19 Feb

Book Review: American Jezebel, the Uncommon Life of Anne Hutchinson

American Jezebel: The Uncommon Life of Anne Hutchinson, the Woman who Defied the Puritans


Image courtesy of Inside the Apple, found at http://blog.insidetheapple.net/

This book sat on my “to be read someday” shelf for far too many months after it was proffered by a friend who thought I would like it.  I decided I really should return it to her and thought I would at least glance at it quickly before doing so.  When I looked at it, however, I quickly discovered she was right and I could hardly put it down.  It was written in 2004 by Eva LaPlante, a descendant of Hutchinson and a scholar and writer of ability.

Since we now honor Hutchinson, along with Roger Williams in Holy Women, Holy Men  I thought a review of it would be of interest to others.  The date assigned to them is Feb. 5, which is not one of particular note in Hutchinson’s life which began in July of 1591 and ended in the autumn of 1643. In the paragraph about her in HWHM, mention is made of her death at the hands of American natives, along with all her family except for daughter Susan.  This is a bit misleading, for it fails to note that she had five older sons and daughters  no longer living at home who went on to produce large families with many descendants, among them Franklin Delano Roosevelt and George H.W. Bush.

As the woman who at first joined and then defied the Puritans it might be of interest  to her that at least some of her descendants found the Episcopal Church, as the Church of England became in this country, a fine home for them.  Her free thinking would not only have been tolerated today but highly valued.

Anne was born in Lincolnshire, England, the daughter of a Church of England minister who taught his daughter to read, to think, and to use her uncommon intelligence  with a lively wit and a quick tongue.  In England and then in the Massachusetts Bay Colony where her minister John Cotton encouraged her and her family to emigrate, she held discussions:  “gossips” or “canticles” for women based on the sermon of the previous Sunday.  Since her Biblical knowledge often surpassed the minister who preached the sermon and her application of its insights and lessons were often original to her, she was a popular personage.

Soon men began to come, too.  Sometimes as many as 80 people crowded into the house she shared with husband Will and their 12 children.  But some of the clergy began to believe she was exerting a dangerous influence on the colony, especially in her contradictions of their teachings.  John Winthrop, then Governor, thought she needed to be silenced.  She was tried by a jury of ministers, since the church and state were one and the same, and she was found guilty of heresy and sedition and banished from the Colony.

At the age of 46, 6 months pregnant, in the winter, she and her family left Boston for Rhode Island to start a new life there.  However, Winthrop who seemed to be obsessed with this “Jezebel” occasionally sent his emissaries to try to get her to recant.  Finally, she decided she had to get further away from Winthrop and his minions and so she moved her family and some close friends to Westchester County in what came to be known as Pelham, New York, although then it was part of New Amsterdam.  She was happy with neighbors who could not speak English and who would let her live in peace.

She had always been friendly with the original peoples of New England and refused to even have a gun in her household.  Warned of an impending attack, she refused to move to safety, and all but Susan were killed.  [You can read more about her death in this blog post.]

Hutchinson’s name is certainly familiar to those who commute by car, as both the Hutchinson River and the Hutchinson River Parkway in Westchester County are named for her, and she has been honored in both Rhode Island and Massachusetts.  Michael Dukakis, when governor of Massachusetts, pardoned her 350 years after her banishment.

Anne was a midwife and an herbalist; her services were much sought after and she was highly regarded by all whom she helped.  She believed that all people have the right to an inner life and their own relationship with God.  If she had been a man, she might well have become a minister, but that was not possible in her time.  She had no authority except her own, and her outspokenness made her vulnerable.  Yet, she refused to compromise her principles or to stop speaking the truth as God revealed it to her.

The original charter of Rhode Island with its provision for freedom of religion is a testimony to the witness of both Hutchinson and Roger Williams.  Our first amendment can be laid at their feet as a tribute.  Interestingly enough,  so can Harvard University.  After Anne was banished, the religious authorities took it upon themselves to establish a college where men could be properly trained for the ministry.

This remarkable woman is clearly an inspiration to all who value independent thinking and the book provides a sobering reminder of what happens when religious authorities begin the delusional thought process of thinking they have all the truth.  One could speculate about the psychic shadow of John Winthrop—but we would be better off applying the insights of this sad affair to our own selves and times.

I am writing this on Feb. 3; I am hopeful that a few churches or individuals will honor her on Feb. 5, and that others will want to learn more about her.

EWHP Board member Rev. Barbara Schlachter retired recently after 35 years in parish ministry, and was the first woman ordained in Westchester County, New York. Her current passions (aside from women’s history) are the Iowa City Climate Advocates and Citizens Climate Lobby.

So, what do you think?