Letter vs Spirit: the Trial of Ann Hutchinson

"What is the charge?" " Well, uh, ..."
“What is the charge?”
” Well, uh, …”

In the law-and-order society of Puritan New England, Anne Hutchinson was a threat. A mother of 15 and a trained midwife, she lived an upright life and was well-respected. Anne had experienced a personal, transformative encounter with God and believed that this experience was available to all.

She began a Bible study in her home which became very popular. She knew her Bible and taught that true religion involved not just adherence to a long list of rules, but a personal connection to God. This was not merely a pleasant addition to the Christian life, but the necessary condition for entrance to the Christian life. Each person, according to Anne, could hear from God directly and should do so and then follow their inner light.

This presented the New England Puritan hierarchy with a sticky dilemma. They also taught that a person should connect with God personally and follow their inner light. This was one of the reasons they had rejected the hierarchal Catholic Church and what they considered “Popery Lite”-the state-sponsored EnglishChurch. There was no mediator between God and man; the connection was personal and direct. Authority did not rest in men but in the Bible. On the other hand, certain designated men were the authorities on the interpretation of that Bible.

But Anne Hutchinson’s Bible studies were growing ever-more popular. She was not teaching anything Puritans considered false doctrines. But what if every citizen in the Massachusetts Bay Colony really did follow their inner light and that inner light challenged their ordered society? Was there not a danger that the whole orderly structure would descend into chaos?

In 1636 Anne was called before the leaders and questioned. She decisively won the debate with Governor Winthrop, because she was an intelligent woman who knew her scriptures. In the end, she was charged with blasphemy for claiming that God had revealed truths to her directly, without the leaders’ mediation. The leaders decided that this inner light business was too dangerous (ironically, taking the Catholic position!) and Anne Hutchinson was banished and eventually died in a raid by indigenous tribes.

This true story raises questions that are quite pertinent today.

  1. Are authoritarian, hierarchical religious systems more concerned with maintaining civil order than encouraging spiritual growth?
  2. If so, are they not more correctly identified as political systems?

Jihadis in Syria, clinging to the Quran and to their authorities interpretation of it, are even now murdering so-called heretics, blasphemers and infidels. The Lawyer faction of organized religion is always prone to thump its Book and call for death to the dissidents.

The apostle Paul, who had once been a Lawyer himself, pointed out the lethal danger of the Legalists, “…the letter kills,” Paul said, “but the spirit gives life.” Jesus rebuked the Lawyers, calling them “blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel.”

The Dissenters say that the Lawyers, who value the letter of the law over human life, are hypocritical mis-representers of God. The Lawyers respond to this criticism predictably.

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I would have gathered your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.”-Jesus

Jesus was condemned to death on this rationale: If we don’t get rid of him everyone will believe in him and the Romans will crack down and we’ll lose power; better that this one man die than the whole nation be in chaos. (John 11:47-49)

But are dissenters really a threat to the powers-that-shouldn’t-be?

What do you think?

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