Nov. 7, 2022

Anne Hutchinson on Trial

Anne Hutchinson on Trial

November 7th, 1637. Puritan reformer Anne Hutchinson stands trial in Massachusetts Bay Colony for heresy.


Cold Open

It’s August 1643 near the frontier of the Dutch colony of New Netherland in North America.

Nine-year-old Susanna Hutchinson picks blueberries from a thicket a few hundred meters from her family homestead. Her fingers move deftly as she quickly fills the wooden bowl at her feet. Her mouth waters at the thought of the treats her mother will make with the harvest—a rare luxury in the isolated and hungry Hutchinson home. As Susanna bends down to pick up the bowl… she hears her dogs barking. She stops for a moment wondering what’s disturbing them. She thinks it must be her younger brother being a nuisance again. If he gets bitten, it’ll be his own fault.

But then… Susanna jolts upright when she hears a distant scream that sounds like her mother. She drops the bowl and runs toward the homestead, but stops short when she spots a group of native Siwanoy warriors in the clearing. Her older brother lies on the ground in a pool of his own blood. The rest of her terrified family stand with their backs against the house, her siblings weeping.

Susanna’s mother looks up and notices her daughter hiding among the trees. She motions with her head, signaling that Susanna should run.

Susanna bolts through the forest, stopping at a large, old rock with a split down the middle. She huddles down in the crevice, trying to make herself small enough to disappear.

But Susanna’s heart sinks when she hears footsteps approaching. She sits motionless, barely even breathing, as the footsteps stop next to the rock. Then a grizzled old warrior reaches his hand inside. But he doesn’t grab hold of her. First, he strokes her hair, and then carefully lifts her from her hiding place.

As the warrior carries her past her family home, Susanna bursts into tears when she sees the house is on fire. Her brothers, sisters, and mother are dead. All have been scalped. But the warrior doesn’t hurt Susanna. He pulls her onto his horse and rides away.

After the violent raid on the Hutchinson home, Susanna spends several years living among the Siwanoy until she is finally ransomed and released. She attributes her survival to her fiery red hair, which the Siwanoy found fascinating. But the brutal attack robbed Susanna of her family.

Among those killed at the homestead was her mother, Anne, whose past actions were the reason the Hutchinsons were struggling to eke out a life in such hostile territory. When Susanna was just three years old, Anne was banished from a comfortable life in the Massachusetts Bay Colony due to her controversial opinions on religion, and her conflict with the colony’s leadership, which came to a head in a trial that began on November 7th, 1637.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is November 7th, 1637: Anne Hutchinson on Trial.

Act One

It’s April 1632, eleven years before Anne Hutchinson’s death at the hands of Siwanoy natives. 

The 40-year-old mother wipes away tears as she listens to a sermon at St. Botolph’s Church in Lincolnshire in the east of England. For the last two decades, Anne and her family have frequently traveled six hours across muddy flatlands to listen to Reverend John Cotton preach. Nobody inspires Anne like this charismatic minister. But today, as Anne hangs on to his every word, she feels a deep sadness. This is likely the last time she will ever hear Reverend Cotton speak.

Since the Protestant Reformation split the Catholic Church around a century ago, religion has been a seed of conflict across Europe. Queen Elizabeth I calmed the situation in England with a religious settlement that made her the ruler of a moderate Protestant country. Still, many Protestant reformers wanted her to go further and outlaw what they saw as the excesses of Catholicism. The tensions over religion continued long after Queen Elizabeth’s reign came to an end. When Charles I inherited the throne years later, many reformers were alarmed by the new king’s overtly Catholic tendencies.

Among the most radical reformers were a religious sect who thought the Church of England was little more than Catholicism with a different name. Their desire to ‘purify’ the church earned them a disparaging nickname: the “Puritans.” But Puritan ideas appealed to a young Reverend Cotton, and he soon developed a loyal following on account of his fiery sermons. Reverend Cotton’s impassioned words also drew the attention of the leaders of the Church of England. In April 1632, he was summoned to court to answer for his Puritan views. Knowing that he risked execution if found guilty of heresy, Reverend Cotton decided to go into hiding instead. Now, he is delivering his final sermon before going underground—and nobody is listening more intently than Anne.

When the service is over, Anne bustles over to Reverend Cotton, dragging her oldest son Edward with her. Anne’s face lights up when Reverend Cotton greets her with a smile. They exchange pleasantries until Anne cannot stop herself launching into a rant about the church’s treatment of the minister. Reverend Cotton reassures her that he will be fine. He will lodge with trustworthy Puritans in London. And perhaps he will escape to the Netherlands—or even cross the Atlantic to the New World.

Anne pushes her son forward and begs Reverend Cotton to take 19-year-old Edward with him. She tells the Reverend that Edward is ready to dedicate his life to the church, and Anne cannot imagine a better teacher than Reverend Cotton. It will be some consolation to know that one member of her family can still listen to the Reverend preach, even if she cannot. Reverend Cotton awkwardly smiles and promises to send word to Anne and Edward when he is settled.


It’s two and a half years later, in September 1634, and Anne Hutchinson is studying the Bible with like-minded Puritans aboard a ship, hundreds of miles from her former home. She doesn’t need to worry about the English church any longer. She is on board the Griffin and bound for North America.

This particular vessel has symbolic meaning for Anne. One year earlier, the Griffin transported Reverend Cotton and her son Edward to start a new life in the New World, where the colonies are supposedly sympathetic to those with Puritan views. Anne couldn’t join Reverend Cotton’s group because she was pregnant for the 14th time with her daughter, Susanna. Only when the baby was born safely could Anne, her husband William, and her children make the dangerous journey themselves. Now, Anne is eagerly awaiting the end of the voyage so she can be with her son and Reverend Cotton again.

The ship lists and sways as it navigates the choppy Atlantic waters, and Anne looks around at the bible study group. Their faces are anxious, and show the toll the journey is taking. But Anne tells them they all have much reason for hope. Salvation isn’t dependent on a believer’s behavior on Earth. A person’s place in Heaven is assured through a divine grace granted at the moment of creation. It’s a central tenet of Reverend Cotton’s teachings. But not everyone agrees with this controversial view.

One man in the bible study group, a minister named Zechariah Symmes points out that the traditional Puritan belief is that people must prove their grace through holy works and living an austere life far removed from the traditional ways of the corrupt Catholic church.

Anne fixes Reverend Symmes with a glare and tells him she can tell he isn’t among God’s elect. The rest of the group sits in stunned silence. Reverend Symmes is so furious he can barely speak. He eventually utters that Anne’s beliefs are not to be found in the Bible and storms out of the cabin. But Anne just smiles at the rest of the group, telling them that Reverend Symmes is probably unhappy that a woman has the nerve to question him. They chuckle and the tension eases in the room.

But Anne’s rift with Reverend Symmes on board the Griffin bodes ill for the future. Anne is supremely confident in her religious beliefs, but her propensity for sharing them in such a forthright manner will cause her to clash with the Puritan authorities in the New World and start a conflict that will threaten to tear the young colony apart.

Act Two

It’s the fall of 1636, one year before Anne Hutchinson’s trial.

John Winthrop, the former governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, stands in the parlor of his Boston house and stares out of the window, watching a crowd of people walk into the home of Anne and William Hutchinson. John’s relationship with the family next door is hardly neighborly. They fall on opposite sides of the religious debate that wracks the small community he once led. But today, he wants to better understand Anne’s particular Puritan beliefs—ideas which are rapidly gaining a following in the colony. So he opens his door, steps outside, and heads toward Anne’s house.

Since arriving in Boston two years ago, Anne has become one of the most prominent figures in the town. Her husband used the wealth he earned as a cloth merchant in England to build a two-story house, one of the biggest in Boston, and set himself up in the same business in the New World. Anne busied herself as a midwife, tending the women of the colony in childbirth—as a mother of 14 herself, Anne was no stranger to delivering babies. She proudly claimed that God was working through her to deliver new souls into Massachusetts Bay Colony. She even said the babies were guaranteed a place in Heaven. Her ideas appealed to Boston’s new mothers, and as Anne gained their trust and respect, she invited them to Bible study groups at her home to discuss her ideas—meetings like the one John Winthrop is about to witness.

John knocks on the Hutchinsons’ door, and Anne’s husband opens it, a look of surprise on his face. But William politely invites John in. Ushered inside, almost everyone turns to stare, and the room falls quiet.

John is amazed at how many people are gathered here in Anne’s house. He guesses at least 50. And it’s not just women—there are plenty of men too. John recognizes Henry Vane, the governor of Massachusetts Bay. Like everybody else, the governor is staring at John, surprised at his arrival. John knows people regard him as a traditional, orthodox Puritan, not somebody who’s interested in Anne’s opinions. But John smiles politely and nods at Anne, who sits at the front of the large group. Then he takes a seat and listens.

For the next hour, Anne reflects on the sermon they heard in church the previous weekend. The meeting is supposed to be a discussion, but John quickly realizes the Bible study group is a front for something else. Puritans do not allow women to preach. And that’s precisely what Anne is doing.

John can’t deny that Anne is clever, charismatic, and eloquent. But, as Anne continues her sermon, he becomes more and more concerned by what he hears. Anne disagrees with the Puritan minister who preached from the pulpit on Sunday and said she follows the beliefs of the controversial theologian, Reverend John Cotton, saying that her outward behavior is not necessarily tied to the fate of her soul. She believes God chose her soul before birth and granted her salvation without conditions.

Concerned, John watches as the merchants and moneylenders in the room nod along in agreement. John is worried by this, but not surprised. Of course, Anne’s ideas appeal to people whose livelihoods depend upon trade and profit before charity and good works. But he’s also worried that Governor Vane, the most powerful man in the colony, seems to be coming around to Anne’s unorthodox views.

When the meeting is concluded, John returns home. He is alarmed about the speed with which Anne’s religious beliefs are spreading. But right now, he can’t see any way to stop her.

A few months later, in January 1637, John sits near the front of the First Church in Boston where the atmosphere is tense. The elders have proclaimed a day of fasting in an attempt to reconcile the followers of Reverend Cotton with the orthodox Puritan clergy. But so far, it’s not going well.

Today, John watches from the audience as a different minister, Reverend Wheelwright, makes a fiery speech. Wheelwright has known both Reverend Cotton and Anne since they lived in England, and he is firmly in agreement with their ideas. So now, rather than reconcile with the orthodox leadership of the colony, Reverend Wheelwright has chosen to rail against them in a sermon full of vitriol.

John looks at the congregation around him. Many are nodding along in agreement, while the majority are stone-faced. John, a clever politician, knows that Reverend Wheelwright has misjudged his audience. He hoped to galvanize them against the orthodox Puritans but the people of Boston are growing tired of religious bickering, and Reverend Wheelwright’s clumsiness is only whipping up their irritation against the radical Puritans.

Shortly after the scorching sermon, John senses the time is right to make a move. He calls for Reverend Wheelwright to be held to account for whipping up revolutionary fervor. Soon, Reverend Wheelwright is ordered to appear in the colony’s general court to be tried for contempt and sedition. He is found guilty.

Shortly after Reverend Wheelwright's case, John is pleased when he is re-elected as Governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony. With his victory, John unseated Governor Vane, whose reputation was tarnished by his radical Puritan views. John believes his election is a mandate to confront this supposed ideology and the woman responsible for spreading it.

Soon, the Puritan authorities, encouraged by re-elected Governor John Winthrop, will summon Anne to appear in a court of law and hold her to account for her beliefs.

Act Three

It’s November 7th, 1637 at a meeting house in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Reverend Cotton sits among the ministers, magistrates, and freemen of Massachusetts Bay Colony who have been selected as the jury in the trial of Anne Hutchinson. He listens intently as Governor John Winthrop reads out the charges against her, accusing Anne of troubling the peace of the colony, holding illegal meetings in her home, and slandering the colony’s ministers. Reverend Cotton glances at his fellow jurors. He knows that some, like him, agree with Anne’s interpretation of scripture. But he also knows that others fundamentally disagree. Today, the court will come down on one side or the other.

Reverend Cotton looks on as Governor Winthrop questions Anne, who stands in the center of the room with her head held high. As both chief prosecutor and presiding judge in the trial, Winthrop is not giving anyone else the chance to speak. He rails against Anne and tries to provoke her temper, hoping anger will cause her to admit her guilt. But Anne maintains her dignity, calmly quoting Bible passages in her defense.

As the trial progresses, eventually, Reverend Cotton has his chance to speak. He rises and offers a defense of Anne’s character. He dismisses many of the religious charges against her as exaggerations. Reverend Cotton suggests that the prosecution of Anne is a political stunt rather than a genuinely religious trial. As Reverend Cotton addresses the room, he notices Governor Winthrop stews with anger. But he also sees that several magistrates are nodding along in agreement. When Reverend Cotton finishes his speech, he’s satisfied that he’s done everything he can to save Anne.

But as he sits down, Anne rises from her seat and launches into a tirade, attacking the colony’s leadership and orthodox ministers. She claims she is God’s instrument, and she predicts the ruin of the colony. The ministers are astonished. Reverend Cotton sinks into his chair and sighs. Anne has effectively condemned herself with a seditious speech in court, directed at the judge and jury. Reverend Cotton remains mute as several ministers stand and harangue Anne in response. Among the witnesses against her are Reverend Zechariah Symmes, who recalls Anne’s outburst on her voyage across the Atlantic.

When Governor Winthrop asks the all-male jury to vote whether Anne should be found guilty of heresy, Cotton already knows the outcome. Anne’s forthright speech attacking the colony has made a guilty verdict all but certain. Cotton also knows Governor Winthrop will use the court’s decision as an excuse to arrest Anne’s followers and sympathizers. In order to avoid arrest himself, Reverend Cotton realizes he must publicly renounce Anne, or he will be the next one to stand trial. He feels crushed as he reluctantly lifts his hand to cast his vote. The look of hurt and betrayal on Anne’s face pierces the Reverend's heart. 

Anne is found guilty of heresy by an overwhelming margin. As punishment, she is banished from the colony, and forced away from the safety of Massachusetts Bay into dangerous, unsettled territory. It is a decision that will eventually lead to Anne’s death at the hands of Siwanoy warriors. But her trial places a spotlight on the issue of religious freedom in the New World. The leaders of new communities will learn from the conflict in Massachusetts Bay, and create more tolerant societies with guarantees of religious freedom in their charters, a legacy inspired by Anne Hutchinson’s brave stand at her trial that began on November 7th, 1637.


Next on History Daily. November 8th, 1974. Infamous British Aristocrat the Earl of Lucan disappears and is never seen again after his nanny is found murdered in London.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Sound design by Derek Behrens. 

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Scott Reeves.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.