America’s first feminist was also, according to a monument in the State House in Boston, a “courageous exponent of civil liberty and religious toleration.”
Her name was Anne Hutchinson.
Her story is bound to the “antinomian” or “free grace” controversy involving both religion and gender. It raged in Massachusetts for the better part of two years, from 1636 to 1638. She dared to challenge church doctrine as well as the role of women in even discussing such things in a male-dominated society.
Antinomianism literally means “against the law” and was a term of derision applied against Hutchinson and her “free grace” followers. While the Puritan establishment argued that Christian understanding derived from scripture alone, the antinomians placed additional emphasis on an “inner light” by which the Holy Spirit imparted wisdom and guidance to believing individuals, one at a time. The Protestant leaders of Massachusetts saw antinomianism as dangerously heretical.
In England where she was born in 1591, Hutchinson had followed the teachings of the dynamic preacher John Cotton. When Cotton was compelled to leave the country in 1633, Hutchinson and her family followed him to New England. There she would live until her death 10 years later, stirring up one fuss after another and serving as an active midwife and caregiver to the sick simultaneously. That she found the time to do all this while raising 15 children of her own is a tribute to her energy and passion.
Hutchinson organized discussion groups attended by dozens of women who were supposed to remain quiet and subordinate to their husbands, particularly in matters of religion and governance. But Hutchinson’s meetings were full of critical talk about the “errors” in recent sermons and the intolerant ways in which the men of Massachusetts ran the colony.
In November 1637, Gov. John Winthrop arranged for Hutchinson to be put on trial on the charge of slandering the ministers of Massachusetts Bay. He declared that she had “troubled the peace of the commonwealth and churches” by promoting unsanctioned opinions and holding unauthorized meetings in her home.
The first day of the trial went reasonably well for her. One biographer, Richard Morris, said she “outfenced the magistrates in a battle of wits.” On the second day, she cut loose with this warning:
You have no power over my body, neither can you do me any harm—for I am in the hands of the eternal Jehovah, my Saviour…Take heed how you proceed against me – for I know that God will ruin you and your posterity and this whole colony.
In one stroke, Hutchinson handed the authorities all the evidence of “sedition” and “contempt of court” that they needed. She was convicted, labeled an instrument of the devil, banished from Massachusetts Bay and excommunicated by church officials.
Hutchinson, her husband William, and their children departed Boston in April 1638. They trudged for nearly a week in the snow to get to Rhode Island, founded as a haven for persecuted minorities. Five years later, Anne and her entire family but for one daughter were massacred by Siwanoy Indians.
As a courageous woman of conscience, Anne Hutchinson planted seeds of liberty and toleration that helped establish a new nation barely a century later.
Lawrence W. Reed, a resident of Newnan, is president of the Foundation for Economic Education. He writes about exceptional people, including many from his book, “Real Heroes: Inspiring True Stories of Courage, Character and Conviction.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org