Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Great American

Once in a while, dear reader, I like to single out a biped mammal who's inspired me by going above and beyond the mass of humanity, that is to say, selfish and naughty primates like you and me, and adhering to their principles despite the cost.  In the darkest hour they were not found wanting.  The testimony of their life, or at least the definitive moment of their moral choice, shines a penlight on the pervasive Cimmerian gloom of the human condition.  I’ve written about Miep Gies who hid Anne Frank and her family during the Holocaust; Romeo Dallaire, who shook hands with the devil in Rwanda; Chiune Sugihara, who helped Jews escape Lithuania from the clutches of the Nazis.  We know much less of Anne Hutchinson apart from a trial transcript and a few scattered documents here and there.  We also don't know what she looked like, despite the fanciful renderings of her defiant countenance by artists over the centuries, including the sculptor of her monument (pictured above) that stands at the State House in Boston.

Anne Hutchinson was forty-six years old in November of 1637 when she was called before Governor John Winthrop (pictured below) and about forty Bay colony magistrates in the meetinghouse of Cambridge, Massachusetts. The setting was a bit unusual, for trials in the colonies never before had a female defendant. The witch trials were yet to occur. She in fact was not allowed to have legal counsel. The ultimate cause of this ordeal, it would appear, was Anne’s “presumption” to interpret the Bible on her own, question the ministers’ spiritual authority, and gather a popular audience in the process. When Anne decided to hold weekly meetings for women at her home to discuss the bible and theology, it did not take long for her to draw a large audience that included husbands as well. Consequently, the trial brought together matters of theology, biblical interpretation, church authority, and the role of women in Puritan society. Anne had two supporters among the New England clergy, the renowned theologian John Cotton and her bother-in-law John Wheelwright, but unfortunately they could not present a proper defense in this quasi-legal proceeding.

The trial was masterminded by Winthrop, whose house was located directly across the street from Anne’s and who was likely smarting over her popularity. He was alarmed that a woman should exhibit what we would call leadership skills and intellectual acumen but what he would consider craftiness and haughtiness. Winthrop’s opposition to Anne, however, was not merely personal. The Bay Colony had not even existed for a decade before the Crown, concerned about radical religious change and political discontent, threatened to revoke the charter. Moreover, the New England settlers had been fighting a gruesome war with the indigenous people for months. As the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, “a city on a hill,” Winthrop had to walk a tightrope between the establishment of a Puritan republic and the maintenance of order and discipline. The “Puritans” were so called because they wanted to purify the Anglican Church of any vestiges of the Catholic faith. This religious dispute between mainstream Protestants (Anglicans) and radical Protestants (Puritans and Congregationalists) centered on both theology and liturgy. Both Winthrop and Hutchinson were among those venturesome Puritans who had the means and the religious conviction to leave their homeland in search of a New Jerusalem.  But in all due respect, Winthrop was a prick.