Anne Hutchinson in The Scarlet Letter & History

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  • 0:00 Anne Hutchinson
  • 1:08 Religious Ideas
  • 2:28 Anne Favored in ''The…
  • 3:26 Anne and Hester
  • 4:46 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Lauren Boivin

Lauren has taught English at the university level and has a master's degree in literature.

Anne Hutchinson is an interesting and important historical figure from early colonial history. Nathaniel Hawthorne invokes her in his novel 'The Scarlet Letter' in a way that can radically change our view of the story.

Anne Hutchinson

Have you ever known a person who speaks her mind even in opposition to the dominant viewpoint? Such people are often admired in modern day America, where freedom of speech and individuality are celebrated. However, in Puritanical times it would have been a risky trait indeed, especially for a woman.

Anne Hutchinson used and spoke her mind in early colonial Massachusetts. Anne was born in England and raised by an Anglican minister who also had a habit of using and speaking his mind. She traveled to America after converting to Puritanism. She never switched off her brain or stilled her tongue, however.

Having had 15 children of her own, Anne Hutchinson perhaps naturally fell into the roll of midwife in colonial Massachusetts. This, combined with her intelligence and capacity for thought, led to her regular holding meetings for women in which religious ideas were taught and discussed. Soon, even men were participating. Anne spoke of many things, including the role of women in Puritan society. This frightened some of the men in leadership positions and made them suspicious of her.

Religious Ideas

In colonial Massachusetts, Anne Hutchinson spoke out against what she saw as a doctrinal mistakes in Puritan theology in society. Anne adhered to the original teachings of Puritanism, which emphasized the roll of grace, or the benevolent forgiveness of God, in one's salvation. In Massachusetts, Anne saw the ministers and leaders emphasizing works, or the acts and deeds of a person, as the means whereby one was saved. She didn't think that was right and she was not afraid to say so.

Of course, the ministers and leaders didn't like this, especially not from a woman, but she was correct in that Puritanism was indeed supposed to emphasize grace in its teachings. Scrabbling to save face, the ministers argued works were but the evidence that grace had taken hold, and emphasizing works was just a search for grace's footprint.

In addition to this tension between grace and works, Anne Hutchinson also asserted that she was capable of reading and interpreting the scriptures without a minister. Furthermore, she believed she could have her own relationship with God and receive personal revelation. While these tenets might be commonplace among most Christian denominations today, they were considered blasphemy in the 17th century. Because of this, Anne was banished from Boston, and she and her followers formed a settlement in part of what is now Rhode Island.

Anne Favored in The Scarlet Letter

Anne Hutchinson is mentioned only twice in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, but to great effect. The first mention of her is in conjunction with the rosebush which grows beside the prison door behind which Hester Prynne is initially held for the sin of adultery. Hawthorne suggests that the rosebush could have 'sprung up under the footsteps of the sainted Ann Hutchinson.'

Given what we now know about Anne Hutchinson's defense of grace over works, we can infer some symbolism in this reference. The rosebush springing up from her footsteps stands in contrast to the prison door, which is described as 'an ugly edifice'. We can see how the rosebush is meant to stand as a symbol of the theology of grace, in contrast to the ugly old prison door as a representation of the theology which emphasizes works over grace.

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