The Antinomian Trials

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The Antinomian Trials


Puritan Mission. In a colony like Massachusetts Bay, religious disputes could become legal problems. Although the church and the state were formally distinct from one another, only members of the church could vote or hold office, and the colony had been founded to promote a Puritan vision of the ideal community as a model for religious reforms back in England. The Puritans expected some debates in their community, but when disagreements went so far as to threaten the religious harmony of the colony, the dissenters could be seen not merely as folks with different points of view but as threats to the social and political order.

Covenant. A few years after the colonys initial settlement a group of residents, whose leader was Anne Hutchinson, was tried for sedition. Hutchinson and her associates were accused of having criticized the colonys ministers for teaching a covenant of works, the doctrine that men and women achieve salvation not by the grace of God but through their own good works. This was a serious accusation because Puritans generally taught a covenant of grace, that individuals are saved by grace alone. But there were different ways of teaching this doctrine. Some Puritans emphasized the possibility of preparing for salvation even while admitting that only Gods gift could actually save them. To Puritans like Hutchinson, this resembled a covenant of works. In turn Hutchinson and her friends sounded like Antinomians, those who believed that individuals have no obligations to follow the laws of the Bible because law has nothing to do with salvation.

Gender. Hutchinson offended people as well by the fact that she was a woman. Like most Christian groups of the time, Puritans did not allow women to instruct men in matters of theology, though women were expected to instruct younger women in matters of faith, with appropriate deference to the minsters. But Hutchinson had a sharp mind and a talent for theology. Discussions in her home about recent sermons quickly gathered an audience, and these audiences included men.

Politics. The timing of Hutchinsons meetings was bad. During the mid 1630s Massachusetts was at war with the nearby Pequot Indians. For a time the Antinomians seemed to have the upper hand, and in league with merchants who disliked the governments trade restrictions, they gained control of the council in the election of 1636. But they lost control the next year, and the new council moved against them. Convening as a general court, it accused them of various crimes, including sedition and aiding and abetting those who broke the laws of the colony.

Trial. Hutchinson herself, however, had avoided the political protests, and thus Puritan leaders had an awkward time bringing charges against her. The court eventually charged her with heresy, but this was hard to prove, in part because of her skill in handling the Scriptures. She was several months pregnant at the time, and as was the custom she stood through much of the trial. Late in the proceedings Hutchinson condemned herself by stating that she had received revelations from God that she should be persecuted. Puritans did not believe in such revelations because they could undermine the authority of Scripture and the ministry, and this sealed her fate. Hutchinson was found guilty and, like most of the Antinomian leaders, was banished from the colony. The largest group, including the Hutchinson family, moved to Rhode Island. Anne and most of her children died in an Indian attack in New Netherland in 1643.


Gov. John Winthrops exasperation with Anne Hutchinson (whom he had never liked) is evident from the last lines of the trial record he maintained:

Governor Winthrop: Mrs, Hutchinson, the sentence of the court you hear is that you are banished from out of our jurisdiction as being a woman not fit for our society, and are to be imprisoned till the court shall send you away.

Mrs. Hutchinson: I desire to know wherefore I am banished?

Governor Winthrop: Say no more, the court knows wherefore and is satisfied.

Source: David D. Hall, The Antinomian Controversy, 1636-1638: A Documentary History (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1968).


David D. Hall, The Antinomian Controversy, 1636-1638: A Documentary History (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1968).