Anne Hutchinson, America’s First Feminist Theologian: 1591-1643 by Carol P. Christ

Carol Christ in Lesbos“She had rather been a husband than a wife; and a preacher than a hearer; and a magistrate than a subject.” Reverend Hugh Peter of Salem

Anne Hutchinson was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for heresy in 1637 and excommunicated from the Puritan Church of Boston in 1638. Her banishment came just three years after she, her husband, and eleven living children arrived in America seeking the freedom to practice their religion as they saw fit. Governor Michael Dukakis pardoned her in 1987. Historian Howard Zinn called her a true American hero.

anne hutchinson trialI managed to get through graduate school in Religious Studies without ever having studied the theology of Anne Hutchinson,* though I vaguely remember references (probably with smirks of disapproval) to the “Antinomian Controversy” which is associated with her name. I recall Anne Hutchinson’s name because of an article published in Feminist Studies in the 1970s, when I had just begun to study women and religion. However it was not until recently that I learned of her place in history through reading American Jezebel by Eve LaPlante.

Hutchinson was accused of theological errors in her trials. The Calvinist doctrine of predestination figured heavily in the accusations. But the real issue at stake was that Anne dared to follow her own inner knowing, to articulate it theologically, and to teach her views against the grain of the Puritan authorities in Boston.

Forbidden to speak in Church, women in the Massachusetts Bay Colony were permitted to meet to discuss Biblical passages and the sermons preached about them. Anne’s meetings became so popular that she had to hold two evening meetings a week in the large parlor of her home. At first attended only by women, her meetings began to attract men as well, including the governor of the colony, Sir Henry Vane.

The Antinomian Controversy (the word means against the law) had to do with the Protestant doctrine of justification by grace not works and with the related doctrine of predestination. In theological terms Hutchison held that justification comes exclusively through the gracious choice of God and that works of any kind play absolutely no role at all. In other words, whether or not one is good, and perhaps more crucially for the case, whether or not one follows the rules and laws of church or state, has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not one will be saved.

On the face of it, this is good Calvinist theology, so why was Anne banished for holding Calvinist views? Though they had fled persecution by the church and state in England, the Puritan fathers who banished Anne were engaged in creating a new church and an alternative state; they saw themselves as the proper interpreters of doctrine and scripture and the proper overlords of the new state.

Thus the Puritan fathers modified Calvinist doctrine to their own ends. They declared that following their laws and not questioning their authority was necessary to uphold order in their new community. Anne’s views were called antinomian because she refused to obey the laws laid down by the new authorities of church and state in the new world.

Anne’s refusal to do so was for her a matter of faith—she was unwilling to put any human male authority between herself and her own knowledge of God communicated to her through grace.

Though she herself never converted, Anne’s theological views have much in common with the Quaker doctrine of the inner light and the Quaker assertion that no authorities should stand between the believer and her discernments. True to their convictions, the Quakers allowed women to speak in church and to teach. (Anne’s view of inner knowing might also be compared to the Roman Catholic doctrine of conscience.)

Contemporary radical feminists in religion will surely identify with Anne’s courage of her convictions. Anne Hutchison stood up to male authorities and challenged their views as an equal. She did so knowing that she probably would not be rewarded for what she had done. In fact, she and her husband and family were forced to leave with other families to create a new colony in Rhode Island. After her husband died, Anne felt forced to move with her youngest children to the Dutch Colony of New Amsterdam (now New York), again fearing persecution.

Anne’s is a radical voice. Though she remained a Puritan, Anne was unwilling to modify her views to keep the peace in her community or to keep silent when it might have been politic to do so. In that regard she is a forebear of Matilda Joslyn Gage and Mary Daly.

Nonetheless, while reading her story, I found it difficult to get my head around the fact that Anne was defending a version of the Calvinist doctrine of predestination—the notion that God prejudges souls, choosing by arbitrary will (no good works involved) to save some and to condemn others to everlasting punishment. (Anne’s view of predestination to hell is complicated; there, she argued, God takes account of the bad things those condemned would do in their lives.)

On the face of it, I found Anne’s defense of God’s arbitrary will unsettling. A God who chooses completely apart from relationship with his creatures is the tyrant God I rejected long ago. I view a God who would condemn anyone to hell as abhorrent.

Reading further, I came to see other sides of the theological view Anne defended. Anne’s notion of predestination had the practical effect of allowing her to free herself from Protestant authoritarianism—just as her ancestors had freed themselves from Roman Catholic authoritarianism. I could appreciate that.

There was more. Anne was a midwife. She herself gave birth to fifteen children. Anne would have understood the unconditional love mothers feel for their newborn infants who as yet have done “nothing” to deserve that love. I began to see that Anne’s doctrine of predestination was a way of affirming that God’s love is as unconditional as the love a mother feels for her newborn baby. Like the baby who has just been born, those who are saved are loved unconditionally, apart from any “works” they have done or will do.

For Anne the unconditional love of God was not a harsh cold theological doctrine. Anne stated that she experienced the love of God in her heart. For her this experience was compelling and certain. She said that she had no doubt that she was saved. What this meant for her was that she had no doubt that God loved her and that God’s love had sustained her and would sustain her throughout her life.

I would say that as a product of her times, Anne was forced to couch her experience of the love of God in a view of God’s predestination. I suspect that if she were living today, Anne might have compared the love of God to a mother’s love.

When she settled in New Amsterdam, Anne’s neighbors told her to arm her household to defend against Indian raids. Anne responded that she had always had friendly relationships with the Indians. Though it was not a major theme in her trial, Anne had clashed with the Massachusetts Bay Colony over the notorious Pequot War (in which all of the Pequots were exterminated or enslaved)—a war Puritan leaders believed they had a right to wage because God had given them the new world.

About a year after Anne and her children settled in New York, Anne was warned by her neighbors to leave her home as the Siwonoy Indians were about to seek reprisals for an attack by Dutch soldiers in which eighty Indians had been killed in Manhattan a few months earlier. Anne refused. She and six children were killed and scalped. One of her daughters was captured and adopted by the Indians. The courage of Anne’s convictions led to her death. If she could speak to us from her grave, I imagine she would tell us that fighting with the Indians was wrong and insist that the way of peace is possible. In this too Anne Hutchinson had much in common with the Quakers.

*Anne Hutchinson left no writings. However, the trial documents have been preserved; in them Anne not only answered questions, but choose to elaborate on her theological views in a lengthy statement. My ancestor William Wordell was charged in 1637 and convicted and banished in 1643 for heresy in relation to the ideas of Anne Hutchinson; his wife Mary Gatchell whom he married in 1640 must also have attended meetings in the home of Anne Hutchinson.

Carol has just returned from a life-transforming Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete–early bird discount available now on the 2015 tours.  Carol can be heard in a recent interviews on Voices of the Sacred Feminine, Goddess Alive Radio, and Voices of Women.  Carol is a founding voice in feminism and religion and Goddess spirituality. Her books include She Who Changes and Rebirth of the Goddess and with Judith Plaskow, the widely-used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions.  Follow Carol on GoddessCrete on Twitter.


Categories: Abuse of Power, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Feminist Theology, General

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15 replies

  1. Any doctrine of a metaphysical existence of rewards and punishments is intrinsically, completely and irredeemably misogynist–irredeemably misogynist–because it fantasizes a metaphysical existence utterly independent of and contrary to any grounding whatsoever in the physical reality, which is the realm of Feminine Truth.

    This is an “all or nothing” proposition.

    A doctrine cannot be ‘slightly’ misogynist any more than a woman can be ‘slightly’ pregnant.

    And that element ALONE is sufficient to establish that any such a doctrine consists of a fundamental *contradiction* of Revealed Truth; an *inescapable* contradiction of Revealed Truth.

    Translation: the misogynist, metaphysical monotheistic theologies CANNOT be ‘reformed’.

    They can only be repudiated at their very origin with the understanding that the Teaching of Jesus included a Doctrine of ‘Rebirth’.



  2. Thanks Michael.I actually think that the only doctrine of “rebirth” that is not an attempt to “do one better” than the mother and Mother Earth is the cycle of birth, death, and regeneration, with birth understood as the gift of life, death as inevitable, and regeneration applying not to the individual but to those who will come afterwards.

    On those grounds all hope for any kind of life after death or immortality of the soul miss the mark.

    However, I still choose to call Anne Hutchinson a feminist theologian because she exemplifies another of the “marks” of feminist theology–taking “women’s experience” (her own) seriously. And as I suggest, she may have understood the love of God on the model of “women’s experience” of unconditional love for her newborn baby.


    • Thanks, Carol. But, from my perspective, it is orders of magnitude worse than just ‘missing the mark’.

      Look at all of the different ways the monotheistic religions express and demonstrate their *hatred* of women; clearly *ignorant* of the fact that men are sometimes ‘raised from the dead’ as women and vice versa.

      Would such contemptible viciousness even exist at all were men to *fully* understand that, in their next lives, they may very well suffer in their own persons (in Buddhism it is referred to as “karma”) the consequences of that viciousness (for example, female genital mutilation)?

      And, yet, that is a *fundamental* Revelation received by Moses, Isaiah, Jesus & Mohammed.

      Eliminating that one Truth from Judaism, Christianity and Islam has resulted–and continues to result–in the loss of MILLIONS of human lives as well as untold suffering for millions of women.

      There is, quite simply, no longer any legitimate *excuse* for such unconscionable viciousness.

      And, yet, the media CONTINUES to censor that Truth in favor of propagating the metaphysical doctrinal *viciousness* of the monotheistic religious ‘authorities’.

      But there will NEVER be Peace on this planet until such viciousness is destroyed at its metaphysical doctrinal *roots*.



      • Not sure where you are getting this revelation from, but it is not Anne’s view or mine. Cheers.


        • Carol, “not sure where”?

          The Gospels, for one thing; the Quran for the other.

          Jesus describes the revelation of the memories of previous lives as being “like the angels in heaven” in his reply to the Sadducees (Chapter 20:36 of the Gospel of Matthew); affirming that those who have received that *specific* Revelation–whether men OR women–are “sons of God” (See, also, Saying #114 of the Gospel of Thomas.)



  3. Thank you so much–I had never heard of this courageous woman. How I wish there were diaries and letters!


  4. oops.

    Chapter 20:36 of the Gospel of LUKE rather than the Gospel of Matthew.



  5. Anne Hutchinson was probably my first exposure to a feminist theologian. I wrote an extensive paper about her in my Early American History class in college. I did not focus on the theological aspects, but on the feminist aspects of her organizing, teaching, and leading other women, as well as, of course, on midwifery. This is one of the experiences I look back on as significant because it shows me a “thread” that has been running steadily through my life since I was a teenager (I started college early and was 17 when I wrote said paper about Anne). If I was taking that class again today, I’d likely choose the same subject! ;)


  6. Thank you, Carol, for this piece. The first time I heard about this remarkable woman was (years ago) when I was attending a very conservative Protestant church and as you might guess, she was “exiled” from the community all over again. I appreciate your sentence, “I would say that as a product of her times, Anne was forced to couch her experience of the love of God in a view of God’s predestination.” And I agree that she would probably think of God’s love differently (a mother’s love) were she alive today.


  7. I enjoyed this piece, Carol, knowing very little about Anne Hutchinson, except for her history as a “heretic.” Learning about her theology was interesting. Your view of Anne as “forced to couch her experience of the love of God in a view of God’s predestination,” parallels my view of Mother Ann Lee, a century later. Mother Ann Lee was one of the first feminist religious leaders I discovered. She was the founder of the Shakers, a religious group that began near where I lived in Upstate New York as a kid. She saw herself and was seen as a second, feminine coming of Jesus. The way she organized her religion was along strictly gender-segregated lines. Men and women performed different functions in the community, came and went through different doors, lived in different parts of the living quarters, and were celibate. There was also dual leadership, both a male and a female head of the community. So much of this could be seen as non-feminist, but for her time, I believe that she raised the status of women phenomenally. The only way for women to consistently control their own bodies was to refrain from sex. Women had equal status with men (or perhaps in some respects, higher, since Ann was seen as the living incarnation of Jesus). And women as well as men received visions and songs from the spirits. Even the fact that the Shakers danced in their “meetings” (they were originally called the Shaking Quakers, since they split off from Quakerism as a result of their dancing) seemed to me to indicate an acceptance of the senses (despite the celibacy). Ann’s understandings of her religion, like Anne Hutchinson’s, were strongly influenced by her experience of motherhood. As opposed to Hutchinson, she lost all 4 of her children before they reached the age of 10 (most of them younger). This devastated her and most probably led to her belief that celibacy was the way to go.


    • I thought of Mother Ann Lee too when I read Carol’s post. My mother and I recently went to a harvest festival at Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village in Maine, which is where the 3 remaining Shakers in the world live. Two are elderly women and the other is a man who is 57. There is an article about them in the latest issue of Downeast Magazine. Mother Ann was certainly a remarkable woman, as was Anne Hutchinson.


  8. This was a fascinating article about Anne Hutchinson. I also liked the comments about Ann Lee, but I believe the Shakers also contained a hidden lesbian element. Any organization that has strict sex segregation was a cover for lesbians of that era. There is always a tendency among heterosexual to erase lesbian existence, completely undermining the radical feminism of women who say no to men.

    We could all debate theology, but it seems invented with each era of history. I liked the women who were called heratics— any women who create a world that makes the life of the mind available to women is heroic, and we should know about what these women did!

    The whole idea of childbirth was horrifying in the 18th century, think of having 15 children and being enslaves to men. Think of the fact that hetero women have yet to end the ownership of their bodies, and the Ann Lees of the world would still be considered radical and woman affirming.


  9. Was the whole idea of childbirth horrifying when it was controlled by women midwives? According to my family research health in the English colonies was very good, people lived long lives, and large numbers of children survived. Anne learned theology from her father and at least according to the book I read, her husband was very supportive of her. This independence within marriage was certainly not the norm in her time. The book notes that it was common for women of the time to sign letters to their male relatives “yours to command,” etc.

    You may be right about the Shakers, certainly the convent was attractive to women who had no desire to marry.


  10. Turtle Woman, I agree that there were probably many lesbians among the Shakers. But Ann Lee herself remained married, although celibate, and her husband came with her to the American colonies (but then deserted her). She was supported during this transition mostly by men, coming to the colonies with 6 male followers and 2 women followers. And during the colonial era lesbians hid their relationships, since there was strong discrimination against them. Several colonies and then early states passed laws making all gay sexuality illegal. According to Wikipedia, in 1649 in Plymouth Colony, Sarah White Norman and Mary Vincent Hammon were prosecuted for “lewd behavior with each other upon a bed”; their trial documents are the only known record of sex between female English colonists in North America in the 17th century. Hammon was only admonished, perhaps because she was younger than sixteen,[7] but in 1650 Norman was convicted and required to acknowledge publicly her “unchaste behavior” with Hammon, as well as warned against future offenses.[8] This may be the only conviction for lesbianism in history.[9]”



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