Anne Marbury Hutchinson is one of the most famous women in American history and yet few people understand exactly what she did. In order to give some context, it is necessary to understand a little about the founding of Massachusetts. Most people, if asked, associate the founding of Massachusetts with the Pilgrims and the Mayflower, as well as with the desire for greater religious freedom.
In fact, the Massachusetts Bay Colony was largely settled by Puritans, a diverse religious group which believed that the Church of England was corrupt and needed to be "purified" of its Catholic tendencies. Puritans came in a spectrum of beliefs - from ones who believed in most aspects of the Church of England to those who took serious issue with the teachings and rituals. The Pilgrims were a very specific group of Puritans, ones who believed that the Church of England was so corrupt that they needed to separate from it. Pilgrims are often called Separatists for this reason. The early Puritans settled initially in Plymouth and Cape Cod, which was only later annexed to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, whose main port was at Boston.
In England, under a series of rulers but especially under King Charles I, Puritans were persecuted. Many of them found it easier to leave the country than to continue to worship in secret. The Pilgrims went first to the Netherlands, then traveled on the Mayflower (and other ships) to the New World in 1620. Puritans began settling in Massachusetts in great numbers in the 1620s and 1630s, a time known as the "Great Migration".
Famously, Governor John Winthrop stated that he wanted to make the Massachusetts Bay Colony as a "city on a hill", one that would be closer to God and a purely devout state than others. It would be a shining light to which others could aspire, something to look up to. Massachusetts at this time did not have any separation of church and state, so the religious leadership held great sway over the governance of towns and the colony as a whole. Ironically, despite fleeing a land for its religious intolerance and persecution, Puritan leadership set up an equally rigid and intolerant society within the New World.
Anne Marbury was the daughter of Reverend Francis Marbury and Bridget Dryden. Anne's father, Rev. Marbury, was himself a controversial figure in the church, and was jailed for his Puritan beliefs when Anne was a child. Anne was baptized on July 20, 1591 at Alford, Lincolnshire, England. On August 6, 1612, she married William Hutchinson, a textile merchant, at St. Mary's Parish at London, England.
In July 1634, at the tail end of the Great Migration, Anne, William and their children emigrated to the New World, arriving on September 18th and settling in Boston. Anne quickly took on a leadership role in the church and the community, serving as a midwife. Anne also held weekly meetings with other woman to discuss the Sunday sermons. These meetings began attracting men as well as women, and certain religious leaders began questioning Anne's activities. At the time, women were not allowed to preach, although the meeting of groups of women to discuss scriptures was permitted and was not especially uncommon. Anne's weekly meetings, however, had more of a sermonizing quality especially in the way that she expressed her beliefs and questioned those of the Puritan leadership in Massachusetts. The fact that men were listening to her ideas may also have contributed to the dismay of the clergy.
According to most historians, the biggest conflict between Anne Hutchinson's beliefs and that of the Puritan leadership was her belief in the covenant of grace versus the covenant of works. Put simply (far more simply than most historians or theologians would like), the covenant of grace states that God decides who will be saved through his grace or blessing, and that it is not strictly necessary to do good works (to behave well) in order to be saved. In other words, good works will not earn you a place in heaven, because God's grace is all you need. Anne was not exactly advocating that behaving badly would win you a place in heaven. It was more that those who were already saved (whom God had graced) would naturally demonstrate good works through their faith.
For the Puritan leadership, this was not exactly a new debate. Similar theories had been proposed by other Puritan leaders, including John Cotton, Anne's minister, and much-admired minister of the Boston church. Many members of the Boston church, perhaps influenced by Anne's ideas, were in general agreement with the ideas. However, some have suggested that the combination of Anne's ideas and the fact that they were coming from a woman led to the decision to brand her an antinomian heretic and excommunicate her. I also think that because Puritan leaders were also the leaders in government, it was probably an alarming thought to think that people might be listening to Anne's ideas. Imagine what could happen if people believed that they were saved and didn't have to behave well. Far better that they live in fear that God might not grace them if they didn't demonstrate good works.
In addition, if God's grace was truly saving, the need for the church and clergy was diminished substantially. The saved could have a more personal relationship with their faith and with God directly. Even the Bible becomes less important in this relationship with God and traditional demarcations of certain days of the week for worship become less important. With good reason, the Puritan leadership feared that these beliefs could diminish their power and community well-being in the colony. John Winthrop, himself, indicated that this controversy between the covenant of grace versus works was one of the most glaring errors Anne Hutchinson made: "That the Holy Ghost dwells in a justified person, and that no sanctification can help to evidence to us our justification."
Within three years of her settlement in New England, Anne was tried and convicted of heresy, despite her effective use of scriptures to defend herself and her insistence that her beliefs were valid. In 1637, she was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony by Governor John Winthrop.
In 1638, Anne Hutchinson established a settlement on the island of Aquidneck (Rhode Island) with some of her followers. Little information about her life in Rhode Island survives. After her husband, William Hutchinson, died in 1642, Anne removed with her younger children to an isolated, wooded area on Long Island Sound (now Scarsdale, New York). In 1643, Anne, all of her servants and her younger children, except one, were killed by Indians. Her ten-year-old daughter, Susannah, was the sole survivor of this massacre.