The documents surrounding the trial of Anne Hutchinson give us interesting insight into what the Puritans believed was the role of women in religion. Hutchinson, who moved to Boston to remain a part of Mather’s transplanted congregation, was on trial for essentially disrupting the social order. These writings reinforce or further the exclusion of women from participating in organized religion beyond being a casual participant, and instead continue to give religious authority exclusively to male believers.
Anne Hutchinson was accustomed to meeting with others prior to settling in Boston. “Once settled in her new Boston…she resumed a practice she had begun in England, of paying calls on women in childbed or other distress, as a kind of semiprofessional advisor” (Heimert and Delbanco 154). This act of domesticity, helping other women in manners concerning the home, is an act in which women have been engaging for centuries. Ben Barker-Benfield writes, “The revolution in which Hampden, Lilburne, Winstanley – and Winthrop – were engaged on behalf of the new man (species generic) also erected or renewed a barrier on behalf of the new man (sex-specific), and against the emergence of the new woman” (66). Barker-Benfield’s statement is interesting in light of the many reasons why the Puritans made the journey to what is now America. In the process of creating this “new man” that Barker-Benfield speaks of, Puritan attitudes redefine how religion can function in the domestic sphere. Women are expected to actively participate in the church community, but men began to view themselves as being of a mediating caste. Men of this caliber saw Hutchinson and women like her as a threat to their roles within the household, undermining their ability to “make good for women what they claimed for themselves” (Barker-Benfield 67).
We see this again in John Cotton’s “A Treatise of the Covenant of Grace,” in which he writes, “At length the Lord comes in some ordinance of his, and beareth witness freely of love bestowed upon us; and such a testimony will marvelously settle and establish any soul in the world” (Heimert and Delbanco 150). Governor Winthrop, in a later piece, refutes this by saying that Anne Hutchinson’s place, having born witness and now helping others to share that, is not her place in the greater community:
The case is altered and will not stand with us now, but I see a marvelous providence of God to bring things to this pass that they are…The ground work of her revelations is the immediate revelation of the spirit and not by the ministry of the word. And that is the means by which she hath very much abused the country that they shall look for revelations… (Heimert and Delbanco 161)
On one hand, it is believed that God will make a place for those who share their testimony, but Winthrop and the court were of the opinion that this was not a place for Anne Hutchinson.
In “The Examination of Mrs. Anne Hutchinson at the court at Newtown.” Winthrop says that Hutchinson has been “condemned by the general assembly as a thing not tolerable not comely in the sight of God or fitting for your sex, and notwithstanding that was cried down you have continued the same” (Heimert and Delbanco 156). Since men saw themselves as the mediators between God and congregation, Hutchinson has undermined the established social order simply by having these meetings at her home. Additionally, this upsets the domestic sphere of the Hutchinson household; instead of gender roles being clearly defined, the lines between genders have been blurred as a result of Hutchinson professing the word of God. Hutchinson has stepped outside her role as a Puritan woman, and therefore, is brought to trial and eventually expelled from her church as a result, even though in her preaching she meant to uphold a certain kind of religious discourse in which her male counterparts engaged. This is interesting in light of one of the statements Winthrop makes in his “A Defense of an Order of Court Made in the Year 1637”: “The persons so incorporating have a public and relative interest in each other…and in all the means of their welfare so as none other can claim privilege with them but by free consent” (Heimert and Delbanco 165). Wasn’t Hutchinson’s theological practice out of concern for others, just as what Winthrop describes?
The writings concerning Anne Hutchinson’s trial give us a glimpse into the role of gender and the notion of domestic roles in Puritan settlements in America during the 1600s. Religious gender roles dictated that women were not suitable for being known as a mediator between God and His followers. “Your conscience you must keep,” wrote Winthrop, “or it must be kept for you” (Heimert and Delbanco 157). Winthrop’s simple statement shows us that, in terms of gender in the Puritan church, women did not have the mental abilities to handle the responsibility of receiving and professing God’s word, something that Anne Hutchinson unknowingly went to great lengths to try to prove.
Barker-Benfield, Ben. “Anne Hutchinson and the Puritan Attitude toward Women.” Feminist Studies 1.2 (1972): 65-96. Web. JSTOR. 21 July 2013.
Cotton, John. “A Treatise of the Covenant of Grace.” The Puritans in America: A Narrative Anthology. Alan Heimert and Andrew Delbanco, Eds. Boston: Harvard University Press, 1985. Print.
Heimert, Alan and Andrew Delbanco, Eds. “Anne Hutchinson (1591-1643).” The Puritans in America: A Narrative Anthology. Boston: Harvard University Press, 1985. Print.
———–. “The Examination of Mrs. Anne Hutchinson at the court at Newtown.” The Puritans in America: A Narrative Anthology. Boston: Harvard University Press, 1985. Print.
Winthrop, John. “A Defense of an Order of Court Made in the Year 1637.” The Puritans in America: A Narrative Anthology. Alan Heimert and Andrew Delbanco, Eds. Boston: Harvard University Press, 1985. Print.