American Jezebels: Let us Now Praise Anne Hutchinson and Mary Dyer


The Handmaid’s Tale, MGM Television, 2017

by Ed Simon

In 1637, Mary Dyer of Boston gave a monstrous birth and its midwife was Anne Hutchinson.

Both were Puritans of-a-kind: Hutchinson the notorious advocate of the so-called “covenant of free grace,” she of the antinomian controversy. Her patient, Dyer, would ultimately reject the scriptural inerrancy of her Puritan brethren in favor of the inner light of the Quakers. Both endure as symbols of American theological individualism, the logical culmination of Luther’s call for a “priest-hood of all believers.” In their example they anticipated Emersonian self-reliance, following Whitman’s call to “dismiss whatever insults your own soul.” In 1634, Hutchinson and her husband devotedly followed their minister John Cotton from Boston, England to Boston, New England after he’d been dismissed by Archbishop William Laud due to the minister’s Puritan enthusiasms. When she boarded the Griffin for America, at the age of 43, she had just given birth to her fourteenth child. She would give birth one more time before she died. And two years after emigration, she would find herself accused of having “troubled the peace of the commonwealth and churches” – all by leading what a modern might assume to be innocuous women’s bible studies. A year after Dyer’s hideous progeny, and Hutchinson’s heterodox religious stance would come to embroil all of Massachusetts in its first major internal crisis, a theological debate which seemingly pitched faith against works, grace against the law, and women against men. It would become the first full-blown domestic emergency of this godly City on a Hill, one with profound implications not just for the Puritans who were citizens of that imaginary community, but indeed for the country that claimed to be born from their precepts. Ultimately both women would die for the sins of these godly men who led that failed experiment on the frontier.

Twenty years Hutchinson’s junior, Dyer exhibited similar resolve when she faced persecution. And as she was born two decades before Hutchinson, so would Dyer come to die some two decades after her mentor, under differing circumstances but in an equally violent manner. Theologically they would differ as well; though there are arguably similarities between the antinomian gospel taught by Hutchinson to the women of Boston (and eventually the men, as those initial groups proved so popular that the male population clambered for their own homebound bible studies as well) and to Dyer’s ultimate Quakerism, but they are certainly not reducible to one another. Perhaps Hutchinson would gravitate to the Society of Friends had her life not ended when it did, perhaps she wouldn’t have. But what both were united in was an absolute commitment to the individual’s freedom of conscience. In that sense, what the inner light and the covenant of free grace shared was precisely that – freedom.  While still in Britain, Hutchinson’s family were of the middling classes, her father a Church of England priest with Puritan sensibilities who used to delight young Anne and her siblings with mocking imitations of the Bishop of London; Mary’s childhood circumstances were modest enough that we don’t even know her maiden name.

These two different women, united in that commitment to spiritual freedom, were allies during the antinomian controversy which threatened to upend the growing community, and they were forever conflated in the fevered brains of the men who were their prosecutors, who saw not just an ideological affinity between the two, but indeed a conspiracy of monstrosity as well, based on the delivery of Dyer’s unfortunate miscarriage. Both of them were theological renegades, of the type that Americans celebrate, having long since rejected our Puritan errand into the wilderness, embracing the anarchic possibilities of heresy. We think of colonial New England as a dour place of dour men with dour wives and dour children preaching a cold gospel in church services of half a day, but that exact same time and place produced visionary heretical prophets like Roger Williams, Thomas Morton, and for good-measure the witch John Proctor. And of course Mary Dyer and Anne Hutchinson.

To a non-specialist the kerfuffle which has come to be designated as the antinomian or free grace controversy seems to largely be an exercise in what Freud called the “narcissism of small differences.” Indeed in as consummately a post-theological age as our own, words like “soteriology” move few, even those who profess to be Christians. In one ironic sense the ultimate victory of Hutchinson’s revolution has been the embrace of a certain sola Affectio, where questions of belief are settled neither by tradition nor by scripture, but rather by feeling. Obviously these differences were anything but small to those involved in the controversy. Initially the conflict emerged between the respective partisans of two different ministers, Reverend John Wilson who was the more traditionally minded, and Hutchinson’s favored authority Cotton. Departing perhaps more rhetorically than theologically from the Puritan consensus, Cotton argued that all members of the elect are as if a “mystic participant in the transcendent power of the Almighty,” and that salvation is attained entirely through the free impartation of grace. As far as Protestant orthodoxy goes there is nothing overly unconventional about any of this, and yet Cotton disparagement of works drew the accusation (as it would towards his most famous parishioner) of antinomianism, that is of being “against the law.”

In Wilson’s preaching Hutchinson detected advocacy for the position that salvation is granted through works, which to her pious Protestant nose had the stench of popery about it. Wilson of course was as committed a Calvinist as the rest of the assembled godly, but Hutchinson saw in him a lack of enthusiasm, which more damningly evidenced a lack of “sanctification.” Wilson, it must be said if the contemporary testimonies are to be believed, was a right son-of-a-bitch whose chief pleasure in life when not condemning heretics was annoyingly making anagrams out of his friends’ names. Ultimately he’d be able to claim Mary and Anne’s lives, as well as that of the “witch” Ann Hibbins. Hutchinson contrasted Wilson to Cotton, for she felt that the later deeply, intuitively, and fully understood salvation not to be a matter of man’s individual striving towards good but entirely the freely given and undeserved imparted gift of God. If she had kept her negative opinions of Wilson to herself than perhaps all could have been avoided, but Hutchinson did not suffer a fool gladly, and in the increasingly popular discussions of scripture which she led, she did not hesitate to tell all assembled – whether man or woman – her feelings. And not just about Wilson, but indeed on the rest of the divines of Boston who she felt had departed from true doctrine. Committed readers of Augustine and Calvin both, the differences between Cotton and Wilson would scarcely register to us today, but despite the prosecution’s protestations, what was most galling about Hutchinson’s critique was not the critique itself but Hutchinson. Her example, of women’s teaching and preaching, threatened the political order and the social cohesion of Boston more than scholastic pronouncements or scriptural exegesis ever could. That is because the greatest argument which she had was herself, which of course made that argument all the more dangerous.

So this stiff-necked and obstinate woman was put on trial. She was not tried by her peers – for she had none. Nor was she tried by “Elders,” for she said she did not recognize the assembled men as such. The accusations were helpfully summarized by her accuser and judge, the sometimes-governor John Winthrop, who on October 1st, 1636 wrote of “her two dangerous errors: 1. That the person of the Holy Ghost dwells in a justified person. 2. That no sanctification can help to evidence to us our justification.” Her charges were antinomianism and familalism. The first had those libertine implications of standing against the law, the second referred to the strange and beautiful doctrine whose believers advocated for the possibility of a type of utopian perfectionism on this Earth, and which had been associated with the heretics of Munster known as the Family of Man who emerged from the communist theocracy of that German city immolated by a combined Catholic and Lutheran army in the sixteenth-century. This “Mrs. Hutchinson, a member of the church at Boston,” as described by Winthrop, was “a woman of ready wit and a bold spirit,” and as such was not without her defenders, including Henry Vane who was a former governor of aristocratic forbearance and old world manners, the minister John Wheelwright, and John Cotton of course. But the list of powerful detractors was longer, including not just Winthrop and Wilson, but Zachariah Symmes, Thomas Dudley, Simon Bradstreet, John Endecott and so on, all in their smart black smocks with their rounded Puritan haircuts, staring down at the defiant woman who refused to recant her belief in the person of the Holy Ghost dwelling in the heart of a justified person. And she knew who the justified people were. And they were not these men. And of course whether defender or detractor what they all were was men. And in that fact Hutchinson did not have a choice.

She of course had plenty of allies in the community, not least of who was the unfortunate girl whom she had tended to with such compassion during that difficult birth a year before. Ultimately Winthrop would have his way. Vane had returned to an England on fire with revolution, the power of other sympathizers waned, and Hutchinson would be convicted, excommunicated, and exiled from the community. Hutchinson walked out of the magistrate’s chambers with unblinking forward gaze and head aloft, holding the hand of Dyer as she progressed down the aisle. An observer records that a man in the crowd asked Hutchinson if she would recant, to which she replied “Better to be cast out of the Church than to deny Christ.” Winthrop inquired as to the identity of the young woman consoling Hutchinson, which is how he discovered the alleged monstrous birth. Kept secret and known only to the women who had witnessed it, and to Reverend Cotton who had counselled its burial lest Boston’s ecclesiastical authorities use the unfortunate as still more evidence of Hutchinson’s heresy, the former governor ordered the fetus’ exhumation. He writes that the assembled “went to the place of buryall & commanded to digg it up to [behold] it, & they sawe it, a most hideous creature, a woman, a fish, a bird, & a beast all woven together.”

Before Hutchinson would be portrayed by men like Governor John Winthrop as the single biggest threat to religious orthodoxy in the English New World, she was the accomplished midwife with all of the matronly wisdom that early modern English cunning-women supposedly had as regarding issues of pregnancy and birth. A birth such as Dyer’s couldn’t help but impugn the purity of the woman tasked with delivering that infant. Intoxicated with his dislike of the woman, Winthrop sputtered without any evidence that Hutchinson had “brought forth not one, but thirty monstrous births or thereabouts.” Her defender Wheelwright snarked that the judge’s outlandish accusation was more “a monstrous conception of his brain, a spurious issue of his intellect” than it was of reality. Still, Puritans couldn’t help but read nature as a book, a type of scriptural allegory written on every stone and leaf and tree here in his cold demon-haunted wilderness, and Winthrop’s claims only added to the sense that something apocalyptic had been averted in casting Hutchinson out of Boston as God had caste Eve out of Eden. Nature’s language was hermeneutics, not ecology. That being the case, the signs based on the baby delivered by Mistress Hutchinson were not good. Winthrop’s formulation was simple: “as she had vented misshapen opinions, so she must bring forth deformed monsters.” And so he believed that the court of Boston, here in the land where the bestial cries of pagan Abenaki and Pequod were heard but a few miles from the shoals of the Atlantic, had discovered in this middle-aged nurse the “Master-piece of the old Serpent.” If Winthrop could have guarded Boston with mile-high Seraphim brandishing swords of flame so as to keep Hutchinson from ever returning, he would have. Luckily for him she would willingly just go to Rhode Island.

Governor Winthrop, following the desecration of the child’s grave, recorded in his diary that delivery had been half a year before, on a cold autumnal October 11th. In attendance were the mother, Hutchinson, and one other woman named Jane Hawkins, and a nameless female observer. Winthrop wrote that the fetus was described as having a “face, but no head” for “the ears stood upon the shoulders and were like an ape’s.” The unnamed, unbaptized child “had no forehead, but over the eyes four horns, hard and sharp…. All over the breast and back full of sharp prics and scales.” The unfortunate child was “A strange fish!” as Trinculo said of Caliban in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, for this similarly New World denizen was equivalently bestial, having “two mouths, and in each of them a piece of red flesh sticking out,” and “instead of toes on each foot three claws, like a young fowl, with sharp talons.”

Now, for a second, consider the circumstances of this birth. Envision Dyer, bereft of analgesic, in a candle-lit, drafty room with warped and creaky wooden floorboards and metal paned window looking out on the stormy harbor. In labor, for how many hours? Surrounded by Hutchinson, Hawkins, and some other woman whose name isn’t recorded. And after all of that struggle, her baby is born dead. She and her husband – who in her own coming time of political and religious persecution would always remain a steadfast ally – must have considered the child’s sex, must have thought up names for her. And now, in the comfortable privacy of his study in his manse, Winthrop, a man who was perfectly capable of his own exulted and compassionate contemplations as evidenced in his celebrated sermon “A Model of Christian Charity,” with pen of feigned dispassion writes with barely contained cackle about the misfortune which has befallen her family. Winthrop’s gaze reduced Dyer’s tragedy to cold analysis, moral judgement, typological evidence, and sideshow curio all in one. Winthrop, who for all of those grand sentiments delivered in that sermon upon the Arbela was also a man, a religious man, which is to say chiefly one for whom however beautiful his other sentiments might be still concerned himself with how women reproduce, the circumstances of their reproduction, and the results of that reproduction, with little concern for the integrity, safety, or emotions of said woman. Winthrop and the other judges were similarly edified when word reached Boston that Hutchinson’s last pregnancy had ended similarly to Dyer’s, as her doctor John Clarke had recorded that the midwife gave birth to some slippery “transparent grapes” somewhere in the New England wilderness.

In the reasoning of modern medicine such an infant – if it were to be delivered at all – would be conceived of in the language of pathology and etiology, but for Winthrop and the assembled men of the court such a bestial progeny delivered to a blasphemous woman by a heretical one could only be read of as a sign that God did not dwell in the bosom of such a creature as Anne Hutchinson. The stillbirth was not the only justification for Hutchinson’s exile – but it surely didn’t help. She spent a short period in Williams’ religiously free Rhode Island, until the threat of that colony’s invasion by her former persecutors (an incursion which never happened) forced the Hutchinsons to set out even further south to New Netherland. One day in 1643 she would be massacred by a marauding group of Siwanoy Indians, scalped with the rest of her family save for her one nine-year old daughter, who was held captive by the braves and renamed “Autumn Leaf” on account of her red hair. According to Hutchinson’s biographer Eve LaPlante, the Narraganset drew a less fortunate daughter “back again by the hair of the head to the stump of a tree, and there cut off her head with a hatchet” in those secluded woods which would one day be more widely known by their Dutch name of the Bronx. If Winthrop was callous at the stillbirth of Mary Dyer, than the Reverend Peter Bulkley of Concord was positively cruel when preaching about Hutchinson’s murder, telling the assembled “Let her damned heresies, and the just vengeance of God, by which she perished, terrify all her seduced followers from having any more to do with her.” For good measure the minister added that Hutchinson was as if an “American Jezebel.”

Hutchinson’s patient didn’t fare much better, for a little under two decades later in 1660 (that year of Restoration in Britain) Hutchinson would find herself upon the scaffold at Boston Common, hanging with three other Quakers from the end of a noose. Winthrop wrote of Dyer that she was “of a very proud spirit, and much addicted to revelations,” and indeed it was that prophetic sense which eventually led to her prophet’s fate. Dyer had followed Hutchinson to Rhode Island, but had returned to England for the period of five years following her mentor’s death. Converted to the Society of Friends by its founder George Fox, Dyer would in many ways embrace a far more radical faith than even Hutchinson had. In their belief that the inner light of God is the guiding conscience of truth in both men and women they had fully embraced that charge that the “Holy Ghost dwells in a justified person.” Quakers reject all sacraments, reject all tradition, reject all authority. Taking their hats off to nothing and no one. For this Dyer would serve prison time in England, and upon her return to America where she would evangelize in the name of the new faith she would be expelled multiple times from both Connecticut and New Haven, and from Massachusetts. She even found herself upon the gallows before her last expulsion, before her sentence was commuted and she was permanently exiled from Boston with the rest of her Quaker brothers and sisters. That was May of 1660. She was back on that scaffold less than a month later. For Mary Dyer was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted. While awaiting her hanging she was asked to repent, by none other than Anne Hutchinson’s old nemesis, a now elderly Reverend John Wilson – who had once been shepherd to the flock that Dyer herself belonged to. Dyer’s response at his request: “Nay, man, I am not now to repent.” And so she joyfully hung. Shortly thereafter one of her executioners converted to the Society of Friends.

Forgive my gothic elaborations, for it is a gothic tale. Nathaniel Hawthorne, whom was proud of his ancestors and even more thankful to not be one of them, was haunted by those past generations for a reason. Early American history was composed of “barbarous years” as the poet John Donne preached in a sermon to the Virginia Company safely back in London. If audiences in the capital thrilled to Senecan revenge tragedy than New Englanders had no need for such Jacobean theatrical affectations – here history was being written in executions and scalping and monstrous births upon the frosty frontier. Those earliest days saw the nation so deep in a type of original sin that blood should pluck as upon blood. Hutchinson and Dyer were the condemned but they were not the condemnable, and like those other women martyrs of Massachusetts in Salem of 1692 their example would indelibly mark the nation which claimed to be descended from them. Conflicted genealogies, haunted burial grounds, hidden secrets, deformed progeny. Gothic? Of course America is gothic. But don’t let my lurid purple prose obscure the meaning of both Hutchinson and Dyer.

Faith, transcendence, and God unmediated can offer profound liberation, but as concerns the mind forg’d manacles of institutionalized religion, it is undeniable that deep and profound misogyny lay at the center of every human spiritual tradition at its worst. The regulation of women and their bodies is the trade of the temple. What Hutchinson preached is secondary to the fact that she preached, for in her example she challenged the monopoly of those divines who privlege their connection to that idol of god they had constructed in their cold hearts. Lord knows that the world doesn’t need another essay by a faux-sensitive guy about the trials and tribulations about womanhood, that essay is not mine to write. But the world could always use more essays about Anne Hutchinson and Mary Dyer. They are not our American Jezebels, they are our American Esthers, and they reflect the uncomfortable truth that in God’s tongue the word for the Holy Spirit is grammatically feminine, whatever Wilson or Winthrop or Bradstreet may have believed. Religion (heretical or otherwise) is the only means of resistance in a world where the only things worth resisting are also religious. For theirs was a gospel of free conscience, a quality which necessitates a free body. As Hutchinson told her accusers at her sentencing, “You have no power over my body, neither can you do me any harm—for I am in the hands of the eternal Jehovah, my Saviour.” Theirs, and ours, is a world of policing both free consciences and free bodies, but as Hutchinson knew, and as Dyer knew, the glow of that inner light is brighter than those “godly” restrictions, the hum of the Holy Ghost in the sanctified soul is louder than man-made rules.


About the Author:

Ed Simon is the associate editor of The Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of The Los Angeles Review of Books. He holds a PhD in English from Lehigh University, and is a specialist on the religion and literature of the seventeenth-century. A regular contributor to a number of sites, he can be followed at his website, or on Twitter @WithEdSimon.