Although her exact birth date is uncertain,1 on July 20, 1591, the infant Anne Marbury was baptized in Alford, Lincolnshire, England. The first female religious leader among North America’s early European settlers, Anne Marbury Hutchinson was the daughter of an outspoken clergyman silenced for criticizing the Church of England. Better educated than most men of the day, she spent her youth immersed in her father’s library.
At twenty-one, Anne Marbury married William Hutchinson and bore the first of their fourteen children. The Hutchinsons became adherents of the preaching and teachings of John Cotton, a Puritan minister who left England for America. In 1634, the Hutchinson family followed Cotton to New England, where religious and political authority overlapped.
Many criminal laws in the early New England colonies were based on the Bible, especially the Old Testament. Often called “Bible Commonwealths,” the New England colonies sought guidance from the scriptures in regulating the lives of their citizens.
Serving as a skilled herbalist and midwife in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Anne Hutchinson began meeting with other women for prayer and religious discussion. Her charisma and intelligence soon also drew men, including ministers and magistrates, to her gatherings. She emphasized the individual’s relationship with God, stressing personal revelation over institutionalized observances and absolute reliance on God’s grace rather than on good works as the means to salvation. Hutchinson’s views challenged religious orthodoxy, while her growing power as a female spiritual leader threatened established gender roles.
Called for a civil trial before the General Court of Massachusetts in November 1637, Hutchinson ably defended herself against charges that she had defamed the colony’s ministers and that as a woman she had dared to teach men. Her extensive knowledge of Scripture, her eloquence, and her intelligence allowed Hutchinson to debate with more skill than her accusers. Yet because Hutchinson claimed direct revelation from God and argued that “laws, commands, rules, and edicts are for those who have not the light which makes plain the pathway,” she was convicted and banished from the colony, a sentence confirmed along with formal excommunication in the ecclesiastical trial that followed.
Refusing to recant, Hutchinson accepted exile and in 1638 migrated with her family to Roger Williams’ new colony of Rhode Island, where she helped found the town of Portsmouth. After her husband died in 1642, Hutchinson moved to Dutch territory near Long Island Sound (across from an area now known as Co-op City, along New York’s Hutchinson River Parkway, named for Anne Hutchinson). In 1643, Hutchinson and six of her children were killed by Siwanoy Indians, possibly with the encouragement of Puritan authorities. “Proud Jezebel has at last been cast down,” was the supposed comment of Hutchinson’s nemesis, Massachusetts Governor John Winthrop.
- During Hutchinson’s lifetime, England still followed the Old, or Julian, Calendar, even though in 1582 much of the rest of Europe had adopted the modern New, or Gregorian Calendar, which differed by ten days at that time. Thus Hutchinson’s baptism actually occurred on what would be July 30 on today’s calendar. (Return to text)
- Many British colonies in North America were settled in the seventeenth century by men and women who fled Europe rather than compromise passionately-held religious convictions. See the Library of Congress’s online exhibition Religion and the Founding of the American Republic. The first section of the exhibition, America as a Religious Refuge: the Seventeenth Century, provides insight into the lives of the Puritans and others who created the “Bible Commonwealths.”
- American Treasures of the Library of Congress includes several items highlighting the early history of Massachusetts, including “America’s First Book,” printed in 1640 in Cambridge, Massachusetts; the first complete Bible printed in America, published in Cambridge in 1663; the “General Fundamentals” of the Plymouth Colony; and the eighteenth-century poetry of Phillis Wheatley.
- Read Today in History features on John Smith, Roger Williams, and the Salem Witch trials for relevant background on the early American colonies.