American Jezebel: The Uncommon Life of Anne Hutchinson, the Woman Who Defied the Puritans
by Eve Laplante
A review by Laura Miller
America has never been one nation under God, not even at the very beginning, and
no one proved that more definitively than Anne Hutchinson, the Puritan dissident.
A founding mother in every sense of the word, she immigrated to America in 1634
and she is the direct ancestor of three presidents, one Democrat (Franklin Delano
Roosevelt, her sixth great-grandson) and two Republicans (George W. Bush, her
tenth great-grandson, and his father). At the dawn of the nation, Hutchinson set
the tone for American religion; faith would be the source of furious controversy
and hot accusations, a power that binds our people together and a force that tears
us apart. Since then, everything and nothing has changed.
Hutchinson had only been in Boston where she settled with her wealthy textile
trader husband, Will for a year or two before she became a troublemaker in
the eyes of the local authorities. It was John Winthrop, the first governor
of Massachusetts and her neighbor, who gave her the "American Jezebel"
label that Eve LaPlante, another direct descendant of Hutchinson's, uses as
a title for her new biography. Nowadays, a Jezebel is simply a hussy and
eventually, inevitably, some aspersions would be cast on Anne Hutchinson's chastity
but by comparing her to the biblical queen who worshipped Phoenician gods
while her husband Ahab favored Jehovah, Winthrop meant to call Hutchinson a
In 1647, Hutchinson was dragged before one of those nightmarishly stacked colonial
courts (similar to the ones the Salem Witch Trial defendants would face 45 years
later), and ordered to recant her "heresies." Her trial is the centerpiece
of American Jezebel, and the most famous event in Hutchinson's life;
it's been likened to the trial of Joan of Arc. Hutchinson considered herself
a latter-day Daniel in the lions' den, but Jesus before the Pharisees also comes
to mind (though Hutchinson would never have dared compare herself to Christ).
According to historian Edmund Morgan, Hutchinson proved herself to be "brilliant,"
and "the intellectual superior" of the magistrates "in everything
except political judgment, in everything except the sense of what is possible
in this world."
Astonishingly, she nearly won an acquittal, but in the end, as was probably
always intended by the Massachusetts authorities, she was banished. She left
to become one of the co-founders of Rhode Island and a symbol of the fight for
freedom of conscience for generations to come. This is all the more impressive
when you consider that, at 46, she was pregnant for the 16th time during her
What was Hutchinson's heresy? The question is tricky and, some historians argue,
largely irrelevant. What irked the leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony was
the following Hutchinson had acquired for the scriptural discussion groups she
conducted in her home. The daughter of an unorthodox preacher who ran afoul
of the authorities in England in his outspoken youth, she had high standards
in ministers and no compunction about criticizing those who fell short. The
panel of magistrates Hutchinson appeared before included several of the ministers
she had disparaged and their allies as well. She undermined their leadership
and, in the eyes of Winthrop, threatened the very future of the settlement.
"Whereas there was much love and union and sweet agreement amongst us before
she came," said one of her judges, "yet since [then] all union and
love hath been broken, and there hath been censurings and judgings and condemnings
of one another." Anne Hutchinson had to go.
Whatever their significance, LaPlante makes a valiant and remarkably successful
effort to explain the doctrinal differences between Hutchinson and her accusers.
All these people were religious fanatics by most contemporary standards, hardcore
Calvinist Congregationalists who believed in the predestined salvation of select
souls and the inevitable damnation of the rest. The quarrel among them lay in
the significance of "works," that is, pious observances such as attending
church and other virtuous activities. To Hutchinson's mind, the magistrates
put too much emphasis on good behavior, which of course included obedience to
church authorities. Her sympathies lay closer to Antinomianism, which held that
true Christians, as the beneficiaries of God's irrevocable grace the only
power capable of saving an otherwise hopelessly corrupt and degraded humanity
were not bound by worldly laws.
This didn't mean that Hutchinson condoned immoral behavior she was an extremely
pious person by most standards she just didn't recognize the magistrates'
authority to dictate how the godly should behave. Or the suggestion that those
who disobeyed them might not be saved, a notion she considered too close to
a "covenant of works." As LaPlante points out, Hutchinson "saw
God in the spirit and in inspiration" and "focused on an individual's
intimate relationship with Christ, the indwelling spirit." In this, she
was a pioneer. Her "desire to look within for guidance is characteristic
of the distinctively American faith in the power of the individual conscience,"
LaPlante writes. Hutchinson set an example not only for the early Quakers (who
drew members from the ranks of her followers) but also the Transcendentalists
and perhaps even the mix-and-match spirituality of today.
When Hutchinson's supporters established their settlement in Rhode Island after
her banishment in 1638, they drafted an agreement called the Portsmouth Compact,
which stated that "no person within the said colony, at any time hereafter,
shall be in any wise molested, punished, disquieted or called into question
on matters of religion so long as he keeps the peace." Along with a
similar item in the 1634 charter of the colony of Maryland, this rule contributed
directly to the portion of the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United
States guaranteeing freedom of religion. (Hutchinson has also been given indirect
credit for the founding of Harvard College, created by the Massachusetts establishment
to educate young clergymen on how to fend off the likes of Anne.)
But for those historians, such as David Hall, who see the persecution of Hutchinson
as "not about matters of doctrine, but about power and freedom of conscience,"
her real transgression lay in her challenge to the ruling powers of the colony,
and this was inextricably tied to her sex. A midwife (who delivered Winthrop's
own child shortly before he presided over her trial), she counseled her patients
at moments of great vulnerability and impressed many Bostonian women with her
charismatic command of the scripture. This led to women's meetings at Hutchinson's
home, more or less condoned by the authorities. But then the women began to
bring their husbands, including some of the most influential men in the colony.
As a woman, Hutchinson wasn't allowed to speak out in church, but her male followers
had the right to question the ministers she disapproved of, often to embarrassing
effect. One congregation nearly mutinied when a Winthrop crony was appointed
to lead it.
If Hutchinson had been born a man, some historians argue, she might have found
a place in her society as a minister. She might have carved out a life like
that of John Cotton, the unorthodox founder of Congregationalism, Hutchinson's
teacher and the man her family had followed to Boston when he was forced to
leave England. On the other hand, she might have turned out like the renegade
Rev. Roger Williams, another early settler of Rhode Island, who was driven out
of Boston for voicing a variety of objectionable views, most notably the belief
that the English had no right to claim Indian lands or subject Native Americans
to forced conversions. Williams conducted a pamphlet feud with Cotton, set off
when he published "The Bloody Tenet of Persecution," a tract in support
of religious freedom. Cotton then put out "The Bloody Tenet Washed and
Made White in the Blood of the Lamb." Williams responded with "The
Bloody Tenet Made Yet More Bloody by Mr. Cotton's Endeavor to Wash It White
in the Blood of the Lamb."
Nevertheless, a major component of the complaint against Hutchinson was voiced
by one of the magistrates when he scolded, "you have stepped out of your
place ... You have rather been a husband than a wife; and a preacher than a
hearer; and a magistrate than a subject." She could have played none of
the more powerful roles without also being a man. To have any public profile
at all was considered shameful in a woman, and here even her admirers such
as Nathaniel Hawthorne, who wrote about Hutchinson and found a model for the
adulterous Hester Prynne in her defiance can't seem to avoid confusing her
outspokenness with an entirely different kind of brazen behavior. Hutchinson's
enemies tried to smear her with utterly unfounded accusations of "Familism,"
affiliation with a sect advocating free love, but even more sympathetic observers
linked her notoriety with, as Hawthorne wrote, "a flash of carnal pride."
There's not the slightest reason to suspect Hutchinson of sexual transgression.
Her marriage appears to have been long and happy, and her husband, when asked
to persuade her back to the church, refused, describing her as "a dear
saint and a servant of God." LaPlante, who is particularly good on the
sexual mores of the Puritans, notes that, while adultery was a capital offense
in the colony, the colonists weren't conventionally priggish. They believed
that conception couldn't occur unless the female partner experienced pleasure.
The fact that Anne Hutchinson got pregnant roughly once every 18 months for
the 22 years of her marriage indicates a particularly gratifying relationship
and an incredible physical stamina, but it hardly suggests a seductress. Yet
the fact that she was willing to stand before the court and debate religious
matters got somehow mixed up with whorishness in the mind of more than one male
This, as LaPlante writes, traces the vein of an ongoing ambivalence about powerful
public women in America. At the time, the ever-resourceful Hutchinson tried
to use it in her defense. Since, as a woman, she could by definition have no
public voice, everything that she had said in her home meetings and conversing
with ministers was spoken in private, and therefore not necessarily a matter
for a public court. If there was shame in hauling a woman and her thoughts into
the commons, she was certainly not the guilty party. Cotton initially backed
her up. But at the moment when Hutchinson seemed to have beaten the odds and
escaped punishment, she reversed her luck by deciding to lecture the entire
assembly on her own spiritual journey and beliefs.
It's precisely because this statement, unlike Hutchinson's private teachings,
was spoken publicly that we still have it, and her testimony is virtually the
only documentation of a woman's voice from that time. (She was the first woman
ever tried ," LaPlante writes, "it is almost as though women did not
exist." What Hutchinson lost in personal comfort as a result of being cast
into exile, she gained in a legacy.in an American court.) "In the paper
record of early America LaPlante believes that Hutchinson, who read a transcript
of the previous day's trial before she launched into her admonition of the magistrates
the following day, knew this and was galvanized by seeing her ideas officially
transcribed for posterity. If she had not made the seemingly self-defeating
choice to expound on them further, she would be only dimly remembered today.
Whatever martyrdom she suffered was less on behalf of her Antinomian beliefs
than it was for freedom of religion itself. Ironically, that gives even an embattled
atheist reason to refer to this Puritan wife as "a dear saint."