“American Jezebel: The Uncommon Life of Anne Hutchinson, the Woman Who Defied the Puritans.” By Eve LaPlante. HarperSanFrancisco. 280 Pages. $24.95.
‘She is but a woman,” Anne Hutchinson’s ally-turned-adversary, the Rev. John Cotton, said during her 1637 excommunication trial. One sentence, duly transcribed by Puritan record-keepers of the Massachusetts Bay colony – and surely one of the greatest understatements of Colonial America.
Anne Marbury Hutchinson, known to relatively few Americans today, was one of early America’s best-known religious dissidents – a model for Hester Prynne in Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter.” But Hutchinson’s story was real, as were her zeal and her faith in her own voice.
She came to the tiny New England settlement from England in 1634 with her husband, William, and their children as a religious dissident eager to join like-minded souls who feared that the Church of England was becoming ungodly.
But in short order, Hutchinson’s nonconformism ran afoul of the Massachusetts leadership because she insisted that a covenant of “good works” – a fundamental underpinning of Puritan control in a harsh new world – was unnecessary for salvation, and that the simple possession of mystical “grace” was enough.
Understandably, this did not go over well with the authorities, particularly 17th-century Colonial Gov. John Winthrop.
It was Winthrop who, quoting Scripture, first envisioned America as the “shining city upon a hill” invoked so vividly by President Reagan. His plan for Massachusetts did not include a willful, tack-sharp woman – someone who would step out of her expected gender role and have the temerity to hold religious gatherings in her own home without the Puritan church’s blessing.
In the hands of Eve LaPlante, an 11th-generation Hutchinson descendant, the tale becomes a battle of wills between the two that sucks in Cotton, a charismatic preacher and one-time confidante of Hutchinson’s who turned his back on her when it became apparent that hers was a doomed battle.
What makes “American Jezebel” so extraordinary – the title comes from an insulting reference in Winthrop’s journal – is how LaPlante enables Hutchinson to come alive through her own words, thanks to the very people who tried to silence her.
Winthrop’s fledgling government kept immaculate records of her trial, and its administrative diligence – presented superbly by LaPlante – allows Hutchinson to reach forward from the past. Whether you agree with her or not, she demonstrates her courage and her commitment to free speech – important lessons for a world where dissent matters more than ever.
LaPlante, attracted to the subject by her own heritage, takes pains to present an evenhanded, historical narrative and is aided by the words of her own ancestor and her contemporaries, making for a rare in-the-moment glimpse of an era and attitudes long gone.
She explores the history of dissent in Hutchinson’s family – particularly by her father, the Rev. Francis Marbury. And she places Hutchinson in a historical context alongside two contemporaries who were also early New World nonconformists, the Quaker Mary Dyer and the Rev. Roger Williams, founder of what became Rhode Island.
LaPlante marshals her material to suggest that while Hutchinson was indeed wronged by the heresy trial that ended with her excommunication in 1638 and by her eventual murder by Indians in 1643 (in Pelham Bay, N.Y.), Winthrop – while consumed by dogma and ambition – was acting in what he considered the colony’s best interests.
It’s a fascinating premise: Some of the earliest Americans, after leaving England’s unfriendliness to build a fresh existence, concluded within a few years that an unforgiving new environment required them to turn their backs on their contrarianism and enforce their own conformity.
In the end, exactly what Hutchinson believed and what the Puritans demanded are backstories. More salient is the fact that Americans, from their very beginnings as a people, were fundamentally torn between conformity and dissent. The battle between Hutchinson and Winthrop laid the foundation for what has become four centuries of that tension.
LaPlante’s vivid account of its origins proves that what happened to the men and women of early America is not only history but a relevant lesson of the highest order. Along the way, she renders her subject not as simple saint or sinner, but as textured human being.
Anne Hutchinson was “but a woman,” yet her voice echoes through the centuries and speaks to us today.
Associated Press writer Ted Anthony is a 12th-generation descendant of Anne Hutchinson.