Adapted from "American Jezebel" by Eve LaPlante with permission from Harper San Francisco publishers.

There was nothing auspicious about Anne Hutchinson's appearance as she stood in the doorway of the meetinghouse of Cambridge, Mass. that chilly Tuesday in November 1687, awaiting the start of her trial. She was 46 years old, of average height and bearing, with an unremarkable face. Her petticoat fell almost to the ground, revealing only the tips of her leather boots. Against the cold she wore a wool mantua, or cloak. A white coif covered her hair, as was the custom of the day. Besides that and her white linen smock and neckerchief, she wore all black.

She was a stranger to no one present, having ministered as midwife and nurse to many of their wives and children. All knew her to be an active member of the church of Boston, the wife of the wealthy textile merchant William Hutchinson, the mother of 12 living children, and the grandmother of one, a five-day-old boy who had just that Sunday been baptized. There was, in short, nothing external to suggest she was an enemy of the state.

Enemy she was, though, indeed the greatest threat that Massachusetts had ever known. More than a few men in the room, including several of the ministers, considered her a witch. Others believed the Devil had taken over her soul. The governor, John Winthrop, who was waiting in an antechamber of the meetinghouse to begin the trial over which he would preside, suspected her of using her devilish powers to subjugate men by establishing "the community of women" to foster "their abominable wickedness."

Anne Hutchinson's greatest crime, and the source of her power, was the series of weekly public meetings she held at her house to discuss Scripture and theology. At first, in 1635, the evening meetings had been just for women, who were then generally encouraged to gather in small groups to gossip and offer mutual support.

Soon scores of women, enchanted by her intelligence and magnetism, flocked to hear her analysis of the week's Scripture reading, which many of them preferred to the ministers' latest interpretation. "Being a woman very helpful in times of childbirth and other occasions of bodily infirmities, [Hutchinson] easily insinuated herself into the affections of many," an official observed. Her "pretense was to repeat [the ministers'] sermons," the governor added, "but when that was done, she would comment upon the doctrines, interpret passages at her pleasure, and expound dark places of Scripture, and make it serve her turn," going beyond "wholesome truths" to "set forth her own stuff:"

One minister, Thomas Weld, reported that her "custom was for her scholars to propound questions and she (gravely sitting in the chair) did make answers thereunto." This was especially grievous in a time when the single chair in every house was for the man's sole use.

Men had begun to accompany their wives to Hutchinson's meet ings in 1636, and as her audiences swelled she offered a second session of religious instruction each week just as the colonial ministers liked to give a Thursday lecture as well as their Sunday sermon. The Reverend Weld lamented that members of her audience, "being tainted, conveyed the infection to others," including "some of the magistrates, some gentlemen, some scholars and men of learning, some burgesses of our General Court, some of our captains and soldiers, some chief men in towns, and some eminent for religion, parts, and wit."

Anne Hutchinson had "stepped out of [her] place," in the succinct phrase of the Reverend Hugh Peter, of Salem-she "had rather been a husband than a wife; and a preacher than a hearer; and a magistrate than a subject."

She had risen that dayof her trial with the sun, which rose each morning over the ocean beside her house on the Shawmut peninsula--then the center of the colony and now a slender strip of downtown Boston. After her usual morning prayer, Scripture reading, and breakfast of corn mush (cornmeal with milk or molasses), baked apples or stewed pumpkin, and cider, Anne had set out with William for the Charlestown ferry, almost a mile from their house. Ordinarily they made a trip of this length, roughly five miles to Cambridge, on horseback or by coach, but they had traveled on foot because of the ice, which could break a horse's leg.

At the ferry landing they had met William's younger brother Edward, a thirty-year-old whom the court had also called that day. During their four-mile walk inland from Charlestown to Cambridge, they had passed Indian encampments, a few colonial houses and farms, the expansive marshland that bordered the northern bank of the river, and deep forest, extending for miles north and west, beyond what was known. The same trip today, by subway or car, takes twenty minutes, but on foot it took the Hutchinsons more than two hours that morning in 1687.

Unexpectedly, the walk had exhausted Anne. This pregnancy seemed different from all the rest, although each one was distinct in her mind. The first, 24 years before, was Edward, born in her hometown of Afford, Lincolnshire, just ten months after her wedding day; Edward was now father to her new little grandson, Elishua. The rest had followed at intervals of roughly a year and a half. Her second child and first daughter, Susan, had died at 16 when the- bubonic plague ravaged Afford. Anne's third child, Richard, was now 21. Faith, 20, was her oldest living daughter. Then came 18-year-old Bridget. Francis, just 17, could already vote alongside his father and older brothers. Elizabeth, her next child, had died at eight, three weeks after Susan, also of the plague.

Then came sweet William, who survived toddlerhood but died before he turned six. Samuel, now almost 13, was a year shy of the age at which he would be allowed to stand beside his brothers and father as freemen; since the voting age had been lowered to 16, boys of fourteen and fifteen were in fact permitted to vote.

Eleven-year-old Anne. Mary, age nine. Seven-yearold Katherine. William, who arrived after the first William died, was already six years old. Little Susan, the last born in England, was nearly four. And then came Zuriel, the only baby born in the New Jerusalem, who was baptized in the Boston meetinghouse on March 13, 1636, and given the Old Testament name belonging to the Levite chief prominent during the Exodus, which means in Hebrew "my rock is God." Not one of those fifteen pregnancies had produced the faintness and fatigue she felt now.

When the governor had finished his opening remarks, Anne replied, "I am called here to answer before you, but I hear no things that are laid to my charge." These words are her first-ever recorded words. They show her as she was, clever and undeterred. She was exploiting the governor's failure to charge her with any crime.

"I have told you some already," Winthrop sputtered, "and more I can tell you."

"Name one, Sir," she replied. Anne, with no lawyer or adviser, would have to speak for herself throughout the trial. By colonial decree-in contrast to English common law-she had no right to counsel, and even her husband could not testify on her behalf. Ministers and deputies of the Massachusetts court were present as witnesses and to advise the prosecution, but the defendant was allowed no legal assistance or advice.

"Have I not named some already?" the governor said to her.

"What have I said or done?" she repeated. As they both knew, she had done nothing criminal. As a woman, she had no publicly sanctioned role. Her actions were invisible.

She shifted her weight from foot to foot, trying to find a comfortable position. Cold and tired, she longed to sit down. She was still nursing her youngest child, 20-month-old Zuriel, and she believed she was now pregnant for the sixteenth time.

The governor was talking again, describing her guilt by association. "Why for your doings, you did harbor and countenance those that are parties in this faction that you have heard of. If you do countenance those that are transgressors of the law, you are guilty, too."

"That's a matter of conscience, Sir." With this remark, a woman with no formal schooling had fought the Cambridge-educated lawyer and governor to a draw. She was saying that her beliefs were her own business, not in the public realm, and therefore not actionable in court.

Having advanced nothing, Winthrop turned to a new line of questioning in the hope of humbling her. He introduced the Fifth Commandment, "Honor thy father and thy mother," which he and other colonial leaders interpreted to mean, "Honor the fathers of the commonwealth."

Her clever, hypothetical riposte was, "But put the case, Sir, that I do fear the Lord and my parents; may not I entertain them that fear the Lord because my parents will not give me leave?"

"Your course is not to be suffered for," Winthrop reminded her. "[It is] greatly prejudicial to the state. It is to seduce many honest persons that are called to those meetings, and your opinions-being known to be different from the word of God-may seduce many simple souls that resort unto you:" Despite the governor's aloof and chilly mien, his temper could rise. "And now these opinions have flown off from magistrates and ministers since they have come to you.

"And, besides that, it will not well stand with the commonwealth that families should be neglected for so many neighbors and dames and so much time spent. We see no rule of God for this. We see not that any should have authority to set up any other exercises besides what authority hath already set up. And so what hurt comes of this, you will be guilty of, and we for suffering you."

"Sir," she said calmly, "I do not believe that to be so."

"Well, we see how it is. We must therefore put it away from you or restrain you from maintaining this course. We are your judges, and not you ours, and we must compel you to it."

"If you have a rule for it from God's word you may." Boldly, she held him to his own standard, that all authority must come from the Bible. "If it please you by authority to put my teachings down, I will freely let you, for I am subject to your authority. I desire that you would then set me down a rule by which I may put them away that come unto me and so have peace in so doing."

Rather than answering her, the governor deflected her question. "Yes, you are the woman of most note, and of best abilities, and if some others take upon them the like, it is by your teaching and example, but you show not in all this by what authority you take upon you to be such a public instructor." Anne had a good answer for him, from the Book of Titus, but she could not give it. Suddenly, without warning, she fell to the floor. She had fainted before the court.

more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad