Anne Hutchinson and the Antinomian Crisis, 1636-38

A pivotal event in the shaping of religion, gender, and government in early America, the Antinomian Crisis of 1636-1638 pitted preacher against preacher, man against woman, and town against town in a battle over theological doctrine, ecclesiastical authority, and social uniformity. The two primary figures were Anne Marbury Hutchinson and her renowned pastor, John Cotton of Boston, Lincolnshire. Before arriving in New England in 1634, Anne Hutchinson had already absorbed from Cotton her position on the Covenant of Grace, creating an antipathy within her toward those ministers who were preaching what she considered a Covenant of Works.  Hutchinson saw Cotton as espousing a doctrine of “free grace” in which the believer's assurance of salvation came not from the outward performance of “good works” but the inward seal of the Spirit.  Emphasizing an “inward experience” of grace was by no means un-Puritan for the seventeenth century. What made Hutchinson a radical (and Cotton problematic) to many Puritan divines and lay leaders was the degree to which she used this experience to satisfy the demands of sanctification. To Hutchinson, both election and sanctification were governed by “free grace.” Anything else involved works and Hutchinson could not accept that. The Puritan divines in New England would not  have  argued  about  the  inability  of human  works to ensure one's  election,  but they did insist on the  presence of “good works” after salvation  as evidence  of one's election.  Otherwise, how could one know a true “visible” saint from a hypocrite? Both Hutchinson and Cotton were convinced that by placing so much emphasis on works as a mark of sanctification, the clergy were creating  great  confusion  among  the people, leading many to rely on a mere keeping of the law as their assurance of election. Hutchinson termed these ministers “legalists”: they were denying the true role of the Spirit, both in salvation and sanctification.  The ministers, on the other hand, called Hutchinson an “antinomian” for not allowing the law any role whatsoever in sanctification. (It should be noted that no member of either party ever acknowledged being an “antinomian” or a “legalist.”) To experience anxiety by striving for outward signs of election as a means of gaining assurance was unscriptural to the antinomians. Anxiety marked the absence of grace; the solution was to “rest” in Christ and his “free grace.” To the New England ministers, however, anxiety generally signaled the presence of grace, for to make one’s election “sure” required constant activity. The “rest” the antinomians proposed was but an easy way out for the lax saint or sinner to ignore the demands of the law, the ministers argued.

What separated Hutchinson even more from the New England ministers was her insistence that the Holy Spirit did not merely “come upon” believers but that it dwelt within each believer by means of private illumination and direct revelation.  In essence, Hutchinson was claiming for herself the radical position of prophetess, a claim that even Cotton eventually could not accept. She began holding meetings twice weekly in her home, both to reinforce the doctrine of “free grace” coming from Cotton’s Sunday sermon (he was now the teaching elder at the Boston church) and to demonstrate her own capacity as a teacher. Her biblical insights about grace found fertile ground in a populace burdened by an overly “precise” attention to biblical law and lack of assurance. As her meetings began to attract large crowds (as many as sixty to one hundred people) and her criticism of the clergy  of New England  as “legalists” grew sharper, the authorities,  both civil and ecclesiastical, feared that the “Hutchinsonians,” as they were later called, would soon take over the colony. With the election of her friend Henry Vane as governor and her brother-in-law John Wheelwright as assistant pastor to Cotton in the Boston church, the antinomians occupied positions of power in the community as well as the church. But the Puritan leaders of New England were not about to allow their “city upon a hill” to become a center for antinomian activity. They used a fast-day sermon delivered by Wheelwright in January 1637 as a sufficient reason for bringing charges of “sedition” and “contempt” against him. Though the charges were bitterly contested by the Hutchinsonians, Wheelwright was found guilty and banished from the colony. This led to a bitter election in May in which Vane was ousted as governor and replaced by former governor John Winthrop, who seemed commissioned now to stamp out all antinomianism in New England.

The first step in that process was the convening of a synod (New England’s first) on August 30, 1637, ostensibly to deal with the colony's spiritual condition as a consequence of the Pequot War. Since the colony had enjoyed peace and prosperity before Anne Hutchinson arrived, and since it had experienced much turmoil since  (even  God’s  judgment  by  way  of  the  Pequot  War,  which the Hutchinsonians did not support), Winthrop· and others saw no reason to search any further than the nearly ninety “errors” held by the antinomians. On September 7, 1637, they resolved that a woman acting “in a prophetical way” and criticizing the ministers before a large assembly in her home each week was “disorderly, and without rule” (Winthrop, History, 234). Hutchinson did not heed this warning from the synod, and consequently charges against her and her followers were brought before the General Court in early November of that year, a court dominated now by the Winthrop party. Many of her followers (fifty-eight men from Boston alone, seventeen from surrounding towns) were stripped of their colonial authority, disarmed, fined, and even banished (mostly for signing a petition supporting John Wheelwright). Both hatred and fear drove the proceedings. Hutchinson was charged with having “troubled the peace of the commonwealth and the churches” by speaking in a manner “prejudicial to the honour of the churches and ministers thereof.” The court had no choice but to “reduce” her in order that she might become “a profitable member” of the community, at least in Winthrop’s eyes (Hutchinson, 366). If she would not repent, she would be banished. Hutchinson defended herself well, entering into detailed discussions of the Covenant of Grace and Works, as well as a woman's role in the church and community. She might have escaped banishment had she not admitted on the second day of the hearing that her spiritual insight came directly from God “by an immediate revelation” (Hutchinson, 384). Outraged by what they saw as rank “pride, insolvency, [and] contempt of authority” (Winthrop, Short Story, 211), Winthrop and his supporters (only two members of the court supported Hutchinson) voted that she be “banished ... as being a woman not fit for our society” (Hutchinson, 391).

The court postponed her banishment until the next spring. Since the November General Court was only a civil proceeding, some felt that ecclesiastical action should be taken as well against Hutchinson. As a result, a church court was convened ·on March 15, 1638, for the purpose of trying Hutchinson not only for antinomianism, but also for mortalism and familism, combining beliefs against the resurrection of the body and rejection of law with the promotion of free love, leading her former friend, now turned critic, John Cotton to predict that “more dangerous evils and filthy uncleanness and other sins will follow than you do not imagine or conceive” (Dexter, 178). Hutchinson defended herself against these allegations, but to no avail. Her final condemnation concerned her gender more than her theology.  As  Hugh  Peter  warned  her,  “you have stepped  out  of  your  place,  you  have  rather  been  a  husband than  a  wife,  a preacher than a hearer, a magistrate  than a subject” (Dexter, 186). Excommunicated on March 22, within six days Anne Hutchinson and her family were on their way to resettlement in Rhode Island, and “order” was restored once again in Massachusetts.

Was Anne Hutchinson an “American Jezebel,” as Winthrop described her (Winthrop, Short Story, 310), or were the New England elders and rulers extremely misogynistic? Was she a rebellious woman, who refused to submit to male authority, or were the male rulers over-reacting to her assertiveness with fear, anger, jealousy, and wounded pride?  Were she and her followers disrupting the “peace” of the community, or were the leaders of church and state violating her “freedom of conscience”? Was she a “free spirit” seeking  some means (as a woman)  to validate what she considered to be her personal experience with God and her spiritual gifts in the church, or were the elders “sound  believers” bent on applying what they perceived  to be the laws of God and correct theology  to  all concerns of life—social, ecclesiastical,  and personal? Did the Antinomian Crisis prove the triumph of English Congregationalism, or did it reveal an inherent weakness in the New England Way? At various points, historians have answered all these questions in the affirmative, but the truth is much more difficult to ascertain, for in the profound ambiguities of the Antinomian Crisis, in its dangers and attractiveness, rests its very Americanness.  To Anne  Hutchinson  and the antinomians,  much like Thomas  Morton and the inhabitants at Merry Mount, a vision  of seventeenth-century  New  England  as  a  refuge for freedom  of conscience and individual expression was simply not to be. However, in her confrontation with the authorities she established a quintessentially American situation: a lone individual challenging the dictates of society, finding her essence in personal expression, not submission. The evolution of American society has turned many such “rebels” into heroes, and Anne Hutchinson is one of our earliest examples.


Bibliography. Battis, Emory, Saints and Sectaries: Anne Hutchinson and the Antinomian Controversy in the Massachusetts Bay Colony (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1962); Dexter, Franklin B., ed., “A Report of the Trial of Mrs. Anne Hutchinson before the Church in Boston, 1638,” Massachusetts Historical Society Proceedings, 2nd ser. 4 (1889): 159-91; Hall, David D., The Antinomian Controversy, 1636-1638:  A Documentary History, 2nd ed.  (Durham, NC:  Duke University Press, 1990); Hutchinson, Thomas, the History of the Colony and Province of Massachusetts-Bay, Vol.  2 (1767; Reprint.  Cambridge:  Harvard  University  Press, 1936); Stoever, William  K. B., “AFaire and Easie Way to Heaven”:  Covenant  Theology and Antinomianism in  Early Massachusetts (Middletown,  CT:  Wesleyan  University  Press,  1978);  Winthrop,  John,  Winthrop’s Journal: "History  of New England,"  1630-49,  vol. 1, ed. James Kendall  Hosmer (New York: Barnes  and Noble, 1959);  Winthrop,  John, A Short Story of the Rise, Reign, and Ruine of the Antinomians, Familists, and Libertines (London, 1644), in Hall, The Antinomian Controversy, 199-310.