By Jeff Olson
America has been a bastion and haven for religious freedom during her entire history. She remains unique in the world as a nation which has successfully balanced the claims of authority with the claims of freedom and in such a way that she has never become a theocracy or autocracy. Much of this is due to the principles embedded in her founding documents, and we rightfully ascribe to our founding fathers their role in setting our nation on a firm foundation and a noble path.
However, their contributions were anteceded by earlier American colonists. Through their own struggles for civil rights and religious liberty, these pioneers paved the way and unveiled new horizons which gave our founding generation a brighter lamp of experience to illuminate their way through a Declaration, a War, and a Constitution. Some of these pioneers were women who were indispensable pillars of wisdom and strength to their husbands and nurturers and teachers to their children, instilling biblical principles for them to live by and assimilate into the growth of a civil/social moral order which America’s founding generation would inherit. Some of these women made additional substantial and enduring contributions in their own right. With March being Women’s History Month, I will recognize one such woman this week.
Anne Marbury was born in Alford, Lincolnshire, England in 1591, one of thirteen children of clergyman and Puritan reformer Francis Marbury and Bridget Dryden. Francis Marbury was an outspoken critic of the Church of England. He was arrested for seditious activity on more than one occasion, even spending a year in jail. However, this did not discourage him as he continued to be outspoken. Eldest daughter Anne was educated primarily by her father but also by her mother, especially in the knowledge of herbal medicines. Though she had no formal education, Anne was nevertheless an avid reader and thinker, developing an interest in religion and theology at a very young age. Perhaps she inherited her father’s ideals and boldness as she would demonstrate later in her fearless challenges of certain tenets of the Anglican Church and Puritan theology and the scope and extent of church authority.
After her father’s death, in 1612 Anne married William Hutchinson, a merchant and member of a prominent family. From 1614 to 1630 she gave birth to fifteen children, however her role and impact would extend well beyond the important and demanding responsibilities of wife and mother. She was inspired to learn more theology by the Reverend John Cotton at the nearby Lincolnshire parish. After Cotton joined other religious dissidents in North America in 1633, Hutchinson’s family joined him a year later in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. However, Anne discovered that even there the Puritans permitted no religion except their own. In Boston, she served as a midwife and herbalist and sought to serve God through the Church, but she disagreed with some Puritan beliefs, one of which claimed that people could communicate with God only through the aid of church officials. Being an outspoken person and well-versed in biblical theology, she espoused a “covenant of grace” as opposed to a “covenant of works.” Hutchinson made her views known and led Bible studies in her home which attracted a considerable number of people, including both women and men.
Disagreement with the established church was not be tolerated by Puritan leaders and especially from a woman. This quarrel over religious doctrine, known as the “Antinomian Controversy,” eventually escalated to the point that Hutchinson was ordered to leave the colony. She refused and was brought to trial in 1637, accused of betraying the laws of church and state. Her response was: “As I understand it, laws, commands, rules and edicts are for those who have not the light which makes plain the pathway. He who has God’s grace in his heart cannot go astray.” She believed that colonial officials should not have the authority to tell a person how to practice his or her faith.
On March 22, 1638, Anne Hutchinson was excommunicated from the church and banished from the colony, after which she and her family moved to Rhode Island and helped establish the settlement of Portsmouth. In 1642, following the death of her husband and with threats of Massachusetts taking over Rhode Island, Hutchinson and her family relocated to the Dutch colony of New Netherlands (now New York) where they settled on Long Island near present-day Pelham Bay (the Bronx). In August 1643 she and five of her six children were among members of her household killed in an attack by the Siwanoy tribe. Her youngest daughter, taken into captivity by the attackers, was ransomed by the Dutch years later.
Anne Hutchinson has served as an inspiration and example to Americans such as Abigail Adams, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, Sojourner Truth and many others since, some of whom would be instrumental in advancing freedom, equality and women’s rights in their own time. However, Hutchinson should be remembered most as a pioneer of religious freedom and civil liberties. More than a century later, these would be championed by the likes of George Mason, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson and be preserved through our Constitution and subsequent amendments and eventually codified in federal and state statutes. In 1987, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis pardoned Anne Hutchinson, revoking the order of banishment by Governor John Winthrop 350 years earlier.
Among her most prominent namesakes include the Hutchinson River, one of the very few rivers named after a woman, and the Hutchinson River Parkway, both in southern New York State. Other examples are elementary schools, such as in the town of Portsmouth, Rhode Island, and in the Westchester County, New York towns of Pelham and Eastchester.
In front of Boston’s State House, there is a statue with the inscription, “In Memory of Anne Marbury Hutchinson…..Courageous Exponent of Civil Liberty and Religious Toleration.”