PURITANISM was nothing less than a revolution, political as well as ecclesiastical. Like all revolutionists, the Massachusetts Puritans were haunted and panic-stricken with the fear of a counter revolution, which might drag them into reaction and even to the gallows or the stake. Like all revolutionists, they turned upon those who were suspected of opposing or faltering, the usual weapon—the terror.
In the course of the Puritan reign of terror in Massachusetts, which began around 1634, the first anti-alien act in America was adopted to keep out undesirable Christians! A synod drew up a list of some eighty things that people were forbidden to think, and "the unmitered popes" in the meetinghouses of Massachusetts caused about two hundred persons to be banished, disfigured, disarmed or laid under one ban or another.
The first shining mark of the terror was Rev. Roger Williams. For having objected to the union of church and state in Massachusetts, Williams was marked for deportation to England. Although winter was drawing on, he fled from his Salem parsonage to a refuge among the Indians. After shivering and half starving with the red men until spring, he planted, at Providence, the first New England settlement where all forms of worship were free and equal.
In a short while other refugees from the terror became neighbors of Williams. These set up separate colonies at Warwick below Providence and at Portsmouth and Newport on Rhode Island proper. When Rev. John Wheelwright was driven forth from Massachusetts in the depth of winter, he chose the wilds of New Hampshire for his refuge and started the town of Exeter.
Connecticut also was founded in the same period. The colonists who settled New Haven were English Puritans, many of whom felt that Massachusetts was too liberal in dealing with the non-elect. On the other hand, the more liberal organizers of the settlements around Hartford came from Massachusetts and took the view that "the foundation of authority is laid in the free consent of the people."
The most interesting prey of the howling pack of heresy hunters in Massachusetts was Mistress Anne Hutchinson. When that pioneer Boston bluestocking stepped out of woman's sphere nearly three hundred years ago, that sphere still was very much like a harem. Liberal though he was, Roger Williams contended that the Bible required a woman to remain veiled while at worship. She could not sit on the same side of the Puritan church with the men. Rev. John Cotton graciously conceded that she might sing the Psalms, but he insisted that she must not speak, lest she violate St. Paul's law of silence for her sex.
Before her arrival in Massachusetts, Anne Hutchinson had brought fourteen children into the world, one of whom was the forebear of Governor Hutchinson, the historian of the colony. She still had ten youngsters to keep her tending and mending when she settled down in Boston. Nevertheless she found time to visit the minister and the sick among her neighbors. Also she took time to form and express convictions of her own on the one topic of general conversation—theology.
Twice a week, forty, sixty, or eighty women, possibly slighting their dishes and darning, hurried along the twisting cowpaths of Boston to Mrs. Hutchinson's home at the corner of Washington and School Streets. Seated at the feet of their high priestess at the "Old Corner," they nodded their Puritan caps in approval of the theological wisdom that dropped from her eloquent lips.
Such an unprecedented outburst of feminism on the part of the Colonial dames, the Prudences, the Faithfuls and the Patiences, was viewed with alarm by the superior sex. Their strange goings on were watched by John Winthrop from his house across the street, and he shook his head at Anne's conduct as "not fitting for her sex." A synod of the clergy gravely deliberated and resolved that while women might meet "to pray and edify one another," it was not for them to expound or interpret the Scriptures.
Anne was hailed to the bar of the Great and General Court and arraigned as "an antinomian." Even Governor Winthrop, who presided at her mockery of a trial, owned up that no man could tell the meaning of that hairsplitting term, "except some few who know the bottom of the matter." The bottom of the matter, in part, seems to have been that the culprit in the dock was the first woman in America to speak out in meeting.
Nevertheless, even a man would not have been permitted to do what this woman did. Anne ripped to pieces the sermons of the pontiffs of Puritanism and ripped the sermonizers up the back. She even had the effrontery to walk out on the Rev. Wilson when he rose in his pulpit, and some of her women partisans flounced after her down the aisle.
After the General Court had condemned Anne to banishment, "for the troublesomeness of her spirit," she was "cast out" by the Boston church, "in the name of Our Lord Jesus Christ," and delivered "up to Satan" as a "heathen, a publican and a leper."
Entering the wilderness with her husband, her children and a few adherents, the excommunicate settled for a while at Portsmouth, on Rhode Island. It is small wonder that the ordeal through which she had passed should have resulted in a disappointment of her expectation of a fifteenth child. But those who had tortured her, welcomed the news as evidence that their judgment was also the Lord's. When, at last she and several of her children were butchered by Indians, at least one Massachusetts pulpit eagerly accepted her fate as proof positive that her persecutors had been sustained in the court of last resort.
Nevertheless Massachusetts herself was to reverse the verdict against Anne Hutchinson. After almost three centuries, the prophetess that the Puritans stoned was recalled from banishment. Under the very eaves of the State House on Beacon Hill, she now stands vindicated, not in her opinions but in the right of a woman to have opinions.
James Morgan, The Birth of the American People, 1930