By Bill Miller
As our national celebration of Independence Day unfolds much mention is made of “our founding fathers.” So, it seemed like a good time to introduce our only “founding mother,” and my 8th great-grandmother, Anne Marbury Hutchinson (1591 – 1643).
I was a history major, but I never heard of Anne before I met her, late one night while sitting at my computer. Yet, she is recognized by many historians as a true American hero and one of the greatest women in American history. I was amazed to read their comments. “A founding mother, Anne Hutchinson exemplifies the best in the American spirit. She’s a woman everyone will want to – and should – know about,” writes Carol Gilligan. Historian Leigh Schmidt says, “Hutchinson’s story has often served as an emblem by which to take measure of the public voices of women in American culture.” Historian Peter Gomes writes, “Her passionate, non-conformist intelligence makes her the most significant woman in pre-Revolutionary America.” Her biographer, Eve LaPlante, writes, “She was an American visionary, pioneer and explorer who epitomized the religious freedom and tolerance that are essential to the national character….No woman has left as strong an impression on politics in America….The issues she raised – gender equality, civil rights, the nature and evidence of salvation, freedom of conscience and the right to free speech – remain relevant to the American people four centuries later….Anne Hutchinson may claim her rightful place as America’s founding mother.” (Eve LaPlante, American Jezebel). To top it off, Anne Hutchinson is the only woman to help co-create an American colony, Rhode Island, with her neighbor and friend, Roger Williams.
Anne was a preacher’s kid, born to Rev. Francis and Bridget Marbury in Alford, England in 1591. In 1612 she married William Hutchinson. In the next 22 years they had 16 children. In 1634 they took 15 of those children on a seven-week trans-Atlantic cruise to America, on a little ship called “Griffin,” with little food and no swimming pool. With one-hundred other smelly Puritan passengers, they landed in Boston to start a new life. Having survived her own 16 deliveries, Anne was quickly employed as a midwife.
She had come to America following her beloved Puritan minister, Rev. John Cotton. However, she was an avid student of Scripture, had memorized most of the Old Testament, and freely interpreted the Bible in the light of what she called “divine inspiration.” She generally adhered to the principles of Puritan orthodoxy. However, she held very progressive, modern-sounding attitudes about freedom of religion, liberty of conscience and the equality and rights of women, in contradiction of prevailing Puritan and cultural views. In a very oppressive, male-dominated religious climate, Anne was courageous and compelling in proclaiming her beliefs. Confident, brilliant, articulate and knowledgeable in Bible and theology, Anne was soon at odds with several Puritan clergy.
Noting that the male members of the church regularly met after sermons to discuss the Bible, Anne started to hold similar meetings for women in her home, even though women were not supposed to do that. At first they just discussed the sermons, but soon Anne was sharing her own beliefs. The response was tremendous, and soon men started to go as well, including Sir Henry Vane, future Governor of the colony. Soon 80 to 100 women and men were crammed into her house to hear her teachings. She openly challenged the standard Puritan teaching about Adam and Eve and original sin, which taught that women were the source of all sin. She taught that is was not a curse but a blessing to be a woman. She believed that true godliness come from inner experience of the Holy Spirit and not conformity to religious laws. Her focus was on grace rather than works. Faith alone was necessary for salvation. That may not upset us, but the Puritan clergy were furious. She was creating division. She was charged with eighty-two heresies, and labeled as a modern “Jezebel,” for infecting women with “abominable” ideas regarding their dignity and rights. After imprisonment and a long trial, the court voted to banish her from the colony, “as being a woman unfit for our society.”
Banished from Boston, Anne with her husband, children and sixty followers settled in what is now Portsmouth, Rhode Island, to live under their Portsmouth Compact. As a vocal advocate for native tribes, she purchased land from the Narragansetts. Portsmouth later united with their friend and neighbor, Roger Williams’ Providence Plantation, to form the Colony of Rhode Island. Together they created a state built on the convictions which had gotten them both excommunicated and expelled from Massachusetts. Their views on religious freedom, the liberty of conscience, the equality of opinions and the separation of church and state shaped not only Rhode Island. They became part of America’s DNA, and are reflected in our Constitution and Bill of Rights.
After the death of her husband, William, Anne took six of her children and relocated to New Amsterdam (now New York City) and settled in what is now Pelham Bay Park, off Hutchinson River Parkway (named after Anne). There Anne and all but one of her children were killed by the Mohicans in 1643. Daughter Susanna was taken hostage, renamed Autumn Leaf, and lived several years with the tribe until her release.
In 1922 an Anne Hutchinson Memorial, with Anne and daughter Susanna, was set at the door of the Massachusetts State House. Inscription on the monument reads: “In memory of Anne Marbury Hutchinson, baptized at Alford, Lincolnshire, England 20 July 1595, killed by Indians at East Chester, New York 1643 – COURAGEOUS EXPONENT OF CIVIL LIBERTY AND RELIGIOUS TOLERANCE.” She was a truly great-grandmother, and a true Founding Mother!
To learn more about this founding mother, read LaPlante’s “American Jezebel” (in Mts. Branch Library), “A Matter of Conscience” by Joan Nichols, or Michael Winship’s “The Times and Trials of Anne Hutchinson.” To discover more about how your ancestors shaped America, come to Lake Lure Genealogy Club at Mountains Branch Library on the 2nd Tuesday of each month at 3:00 PM.