Last week marked the end of our Augustine series. I really enjoyed going through several of his key works. This week I am starting a new series on American Church History. I have recently (Spring 2015) taught a course on modern American religious history, but this series will cover things and people from the full range of American Church History. I wanted to begin this blog by one of my favorite Puritan figures, Anne Hutchinson.
Hutchinson (1591-1643) and her family followed her pastor John Cotton to Boston. As Mark Noll writes, “Hutchinson began a midweek meeting to discuss Cotton’s sermon of the previous Sunday and also to take up other spiritual concerns” (Noll, A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada, 60). One can see how she would begin to draw attention, and suspicion, toward herself through such actions. Noll actually notes that no one was bothered by Hutchinson until people thought she was preaching antinomianism (against the Law); i.e. that Christians have Christ and therefore have no use for the Law of the Old Testament (Noll, 61). Hutchinson also taught that since Christians have the Holy Spirit, God could communicate directly to them. She ended up getting in trouble for this last point, as she “claimed that the Holy Spirit communicated directly to her, apart from Scripture” (Noll, 62).
She actually ended up moving out of Massachusetts to Rhode Island and then to New York, where she was killed in a Native American attack on the village in which she was living. Prior to all of this, she was actually examined by the Puritan authorities while still in Massachusetts and for today’s blog I want to take a look at that specifically.
Anne Hutchinson responded to the governor John Winthrop’s accusation that she was doing things not “fitting for your sex.” She responded, “The Lord knows that I could not open scripture, he must by his prophetical office open it unto me… I confess I have been more choice and he hath left me to distinguish the voice of my beloved and the voice of Moses, the voice of John Baptist and the voice of antichrist, for all those voices are spoken of in scripture. Now if you do condemn me for speaking what in my conscience I know to be truth, I must commit myself unto the Lord” (Gaustad and Noll, eds. “The Examination of Anne Hutchinson,” in A Documentary History of Religion in America to 1877, 97). She also answered their questions of how she knew that the Holy Spirit was communicating directly with her by saying, “By the voice of his own spirit to my soul” (Gaustad and Noll, 98).
There are few things from Hutchinson’s response that I want to highlight here. First, is that she did not let proscribed gender roles restrict her ministry. She followed God’s calling in her life despite the societal limitations she faced. Secondly, she notes that the Lord has to open scripture up to her. It is clear that God has done so, as Hutchinson’s responses to the various questions during her examination quote scripture from throughout the Bible. She also shows a resilience and commitment to her ministry as she says, “If you condemn me… I must commit myself to the Lord.”
Her resilience is further illustrated when she later responds, “You have power over my body but the Lord Jesus hath power over my body and soul; and assure yourselves this much, you do as much as in you lies to put the Lord Jesus from you, and if you go on in this course you begin, you will bring a curse upon you and your posterity, and the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it” (Gaustad and Noll, 98).
Whoa. Talk about a bold and in-your-face response. She shows commitment to the principle that the Holy Spirit can speak to individual believers, as she says that the “mouth of the Lord hath spoken” the curse she pronounces on her accusers. Hutchinson clearly knows what is at stake. She is ready to accept their punishment, and is ultimately excommunicated and flees to Rhode Island, but I think her attitude about such punishment fits with her ministry. She is not afraid to do what she feels God calling her to do, even though that meant pushing the boundaries of what men and women could and should do within Puritan society. She was holding her meetings even after being told to stop “by the general assembly” (Winthrop’s statement). Therefore we shouldn’t be surprised that she shows such a resilience in the face of condemnation. Other women in Puritan Boston were executed for disobeying the religious body, such as Mary Dyer, so Hutchinson’s resolve should be admired.
One can study people throughout church history and find a number of examples of those who were not afraid to push the church’s boundaries, often facing the penalty of excommunication or even death. Hutchinson joins that group of fearless individuals who follow God’s calling on their lives no matter the cost. It actually reminds me of a few missionaries I know. One person serves in Asia and has been threatened with being arrested if she continues to minister and evangelize those in her country. I imagine that Anne Hutchinson would be proud of this person for following God’s calling no matter the cost. People throughout the world follow God’s calling with the threat of death or injury or imprisonment being a very real and very dreadful possibility. Now, one can argue it’s pretty easy to follow God’s calling in the United States, but history shows that has not always been the case.