Anne Hutchinson: Pioneer of Religious Freedom and Women's Rights
By Stephanie Mitchell
Today, Americans have the right to think for themselves and decide how they want to live their lives. In the 1600s, though, that wasn't yet the case. Despite the dangers, one woman in the Massachusetts Bay Colony was brave enough to stand up for what she believed.
Anne Hutchinson was an intelligent, independent woman who refused to let other people tell her what she should believe or how to live her life. This biography about Anne Hutchinson for kids who are studying American history explains why it wasn't safe for Anne to express her own opinions -- and why she chose to do it anyway.
Anne grew up in the town of Alford, in Lincolnshire, England, at the end of the 16th century. Her father, Francis Marbury, was a deacon in the Church of England who believed that most clergymen did not have the right training or mindset to be religious leaders, and he publicly spoke against them. He raised Anne to think for herself and to stand up for what she believed in, two habits that would shape her entire life.
When Anne was 21, she married a man named Will Hutchinson, and together they attended a church run by Protestant minister John Cotton. Cotton’s beliefs had a lot in common with Anne’s father’s, and they also matched the Puritan’s beliefs.
The Puritans thought that the Catholic Church was deeply corrupt and that the Church of England shared a lot of its corruption – they were called Puritans because they wanted to purify the Church and bring it back to what they thought God intended it to be. King James I of England felt threatened by the Puritans, and England became an unsafe place for them to live. A group of them, led by John Winthrop, moved to the New World and established a Puritan colony in New England called the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In 1634, John Cotton decided that he wanted to be able to lead his congregation according to his beliefs without fear of getting in trouble, so he moved to Massachusetts as well. Anne Hutchinson, her kids and her husband went with him.
Freedom of Religion
Anne Hutchinson was an educated, spirited woman, and she thought that she would be able to practice her religion the way she thought best if she went to America. She discovered, though, that the Massachusetts Bay Colony was just as restrictive as Anglican England was.
The Puritans believed that people had to follow a very strict set of rules in order to get into Heaven, and they ran their colony according to those rules, trying to keep their entire community holy. Anne Hutchinson believed that faith was all a person needed to get into Heaven and that she had a personal connection with God that did not come from the Church.
John Cotton and the other Puritan leaders found this unacceptable, because it meant that they could not control her behavior the way they controlled the rest of the community. Anne Hutchinson began to understand that the Puritan version of freedom of religion meant that other people were free to believe whatever they wanted, but Puritans were only free to be Puritans.
The Puritans believed that women were weak-willed, foolish creatures who existed only to bear children. Anne Hutchinson had 15 kids, and that wasn’t unusual at the time. Anne herself, though, believed that everyone had the right to think for themselves and that women were just as capable of learning, praying, connecting with God and having opinions as men were.
Because Anne couldn’t do these things in her community’s main church, she started her own club where women could gather to study and talk about religion and the Bible. She also believed that individual conscience was more important than religious law, that slavery was morally wrong and that Native Americans should be respected as much as Christians were. As more and more women started attending Anne’s meetings, word spread throughout the colony that a woman was becoming a religious authority figure, and the men in power became concerned.
John Winthrop, who had never agreed with Anne’s ideals, began speaking against her, saying that she was leading women into sin and ruining the Puritans’ holy community.
Anne Hutchinson’s women’s club eventually grew too large, and Winthrop arrested Anne for being disorderly and subversive. She was given a trial and convicted of heresy, and Winthrop banished her from the colony. In 1638, she and her family, along with some of her friends who believed in her teachings, moved to Aquidneck Island and eventually settled in East Chester, New York. In 1643, when Anne was 52 years old, Mahican Indians attacked her community and killed her and five of her kids.
A Place in History
Although Anne did not win acceptance for her ideas during her lifetime, her bravery and independence paved the way for a new set of ideals that would help define the United States of America. More than a century after Anne’s death, when Founding Fathers of America wrote the U.S. Constitution, they formally declared that American citizens have the freedom to worship however they wish.
True freedom of religion – not the Puritan’s freedom to be Puritan, but the freedom of each individual to choose for himself – became one of the basic principles of the new nation. Today, Anne Hutchinson is seen as a symbol of that tolerance, civil liberties and women’s rights. A statue outside the Boston’s State House honors her legacy.