The Story of Anne Hutchinson and the Founding of Rhode Island
About a year before Harry Vane came to Massachusetts another interesting and brilliant colonist arrived. This was a woman named Anne Hutchinson. She was clever, “a woman of a ready wit and bold spirit.” Like Williams she was in advance of her times, and like him she soon became a religious leader. She was able, she was deeply interested in religion, and she saw no reason why women should not speak their minds on such matters.
Men used to hold meetings to discuss questions of religion and politics to which women were not allowed to go. Anne Hutchinson thought this was insulting; and she began to hold meetings for women in her own home. These meetings became so popular that often as many as a hundred women would be present. They discussed matters of religion, and as Mrs. Hutchinson held “dangerous errors” about “grace and works” and justification and sanctification, this set the whole colony agog.
By the time that Harry Vane was chosen Governor the matter had become serious. All the colony took sides for or against. Harry Vane, who stood for toleration and freedom, sided with Mrs. Hutchinson, while Winthrop, his great rival, sided against her. Mrs. Hutchinson was supported and encouraged in her wickedness by her brother-in-law John Wheelright, a “silenced minister sometimes in England.” She also led away many other godly hearts.
The quarrel affected the whole colony, and was a stumbling-block in the way of all progress. But so long as Harry Vane was Governor, Mrs. Hutchinson continued her preaching and teaching. When he sailed home, however, and Winthrop was Governor once more, the elders of the community decided that Mrs. Hutchinson was a danger to the colony, and must be silenced. So all the elders and leaders met together in assembly, and condemned her opinions, some as being “blasphemous, some erroneous, and all unsafe.”
A few women, they decided, might without serious wrong meet together to pray and edify one another. But that a large number of sixty or more should do so every week was agreed to be “disorderly and without rule.” And as Mrs. Hutchinson would not cease her preaching and teaching, but obstinately continued in her gross errors, she was excommunicated and exiled from the colony.
Like Williams, Mrs. Hutchinson went to Rhode Island. To the sorrow of the godly, her husband went with her. And when they tried to bring him back he refused. “For,” he said, “I am more dearly tied to my wife than to the Church. And I do think her a dear saint and servant of God.”
In Rhode Island Mrs. Hutchinson and her friends founded the towns of Portsmouth and Newport. Others who had been driven out of one colony or another followed them, and other towns were founded; and for a time Rhode Island seems to have been a sort of Ishmael’s land, and the most unruly of all the New England colonies. At length however all these little settlements joined together under one Governor.
At first the colony had no charter, and occupied the land only by right of agreement with the Indians. But after some time Roger Williams got a charter from Charles II. In this charter it was set down that no one should be persecuted “for any difference in opinion on matters of religion.” Thus another new state was founded, and in Rhode Island there was more real freedom than in almost any other colony in New England.
Massachusetts was at this time, as we can see, not exactly an easy place to live in for any one whose opinions differed in the slightest from those laid down by law. Those same people who had left their homes to seek freedom of conscience denied it to others. But they were so very, very sure that their way was the only right way, that they could not understand how any one could think otherwise. They were good and honest men. And if they were severe with their fellows who strayed from the narrow path, it was only in the hope that by punishing them in this life, they might save them from much more terrible punishment in the life to come.