Religious Liberty Before the First Amendment: The Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony | News | First Liberty

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Religious Liberty Before the First Amendment: The Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony

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August 28, 2020
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by Andrew D. Graham, Executive Director for Policy and Education & Senior Fellow • 5 min read

As every American schoolchild learns, the Puritans came to the New World in search of religious freedom. Less known, however, is that the Puritans almost immediately persecuted those in their midst who did not conform to their approved orthodoxy. Professor Douglas Laycock of the University of Virginia School of Law has famously—and rightly—called that persecution the “Puritan mistake.”

Perhaps no event better shows the implications of the Puritan mistake than the trial of Anne Hutchison. Her trial established that there would be no religious freedom in the Massachusetts Bay Colony for those who challenged religious authority.

In 1630, John Winthrop and the other future members of the Massachusetts Bay Colony had sailed to the New World. As Puritans, they believed that the Church of England had not gone far enough to purge itself of its Roman Catholic corruptions.

Before they landed, Winthrop delivered a lay sermon in which he famously described the colony as “a city upon a hill,” an image taken straight from the Sermon on the Mount. For the Puritans, the New World was a blank canvass on which to create the model Christian community. Winthrop’s sermon leaves no doubt that the Massachusetts Bay Colony was to be a thoroughly religious regime.


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Meanwhile, back in England, Anne Hutchison and her husband William were also Puritans. On Sundays, they would travel great distances to hear the renowned minister John Cotton preach. Anne was deeply devoted to Cotton and his preaching. So, in 1634, after Cotton had left England for Massachusetts, Anne and William and their children followed. When the Hutchisons arrived in Boston Harbor, Cotton personally greeted them at the pier and led them to their new home.

Due to her passion for studying the Bible, Anne started holding a women’s study group in her home to discuss Cotton’s latest sermons. There she gained a reputation as a brilliant Biblical commentator. Soon, the study group grew from just a few to as many as 80. Men, too, began to attend. Demand became so great that Anne began holding two meetings per week.

Anne’s study group aroused apprehensions and created conflict in a community where women were not even allowed to speak in church. Even more problematic, Anne seemingly contradicted the preaching of some ministers over the meaning and effect of the covenant of grace, that is, how one is made right with God. Things came to a head when Anne became so upset with one minister’s sermon that she got up and led a group of women out of the church.

As part of the Reformed tradition, the Puritans had no problem using coercion to preserve the holiness of their community. As governor, Winthrop put Hutchison on trial before the Massachusetts General Court. Winthrop himself served as both the chief prosecutor and chief judge. The essence of the complaint against her was whether she had accused some ministers of preaching wrongly concerning the covenant of grace.

During the trial, Winthrop and Anne traded arguments over the meaning of various Bible passages. Six ministers testified against her, but they notably failed to swear an oath that they had testified truly, which outraged Anne’s supporters. The next day, Anne called her own witnesses, including Cotton, whose tepid testimony showed that his former affection for her had waned considerably in the wake of the controversy surrounding her. All things considered, she might have only received an admonishment if she had not started to lecture the court and proclaim that God had personally sent her to Massachusetts to see that the covenant of grace was rightly taught. To her judges, Anne’s proclamation was not only heresy but the height of arrogance.

Winthrop then declared Anne guilty. The court’s finding seemingly rested on some combination of heresy and breaching the peace. Anne was sentenced to banishment and to imprisonment until that time. Before being banished, Anne also faced a church trial in which she was excommunicated. She never returned to Massachusetts and ultimately faced a violent death along with several of her children during an Indian raid on her home in the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam.

What should we learn from Anne’s trial? It shows that, contrary to popular belief, religious freedom in America had an inauspicious beginning, and it dramatically highlights the potential consequences of people who insist on religious freedom for themselves, but not for others.

That’s why we here at First Liberty Institute are committed to promoting religious freedom for all people.

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