Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

The Criminal Trial of Anne Hutchinson: Ritual, Religion, and Law

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

The Criminal Trial of Anne Hutchinson: Ritual, Religion, and Law

Article excerpt

I explore the ways in which Anne Hutchinson invalidated her criminal trial in seventeenth-century Massachusetts as she challenged the judicial process by showing that, instead of adhering strictly to the law, the magistrates depended on ritual to find her guilty.

As "the breeder and nourisher of all these distempers," Anne Hutchinson was seen by Governor John Winthrop as a potential threat to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the midst of the Antinomian Controversy that had taken hold of the settlement (D. Hall 263). When faced with a dangerous dissenter, the leaders of the colony, struggling to maintain social order, relied on a time-honoured tradition for handling disobedience: a trial. In November 1637, the General Court, composed of civil magistrates, elected deputies, and clergymen representative of the entire colonial government, put Hutchinson on criminal trial in Newtown (now Cambridge) for holding meetings that contradicted the teachings of prominent clergymen, including a minister of the Boston Church, John Wilson. (1) To discredit Hutchinson's ethos, the elected leaders of the commonwealth conducted a stormy public trial that flagrantly exceeded its conventional institutional boundaries, even according to the nascent framework of seventeenth-century New England law. (2)

I respond to the judicial nature of the trial by exploring those legally questionable moments during the trial but, more importantly, examining how Hutchinson demonstrated the ministers' use of a trial as a ritual to find her guilty. She employed her intelligence, her intimate familiarity with biblical scripture, and her impressive verbal prowess. Her eloquence was so effective that one Hutchinson supporter determined that she was a "Woman that Preaches better Gospel then any of your blackcoates that have been at the Ninneversity, a Woman of another kinde of spirit, who hath had many Revelations of things to come, and [...] I had rather hear such a one that speakes from the meere motion of the spirit, without any study at all, than any of your learned Scollers, although they may be fuller of Scripture" (Johnson 96). Examining closely the trial transcript reveals the magistrates' use of the trial as a ritual to find Hutchinson guilty of the vague charges brought against her in order to restore harmony to a fledgling society undergoing religious and societal tensions.

A religious dissenter challenging an entire community is a familiar figure, but the anomaly of a self-taught woman verbally sparring with a Cambridge-educated governor has generated a deluge of competing critical perspectives. Scholars have taken into consideration the role of Hutchinson's gender, framed the trial within the growing revolts of the laity against the clergy, and discussed the trial as a political feud won by the ministers. The severity of the penalty enacted against Hutchinson has prompted scholars of the Antinomian Controversy to debate the degree to which her teachings mounted a challenge against the core doctrines of Protestantism. (3) Rather than adjudicate this clash, I instead want to reframe the trial not as a test of doctrinal correctness but as a ritual that Hutchinson subverted. This perspective reveals the ways in which Hutchinson, through her intellect, exposed the magistrates' informal approach to the legality of the trial, at times anticipating future legal reforms and innovations, and explains the divisions experienced within the community at the outcome of the trial.

Rituals are crucial to a community's formation and progression. Bringing an individual who threatened the social hierarchy to a court of law became a type of cultural ritual in the seventeenth century because a courtroom appearance immediately brought social disgrace (Marcus 131). Victor Turner considers a cultural ritual, either for repentance or for other ends, to be successful only if there is "a high level of communitas in the society that performs the ritual, the sense that a basic generic bond is recognized beneath all its hierarchical and segmentary differences and oppositions" (56). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.