I’ve been traveling with an invisible companion this past week. I’ve taken her with me on a couple of planes, a bus and ferry ride, and an Uber pick-up from New Bedford to Providence. She has been my dinner companion and early morning guest. Channeling the young Cole Sear, while others were unable to notice her, she has not been far from my thoughts and I could envision “seeing” her walking around.
When the devout Puritan and deeply-committed Christian, named Anne Hutchinson was summoned to appear before the Massachusetts Bay Colony on a chilly day in November 1636, she was the 46 year-old mother of twelve living children, the grandmother of one, and was now pregnant for the sixteenth time. Normally, after crossing the Charles River by ferry from her home on the Shawmut Penninsula of Old Boston, she would travel the five miles to Cambridge on horseback or by coach. But icy conditions upon the roads and pathways risked breaking a horse’s leg. Her mandatory appearance before the 40 men led by Governor John Winthrop who would determine her fate would have to be met this time by traveling upon foot. It would take two and one-half hours to complete the trip (LaPlante, 2015, p. 14).
I don’t think I would have been a close friend to Anne Hutchinson. Accounting for the 400 years of separation between us and the typical determination, iron-tested will and overall physical stamina required of colonial Americans, she still comes across as far too strict for my style; her interpretations of Scripture are too narrow, her Calvinism too definitive, and her Quaker leanings way too constraining.
But I deeply admire her impressive courage and strongly-held faith. The “crime,” that had put her on the hot seat that bitterly frigid day in November was for hosting and leading home Bible studies. Over time, the gatherings had become increasingly popular, persuasive and a threat to the common order (and bruised egos) of the power structure found within the Puritan patriarchy. Her emphasis on “a covenant of grace” or inner confidence based solely on the sovereignty of God as surpassing “a covenant of works” or outward manifestations that proved one’s saving relationship with God may have proved reassuring to anxious Puritans worried about the security of their salvation, but it was a viable contrast to the many sermons preached by local clergy and the new world of strict moral obedience they sought to establish.
These early settlers had left their native England in favor of America for the cause of religious freedom and to establish, in Winthrop’s now widespread metaphor, a “City Upon a Hill,” a new Jerusalem and a visible manifestation of God’s kingdom on earth. But like the growing sentiments found in much of today’s American Christians, they desired religious freedom only for themselves, without any concern to protect the religious (or non-religious) freedom and expression of others.
The seriousness with which these restrictions were codified into law can be illustrated by the exacting and controlling details of their expectations. In September of 1634, they had approved laws where:
No person…shall hereafter make or buy any apparel with any lace on it, silver, gold, silk or thread, under the penalty of forfeiture of such clothes….All cutworks, embroidered or needlework caps, …all gold or silver girdles, hatbands, belts, rugs, beaver hats, are prohibited.” And “if any man shall judge the wearing of any….fashions…or hair…to be uncomely, or prejudicial to the common good, …then [he] shall have power to bind the party so offending to answer it at the next court.(LaPlante, 102)
It may have been easier to legislate against such “offensive” public behavior in plain sight, but as evident with Anne Hutchinson, they were equally concerned about behavior that occurred in the privacy of one another’s homes, and further desirous to advance their reach into the leanings of one another’s hearts, especially one belonging to a woman whose confident spirit would not yield to them or to any man, especially if it contradicted an exclusive reverence for God alone.
Anne Hutchinson’s whole-hearted commitment, and likely stroke of genius was appealing to God’s authority discerned by her personal experience, through readings and applications of Holy Scriptures and by her equally strong awareness of God’s confirming Holy Spirit. These factors transcended the rules, customs, or demands from any legislating body regardless of how pious and religious they claimed to be. Her “divinations” as she called them, were the true marks of one’s eternal status before God.
Governor Winthrop and his gang were unmoved. Anne and her followers needed to go. They had banished Roger Williams a little over a year previously. They would do the same the following year for Anne’s brother-in-law, John Wheelwright who would go on to found Exeter, New Hampshire. The American story can be told from this continuous struggle between those who use religion to oppress and abuse those they find disagreeable and those who use their religion to help and defend the very ones being oppressed and abused.
This tension within the Euro-American story stems from our earliest beginnings and it persists still. If you are inclined and committed to the enrichment possible by honoring a life of faith, such decisions are as pressing as ever. You must choose if your support and maintenance of a religious system is in order to be a force to control others or a power to invite their liberation.
The path to freedom has never been easy. We can ask Anne Hutchinson. She, along with family members and other followers were excommunicated from their Boston church and banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. For a while, they found a home in Narragansett Bay (now part of Rhode Island) near and aided by Roger William and his founding of the Providence Plantation. After a while, when Anne’s husband William died in 1642, she moved with her six youngest children again, further West to Long Island, New York. There, she and all but one of her children were tragically killed by members of the Algonquian Indian tribe.
My traveling with Anne Hutchinson was greatly aided by the excellent book, American Jezebel, by Eve LaPlante (2015). It was not only revealing of Anne’s amazing story, but incredibly helpful to more fully understand the temperament and practices of 17th Century America. The faithful few, who are diligently walking a path to ensure the ongoing advance of this freedom story in their times, are deeply aware. This commitment will put you at risk with your friends, your family and, for the most serious, with the ruling authorities. I pray it is worth it, if only to be passionately connected with some truly exceptional company along the way.