Prayer, Persecution, and Portsmouth: A Story of Colonist Anne Hutchinson

Anne Hutchinson (1591-1643) is a key figure in the history of American religious
freedom. As a pioneer settler of Massachusetts Bay Colony, Hutchinson held Bible
studies that won her great admiration with a wide following. However, Hutchinson’s
religious leadership eventually offended colony officials, leading to her banishment.
Hutchinson later co-founded Rhode Island with religious freedom in mind.
Hutchinson, born Anne Marbury, was raised in Lincolnshire, England. There Anne’s
father was an outspoken Protestant clergyman. When he was sentenced to house arrest for
challenging the Church, the Reverend turned his energies to educating his daughter. With
the influence of her father’s tutelage and strong character, Anne became a bright and
confident religious scholar.
Members of Anne’s community continued to have trouble with the church of Elizabethan
England. She and other Protestants became involved with a new reformist movement
known as Puritanism, which aimed to “purify” the Church of all Roman Catholic
influences. Ultimately believing that the Church was beyond reform, Anne, her husband
William, and their fifteen children followed Puritan Reverend John Cotton to Boston in
1634. There, all believed, they would practice their faith openly without persecution.
Three years after arriving in Boston, Hutchinson became the first female defendant in a
Massachusetts colonial court. What had gone wrong? Anne’s early months in Boston had
been pleasant enough. Bostonians welcomed her midwifery skills, and when she began
holding women’s prayer meetings at home, she became even more respected as a model
of Puritan womanhood.
Eventually, Hutchinson’s small prayer circles became large gatherings that drew men as
well as women. Her prayer meeting success generated extreme discomfort among the
colony’s male leaders. Outraged local magistrates, including Governor John Winthrop,
deemed it highly inappropriate for a woman to instruct men in religious matters.
The oppressed had become the oppressors. Winthrop had Hutchinson arrested on charges
of subversion. Throughout the court trial, however, it was evident that Hutchinson’s
“crime” had mainly been acting in traditionally male ways, sharing her ideas in a large
mixed-sex forum. As Winthrop phrased it, she was “an American Jezebel who had gone
a-whoring from God” and who was infecting women with “abominable” ideas regarding
their rights. Officials accused her of violating the fifth religious commandment (“Honor
thy father and mother”) by encouraging dissent against the fathers of the Commonwealth.
Hutchinson also drew controversy with her claim of communication with God, her
opinion that each person should interpret laws as their own conscience dictated, and her
opinion that Native American slavery was wrong.
Anne Hutchinson was banned from Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1638. Along with other
colonists, she then co-founded the town of Portsmouth on Aquidneck Island, which today
is known as Rhode Island. The general area was a relative haven of religious freedom;
just two years earlier, another banished Massachusetts Bay colonist, Roger Williams, had
established the town of Providence. Providence was known to accept Quakers, Jews, and
other religious dissenters.
After Hutchinson’s husband passed away, she relocated again to New Amsterdam. There,
in 1643, she and several of her children were murdered in an attack by natives. No doubt,
Governor Winthrop viewed the difficult death as corroboration of his critique. In 1945,
however, the Massachusetts State Legislature voted to revoke her banishment. The state
now honors Hutchinson with a statue describing her as a “courageous exponent of civil
liberty and religious toleration.”
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