She was the first female lecturer in America, at least the first we know of.
Perhaps there were others, maybe other colonial or Native American women who spoke to their communities — but if so, we don’t have their words.
But we do have the words of Anne Marbury Hutchinson, and through them we hear her proud, insistent voice from nearly four centuries ago.
A new book by Marilyn J. Westerkamp revisits the story of this remarkable early religious leader and speaker: “The Passion of Ann Hutchinson: An Extraordinary Woman, the Puritan Patriarchs, & the World They Made and Lost.”
In 1634 Hutchinson left her native England, crossed the Atlantic, and arrived at the Massachusetts Bay Colony with her husband and ten children. She was 43.
The Massachusetts Bay Colony — today’s downtown Boston — had been settled by Puritans just 13 years earlier.
Anne Hutchison’s husband was a successful merchant who became a town official and a deputy of the court, and she was an herbalist and a midwife who offered religious counsel in the birthing room.
By all accounts, Hutchinson had a warm and charismatic presence, and her role as an interpreter of spiritual matters grew. She held weekly meetings for women in her home on the Shawmut Peninsula, providing religious commentary and leading discussions on the weekly sermons.
Eventually she began delivering twice-a-week lectures, attended by as many as 80 followers, including both women and men — and that’s a big part of what got her in trouble.
Hutchinson paid a high price for speaking her mind and teaching her ideas. She challenged the authority of the ministers and was exiled.
In Puritan times, women were confined to the domestic sphere. They did not participate in town meetings. They did not speak in church. They did not comment on matters of scripture or theology unless it was to an all-female prayer group.
So when Hutchinson began to speak on matters of theology to mixed gender audiences — even within the private confines of her own home — and advancing religious beliefs at odds with the clergy, the colony’s ministers were outraged.
On November 7, 1637, she was tried before the magistrates for instructing men of higher rank than herself, “traducing” the ministers (preaching ideas contrary to Puritan beliefs), and fueling civil unrest. She was subjected to cross examination and forced to defend herself.
After a second church trial four months later, Hutchinson was condemned to banishment.
We can still hear her voice today, speaking across the centuries through the trial transcript, and read her words on the Speaking While Female Speech Bank, here.
“Therefore take heed what ye go about to do unto me,” Hutchinson told the magistrates, “for 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.”
“Take heed what ye go about to do unto me, for 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.
Hutchinson paid a high price for speaking her mind. She challenged the authority of the ministers and became an exile.
She and her supporters resettled further down the coast, in the town of Portsmouth. Then when the Massachusetts colony threatened to take over that area, she and a small group fled south to a spot known as Split Rock, in territory the Dutch called Vreedelandt, which roughly means “land of freedom.”
That’s where, in August 1643, the entire family except for one daughter was murdered by the local Native American tribe. Their bodies were dragged into their home, along with their cattle, and the house was burned to the ground.
Historians believe Hutchinson’s ashes are buried somewhere beneath Pelham Bay Park, in the eastern Bronx, just north of what’s now New York City.
Split Rock still stands in the park today, a silent sentinel and reminder of a woman’s voice.
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