Tuesday, November 7, 2023

Today on the Christian History Almanac, we remember and reconsider Anne Hutchinson, an early New England “Heretic.”

It is the 7th of November, 2023. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I’m Dan van Voorhis.


There is a good chance, at some point in your education about early American colonial history, you came across the name Anne Hutchinson- she was probably painted as some kind of troublemaker, or early reformer or dissident, perhaps a kind of “proto-feminist”. Ok… we’ll need a minute on that.

We have mentioned her in passing on this show, but she is one of these characters whose birth and death dates are unknown, so she doesn’t show up on all my lists and calendars. However, today, the 7th of November, marks the beginning of her infamous trial in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1637.

Let me, once again, for my conscience and your edification, remind you that there are TWO major groups of English folk who ended up in the North East in the first half of the 17th century. One is the Puritans- the Mayflower folk who fled England for the Netherlands, found that place a little too free, and made their way accidentally to Plymouth Rock in 1620. These were the more radical of the groups. The second, led by John Winthrop England on the Arbella in 1630 to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, sought a place for some religious freedom but also for economic reasons. They weren’t as cohesive a group. You might remember the Baptist Roger Williams stayed with them for a while before it was decided he best move elsewhere to keep the peace.

It was to this second place- the Massachusetts Bay Colony that William and Anne Hutchinson left for in 1634. Anne was the daughter of a moderately dissenting dissenter in England, and she would follow in these footsteps. The couple had been keen on an English preacher, John Cotton, who came to the New World and led them. In Boston, Anne, ever a vocal and feisty character, led a weekday bible study. Nothing unusual here, except that it got big- fast. Soon, ministers and magistrates were coming to hear her expound on the sermon from the previous Sunday- becoming increasingly critical of what she called the “covenant of works.” Most Puritans would make the distinction between the Mosaic Covenant of Works and the present Covenant of Grace. They would all insist that we are under Christ’s “Covenant of Grace,” but Hutchinson accused some of reverting back to the old Covenant with its insistence on works of the law. For this, later commentators have called her an “Antinomian”- and I, a simple historian, implore you not to use this term in about 99% of the cases you think it might fit. Let me explain….

Anne Hutchinson is best understood as a kind of Puritan mystic dissident. Her theology laid an emphasis on the present work of the Holy Spirit in sanctifying and leading the Christian. She was leery of ministers who insisted on a certain kind of public confession or display of faith for the assurance of salvation. Her emphasis is on the spectrum of Christian beliefs in the life of the Christian and how sanctification is played out. Was she overly critical of some local ministers- yes. And, as a woman, did this make her even more suspect? Her trial, which began on this day in 1637, is definitely attested to in a preserved account of her testimony. In this case, she was able to deftly argue that her theology was within the bounds of Christian orthodoxy. One commentator suggested she “[ran] circles around her accusers” until she made her critical mistake (or, rather she sincerely believed this) that she was inspired directly by the Holy Spirit. By claiming an immediate inspiration, she would have known this was outside the boundaries of even a generous interpretation of Massachusetts Bay orthodoxy.

For this, she, her husband, and her children were exiled. They moved to what is today Portsmouth, Rhode Island, until her husband died in 1642. She then moved with her family to the Long Island Sound, where sometime, likely in 1643, she and her family (save one small daughter) were massacred by an indigenous tribe. Back in Massachusetts Bay, John Winthrop took this, and the known fact of her miscarriages, to claim that there was a divine judgment on Anne and her theology. Perhaps that work is a sad commentary on the governor himself. Anne Hutchinson would go down in history as a heretic, rebel, etc. She was a Puritan mystic whose popularity and likely sincerity in court led to her banishment and untimely death. We remember her, Anne Hutchinson, on the day her trial began in 1637.


The last word for today is from 2 Corinthians 3- a text central to Anne Hutchinson’s argument:

Such is the confidence that we have through Christ towards God. Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.

Now if the ministry of death, chiseled in letters on stone tablets, came in glory so that the people of Israel could not gaze at Moses’ face because of the glory of his face, a glory now set aside, how much more will the ministry of the Spirit come in glory? For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, much more does the ministry of justification abound in glory!


This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 7th of November 2023, brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.

The show is produced by a man who played bass in the early 2000s hardcore band “Ministry of Death” he is Christopher Gillespie.

The show is written and read by a man who thought he heard something speaking directly to him only to find his iPhone on speaker in his pocket- this happens too often. I’m Dan van Voorhis.

You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be OK.

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