The Times and Trials of Anne Hutchinson by Michael Winship

You likely don’t know, but my personal approach to historical reading is to keep books going in five centuries—17th, 18th, 19th, 20th, and 21st. I just completed my latest installment for the first of those centuries, the 17th. Thus we come to Anne Hutchinson, arguably the most well-known female character of 17th century America.

I knew the fundamentals going into the book by Winship, nearly all of which I had gathered during my graduate student days at Indiana University Bloomington in the mid and late 1980s. Hutchinson was a maverick Puritan, a female leader (agitator, to some), and for largely the latter fact was driven by male Puritan leaders out of Massachusetts into the waiting arms of dissent-obsessed Rhode Islanders. End of story.

Thankfully and at last, I found a book that gave a fuller, better, richer picture of Hutchinson and the events which surrounded her controversial life in Puritan Massachusetts. Michael Winship’s book is very readable, crisp and to the point, and a welcome source of both insights and information into Hutchinson’s life and how we’ve been taught to understand it (if at all). My whole view of Hutchinson was nearly turned inside out by this book.

For a summary of her life, go to the internet. I won’t waste space here on that. The main point I’ll make in this instance is to say that she emigrated to Puritan Massachusetts in 1634 (roughly 4 years after the colony’s start). She was deeply Puritan, argumentative, impassioned enough to lead what we could call “small-group Bible studies” of mostly women in or near her home, and ultimately chose to accuse most Puritan ministers of colluding with the devil for not teaching that a person was the equal to Christ, Paul, and any other figure in the Bible. She was tried, convicted after a series of dramatic court proceedings, and ordered out of Massachusetts. Given her view of people who disagreed with her, I suspect the verdict pleased her.

Winship has succeeded in looking at Anne Hutchinson in an honest, straightforward way. He compares and contrasts his interpretations of her life with those offered by other historians and has the courage to draw politically incorrect distinctions in the effort. Primarily, he takes to task those recent historians who—shock of shocks—have either through willful deception or ragged incompetence sought to elevate her into a 21st century feminist at odds with Neanderthal men (the feminist portrayal of men really never leaves that era). Winship correctly and cogently takes them to task for making her into something she decidedly was not—sole leader of a progressively enlightened movement persecuted for the sole reason of her biologically enlightened gender.

Winship takes the reader through the necessary theological issues and debates which form the crux of the controversy between most Puritan leaders and those few aligned with Hutchinson. Interestingly, and of enormous significant for the story, Hutchinson’s co-leaders are male ministers and elders associated with the wealthiest church in Boston, itself the core of the colony. It is this fact of her male colleagues’ prosperity and connections that has great impact on Hutchinson’s continuance as a female leader.

Winship shows that for many of the foes of the Hutchinson group it was fortuitous that Hutchinson was female. That fact gave them—including the perennial Puritan political leader, John Winthrop—the opportunity to interpret the controversy as driven by Hutchinson’s radical female status. In this way, Winthrop found a door whereby some of the most influential fellow leaders of Hutchinson’s group, John Cotton most notably, could be gently returned to the structure of power and influence within the mainstream Puritan community. Hence the hook is baited and set for latter-day scholars to hold up the event of Hutchinson’s trial as solely a case of female persecution. They don’t take the time, as Winship did, to dig beneath the “official” records of Winthrop to understand the fuller context of stuff on the ground.

A substantial part of Winship’s spadework was in depicting the behaviors and actions of key leaders apart from Hutchinson. The roster of these critical leaders includes John Winthrop (occasional governor of the colony), John Cotton (minister of the wealthy Boston church and collaborator with Hutchinson until nearly the end), Henry Vane (another collaborator with Hutchinson, governor, and political rival to Winthrop), John Wheelwright (minister who leads the theological side of the Hutchinson group), and Thomas Shepard (minister of a less affluent church and arch enemy to Wheelwright, Cotton, and Hutchinson). For probably 20-30% of the book these characters dominate the narrative; Hutchinson is absent from the story. Winship treats this group in a clear, dramatic manner. You gain a sense of who they are as people and, to an extent, as leaders.

My criticisms of the book are three-fold. First, Winship’s spadework needed to extend beyond the cluster of leaders. He needed to include more detailed descriptions of other major events at the time. This would have produced a stronger understanding of potential connections between wars, economic ups and downs, and so forth and Hutchinson’s trials and tribulations. Second, Winship gives a confused account of church-state relations in this period of New England colonial history. At one time (p.28) he says church and state are separate, while at another (p.147) he asserts they are tightly connected. To be sure, church-state relations in 17th century New England are tangled. Still, he could have strengthened this part of the book. Third, Winship takes too many easy shots at 21st century America, especially in the introduction and conclusions of the book, and predictably accuses President George W. Bush as embodying the slippage into a theocratic-flavored style of politics. From my view, that’s a sophomoric point that says nothing other than Winship’s personal voting patterns. It’s a shame that he didn’t resist this impulse as he did with hyper-feminist polemics.

It’s doubly a shame because the attempts to link the Hutchinson event with current-day America had two other directions, each far more compelling than Bush. One of those was the obvious comparison to modern radical Islam. Hutchinson’s proclivity to interpret any dissent with heresy and apostasy falls much more closely to radical Islamists than it does to mainstream Christians. Yet, this comparison is no where to be seen. Likewise, Winship fails to explore the non-judgmental issue of the genuine depth of American religious spirit in the American identity. Compared to 21stcentury Europe, America today is a passionately religious culture. Both the pro- and anti-Hutchinson groups of the 1630s embodied the roots of this cultural passion.

From the perspective of individual leadership, Hutchinson’s doggedness and dogmatism is both blessing and curse. We’ve all seen this in leaders regardless of the issue at hand. She clings to her position despite its unpopularity. At some point, however, a line is crossed and she shifts from earning your sympathy and admiration to provoking your antipathy and disdain. She became stubborn, vainglorious, and egotistical in the certainty of her beliefs. Everyone else who failed to emulate or agree with her became defined as an opponent or worse, an enemy and worse yet, an evil enemy.

She was the embodiment of the power that comes from the combination of education, confidence, and passion for a cause. Armed thusly, nothing deterred her. Not the specter of having to face opponents in formal positions of authority, not the abandonment of less rigidly minded allies, and not the resistance of local Native Americans who warned her not to intrude on their land when she left Massachusetts. Read for yourself the outcome of that warning.

This combination is something to ponder. Can you gain it? Just as importantly, can you gain it and at the same time gain a dash of flexibility, cooperative spirit, and comradeship?

In viewing this historical controversy on a broader level, you see that leadership is bound up with alliances and relationships. Hutchinson’s fate was sealed in two ways—one being the personal tendencies which she displayed as a leader and the other being the slow winnowing away of her key allies as they came to adopt more moderate stances. She failed to see or chose to ignore this fact. It was her lack of leadership allies as well as her leadership style that accounted for the result of the trials. Had her allies remained with her, she could have fought on. When they departed, she was alone.

Another thing that stands out on a broader level is the important of meetings-between-the-Meetings. I’ve chosen my capitalization carefully. Historians and perhaps leaders in organizations, too, tend to focus on the link between major event and major event. The record or string of these events is what is told or remembered or emphasized. Hutchinson’s experiences reveal that it’s the time between the major events that ultimately tell the tale. The small “m” meeting is just as significant as the capital “M” Meeting in understanding how and why things happen as they do.

A final point about American history. You see in this instance that a critical factor in the American experience is the ability and willingness of the New England colonizers to expand as a way out of their internal controversies. Their decision to seek or take new lands for new settlements helped ease the pressures that might have exploded in other ways without such a safety valve. Certainly, these explosions shifted to colonial-native interactions. Nevertheless, they could have occurred within the colonies more and differently than they did had expanded settlements not been undertaken.

Good book. If you can steady yourself for a stiff dose of theological disputes, you’ll enjoy the wider value of the book.