Anne Hutchinson trial

Anne Hutchinson stood trial alone, with no lawyer to
defend her. She faced a panel of 49 powerful and welleducated men. She was accused of sedition, or trying to
overthrow the government. And she faced banishment if
Hutchinson's "crime" was expressing religious beliefs
that were different from the colony's rulers. In the year
1637, in Massachusetts Bay Colony, that was against the
law--especially for a woman.
Hutchinson, a Puritan,
came to America in search of a place where she could
worship freely. But when she arrived, she found the Bay Colony's religious rules very intolerant. The
ideas she brought with her from England quickly landed her in trouble.
Hutchinson believed that people could communicate directly with God--without the help of ministers or
the Bible. This was in direct contradiction with the established religion. Local ministers taught that
people could only find God by following the teachings of the Bible. And that only they could interpret
the Bible correctly. At meetings she held in her Boston home, Hutchinson criticized the teachings of the
colony's ministers.
In Massachusetts Bay, as was the custom at the time, all ministers were men. The Church controlled the
political power. There was no Constitution or Bill of Rights. Only those who belonged to "approved"
churches could vote. Magistrates, or government officials, used the Bible as their legal textbook. And
people who broke the law could be punished severely--jailed, whipped, or even executed. Many
considered Hutchinson's teachings illegal.
Anne Hutchinson's meetings deeply divided the colony--and caused alarm
among the colony's leaders. Many people, including the governor, Henry Vane,
supported Hutchinson. But others--including powerful religious leaders and the
powerful former governor John Winthrop, opposed her. They believed that
women should obey men at all times, and that women should be forbidden to
teach about religion. And they feared that if people followed Anne Hutchinson,
the ministers would lose their influence over the people. The colony might even
dissolve into a civil war.
As Hutchinson's following grew, the leaders took action. They stopped William
Wheelright, Hutchinson's brother-in-law, from becoming a minister. Then they
banished him. In 1637, they reelected John Winthrop governor. Still Hutchinson
refused to stop criticizing the ministers.
In August of 1637, the ministers called a conference, to discuss Hutchinson's
teachings. They discovered some 82 "erroneous opinions" Hutchinson had made.
The magistrates called other Hutchinson followers to trial, convicting and punishing
those who stood by her. Then they tried Hutchinson herself.
The lead prosecutor was Governor John Winthrop. For nearly all of the first day,
Winthrop was the only accuser who spoke. Hutchinson he said, held meetings that
were "not tolerable" in the sight of God. In addition, she had stepped beyond the
bounds of what was allowed for women.
As the trial continued, more men spoke against Hutchinson. But she used the Bible and the men's own
words to skillfully defend herself. She stated that holding meetings in the home to discuss religion had
been a common Puritan practice in England. She told the men that God had spoken to her directly, and
that only God could be her judge. But in the end, the verdict was against her. She was banished from
Massachusetts Bay.
Hutchinson left in spring of 1638. The religious persecutions continued. Quakers were singled out for
very harsh punishment, partly because their religion forbid them from swearing oaths to the government
or serving in the military. Just being a Quaker was punishable by whipping, mutilation, or death.
Between 1658 and 1661, four Quakers were hanged.
But even amidst persecution, the idea of religious freedom grew. After the colonies won their freedom
from Great Britain, the, new leaders of the United States of America put religious freedom in writing.
Article VI of the Constitution declared that "no religious test shall ever be required as a Qualification to
and Office or Public Trust under the United States." Amendment I stated that "Congress shall make no
law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."
After she left Massachusetts Bay Colony, Anne Hutchinson lived out her years in exile, first in
Aquidneck, Rhode Island and later on Long Island, where she died during an attack by Native
Americans in September, 1643. Hutchinson had not succeeded in changing the laws of her time. But her
courageous actions helped set the stage for an America in which religious freedom was a reality.
Discussion questions.
1. What were the charges leveled against Anne Hutchinson?
2. What were her real offenses?
3. Was it a fair trial in your opinion?
4. What was her punishment?
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