Free Grace: Anne Hutchinson and the Antinomian Controversy

Originally born the daughter of a minister in England, Anne Hutchinson (1591-1643) became the prototypical American feminist, known as a spiritual advisor who revolutionized religious thought in the New World. In her later years, she developed into a deeply devout and highly outspoken woman who stood up for her personal religious beliefs and the emancipation of women in their right to self-determination outside the institutions of family life and marriage. Hutchinson was a significant figure in a period of American life named the Antinomian Controversy, and endured a public shaming and series of court trials over her highly personalized faith, and her penchant for women’s rights and religious tolerance.

After moving to London at the age of 14, Anne Marbury married the merchant John Hutchinson, and began to follow the Puritan teachings of minister John Cotton. John Cotton espoused a theology of absolute grace, the idea that the individual was able to connect with God through personal means and private spiritual worship, rather than strictly through formalized rules and rituals such as in the Anglican Church. As a Puritan, Cotton advocated for simplicity over formality, and eventually rebelled against the Anglican Church after twenty years in their service, moved to New England (1633) and became a most prominent minister and theologian in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The following year, the Hutchinsons and their 11 children (they had 15 altogether) followed John Cotton to the New World, settling in New Boston within the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Anne Hutchinson was confident in her religious convictions and began to hold weekly meetings with at least fifty in her home–first for women, and later for both men and women–to discuss the teachings of John Cotton and promote dissent against conformist religiosity and other ministers who were too controlling. Her beliefs and organizing against mainstream preachers led to the first major theological schism in American history–known as the Antinomian Controversy.

Anne Hutchinson subscribed to the idea of “covenant theology,” whereby Jesus’ covenant with his disciples and the future church are given greater significance than either Mosaic law or the subsequently emergent church laws and traditions from Europe. She believed that one could attain salvation from God through individual prayer and piety, whereas colonial ministers emphasized the doing of good works and maintaining moral purity, in order to ensure social conformity and their own power. Hutchinson’s beliefs were labeled radical, because they threatened and undermined the rule-based status quo, ministers with power, and the patriarchal ruling class.

A group of seven church ministers gathered at John Cotton’s home accused Hutchinson of holding heretical beliefs, including the dreaded “antinomianism,” a label which had been used by theologians since the early 1500’s to describe those who, under influence of the Protestant Reformation, placed a stronger emphasis on the notion that Christians could be saved by grace and faith instead of church laws. Despite their own rebellious tendencies, both Martin Luther and John Wesley, as well as other church leaders in power, wielded the term pejoratively to alienate those who they felt took the idea of church reformation too far, and there were several other groups accused of this sin including Calvinists, Jesuits, Quakers, Anabaptists, Mennonites and various Lutherans. Ironically, it was similar teachings by John Cotton that led Anne Hutchinson to the New World, though Cotton eventually turned against her due to pressure from his associates.

These private discussions eventually led to a series of fierce public debates called either the Antinomian Controversy or the Free Grace Controversy. Anne Hutchinson emphasized the Holy Spirit and the grace that came with releasing orthodoxy, whereas most colonial ministers, even though they were rebelling against the Church of England, came to increasingly emphasize orthodoxy within the colonies. Leaders even called for a day of fasting due to the emotional strain that the controversy had caused.

A public trial and interrogation began in 1637, in which Anne Hutchinson advocated for the idea that the Holy Spirit could dwell within individuals without need for external rituals of sanctification. She was a skilled debater and poignant orator who faced off against many public male figures, significantly Bay Colony governor John Winthrop who had ousted Hutchinson’s associate Henry Vane and banished her preacher friend Reverend John Wheelwright. The court adamantly condemned her beliefs and the way she inspired women and men alike, to worship freely and think for themselves. It was difficult for them to secure a legal conviction due to the fact that she was private in the way she communicated from within her home, though they succeeded in commuting a banishment, and she was publicly excoriated as a heretic and devil worshipper.

By 1938, she was separated from her children and placed on house arrest a few miles from her own home, requested to leave the colony within the year, and after a final court hearing months later, was eventually expelled permanently from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. John Cotton himself delivered the final statement, in which he appeared to be alarmed by the potentiality that the mixing of men and women which had occurred in her meetings would undermine the institution of marriage. In 1643 she was incidentally killed in an Indian-led raid at Pelham Bay, New York.

As a little-known result of Hutchinson’s trials, the Massachusetts Bay Colony decided to sponsor the education of future theologians and ministers, providing the foundation for what would eventually become Harvard College. Even though she was publicly shamed and accused of disturbing the peace of the colonies, Anne Hutchinson’s powerful struggle for independent worship and personalized godliness provided the foundation for the idea of the separation of church and state, which would slowly evolve and cement itself as a major tenet in the American Revolution. Anne Hutchinson’s foundational impact on women’s rights in the United States is unparalleled, leaving a contribution to the free emancipation of women from male ownership, advocating for civil liberties, and religion freedom. She left behind no published works, though her commanding statements at trial (such as “you have no power over my body, neither can you do me any harm”) have been quoted extensively and are noted for their depth of insight, conviction and unconventionality.

For Further Reading:

LaPlante, Eve. American Jezebel: The Uncommon Life of Anne Hutchinson, the Woman Who Defied the Puritans. San Francisco: HarperOne, 2005.

Winship, Michael. The Times and Trials of Anne Hutchinson: Puritans Divided. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2005.

c. 2015 Dr. Amy Elizabeth Champ


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