controversies of the next century: the argument within Protestant circles of the relative merits of faith versus works in salvation. After Cotton felt constrained to flee Anglican authorities and join the religious dissidents who were settling in North America, Hutchinson and her family also joined the thousands who migrated to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1630s.

Anne Hutchinson was forty-three years old when she arrived in Boston in 1634. She had established a strong relationship with her husband, who, like the husband of Mary Dyer, respected and supported his wife’s religious activism, even though he did not choose that path for himself. That their feelings for each other still were physical is clear from the fact that their last child was born in Boston in 1636. The Bay Colony itself was still in its infancy, for its first settlers arrived in 1630, just a decade after the Pilgrim women began populating Plymouth to the south.

Hutchinson’s experience and relative education made her a natural midwife and nurse, and therefore a leader in this youthful community. The time she spent with women in the throes of possible death also led naturally to conversations on spiritual matters. Her views that emphasized the primacy of inner faith over outward piety understandably were appealing to both men and women, and she soon was attracting large numbers to religious meetings in her home. Such gatherings were not uncommon in the Bay Colony—what instead disturbed its authoritarian clergy was Hutchinson’s extreme popularity, particularly outside of the usual circles of women. Her innate charisma not only brought admiration from men, but worse, from prominent men, including affluent young civil officials.

The ministers—who were the true authority in the theocracy that the Bay Colony was—seemed unable to believe that men could be interested merely in a woman’s mind. When Hutchinson was brought before a church trial in 1638, even her former mentor Reverend Cotton had joined that obtuse view. He charged his former friend with “that filthy sin of the community of women, and all promiscuous and filthy coming together of men and women…Though I have not heard…you have been unfaithful to your husband in his marriage covenant, yet that will follow…”

Hutchinson’s attraction indeed was so great that it became a genuine threat to the ability of the clergy to govern; this was especially clear when some of her male supporters refused to join the militia in pursuit of Pequot natives. The authorities, led by Reverend John Winthrop (who was also the colony’s governor), first attacked her indirectly by banishing her brother-in-law, a minister who shared her views. Hutchinson herself was summoned to trial late in 1637 and also banished, but allowed to remain under house arrest until the end of winter. In March, 1638, she was again brought before the court and formally excommunicated; she and her children soon joined her faithful husband, who had prepared a home for them in the new colony of Rhode Island, which has been founded less than two years earlier by other dissidents exiled from Massachusetts.

At nearly forty-seven, Anne Hutchinson was once again pregnant and so severely ill that her physical condition had interfered with her ability to defend herself on trial. Her medical problem probably was a gross tumor of the placenta that had killed the fetus she delivered in late summer, but Puritan leadership—who saw all events in theological terms—deemed this “monstrous birth” to have been the judgment of God.

Hutchinson nonetheless survived this painful experience and lived peaceably on Narragansett Bay until her husband’s death six years later. In 1642, at age fifty-one, she took her brood of six still-young children to the Dutch colony that now is New York, where mercantile attitudes ranked higher than the fine points of theology. The New Netherlands colony was attracting other New Englanders who wished to be free of religious orthodoxy, but Hutchinson did not settle in the city, opting instead for a remote farming area on Long Island Sound between the modern Bronx and New Rochelle. This isolation was a fatal mistake, for although she believed the Dutch had paid the natives for the land they sold her, a year later, disgruntled Algonquians attacked her home, killing all but the youngest child. Today a river and a highway in that area bear the Hutchinson name.

Anne Hutchinson had lived in America just nine years when she died, but her legacy would be timeless. In daring to think differently from the colonial autocrats who would brook no disagreement, she took an early place of prominence in the development of American intellectual life and its basic tenet of free speech. The fact that she argued merely for her own version of revealed truth does not diminish the courage that it took to do so.