Thursday, September 13, 2012

Anne Hutchinson's (high) way

The Puritan as individualist

The following post is part of a series on the rise and fall of the self-made man in American culture.

Not all Puritans who insisted on taking Puritan ideas to their logical conclusion fared nearly as well as Roger Williams did. Anne Hutchinson, who arrived in 1634, also rejected what she regarded as the hopeless compromises she saw around her. If Williams was one of those deeply genial people who are so intriguing because you always sense that for all their niceness they’re also holding something back, Hutchinson seemed to have a talent for alienating people wherever she went. It is an article of faith among modern scholars that this is because she was a woman, and I have little doubt this was part of the story. But to see her fate solely in such terms is to miss the profound challenge posed in the deeply subversive implications of asserting that people should live by their own lights, a challenge she issued even more directly than Williams did.
Hutchinson was born in 1591 as Anne Marbury, the daughter of a committed preacher who was repeatedly jailed for propounding heretical doctrines. She married William Hutchinson, a wealthy merchant, and bore him 15 children. Around the time of their wedding the Hutchinsons began attending the sermons of John Cotton; when he emigrated to America they decided to follow him. Though Cotton criticized Williams’s radicalism, he was initially approving of the highly learned Hutchinson, very much her father’s daughter. She soon became part of an influential circle that included the politically-connected Henry Vane, another recent arrival who briefly displaced John Winthrop as governor of the colony. (Such factionalism was an additional reason, along with her gender, why Hutchinson’s status proved volatile). She soon became known for the brilliant discussion circle she hosted at home to discuss religious experience.
Perhaps not surprisingly, such events generated curiosity – and resentment. The flashpoint of conflict centered on one of the great theological debates of the era: whether the basis of salvation should rest on a covenant of works or a covenant of faith. For the Puritans, there was no question it was the latter: grace was the gift of God, not something one earned by virtue of one’s deeds (an oxymoron, given the insufficiency and sinfulness of the human heart). Hutchinson reputedly complained that the preaching she was hearing, Cotton’s excepted, smacked of crypto-Catholic covenant of works rhetoric (this even though a sixteenth century Dutch Protestant theologian, Jacobus Arminius, also affirmed a covenant of works).
Even more provocative were the barely veiled implications of Hutchinson’s assertions. If, as Puritans ritualistically affirmed, only God knew who was saved, and if – as seemed quite likely to at least some observers – civil and clerical authorities were as likely as not agents of damnation, then why should they be blindly respected, much less obeyed? It was not hard to hear overtones of what we would call anarchism in such talk (the Puritans’ term was “antinominianism,” from the Greek anti-nomos, against the law). As such this was a matter of church and state. New Englanders were generally careful – more careful than most, notwithstanding the common misperception that the region was as theocracy – to separate the two, in large measure because they wanted to protect the church from the state. When dissidents were legally prosecuted, it was explicitly because of the challenge they posed to secular order, a necessity in God’s fallen world.
 In the case of Williams, dealing with such challenges to social order was reasonably straightforward, since he was a public figure. Hutchinson’s case was more ambiguous, since it was not clear she could be prosecuted, or on what basis, particularly given the standard defense of private personal conscience. But government authorities decided to investigate and called her before the General Court in 1637. (A separate church inquiry would follow.)
 The surviving trial record suggests that for much of the inquiry Hutchinson ran circles around her interrogators, sacred and secular (ministers were invited to participate in the civil hearing), clearly recognizing the relatively weak hand the General Court was playing and sustained by supporters who also attended. “I am called here to answer you but I hear no charge,” she observes at one point in the proceedings.
 “I have told you some already and more I can tell you,” Governor Winthrop replies.
“Name one,” she retorts.
And so it goes. Hutchinson volleys scripture with the best of them, and looks as if she might really prevail until, in a moment of overreaching, she was pressed to explain the basis of her faith in her own conscience, and replies, “by an immediate revelation.” This was a big mistake: it was an article of faith that God no longer spoke directly to human beings as he had to the Israelites in days of old, even if, as philo-Semites, they considered themselves the thirteenth tribe in the new Promised Land. Hutchinson was branded a heretic, subsequently excommunicated in her church trial, and banished from Massachusetts. She and her husband made their way to Rhode Island, where William Hutchinson became embroiled in the colony’s divisive politics. After his death in 1641 Hutchinson made her way to Dutch New Amsterdam, where in 1643 she ignored a warning to flee an Indian attack and was murdered near the highway that now bears her name.
Again: what interests me here is less the way Hutchinson was a deviant than in the way she captured a core characteristic of Puritans in particular and New Englanders in general in colonial America: their tendency – whether recognized, honored, or not – to rely on their own judgment. This sense of self-reliance in the spiritual realm clearly carried over into secular affairs, which can help explain not only why they came to America in the first place but ultimately why the were in the cockpit of an independence movement in 1776 that was for a long time couched in terms of defending a 150 year tradition of liberty, one they refused to sacrifice on an altar of taxation without representation.
My caveat nevertheless bears repeating: neither Roger Williams, nor Anne Hutchinson, nor any of their contemporaries should be considered self-made.  They pointed the way, they fashioned new worlds, but they were too deeply invested in seeing themselves as servants of Christ, devoting their God-given gifts in the service of that enterprise. Their self-reliance was a process of elimination – a suspicion others could not be trusted that led them back to themselves by default.
As they were uncomfortably aware, however, there were interlopers in their midst who had more avowed confidence than they did in the power of their own reason. The Puritans loathed these people – Williams, at the outer perimeter of his tolerance, described them as “these poor filthy dreamers”[60]– and persecuted them to the point of execution. They were known, pejoratively, as Quakers, and it is their greatest American exponent, William Penn, who brings us one step closer to self-making. 

Next: The making of William Penn (and his colony)