Monday, April 8, 2013

Does America have Founding Mothers?

© 2013 by Eve LaPlante Used by permission

Three hundred and seventy-five years ago this month, Anne Hutchinson, forty-six years old and pregnant for the sixteenth time, became the only woman ever to co-found an American colony. She had recently been banished from Massachusetts for presuming to teach men – in addition to women, which was permissible – about the Bible. Then, in March 1638, after spending the winter under house arrest, apart from her family, Hutchinson was excommunicated by the First Church in Boston. Meanwhile, her husband and elder sons and a few male supporters sailed south to settle Portsmouth, Rhode Island, near Providence Plantation, which had been settled two years earlier by the Reverend Roger Williams, another Massachusetts outcast. In early April, accompanied by a large group of family and friends, Anne Hutchinson set out in thigh-deep snow to walk to her new home of Rhode Island, which would later merge with Williams’s settlement to form the colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantation.
Anne Hutchinson memorial statue in Boston,
near Mary Dyer's statue.
Who was this remarkable woman? A child of Elizabethan England and of Shakespearean London, Anne Hutchinson had been born in Lincolnshire, England, in 1591, and spent her adolescence in a vicarage across the Thames from the Globe Theatre. Her father, a brilliant preacher who had himself been tried and imprisoned by the Church of England, gave her a defiant self-confidence and the gift of explaining Scripture. From her mother, an aunt of the poet John Dryden, she learned midwifery. At the age of twenty-one she married a wealthy merchant named William Hutchinson and returned to Lincolnshire, where she raised their large family and taught Puritan theology to other women at her home.
For the next twenty years, Hutchinson collaborated with the celebrated Puritan minister John Cotton, who credited her with “preparing souls” for him to convert. “She had more resort to her for counsel about matters of conscience and clearing up men’s spiritual estates,” he said, “than any minister.” But Cotton sailed to Boston, Massachusetts, in 1633, after being silenced by the Church of England. Hutchinson and her family followed a year later, and by 1636 she was lecturing weekly to audiences of as many as eighty women and men in her Boston parlor.
Rev. John Cotton
In her lectures she accused some colonial ministers of neglecting the central role of God’s grace in salvation. She charged them with preaching a “covenant of works” rather than the acceptable, Puritan “covenant of grace” elucidated by John Calvin. In Puritan theology, there was no causal link between doing good works and being saved. One could not achieve salvation through his or her own efforts or good works. To be eligible for salvation one had to be elected, before, by God. In early New England, however, ministers allied with Governor Winthrop preached that people could prove themselves worthy of salvation by displaying faith and performing good works – an appealing theological conceit that enforced obedience. This troubled Hutchinson, who was grounded in Calvinist theology and possessed of a strong sense of communion with the Holy Spirit. Moreover, her covenant of grace, with its immediate, felt sense of God’s pres­ence, offered religious assurance to many people whose experiences at the meetinghouse left them anxious. “Seek for better establishment in Christ,” she advised her listeners, “not comfort” in “duties,” “works,” or “performances or righteousness of the law.”
Gov. John Winthrop
Stung by her challenge, Governor Winthrop called her before the Massachusetts General Court on a charge of heresy for teaching, which he considered “not comely for [her] sex.” He derided her as “this American Jezebel,” a name any Puritan would recognize as belonging to the most evil woman in the Bible. At her civil trial, in 1637, and her church trial, in 1638, she defended herself brilliantly. Brazenly she informed the judges of the Massachusetts General Court, “I will give you the ground of what I know to be true.” In an era when a woman could not vote, hold public office, sign a legal document, teach men, or teach anyone outside her own home, Anne Hutchinson believed in the power of the individual con­science to determine the truth.
Three hundred and seventy-five years later, in a nation that lacks for founding mothers, Anne Hutchinson deserves consideration. She co-founded a colony. She was midwife to the nation’s first college: a week after banishing her, the Massa­chusetts court ordered the building of Harvard College to enforce religious orthodoxy and to prevent a charismatic radical like her from ever again holding sway. She is one of the early Americans whose commitment to independent judgment inspired the religious-freedom clauses in the 1663 charter of Rhode Island and Providence Plantation and, ultimately, the 1789 Constitution of the United States. Her belief in the ability of the individual con­science to look inward to determine what is true underlies our modern concepts of religious tolerance, individual liberties, and free speech.

Thank you, Eve, for this article on the remarkable character of one of America's founding mothers. I read American Jezebel several years ago, and rated it five-stars. It's well worth reading, especially if one is a descendant of Anne Hutchinson and/or Mary Dyer. For others who are descended from Samuel Sewell or other Salemites, take a look at Salem Witch Judge. I'm also looking forward to reading Marmee & Louisa, the relationship between Louisa May Alcott (author of Little Women) and her mother.
 Eve LaPlante is the author of American Jezebel: The Uncommon Life of Anne Hutchinson, The Woman Who Defied the Puritans and two other biographies, Salem Witch Judge and Marmee & Louisa. She also wrote Seized and edited the 2012 collection My Heart Is Boundless: Writings of Abigail May Alcott, Louisa’s Mother. On Friday, October 25, 2013, at the Portsmouth Abbey School in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, LaPlante will deliver the Kearney Lecture in honor of Portsmouth’s 375th anniversary. For more information: visit, with links to Eve's books' sales points. And you may follow her author page on Facebook. 

For information on the death of Anne Hutchinson and how it affected Mary Dyer, click here.


  1. It is so thrilling to hear a woman so powerfully spoken of and think how meek we would still be today if it were not for the fire that ran in her veins! It is truly an honor, and an almost imperceptible concept, to know that the same blood lives in me. That which gave her an indomitable spirit and unwavering faith in our connection with our Holy Creator. Thank you for writing about Anne today!

    1. You've pointed out another way in which Anne Hutchinson is a founding mother -- through her many descendants today!

    2. Anne and William Hutchinson have many, many thousands of descendants today. Over the last almost four centuries, many of them have been elected to positions of great power, locally and nationally. But I believe the greatest legacy of Anne Hutchinson was her unwavering commitment to liberty, and the separation of civil and ecclesiastical powers (separation of church and state).

  2. Yes! America does have founding mothers--and we're about to celebrate Anne Hutchinson as the catalyst personality in the midst of everything revolutionary.

    You should know, Christy, this very blog posting was the inspiration for this July's OUR FOUNDING MOTHERS CELEBRATION, on the 425th birthday of Anne Marbury Hutchinson. Hope you can make it out here!


    1. I hope to join you, Devin. I'm running a fundraising campaign to get from Phoenix to Boston, and will publish a book about Anne Hutchinson in summer 2016 in aid of that.


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