Roger Williams & Anne Hutchinson “Rocking the Boat”

Roger Williams & Anne Hutchinson
“Rocking the Boat”
Presentation created by Robert Martinez
Primary Content Source: The American Nation by Carnes and Garraty
Images as cited.
Most of the
Bay Colony’s early
came not from
those of doubtful
spiritual condition
but from its
certified saints.
The “godly and zealous” Roger Williams
was a prime example. The Pilgrim leader
William Bradford described Williams as
possessed of “many precious parts, but
very unsettled in judgment.”
Even by Plymouth’s standards Williams was an
extremist separatist. He was ready to bring
down the wrath of Charles I on New England
rather than accept the charters signed by him
or his father, even if these documents provided
the only legal basis for the governments of
Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay.
Williams had arrived in Massachusetts in
1631. Following a short stay in Plymouth,
he joined the church in Salem, which
elected him minister in 1635.
Well before then, however, his opposition to
the alliance of church and civil government
turned both ministers and magistrates against
him. Part of his contrariness stemmed from his
religious libertarianism. Magistrates should
have no voice in spiritual matters, he insisted –
“forced religion stinks in God’s nostrils.”
Williams also offended property owners (which
meant nearly everyone) by advancing the
radical idea that it was “a Nationale sinne” for
anyone, including the king, to take possession
of any American land without buying it from
the Indians.
As long as Williams enjoyed the support of his
Salem church, there was little the magistrates
could do to silence him. But his refusal to heed
those who counseled moderation – “all truths
are not seasonable at all times,” Governor
Winthrop reminded him – swiftly eroded that
In the fall of 1635,
economic pressure
put on the town of
Salem by the General
Court turned his
congregation against
him. The General
Court then ordered
him to leave the
colony within six
Williams departed Massachusetts in January
1636, traveling south to the head of
Narragansett Bay. There he worked out
mutually acceptable arrangements with the
local Indians and founded the town of
In 1644, after obtaining
a charter in England
from Parliament, he
established the colony
of Rhode Island and
Plantations. The
government was
relatively democratic,
all religions were
tolerated, and church
and state were rigidly
Anne Hutchinson,
who arrived in
Boston in 1631,
was another
“visible saint”
who, in the
judgment of the
went too far.
Hutchinson was
not to be taken
Duties as a midwife
brought her into the
homes of other
Boston women, with
whom she
discussed and more
than occasionally
criticized the
sermons of their
minister, John
The issue in dispute was whether God’s saints
could be confident of having truly received His
gift of eternal life. Wilson and most of the
ministers of the colony thought not. God’s
saints should ceaselessly monitor their
thoughts and behavior.
But Hutchinson thought
this emphasis on behavior
was similar to the Catholic
belief that an individual’s
good deeds and penitence
could bring God’s
salvation. Ministers should
not demean God,
Hutchinson declared, by
suggesting that He would
be impressed by human
She insisted that God’s saints knew who
they were; those presumed “saints” who
had doubts on the matter were likely
destined for eternal hell instead.
Hutchinson suggested that those possessed of God’s
grace were exempt from the rules of good behavior and
even from the laws of the commonwealth. As her
detractors pointed out, this was the conclusion some
of the early German Protestants had reached, for which
they were judged guilty of the heresy of antinomianism
(“against the law”) and burned at the stake.
In 1636, the General Court
charged Hutchinson with
defaming the clergy and
brought her to trial. When
her accusers quoted the
Bible (“Honor thy father and
thy mother”) to make their
case, she coolly announced
that even the Ten
Commandments must yield
to one’s own insights if
these were directly inspired
by God.
When pressed for
details, she
acknowledged that she
was a regular recipient
of divine insights,
communicated, as they
were to Abraham, “by
the voice of His own
spirit in my soul.” The
General Court, on
hearing this claim,
banished her.
Hutchinson, together with her large family and
a group of supporters, left Massachusetts in
the spring of 1637 for Rhode Island, thereby
adding to the reputation of that colony as the
“sink” of New England.
After her husband died in 1642, she and six of
her children moved to the Dutch colony of New
Netherland, where, the following year, she and
all but her youngest daughter were killed by
The banishment of
dissenters like Roger
Williams and Anne
Hutchinson did not
endear the
Massachusetts puritans
to posterity. In both
cases outspoken
individualists seem to
have been done in by
frightened politicians
and self-serving
Yet Williams and Hutchinson posed genuine threats to
the puritan community. Massachusetts was truly a
social experiment. Could it accommodate such
uncooperative spirits and remain intact? When forced
to choose between the peace of the commonwealth
and sending dissenters packing, Winthrop, the
magistrates, and the ministers did not hesitate.
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