Click Here to return to
NEW ENGLAND'S FIRST "CLUB WOMAN"
EVEN to-day, in this emancipated twentieth century, women ministers and "female preachers" are not infrequently held up to derision by those who delight to sit in the seat of the scornful. Trials for heresy are likewise still common. It is not at all strange, therefore, that Mistress Ann Hutchinson should, in 1636, have been driven out of Boston as an enemy dangerous to public order, her specific offence being that she maintained in her own house that a mere profession of faith could not evidence salvation, unless the Spirit first revealed itself from within.
Mrs. Hutchinson's maiden name was Ann Marbury, and she was the daughter of a scholar and a theologian – one Francis Marbury who was first a minister of Lincolnshire and afterward of London. Naturally, much of the girl's as well as the greater part of the woman's life was passed in the society of ministers – men whom she soon learned to esteem more for what they knew than for what they preached. Theology, indeed, was the atmosphere in which she lived and moved and had her being. Intellectually, she was an enthusiast, morally an agitator, a clever leader, whom Winthrop very aptly described as a "woman of ready wit and bold spirit."
While still young, this exceptionally gifted woman married William Hutchinson, a country gentleman of good character and estate, whose home was also in Lincolnshire. Winthrop has nothing but words of contempt for Mrs. Hutchinson's husband, but there is little doubt that a sincere attachment existed between the married pair, and that Hutchinson was a man of sterling character and worth, even though he was intellectually the inferior of his remarkable wife. In their Lincolnshire home the Hutchinsons had been parishioners of the Reverend John Cotton, and regular attendants at that celebrated divine's church in Boston, England. To him, her pastor, Mrs. Hutchinson was deeply attached. And when the minister fled to New England in order to escape from the tyranny of the bishops, the Hutchinsons also decided to come to America, and presently, the whole family, did so. Mrs. Hutchinson's daughter, who had married the Reverend John Wright Wheelwright – another Lincolnshire minister who had suffered at the hands of Archbishop Laud – came with her mother. Besides the daughter, there were three grown sons in the family at the time, Mrs. Hutchinson landed in the Boston she was afterward to rend with religious dissension.
So it was no young, sentimental, unbalanced girl, but a middle-aged, matured, and experienced woman of the world who, in the autumn of 1634, took sail for New England. During the voyage it was learned that Mrs. Hutchinson came primed for religious controversy. With some Puritan ministers who were on the same vessel she discussed eagerly abstruse theological questions, and she hinted in no uncertain way that when they should arrive in New England they might expect to hear more from her. Clearly, she regarded herself as one with a mission. In unmistakable terms she avowed her belief that direct revelations are made to the elect, and asserted that nothing of importance had ever happened to her which had not been revealed to her beforehand.
Upon their arrival in Boston, the Hutchinsons settled down in a house on the site of the present Old Corner Book Stare, the head of the family made arrangements to enter upon his business affairs, and in due time both husband and wife made their application to be received as members of the church. This step was indispensable to admit the pair into Christian fellowship and to allow to Mr. Hutchinson the privileges of a citizen. He came through the questioning more easily than did his wife, far, in consequence of the reports already spread concerning her extravagant opinions, Mrs. Hutchinson was subjected to a most searching examination. Finally, however, she, too, passed through the ordeal safely, the examining ministers, one of whom was her old and beloved pastor, Mr. Cotton, declaring themselves satisfied with her answers. So, in November, we find her a "member in good standing" of the Boston church.
From this time forward Mrs. Hutchinson was a person of great importance in Boston. Sir Harry Vane, then governor of the colony and the idol of the people, was pleased, with Mr. Cotton, to take much notice of the gifted newcomer, and their example was followed by the leading and influential people of the town, who treated her with much consideration and respect, and were quick to recognise her intellectuality as far superior to that of most members of her sex. Mrs. Hutchinson soon came, indeed, to be that very remarkable thing – a prophet honoured in her own community. Adopting an established custom of the town, she held in her own home two weekly meetings – one for men and women and one exclusively for women – at which she was the oracle. And all these meetings were very generously attended.
Mrs. Hutchinson seems to have been New England's first clubwoman. Never before had women come together for independent thought and action. To be sure, nothing more lively than the sermon preached the Sunday before was ever discussed at these gatherings, but the talk was always pithy and bright, the leader's wit was always ready, and soon the house at the corner of what is now School Street came to be widely celebrated as the centre of an influence so strong and far-reaching as to make the very ministers jealous and fearful. At first, to be sure, the parsons themselves went to the meetings. Cotton, Vane, Wheelwright, and Coddington, completely embraced the leader's views, and the result upon Winthrop of attendance at these conferences was to send that official home to his closet, wrestling with himself, yet more than half persuaded.
Hawthorne's genius has conjured up the scene at Boston's first "parlour talks," so that we too may attend and be one among the "crowd of hooded women and men in steeple hats and close-cropped hair . . . assembled at the door and open windows of a house newly-built. An earnest expression glows in every face . . . and some press inward as if the bread of life, were to be dealt forth, and they feared to lose their share."
In plain English Ann Hutchinson's doctrines were these: "She held and advocated as the highest truth," writes Mr, Drake, "that a person could be justified only by an actual and manifest revelation of the Spirit to him personally. There could be no other evidence of grace. She repudiated a doctrine of works, and she denied that holiness of living alone could be received as evidence of regeneration, since hypocrites might live outwardly as pure lives as the saints do. The Puritan churches held that sanctification by the will was evidence of justification." In advancing these views, Mrs. Hutchinson's pronounced personal magnetism stood her in good stead. She made many converts, and, believing herself inspired to do a certain work, and emboldened by the increasing number of her followers, she soon became unwisely and unpleasantly aggressive in her criticisms of those ministers who preached a covenant of works. She seems to have been led into speaking her mind as to doctrines and persons more freely than was consistent with prudence and moderation, because she was altogether unsuspicious that what was being said in the privacy of her own house was being carefully treasured up against her. So she constantly added fuel to the flame, which was soon to burst forth to her undoing.
She was accused of fostering sedition in the church, and was then confronted with charges relative to the meetings of women held at her house. This she successfully parried.
It looked indeed as if she would surely be acquitted, when by an impassioned discourse upon special revelations that had come to her, and an assertion that God would miraculously protect her whatever the court might decree, she impugned the position of her judges and roused keen resentment. Because of this it was that she was banished "as unfit for our society." In the colony records of Massachusetts the sentence pronounced reads as follows: "Mrs. Hutchinson (the, wife of Mr. William Hutchinson) being convented for traducing the ministers and their ministry in this country, she declared voluntarily her revelations for her ground, and that shee should bee, delivred and the Court ruined with their posterity; and thereupon was banished, and the meanwhile she was committed to Mr. Joseph Weld untill the Court shall dispose of her."
Mrs. Hutchinson passed next winter accordingly under the watch and ward of Thomas Weld, in the house of his brother Joseph, near what is now Eustis Street, Rogbury. She was there until March, when, returning to Boston for further trial, she was utterly cast out, even John Cotton, who had been her friend, turning against her.
Mr. Cotton did not present an heroic figure in this trial. Had he chosen, he might have turned the drift of public opinion in Mrs. Hutchinson's favour, but he was either too weak or too politic to withstand the pressure brought to bear upon him, and he gave a qualified adhesion to the proceedings. Winthrop did not hesitate to use severe measures, and in the course of the struggle Vane, who deeply admired the Boston prophetess, left the country in disgust. Mrs. Hutchinson was arraigned at the bar as if she had been a criminal of the most dangerous kind. Winthrop, who presided, catechised her mercilessly, and all endeavoured to extort from her same damaging admission. But in this they were unsuccessful. "Mrs. Hutchinson can tell when to speak and when to hold her tongue," commented the governor, in describing the court proceedings. Yet when all is said, the "trial " was but a mockery, and those who read the proceedings as preserved in the "History of Massachusetts Under the Colony and Province," written by Governor Hutchinson, a descendant of our heroine, will be quick to condemn the judgment there pronounced by a court which expounded theology instead of law against a woman who, as Coddington truly said, "had broken no law, either of God or of man." Banishment was the sentence pronounced, and after the church which had so lately caressed and courted Mrs. Hutchinson had in its turn visited upon her the verdict of excommunication, her husband sold all his property and removed with his family to the island of Aquidneck, as did also many others whose opinions had brought them under the censure of the governing powers. In this connection it is worth noting that the head of the house of Hutchinson stood right valiantly by his persecuted wife, and when a committee of the Boston church went in due time to Rhode Island for the purpose of bringing back into the fold the sheep which they adjudged lost, Mr. Hutchinson told them bluntly that, far from being of their opinion, he accounted his wife "a dear saint and servant of God."
The rest of Mrs. Hutchinson's story is soon told. Upon the death of her husband, which occurred five years after the banishment, she went with her family, into the Dutch territory of New Netherlands, settling near what is now New Rochelle. And scarcely had she become established in this place when her house was suddenly assaulted by hostile Indians, who, in their revengeful fury, murdered the whole family, excepting only one daughter, who was carried away into captivity. Thus in the tragedy of an Indian massacre was quenched the light of the most remarkable intellect Boston has ever made historic by misunderstanding.
Hawthorne, in writing in his early manhood of Mrs. Hutchinson ("Biographical Sketches"), humourously remarked, seer that he was: "There are portentous indications, changes gradually taking place in the habits and feelings of the gentler sex, which seem to threaten our posterity with many of those public women whereof one was a burden too grievous for our fathers."
Fortunately, we of to-day have learned to take our clubwomen less tragically than Winthrop was able to do.
Click the book image to continue to the next chapter