Rhode Island has many founders, in keeping with its democratic tradition. While Roger Williams was beginning Providence, others were coming to different places on Narragansett Bay, eager to find their own forms of freedom. One of the most charismatic of these seekers was a woman whose name has become synonymous with the right to speak out against authority, Anne Hutchinson.
Already, that helps Rhode Island’s history to look different. Women are often quiet in early American history – but not here. Stories of how states were founded normally revolve around men, for the simple reason that men controlled nearly all of the levers of power in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Heads of households were legally defined as men, and women were excluded from voting or holding office. Men usually went first into a region that was not yet settled, and they then led in the creation of towns and governments.
But once again, Rhode Island offers an interesting exception. Anne Hutchinson has become famous to students of early American history for her role in a crisis that rocked Boston in its earliest years. The Antinomian Crisis of 1637-1638 was primarily a disagreement over religion, but it was also a political struggle, and an argument over women and their rights. At a time when Boston was growing quickly, and there were disagreements about what kind of a place it should be, the crisis severely shook the community, and its aftershocks continued for a long time.
For many, the crisis ended in 1638, when Anne Hutchinson was banished, but that was the beginning of another important chapter in her life. One of the aftershocks was the settlement of Portsmouth, Rhode Island, an important step in the early history of a colony that was still coming together. So it is fair to say that she was crucial to the early history of two states – Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
Anne was born around 1591, the daughter of an important minister, Francis Marbury, who was often speaking out in ways that were controversial. She inherited many of his qualities. Anne Marbury grew up primarily in the town of Alford, in Lincolnshire, England, near where Captain John Smith (who helped to settle Virginia) came from. But she also spent a few formative years in London, where Roger Williams was growing up. She married a merchant named William Hutchinson, described as “a very honest, peaceable man,” and returned to Lincolnshire. There she raised more than a dozen children, and became an ardent follower of the minister, John Cotton, who was preaching in the English city of Boston. While in England, she often organized small groups to discuss religious matters, called “conventicles.”
After John Cotton emigrated to the new city of Boston, in America, she and her family followed in 1634. She quickly immersed herself in the life of the young colony, helping others, particularly women. Soon she was doing what she had done so naturally in England – speaking her mind, organizing weekly discussion groups, and reaching out to other women (she was a midwife).
This did not sit well with Boston’s authorities, who were beginning to clamp down on dissent, and to maintain their authority at a time of rapid growth. They also had religious disagreements, and here Anne’s criticisms were stinging. She felt that Boston’s ministers were not good enough; they preached in a way that was predictable, and uninspiring; she wanted ministers who spoke from the heart, and challenged their listeners.
Those criticisms cut deeply in a colony that was founded for religious reasons. Soon, the argument grew, and quickly involved political factions jockeying for position. One of Anne’s supporters, Henry Vane, lost the governorship in 1637, and that weakened her position. Under the new administration (led by John Winthrop), she was put on trial, twice, by civil and then religious authorities.
Her trial marked a remarkable moment in the early history of New England, when ideas about freedom of worship – the same issue that was so important to Roger Williams – were up in the air. Anne defended herself ably, often outwitting her inquisitors. But she admitted something that was inadmissible at the time – she felt that her ideas came to her from God, directly – “by an immediate voice.” That gave the authorities more than enough reason to banish her. In other words, she acted as if God was talking to her, and to her alone.
Ironically, a direct experience of God was what so many early New Englanders wanted – but to claim it with no help from local ministers was a bit too independent for the authorities. It was as if she was condemning them. So they simply did the opposite, and condemned her. In March 1638, she was ordered to “go out from among them, and trouble the land no more.” It was not a shining moment for early American justice.
But the trial was not only about religion and politics; it was also an argument about women, and that is why Anne has fascinated historians for centuries. At a time when women had so few rights, she defended herself bravely and eloquently in her trial. The trial was unfair in many ways – she was never told clearly what the charges were. But she showed remarkable spirit and intelligence throughout the questioning. In a way, that was in itself a rebuttal of one of the underlying charges – that women were not entitled to form their own opinions. Anne showed clearly that she could think for herself. Her followers called her “the Nonsuch,” or Nonesuch.
After Anne was banished, she found her way to Narragansett Bay, already becoming a haven for those who needed to leave Massachusetts quickly. She and her husband, with perhaps 18 others, established a small settlement on the northern edge of Aquidneck Island, in what is now Portsmouth. This was another important moment in the founding of Rhode Island. It was a different kind of founding – a little later, and a little further South than Roger’s settlement at Providence. But it was a new beginning all the same, and Newport would soon flow out of this small settlement at Portsmouth.
It was not yet clear what “Rhode Island” was – there was hardly any government at all, only a few small settlements around the Bay. But it was far more tolerant than Massachusetts, and here Anne found like-minded thinkers, including people who would ultimately go in Quaker and Baptist directions, but were still working out the details.
It would be satisfying to know more about the relationship between Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson, but it is difficult, without much evidence to go on. As with Roger, there is no image of Anne, we can only imagine what she looked like. They clearly shared something important, in that they both had been banished from Boston. That did not mean that they agreed on all details, but importantly, he let her speak freely. As he reasoned, “it if be a lie, it will die; and if it be true, we ought to know it.”
There are some writings that suggest they were friendly – later, he wrote that they were “familiarly acquainted,” and that he had “much good” to say about her. He also defended her in letters to John Winthrop. Anne and Roger were connected in other ways too. Anne’s sister, Catherine Marbury, married Richard Scott, and they became long-time neighbors of Roger’s in Providence. As Catharine Scott, she became a defender of the Quakers, and when members of this sect were punished or executed at Boston in the late 1650s, it awakened many of the old wounds of the 1630s.
Roger and Anne were far from identical. He was closer to the Native Americans, and more willing to stay permanently in his new home. Anne, restless, stayed a few years on Aquidneck Island, but after her husband died in 1642, she kept moving – perhaps because she was worried that Massachusetts might take over Rhode Island. In 1643, she moved near New York, where she became vulnerable again, for different reasons. When a conflict erupted between the Dutch and local natives, she and many of her children were killed in a native attack in August of that year.
But her influence has lingered across the centuries, in remarkably resilient ways. Women could not be suppressed as easily as the Boston authorities wished to, and throughout New England history, they spoke to power over and over again, brilliantly. Rhode Island has an especially proud tradition in this regard, because so many of its dissenting religious traditions (Quakers especially) permitted women to speak in church. But “permitted” implies that permission was granted – it is more accurate to say that extraordinary women simply stood up and seized permission for themselves. That was the proper way to honor Anne Hutchinson.
She lives on in other ways, too. The character of Hester Prynne, in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, was likely inspired by her. In Boston, there are now statues of strong women on the lawn of the Massachusetts State House, centuries after the rough treatment Anne received there.
But one of the most impressive monuments of all is the state of Rhode Island, which she helped to found, along fairer and more democratic lines. Every time a young Rhode Islander speaks his or her mind; it honors the example of a great founding mother.
Francis J. Bremer, Anne Hutchinson: Troubler of the Puritan Zion (Huntington NY: Robert Krieger, 1981)
John Dos Passos, The Ground We Stand On: Some Examples from the History of a Political Creed (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1941)
David D. Hall, The Antinomian Controversy, 1636-1638 (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1968)
Glenn W. LaFantaisie, ed., The Correspondence of Roger Williams (Providence: Rhode Island Historical Society and Brown University Press, 1988)
Eve LaPlante, American Jezebel: The Uncommon Life of Anne Hutchinson, the Woman who Defied the Puritans (San Francisco: Harper, 2004)
John Williams Haley, The Old Stone Bank History of Rhode Island (Providence: Providence Institution for Savings, 1929-1944)