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  • The Great Migration Newsletter

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    In an occasional Great Migration sketch, usually for a resident of Boston, we will note when there is evidence that the immigrant was a supporter of Anne Hutchinson and John Wheelwright, without describing just what that support meant and what the consequences were.

    A pertinent example from the most recent Great Migration volume may be found in the treatment of Thomas Marshall, who had settled in Boston by 1634 [GM 2:5:41-46]: Thomas Marshall was one of the leading supporters of Anne Hutchinson and Rev. John Wheelwright [Saints and Sectaries 102, 210, 216]. On 2 November 1637, “Thomas Marshall being convented for having his hand to the said seditious writing, & justifying the same, is also disfranchised” [MBCR 1:207]. On 20 November 1637, “Thomas Marshall” was one of fifty-eight Boston men who were disarmed for their involvement in this controversy [MBCR 1:211]. There is no record that Thomas Marshall recanted, but he was not forced to leave Boston, and eventually returned to a position of respect, as evidenced by the wide range of town and church duties to which he was elected or appointed.

    What does all this signify?

    Our starting point is the observation that all the leaders of the migration to Massachusetts Bay, whether civil or ecclesiastical, were from the Calvinist wing of Protestantism. Their fundamental belief was that at the beginning of time God had chosen some people for salvation and some for perdition, and nothing that any person could do in the world could change that condition. Those chosen for salvation were known as the elect. The church government that grew out of this position was known as the New England Way, and eventually became the Congregational Church.

    Having taken this position, the colony leaders were forced to navigate between the Scylla of Arminianism and the Charybdis of Antinomianism. The Arminians believed that anyone could be saved and that salvation was in part dependent upon one’s behavior in the world. Critics of Arminianism referred to this as preaching a Covenant of Works. Strict Calvinists were expected to preach only a Covenant of Grace, arguing that one could not affect one’s own election. This led to the position that if one could not change God’s decision on salvation, there was no motivation for performing good works in this world. Anyone who arrived at this conclusion was naturally abhorrent to the colony leaders, and were later referred to as Antinomians, those who felt no need to conform to the moral law.

    Anne (Marbury) Hutchinson, wife of William Hutchinson of Alford, Lincolnshire, came to New England in 1634 and settled at Boston [GM 2:3:477-84]. William Hutchinson’s sister Mary had married Reverend John Wheelwright, rector of Bilsby, Lincolnshire, the parish just to the east of Alford; this couple came to New England in 1636 [GDMNH 743- 44]. These two parishes were less than twenty miles north of Boston, Lincolnshire, where the powerful Puritan John Cotton had held sway for many years and had influenced the Hutchinsons and Wheelwrights strongly.

    Once in New England, Anne Hutchinson began holding private religious meetings in her home, in which she provided her own interpretation of scripture, arguing that some New England ministers were preaching a Covenant of Works. Once Wheelwright arrived, he began giving sermons with the same message. They believed that they had Cotton’s support in these efforts to focus only on the Covenant of Grace.

    The authorities, and especially Governor John Winthrop and Reverend Thomas Shepard, viewed these activities as a threat, tending toward a usurpation of their authority.

    Winthrop began to take note of the activities of Hutchinson and Wheelwright in October of 1636 [WJ 1:239-43]. Attempts to bring Hutchinson and Wheelwright back to orthodoxy continued for a year, but eventually failed. The two heretics were summoned before the General Court of 2 November 1637 and, after much wrangling, Wheelwright, and then Hutchinson, were banished [MBCR 1:205-7].

    The General Court continued to meet throughout most of the month of November. On the 15th a number of men who had signed a petition in support of Wheelwright were disfranchised (that is, were stripped of their freemanship). On the 20th a larger number, mostly from Boston but some from a handful of other Massachusetts Bay towns, were disarmed as well [MBCR 1:207-8, 211-12].

    Within a few days, many of those named in the court records on the 15th and the 20th signed a petition in which they submitted to authority, stating that, “having joined in preferring to the Court a writing called a Remonstrance, or Petition, I acknowledge it was ill done, … and therefore I desire my name may be put out of it” [WP 3:513-16].

    Not everyone did so, however. On 22 March 1637/8, Anne Hutchinson was excommunicated by the Boston church and went with many of her followers to the northern end of Aquidneck Island in Narragansett Bay and founded the town of Portsmouth [BChR 21-22].

    Wheelwright led a group of his supporters north to found the town of Exeter (at that time outside the bounds of Massachusetts Bay, and now in New Hampshire). On 6 January 1638/9, Boston church dismissed several men “unto the Church of Christ at the Falls of Paschataqua” and, on 3 March 1638/9, several women were dismissed to “the forenamed Church at the Falls now called Exeter” [BChR 23].

    These two categories of men and women (those who recanted almost immediately, and those who left with Hutchinson and Wheelwright) do not encompass all those who were punished by the court in November 1637. As noted above in our extract from the sketch of Thomas Marshall of Boston, no record could be found of his renouncement of his Antinomian activities, and yet he had clearly been rehabilitated at some later date.

    Recent research in the collection of colonial Massachusetts documents known as the Massachusetts Archives serendipitously resolved the puzzle. While searching for material on immigrants to be covered in the next Great Migration volume, the following petition was found [MA Arch 38B:213].

    To the Honored Court

    May it please this Honored Court that whereas some years since I put my hand to a petition which concerned Mr. Whelewright wherein were some things offensive and upon mature consideration I do acknowledge they might justly so be taken, viz: such passages as wherein both magistrates and magistracy were not only slighted but affronted and not that due honor put upon them which became a people possessing peace and Godliness. I do therefore beseech this Honored Court to remit this my offense whereby I may enjoy your former favor and my former liberty and I shall rest

    Your humble petitioner
    Thomas Marshall
    3 of the 9th 1643

    Recommended Reading

    David D. Hall, ed., The Antinomian Controversy, 1636- 1638: A Documentary History (Middletown, Connecticut, 1968; second edition, 1990). Hall has collected and annotated a dozen contemporary documents relating to the crisis, including tracts and other items written by John Cotton, a sermon by John Wheelwright, John Winthrop’s history of the events, and the proceedings of both the civil and the ecclesiastical trials of Anne Hutchinson.

    Emery Battis, Saints and Sectaries: Anne Hutchinson and the Antinomian Controversy in the Massachusetts Bay Colony (Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 1962). Battis has carried out a sociological and psychological history of the Antinomian Controversy and Anne Hutchinson’s part in it. He looks back into the English background and the family history leading up to the events in Massachusetts Bay, and then provides a detailed narrative of the crucial years in the mid-1630s. Several important appendices provide prosopographical data on all known adherents of Hutchinson and Wheelwright.

    Amy Schrager Lang, Prophetic Woman: Anne Hutchinson and the Problem of Dissent in the Literature of New England(Berkeley, California, 1987).

    Jane Kamensky, Governing the Tongue: The Politics of Speech in Early New England (New York, 1997), especially Chapter Three, “The Misgovernment of Woman’s Tongue,” and Chapter Five, “Saying and Unsaying.”

    Eve LaPlante, American Jezebel: The Uncommon Life of Anne Hutchinson, the Woman Who Defied the Puritans (San Francisco, 2004).

    Three different treatments of Anne Hutchinson herself, with special emphasis on her influence on discourse in early New England.

    Michael P. Winship, Making Heretics: Militant Protestantism and Free Grace in Massachusetts, 1636-1641 (Princeton, 2002). Winship provides a new narrative of the controversy, covering the years from 1636 to 1641. He objects to the term “Antinomian Controversy” and proposes instead referring to the “Free Grace Controversy.” He also emphasizes the role of Thomas Shepard both in opposing John Cotton and in forcing the issues in the synod and in court.

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