A Critical Look at Histories of Hutchinson and the Antinomians
by Brooke Schieb
In the seventeenth century, the Massachusetts Bay Colony was founded as a haven for Puritans, who sought religious freedom and harmony. In order to achieve this haven, the settlers in Massachusetts Bay devised a system of government that would serve as both a political and moral authority. Between 1636 and 1638 the relative harmony of the Massachusetts Bay Colony was shaken by an uprising that has become known as the Antinomian Controversy. At the center of this controversy was Anne Hutchinson, a Boston woman bold enough to challenge the teachings of local ministers and to criticize New England churches. Hutchinson was extraordinary for a variety of reasons. Her theology of “free grace” and her claim to have received immediate revelations from God were considered a dangerous deviation from Puritan theology. She was also a woman challenging the established male hierarchy of Puritan society. In addition, her theological ideas had important implications for political theory and attracted many followers in seventeenth-century New England. However, despite all that is known about Hutchinson’s life and the details of the Antinomian Controversy, there are no written records of her beliefs. Instead, contemporary historians, political scientists and feminists must interpret her actions, trial records and the accounts of her contemporaries to determine why she chose to challenge Puritan society in the way that she did.
Because little is known about why Anne Hutchinson acted as she did, she has become a veritable chalice into which historians, political scientists and feminists can pour their own ideas. As a result, interpretations of Anne Hutchinson encompass a wide variety of topics. Most notably there are those that believe that Hutchinson was the one of the first to spread liberal political philosophy in America. There are also others who view Hutchinson as a pioneer for women’s rights. However, instead of reflecting her beliefs, the articles and books written about Anne Hutchinson often just reflect the ideas of their authors.
The Antinomian Controversy
The Antinomian Controversy took place in Massachusetts between 1636 and 1638. Antinomians were by definition those who “set themselves against and above the law” (Adams 433). Led by Anne Hutchinson, they believed that the Christian elect, those chosen by God for salvation, should not be bound by the moral law, and should instead rely on the Covenant of Grace for salvation. In effect, this meant that a man’s good deeds could do nothing to earn him a place in heaven; instead, Christians could only rely on God’s grace for salvation. In the context of the Boston church, which already taught a Covenant of Grace, the objections of the Antinomians centered on the concept of sanctification.
According to Puritan theology, only God’s elect receive salvation through the Covenant of Grace. Although it was impossible for Puritan ministers and church members to know who among them had been chosen by God, it was widely accepted that through sanctification an individual’s works could serve as evidence of his salvation. Sanctification then is the outward act of leading a righteous life; and it was the concept of sanctification that led Anne Hutchinson and her followers to accuse the church of preaching a Covenant of Works. Such an allegation would have been extremely alarming to Puritans, who believed that under the Covenant of Works man is placed under the impossible burden of fulfilling God’s law a burden which could only lead to damnation.
The theological differences between the Antinomians and Puritans were not a result of a conflict between the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace, but rather a dispute over the interpretation of the Covenant of Grace. The Puritans held that Christians were saved not by works but by grace and that through the law an individual could grow in his relationship with God. Without the law an individual could never fully realize his sinful nature nor the extent of God’s love and God’s grace. (Hall 17)
Anne Hutchinson and the Antinomians, however, saw no connection between “free grace and man’s own righteousness…and therefore insisted on treating sanctification as a ‘work’” (Hall 17). According to Charles Adams: “Antinomianism was therefore the refuge of the libertine: if he was destined to be saved, he would be saved, all possible misdeeds to the contrary notwithstanding; if he was doomed to be lost, the rectitude of a life of restraint would avail him nothing” (Adams 435). Hutchinson believed any evidence of “striving after signs of grace was a sure sign that grace had not been granted” (Hall 18). Based on these beliefs Hutchinson accused all of the local clergy accept John Cotton of preaching the Covenant of Works.
Another issue that was central to the dispute between the Antinomians and the Puritans was the role of a minister in the life of the believer. Hutchinson and her followers believed that since sanctification could not serve as evidence of salvation, the only way for an individual to know if they were one of God’s elect was through immediate revelation from God. Because Hutchinson believed that piety was based on an inner awareness of the Spirit, “she could deny that the minister was needed as an intervening ‘means of grace’ between God and man” (Hall 18). This belief could only serve to lessen the power of Boston’s clergy.
What is most remarkable about the Antinomian Controversy is that its ideas were in large part developed and spread by Anne Hutchinson, a woman who though intelligent and knowledgeable lacked the authority to the Puritan Clergy. The controversy began in large part as a result of weekly and later biweekly meetings that Hutchinson held in her home. The initial purpose of these meetings was to bring the women of the Boston community together to discuss the content of John Cotton’s sermons. Such meetings were not discouraged by Puritan ministers. They were actually encouraged so long as the women did not challenge the teachings of the clergy, but merely sought to understand them and so long as the meetings consisted solely of women. However, Hutchinson became very popular among the women of the area and soon so many flocked to hear her teach that she began to hold a second meeting during the week which was attended by both men and women.
What was most controversial about Hutchinson’s teachings was their deviation from Puritan theology and her claim that aside from John Cotton, the Puritan clergy in New England preached the Covenant of Works. At the height of her popularity Hutchinson sometimes had sixty to eighty people in attendance at her meetings, which was nearly every inhabitant of seventeenth-century Boston. (Westerkamp 39) Clearly, the Boston clergy felt threatened by this challenge to their authority. As a result, they strove to silence the heretical teachings of Hutchinson before they spread throughout the colony and threatened the very establishment of the government and church in Massachusetts.
In October 1636, the ministers decided to determine the source of the heretical ideas that had spread throughout the church, and held a meeting between Anne Hutchinson, Cotton and the Reverend John Wheelwright, Hutchinson’s brother-in-law. The results of this initial conference were encouraging, for it seemed that both Cotton and Wheelwright agreed with the other ministers. However, soon after this conference Hutchinson’s followers in the Boston Church, proposed that Wheelwright be appointed to a ministerial position. This was a clear affront to the teachings of the current minister, the Reverend John Wilson, and the public disturbance that this episode caused led to another conference between the ministers. Two months later, the ministers met again with Cotton and Hutchinson, and this time they were less satisfied with the result; Cotton seemed to teeter between Antinomianism and Puritanism and Hutchinson maintained her accusation that they taught a Covenant of Works. (Hall 7)
On December 9, the controversy over Hutchinson’s teachings took on an even more pronounced role in the political realm. On this day, Massachusetts Governor Henry Vane, an admirer of Hutchinson and her teachings, announced that he planned to resign his office and leave the colony as a result of the unrest. Although Vane withdrew his resignation at the request of the Boston Church, implicit in his resignation was his concurrence with Hutchinson’s ideas.
After weeks of unresolved debate in the Boston Courts over the source of the problems, the Court decided to conclude its session on January 19 and call for a general fast so that an agreement could be reached. However, the fast-day sermon, delivered by John Wheelwright, only deepened the lines of division within the community. On May 27, the political aspect of the controversy came to a head when the elections for the governor and magistrates allowed the fundamentalist Puritans to regain political control of the colony. Vane was defeated and Winthrop once again became governor. (Hall 9)
Once the political aspect of the controversy was resolved, the Puritan fundamentalists set out to settle the theological issues of the controversy. They did so by holding a special synod meeting in Cambridge on August 30, where the “errors” of the Antinomians were identified and refuted. As a result at the next session of the General Court, which began November 2, the leaders of the Antinomians were disenfranchised and banished from the colony. (Hall 10) Interestingly, since Hutchinson was not considered a political member of the Puritan state, she was unable to physically participate in the Antinomians’ political protests and thus the court could only charge her with “countenancing” those who did. (Hall 311) When Hutchison was brought to trial, her charges dealt with her disrespect for the Boston clergy and her erroneous claims of theology; her punishment was excommunication and banishment from the colony. As John Winthrop claimed in his Short Story, Anne Hutchinson “had been the breeder and nourisher of all these distempers,” thus Hutchinson’s banishment marked the end of the Antinomian Controversy and the restoration of order in the town of Boston. (Hall 262)
Theology or Politics?
As we have seen Anne Hutchinson’s religious beliefs and teachings nearly caused the Puritan’s “city on a hill” to topple. Clearly, Hutchinson’s beliefs were rooted in strong convictions, as she risked harsh scrutiny and punishment for her actions. But what exactly were Anne Hutchinson’s convictions? As we have seen her beliefs took the shape of a theological dispute, but were Hutchinson’s objections to Puritanism purely theological? Given the close relationship between church and state in Puritan society there is evidence to suggest a political motivation to Hutchinson’s actions. Perhaps Anne Hutchinson was the first political liberal-the first American to rebel against a tyrannical form of authoritarian government.
Although such a statement may seem far-fetched, it does not seem so unbelievable that religious and political disputes would take an identical form in a society where the government and the church derived authority from the same source. The role of the Puritan government was to enforce strict adherence to God’s moral and civil law. This government’s legitimacy was derived wholly from Biblical law and all aspects of New England society were inseparably intertwined with religion. Since the government and society in New England were considered the direct work of God, planned especially for his elect, any attempt to overthrow it, or even to criticize it, was considered the most hideous of crimes. (Wertenbaker 75) According to the Platform of Church Discipline, which laid out the relationship between church and state in Puritan society, it was “the duty of the magistrate to take care of matters of religion…The end of the magistrate’s office [was] not only the quiet peaceable like of the subject in matters of righteousness and honesty, but also in matters of godliness, yea, of all godliness” (Wertenbaker 71). For Hutchinson to challenge Puritan theology then was not only blasphemy, but also a direct challenge to the legitimacy of the Puritan government. Although Hutchinson never directly addressed the political implications of her beliefs, implicit in her statements of theological belief are notions of liberal political philosophy.
It was Hutchinson’s doctrine of “free grace” that challenged the foundations of Puritan society the most. Although Hutchison, like Winthrop and other Puritans, believed in the sinfulness of human nature, her conception of the role of the state in controlling human nature would have been very different. As we have discussed, the structure of Puritan society was based on the need to enforce the holiness and piety of its inhabitants. Although it was widely accepted that salvation could not bring a perfect adherence to Biblical law, Winthrop and other Puritan magistrates hoped to create a government that compelled its citizens to follow this law as closely as possible. Hutchinson, on the other hand, believed that such concern over adherence to the law could only indicate a belief in the Covenant of Works. She felt it was unnecessary to provide evidence of justification through good works and would have also found it unnecessary for the state to enforce adherence to Biblical law. Although Hutchinson and her followers by no means advocated flagrant transgressions of the law, their denial of it’s necessity for salvation also represented a different conception of the role of government.
One of the most controversial elements of Hutchinson’s theology was her belief that Christians receive direct and immediate revelations from God as evidence of their salvation. For the Puritan clergy, this was an alarming departure from their theology; and for political scientists it is evidence of Hutchinson’s liberal notion of the individual. Like other Protestants, Hutchinson believed that through prayer, study and interpretation of the Bible the individual could come to understand God’s word: “Instead of unquestioning submission to human authority, no human authority whatever was allowed to intervene between man and God’s Word” (Adams 383). Protestants viewed the Bible and not the church as the ultimate authority and expression of God’s word. Most Protestants still recognized the importance of an organized church and the vital role that a minister played in helping individuals to interpret the Bible; but the authority of the church and the minister were based solely on the Bible. Hutchinson took the individualist notions of the Reformation to an extreme. She felt that her knowledge of the Bible and her intimate relationship with God proved a greater authority than that of the Boston church. Hutchinson’s claims of immediate revelations suggest her belief that the individual does not need a minister or a church to filter the word of God. Hutchinson, then, saw the individual as an entity independent of the church and similarly the state.
Charles Francis Adams, a nineteenth-century historian, addresses the political nature of Hutchinson’s beliefs in his book Three Episodes of Massachusetts History. In his account of the Antinomian Controversy Adams argued that Hutchinson’s theology was merely a means of achieving her political ends:
The, so-called, Antinomian controversy was in reality not a religious dispute, which was but the form that it took. In its essence that controversy was a great deal more than a religious dispute; it was the first of the many New England quickenings in the direction of social, intellectual and political development, New England’s earliest protest against formulas (Adams 367).
Essentially, Adams saw Hutchinson’s actions as a reaction against the rule of Puritan magistrates and characterized her movement as a revolt against the Puritan government: “She had attempted a premature revolt against an organized and firmly-rooted oligarchy of theocrats” (Adams 382).
What is especially interesting for our analysis is Adams’ characterization of the Puritans as politically conservative and of the Antinomians as liberals. According to Adams, Antinomianism was a liberal form of political philosophy, and Anne Hutchinson and her followers functioned as liberal dissenters within a conservative society. As Adams saw it, Hutchinson was the theological, and thus the ideological, leader of the Antinomians. Her primary dispute was with John Wilson, the minister in the Boston Church, whom she believed taught a Covenant of Works. Adams concedes that as a woman Hutchinson could not publicly participate in political aspects of the controversy. Still, through Henry Vane, Hutchinson’s liberal views were represented in the political realm.
Although Adams’ analysis of the Antinomian Controversy is convincing and historically accurate, his claim that Hutchinson’s actions were motivated solely by political convictions is somewhat flawed. As we have discussed, it was nearly impossible to discern the separation between church and state in Puritan society; after all, the citizens of the Massachusetts Bay colony were there because of strong religious convictions. Although Adams acknowledges and describes the religious beliefs of the Puritans, he also fails to take Hutchinson’s religious beliefs seriously. At several points in his texts, he dismisses the theological differences between the Puritans and the Antinomians, suggesting that differences were so infinitesimal that they are nearly impossible to discern. Although perhaps Adams is correct in assuming such matters would be considered unimportant by contemporary readers, to suggest that there were only insignificant differences between the two doctrines is unfounded and only reflects Adams’ lack of understanding of the theological issues at hand. Adams loses even more credibility when he suggests that Anne Hutchinson’s true objections to the teachings of John Wilson were not theological in nature, but instead based on her preferences in the personality, appearance and dress: “[in] the dress, the speech and faces of the clergy—lay the heart and the heat of the great Antinomian controversy” (Adams 392). In short, like so many others who have studied this controversy, Adams’ account seems to reflect his own biases and beliefs more than it does Anne Hutchinson’s.
A Feminist before Her Time
In the twentieth century, many have also looked on Anne Hutchinson as an early American feminist. As a woman in the conservative, male-dominated Puritan society, Anne Hutchinson’s only public identity was through her husband. Despite her intellectual nature and enthusiastic belief in God, Hutchinson’s role in the Puritan theocracy was limited. In church she was permitted only to listen, never to question the teachings of the minister, and in private she was encouraged to review the teachings of her minister rather than interpret the Bible on her own. According to Puritan theology, women had their place in the church and in society—and that place was as subordinates to men. Politically, women were also disenfranchised in favor of male authority. As Lyle Koehler observed, the limiting role of women in Puritan society seemed reason enough for a rebellion of the type Anne Hutchinson instigated:
The model English woman was weak, submissive, charitable, virtuous, and modest. Her mental and physical activity was limited to keeping the home in order, cooking, bearing and rearing children…she was urged to avoid books and intellectual exercise…and to serve her husband willingly, since she was by nature his inferior (Koehler 57).
Such qualities and expectations would not have appealed to a woman who, as Winthrop noted, was “of a haughty and fierce carriage, of a nimble wit and active spirit, and a very voluble tongue, more bold than a man” (Adams 381). Given this context, then, it seems reasonable that Hutchinson’s resistance to the Puritan order would have been attributed, at least in part, to her desire to carve out a place for women in Puritan society and politics.
There have been numerous books and articles written that interpret the Antinomian Controversy as something that was propelled by feminist ideology. At the base of these arguments is the notion that the Antinomian Controversy was actually a power struggle between men and women in Puritan society. Both Lyle Koehler and Ben Barker-Benfield examine Anne Hutchinson and the Antinomian Controversy in this way. Although each author identifies the inherent feminism in Anne Hutchinson’s actions differently, what unites each of these accounts is the notion that the theological disputes of the Antinomian Controversy were merely symptoms of her desire to create a role for women in the public sphere. What is most interesting about these accounts is that both of their conclusions—and the flaws with their conclusions have similar implications about the nature of the Anne Hutchinson’s beliefs.
In The Case of the American Jezebels: Anne Hutchinson and Female Agitation during the Years of Antinomian Turmoil, 1636-1640, Lyle Koehler presents a feminist analysis of Anne Hutchinson’s involvement in the Antinomian Controversy. The crux of Koehler’s argument is that Hutchinson used theology as a means of expressing her dissatisfaction with the role of women in Puritan society. “Because of the theologically based society in which [Hutchinson] lived, it was easy for her to ally herself with God and to express her self-confidence in religious debates with the leading intellectual authorities” (Koehler 78). According to Koehler, the relationship between men and women in Puritan society mirrored their perceived relationship between God and man: “as the woman realized that she could receive wealth, power, and status only through the man, her father or her husband, so the Antinomian realized that he or she should receive grace only through God’s beneficence” (Koehler 63). Thus by challenging the religious authority of the Puritan clergy, Antinomians could undermine the importance of the political and social authority garnered by men.
Koehler’s analysis is commendable in that is provides an accurate presentation of the theological nature of the controversy. Koehler is also careful to note that there is a difference between contemporary feminism and what he describes as the feminism of Anne Hutchinson. In his description of Puritan society he acknowledges the contemporary reader’s twenty—first century sensibilities about the role of women in society. What were considered social norms in the seventeenth century appear to the contemporary reader to be glaring examples of the oppression of women in Puritan society. As Koehler explains, it would have been impossible for Hutchinson to have been a feminist in the way that contemporary society views feminism. Instead, Koehler characterizes Anne Hutchinson’s actions to be a primitive and unconscious form of feminism: “Anne, although aware of the ‘backwardness’ of women as a group, did not look to intensified group activity as a remedy for woman’s downtrodden status. Her feminism consisted essentially of the subjective recognition of her own strength and gifts and the apparent belief that other women could come to the same recognition” (Koehler 66). Thus, Koehler argues, Hutchinson would not have conceived of feminism as it is known today.
Another interesting element of Koehler’s analysis is his commentary on the trial of Anne Hutchinson. Koehler argues that in her responses to the questions of the Puritan magistrates, Hutchinson attacked the legitimacy of the idea of the “nonspeaking, nonintellectual church member,” and thus expressed a sort of primitive feminism. (Koehler 65) To validate this claim, Koehler examines several of Hutchinson’s statements during her trial, attempting to reveal that despite courtesy and mock respect Anne Hutchinson did attempt to express feminist ideas in her examination before the Court. Koehler’s first use of this sort of interpretation is taken from the portion of the trial in which Hutchinson is charged with “prophesying”…she responds: “The men of Berea are commended for examining Paul’s Doctrine; we do no more [in our meetings] but read the notes of our teacher’s sermons, and then reason of them by searching the Scriptures.” According to Koehler such a statement had several levels of interpretation: it was “on one level an ‘innocent’ plea to the divines that women were only following Biblical prescription. On another level it was an attack on the ministers for presuming to have the final word on Biblical interpretation” (Koehler 65). Certainly, Koehler’s examination of Hutchinson’s statements is creative, but it also represents a major flaw in his analysis.
Although Koehler believes he is being balanced and fair in his interpretation of Antinomian and Puritan ideals, his bias against what he describes as the male—dominated Puritan autocracy is clearly evident throughout his analysis. As a result, Koehler has reduced what was largely a theological dispute to a means for reaching his own ends. Rather than acknowledge the strong religious convictions of the individuals on both sides of the controversy, Koehler characterizes the conflict as a power struggle between men and women: “The ministers were not as concerned with the important roles played by Codington, Wheelwright, Vane, and other male Antinomian leaders because none of these men threatened the power and status structure of society in the concrete way that Anne Hutchinson did” (Koehler 78). In this statement, the limitations of Koehler’s analysis become clear. Rather than acknowledge that Hutchinson was considered the ideological center of the controversy, Koehler has interpreted Anne Hutchinson’s actions—and the ministers’ responses to them—in a way that fits his own preconceived notions of Puritan society. In short, Koehler manipulates the events of the Antinomian controversy and Anne Hutchinson’s statements in her trial to produce the result he desires. Ultimately, Koehler’s article on Hutchinson only serves to further illustrate the malleability of Anne Hutchinson’s ideas and actions.
In Ben Barker-Benfield’s interpretation of Hutchinson’s beliefs, Anne Hutchinson and the Puritan Attitude toward Women, he arrives at the same general conclusion as Koehler. Like Koehler, Barker-Benfield identifies Antinomian theology to be more inclusive of women than that of the Puritans. According to Barker-Benfield women were completely excluded from Puritan society, and men dominated every aspect of politics and religion: “[men] controlled the terms of acceptance into church membership—as much social and formal recognition of salvation as an individual could get[…]men ran the society which expressed the covenant with God. And all men were, by definition, closer to God than women” (Barker-Benfield 68). But Hutchinson’s theology of immediate revelation questioned that belief, by opening the Protestant concept of the priesthood of all believers to women. According to Barker-Benfield, the idea that women could have direct contact with God also meant that they could assume the role of Christ’s bride more easily then men (as women were more accustomed to a subservient and submissive role): “If this sexual distinction had been made irrelevant to the relationship with God (as Hutchinson and her followers argued) then men could have thought of women as much closer to passive ‘bridehood’ to Christ than men were” (Barker-Benfield 86). Clearly such a usurpation of theological authority would have been alarming to the patriarchal Puritan clergy. Barker-Benfield then, like Koehler, sees the Antinomian Controversy as power struggle between men and women.
Barker-Benfield’s greatest error is his assumption that the Antinomian Controversy can be interpreted solely as a power struggle between men and women. Like Koehler, Barker-Benfield minimizes the importance of the Antinomians religious convictions. Although some of Barker-Benfield’s arguments in favor of the feminist nature of the controversy are compelling, his knowledge of Puritan theology seems limited to the aspects which he deems gender-biased. Throughout his essay, Barker-Benfield notes that Antinomianism was Hutchinson’s response to women’s need for a place in society. What Barker-Benfield ignores is the involvement of men such as Henry Vane and John Wheelwright in Hutchinson’s movement. If the lines of division between Puritanism and Antinomianism were truly sexual in nature, it seems that adherents to the different ideologies would be divided along lines of gender. It would also seem that most Puritan men would have been reluctant to join in Hutchinson’s movement, which (if considered as solely a feminist movement) could have only ensured them the loss of status and power in society.
What the analyses of Koehler and Barker-Benfield illustrate, then, is the manner in which Anne Hutchinson’s actions and beliefs can be interpreted to represent a number of philosophical ideologies. As for the feminist nature of the Antinomian Controversy, both Koehler and Barker-Benfield are correct to assume that the role of women in Puritan society was limiting, especially when compared to contemporary standards. However, Anne Hutchinson never expresses her beliefs in purely feminist terms. Instead, her beliefs about theology simply entail the sort of equality that would have granted women elevated status in Puritan society.
By all accounts, Anne Hutchinson was a remarkable woman. She was intelligent, witty and bold. So bold in fact, that as we have seen she challenged Puritan theology and thus the very foundations of Puritan society. The unique nature of the male-dominated theocracy in which Hutchinson lived and the lack of written records of Hutchinson’s beliefs both represent something of an anomaly. Anne Hutchison was primarily a religious dissenter, but she can also be seen as a liberal political dissenter and a feminist. Although it may never be clear what specific factors motivated Anne Hutchinson herself, the variety of interpretations of her actions suggests that the personal beliefs of political philosophers and historians may serve to shape their own analyses of historical figures.
Adams, Charles Francis. Three Episodes of Massachusetts History. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1892.
Barker-Benfield, Ben. “Anne Hutchinson and the Puritan Attitude toward Women.” Feminist Studies v. 1, no. 2 (1972): 65-96.
Dunn, Richard S., James Savage, and Laetitia Yeandle, eds. The Journal of John Winthrop1630-1649. London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1996.
Hall, David D. The Antinomian Controversy 1636-1638: A Documentary History. Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1968.
Koehler, Lyle. “The Case of the American Jezebels: Anne Hutchinson and Female Agitation during the Years of Antinomian Turmoil, 1636-1640.” The William and Mary Quarterly 31, pp. 55-78.
Lang, Amy Schrager. Prophetic Woman: Anne Hutchinson and the Problem of Dissent in the Literature of New England. California: University of California Press, 1987.
Wertenbaker, Thomas Jefferson. The Puritan Oligarchy: The Founding of American Civilization. New York: Scribner’s Press, 1947.
Westerkamp, Marilyn J. Women and Religion in Early America, 1600-1850: The Puritan and Evangelical Traditions. London: Routledge, 1999.
Williams, Selma. Divine Rebel: The Life of Anne Marbury Hutchinson. New York: Holt Rinehart and Winston, 1981.