The Controversy of Anne Hutchinson

Anne Hutchinson was educated by her English father, and was a devout and intelligent wife and mother who left the church of England and, along with her husband William, followed their minister, John Cotton, to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1634. In the infant colony of The New World, her outspokenness about her personal revelations and interpretations of the Bible put her at odds with the Puritan ministers of the colony, and eventually with the Governor, John Winthrop, who, acting as her judge and interrogator, banished her from the colony, along with her brother-in-law, the minister John Wheelwright, and Mrs. Hutchinson was later excommunicated from the church of Boston under the direction of the minister John Wilson. Mrs. Hutchinson was killed by Indians in 1643, and she is known for sparking the Antinomian Controversy of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Today, her life and death still spark controversy, as we attempt to interpret her place in history, and her relationship to the truth of scripture and the authority of the church.

In the controversy of Anne Hutchison, I find two polar opposite positions regarding her plight, excluding, of course, the false notion that hers was feminism struggling against an oppressive patriarchy, a banner the modern feminist would unreasonably attempt to fly over the life and death of Anne Hutchinson. The two more reasonable, yet opposing positions are the one, that she was clearly a heretic and subversive to the Christian community, and the other, that she was a persecuted Christian who followed the dictates of her own conscience in obedience to the Spirit and the scripture. I find this unsettled controversy to be a profoundly significant controversy, for it represents to me something of personal, as well as universal significance to the church of Jesus Christ.

There seems to me to be no clear record of Anne Hutchinson’s beliefs, except that of her trial, for no one quotes either statements or journal entries, or written records of her personal beliefs, other than her statements, and those of her accuser’s, as well as defenders, recorded in her trial transcript. I suppose it would be necessary for me to learn more about Wheelwright’s beliefs, for that might cast light on Hutchinson’s, but not necessarily so. However, since Governor Winthrop ties Anne Hutchinson’s sedition to that of Wheelwright’s, it is clear to me that she found herself on trial, less for heretical beliefs, and more for political reasons, as did John Wheelwright, for that is mentioned as the basis for her guilt in the Governor’s opening statement at her trial, and Wheelwright was convicted, not of heresy, but of “contempt & sedition” for having “purposely set himself to kindle and increase” bitterness within the colony.

Although Governor Winthrop “thought reverendly” of Wheelwright’s talents and piety, he felt that he was “apt to raise doubtful disputations…” In his journal, Governor Winthrop criticized, as dangerous errors, Anne Hutchison’s beliefs “that the person of the Holy Ghost dwells in a justified person, and that no sanctification can help to evidence to us our justification.” Neither of these could be considered error, so long as Mrs. Hutchinson believed that, regarding sanctification, the common notion in the colony at that time was outward and legalistic in nature, rather than inward and spiritual, which she certainly did.

Since Wheelwright was convicted, not of heresy, but of political sedition, it seems reasonable to me that Anne Hutchinson’s beliefs were far more orthodox than some have been willing to concede, and that she was seen as a political threat, perhaps even more so than a spiritual one, since, as was the case in the colony’s coordinated power of church and state, the establishment of religion is often married to the politics of man’s hunger for power and control. This is further borne out by the fact that, because of concern over her heterodox beliefs, she was examined by a conference of ministers when she first arrived at the colony, and was deemed by them to be suitable for church membership.

At any rate, I find two key defenses for Anne Hutchinson’s orthodoxy in her trial, as well as a few profound issues raised by her trial in regard to positional authority, as opposed to spiritual authority that is based upon the life and light of Christ within by His indwelling Spirit. As to the two key statements in her defense, they are as follows:

Mr. Leveret: To my best remembrance when the elders did send for her, Mr. Peters did with much vehemency and intreaty urge her to tell what difference there was between Mr. Cotton and them, and upon his urging of her she said “The fear of man is a snare, but they that trust upon the Lord shall be safe.” And being asked wherein the difference was, she answered that they did not preach a covenant of grace so clearly as Mr. Cotton did, and she gave this reason of it: because that as the apostles were for a time without the spirit so until they had received the witness of the spirit they could not preach a covenant of grace so clearly.

Mr. Cotton: I did not think I should be called to bear witness in this cause and therefore did not labor to call to remembrance what was done; but the greatest passage that took impression upon me was to this purpose. The elders spake that they had heard that she had spoken some condemning words of their ministry, and among other things they did first pray her to answer wherein she thought their ministry did differ from mine. How the comparison sprang I am ignorant, but sorry I was that any comparison should be between me and my brethren and uncomfortable it was. She told them to this purpose that they did not hold forth a covenant of grace as I did. But wherein did we differ? Why she said that they did not hold forth the seal of the spirit as he doth. Where is the difference there? Say they, why saith she, speaking to one or other of them, I know not to whom. You preach of the seal of the spirit upon a work and he upon free grace without a work or without respect to a work; he preaches the seal of the spirit upon free grace and you upon a work. I told her I was very sorry that she put comparisons between my ministry and theirs, for she had said more than I could myself, and rather I had that she had put us in fellowship with them and not have made that discrepancy. She said, she found the difference….

This was the sum of the difference, nor did it seem to be so ill taken as it is and our brethren did say also that they would not so easily believe reports as they had done and withal mentioned that they would speak no more of it, some of them did; and afterwards some of them did say they were less satisfied than before. And I must say that I did not find her saying that they were under a covenant of works, nor that she said they did preach a covenant of works.

I think the above clearly defends Mrs. Hutchinson against the accusations of the court. However, the following quote, while it most clearly states her beliefs, and the reason for them, and so profoundly declares the heart of the entire controversy, also, indefensibly declares the grounds by which the court condemned her, and by which religious spirits have condemned those of personal spirituality throughout church history. She eloquently states the Spirit’s revelation to her in the following:

Mrs. H.: If you please to give me leave I shall give you the ground of what I know to be true. Being much troubled to see the falseness of the constitution of the Church of England, I had like to have turned Separatist. Whereupon I kept a day of solemn humiliation and pondering of the thing; this scripture was brought unto me–he that denies Jesus Christ to be come in the flesh is antichrist. This I considered of and in considering found that the papists did not deny him to be come in the flesh, nor we did not deny him–who then was antichrist? Was the Turk antichrist only? The Lord knows that I could not open scripture; he must by his prophetical office open it unto me. So after that being unsatisfied in the thing, the Lord was pleased to bring this scripture out of the Hebrews. he that denies the testament denies the testator, and in this did open unto me and give me to see that those which did not teach the new covenant had the spirit of antichrist, and upon this he did discover the ministry unto me; and ever since, I bless the Lord, he hath let me see which was the clear ministry and which the wrong. Since that time I confess I have been more choice and he hath left me to distinguish between the voice of my beloved and the voice of Moses, the voice of John the Baptist and the voice of antichrist, for all those voices are spoken of in scripture. Now if you do condemn me for speaking what in my conscience I know to be truth I must commit myself unto the Lord.
Mr. Nowel [assistant to the Court]: How do you know that was the spirit?

Mrs. H.: How did Abraham know that it was God that bid him offer his son, being a breach of the sixth commandment?

Dep. Gov.: By an immediate voice.

Mrs. H.: So to me by an immediate revelation.

Dep. Gov.: How! an immediate revelation.

Mrs. H.: By the voice of his own spirit to my soul. I will give you another scripture, [Jeremiah] 46: 27-28–out of which the Lord showed me what he would do for me and the rest of his servants. But after he was pleased to reveal himself to me I did presently, like Abraham, run to Hagar. And after that he did let me see the atheism of my own heart, for which I begged of the Lord that it might not remain in my heart, and being thus, he did show me this (a twelvemonth after) which I told you of before…. Therefore, I desire you to look to it, for you see this scripture fulfilled this day and therefore I desire you as you tender the Lord and the church and commonwealth to consider and look what you do. You have power over my body but the Lord Jesus hath power over my body and soul; and assure yourselves thus much, you do as much as in you lies to put the Lord Jesus Christ from you, and if you go on in this course you begin, you will bring a curse upon you and your posterity, and the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.

The court then found her guilty of all accusations based upon this one revelation, as we see in the court’s judgment:

Gov.: I am persuaded that the revelation she brings forth is delusion.
[The trial text here reads:] All the court but some two or three ministers cry out, we all believe it–we all believe it. [Mrs. Hutchinson was found guilty]

Gov.: The court hath already declared themselves satisfied concerning the things you hear, and concerning the troublesomeness of her spirit and the danger of her course amongst us, which is not to be suffered. Therefore if it be the mind of the court that Mrs. Hutchinson for these things that appear before us is unfit for our society, and if it be the mind of the court that she shall be banished out of our liberties and imprisoned till she be sent away, let them hold up their hands.

She was banished from the colony based upon her personal revelation from God and their opinion that it was delusional. She prophesied, not the failure of the colony, as some have said, but of a curse upon those of them who would “put the Lord Jesus Christ from you” by doing it to the least of His brethren, and that curse would be upon them and their posterity.

Her prophecy may well have been fulfilled, for one of her greatest detractors, the minister John Wilson, perhaps in order to boost declining membership in the Boston church, supported the church synod’s Half-Way Covenant, which allowed members to be received into the church without having testified to a conversion experience, but who appeared to live moral lives. Wilson, who oversaw Mrs. Hutchinson’s excommunication, would eventually oversee the execution of two Quakers, whose only crimes were their Quaker evangelism. Charles Chauncy, a minister of the Boston church for sixty years, opposed the Great Awakening under Whitfield, and today, the First Church of Boston has fallen to the very pit of apostasy, as it is now a Unitarian Universalist “church”; a church that could in no wise even be considered a Christian church. How great was her fall!

Many have accused Mrs. Hutchison of many wild and heretical beliefs. I suppose that if the minister Mr. Wheelwright believed and preached these heresies, one might well surmise that she held to them as well, but that cannot be proven, and he was neither accused nor convicted of either. However, based solely upon Mrs. Hutchinson’s own testimony and that of her defenders, as well as accusers and judges (who were one and the same), at the trial, I tend to reject all such claims of her heresies. I believe the entire controversy is that of the controversy over those who still labor under the law, and therefore as ministers of the law preach death, and those who have been freed from the law of sin and death, and who are no longer under the tutelage of the law, having been born of God, and therefore brought into grace by which they now stand, as able ministers of the New Covenant of grace, now preach life.

For the Puritans of the new colony, salvation was not an event, but a lifelong struggle, and this lifelong struggle, for the individual was, in the words of Stephen Marini, Historian of Religion at Wellesley College, “relentless, difficult, arduous, but fantastic social glue,” that served Winthrop’s interest in holding together a fragile fledgling colony. The Puritans of the new colony believed, and Winthrop needed them to believe, that it was pride alone that could embolden someone to declare their justification before a holy God.

I believe that the heart of the matter is that Mrs. Hutchinson knew, as does anyone truly born of God, that those who do not know, through personal experience, that they have been born of God and translated from darkness into the kingdom of His dear Son, have certainly never been so. If one doesn’t know that they have been born of God and justified by His grace, then they haven’t been, and they can no more be able ministers of a New Covenant that they themselves are excluded from, than they could be considered sealed by the Holy Spirit as children of God, and therefore heirs of that Testament, if they can point to no definite experience whereby they were sealed.

This also strikes at the heart of organized religion, whose hierarchy of positional authority is based upon a man-made institution, and not upon the indwelling Christ that writes the laws of God upon the human heart and mind, which is the essence of the New Testament. It strikes at the spirit of antichrist which stands in the temple of God (His people now being His temple) declaring himself to be God, and which subverts the authority of the indwelling Spirit of God, which is Christ come in the flesh of His body on Earth, His own blood-bought people, who, as mature believers, or adult sons of God (huiothesia) that are led of the Spirit, need not that any man teach them, but are taught of God, and who have access to all truth by the indwelling Spirit of Truth and the Bible in their own language. They, as a kingdom of priests, have direct access to God by their High Priest, Christ Jesus, by a new and living way, and they find revelation by the inward light of the candlestick, in the Holy Place of their intimate fellowship with their Forerunner, who leads them beyond the veil that remains and separates those who are still under the law from the living God.

To me, Anne Hutchison represents, not modern or even ancient feminism, nor the common religious heretic, but the bride of Christ whose intimate and personal relationship with her “Beloved” has always, and will always, put her at odds with the religious establishment, and who’s life and beliefs threaten the control spirit that preserves “the community”; a city set upon a hill (as they claim), but which in actuality stands as Babylon, in opposition to, and distinction from, the city of God.

Anne Hutchison represents this to me, not, perhaps, because I have accurately interpreted her life or beliefs from history’s record, though I believe that I have, but more so because I can personally relate to the plight that she represents to me, and that is as one who has trod a similar path in regard to the institutional church, as distinct from the mystical church, and as one who, because of my personal experience with Christ, has found himself at odds with those ministers of the institutional church, and as one who has, to a large degree, rejected their authority as flowing from man and not from God.

I see them, by and large, as money changers in the house of God who will one day face the angry whip of Christ’s cleansing stroke against those who have made merchandise of the things of God and made a mart of the temple of God, which is His church, His people. I, like Anne Hutchinson, may have at times been too critical of ministers or too extreme in my own zeal for truth. I, like Anne Hutchinson, may have been subversive to the establishment, as one whose citizenship in another kingdom has made me a poor citizen of what I have come to believe is a manmade kingdom whose ruling city is Babylon, the great harlot, who’s guiding principles are papal, though cloaked in Reformation rhetoric, and whose voice is that of antichrist.

I relate to Anne Hutchinson, and look to her as history’s representative of my plight, and the plight of other true Christians throughout history who, for political expediency, found themselves exiled from the visible institutional church, from Wesley, who was banished as a heretic from England’s pulpits, to Whitfield who was forced into the streets and fields by the Anglican Church, to myriads of other dear saints whose names we don’t know, but are written in that great book that will one day be opened by the One who will sit as Judge of all. Christ has established Himself as Head of His body throughout church history, as the ark of God has constantly moved from the new cart of organized religion to the shoulders of individual priests who have followed their Beloved outside the camp, bearing His reproach.

In that day, when the books are opened and men are judged by their hidden motives, as well as outward actions, we will know for sure who was right and who was wrong, and who will be condemned and who justified… Governor John Winthrop, and her other accusers and judges, or Anne Hutchinson, and those of like spirit, who have run “afoul of a religious authority that distrusts any message that gave an individual power over their own religious experience.”[1] Only then, I suppose, when the books are opened, will the controversy be settled forever.

In the spring of 1638, and in the “spring” of our nation’s history, as Anne Hutchinson trudged through snow fields in bitter cold, fearing for her life, and for the little lives entrusted to her, I don’t doubt that many a time she flogged herself mentally for casting the rare and precious pearl of her revelation before the swine of unredeemed man, who would trample truth beneath their feet, as they pursued their earthly endeavors, all in the name of God. However, with John Winthrop as an unwitting accomplice, centuries of American history have somehow preserved, as a valuable pearl, the words of a simple follower of Jesus, that those who search for the riches of the glory of this mystery, might take her words as clues to unravel this mystery… this mystery, which is, Christ in you, the hope of Glory.

[1]Quote from PBS’s series entitled God In America, Part 1 A New Adam (42 minute mark) © WGBH Educational Foundation

Copyright © Building His House 1998-2018
This document may be reproduced and shared freely with the body of Christ. For more articles, please visit http://www.buildinghishouse.org

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