Suffer Not a Woman to Speak

Excerpted from

A History of Women in America

By ,

No body of ideas had a greater influence on American colonials than did Protestant theology. Some Catholics and Jews lived in early America, but most colonials identified with one or another Protestant sect. While religious practices and the degree of religious intensity varied from region to region, it is safe to say that religious beliefs were a mainstay of most colonials' lives.

Religion

The most numerous denominations in colonial America were the Congregationalists in New England; the Baptists in Rhode Island and elsewhere; the Anglicans in the South, who were replaced by Methodists after 1760; and the Quakers in Pennsylvania. Most of the Protestant groups in the colonies, except the Quakers, were strongly influenced by Calvinist thought and held many beliefs in common. Most of them emphasized original sin and preached the salvation of the few. They believed the majority of mankind to be damned. The devil was portrayed as constantly seeking to undermine the faith of a God-fearing person. All believed that the Old and New' Testaments were written by the hand of God and contained a literal description of how the deity wanted human beings to live.

Scripture told woman that she, like man, was created in God's image, and to this degree scripture recognized a spiritual equality between the sexes. Yet throughout Old and New Testament literature woman was also told that it was her duty and responsibility to be subservient to men. In Genesis, God spoke directly to Eve, assigning her the unique punishment of being ruled by her husband.

I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception;
In sorrow' thou shalt bring forth children;
and thy desire shall be to thy husband,
And he shall rule over thee. [Genesis 3:16]

For Christians in general, and Calvinists in particular, the story of Adam and Eve was of extreme importance. By being the first to fall under the serpent's spell, Eve was believed to have unloosed the devil in the world. In the Calvinist view few could escape this taint of original sin and achieve salvation. Eve's fall was taken as proof that women were more susceptible to the devil than men and interpreted as a warning to men to beware the seductive power of woman. Adam, after all, ate the apple at Eve's behest.

The conservative "scriptural" attitude toward women can be seen in the treatment of Anne Hutchinson by the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay Colony. Hutchinson, her husband, and her family were among the first settlers to emigrate from Great Britain to the Bay Colony. The daughter of a famous Puritan preacher, she was particularly well educated in religious subjects.

During 1635 and 1636 Hutchinson held Sunday evening prayer meetings in her Cambridge home at which the day's sermons were discussed. Hutchinson later claimed in court that only women attended these meetings, though some historians think both men and women were in attendance. Either way, Hutchinson soon became a lay preacher of great influence.

Hutchinson's meetings were tolerated by the men who ran the community as long as she adhered to orthodox religious views. Very quickly, however, she veered from accepted Calvinist theology. Hutchinson did not agree that it was within the clergy's power to declare who were the elect. She did not recognize the fierce Puritan God who saved only a few church-going souls. All could be saved, she said, by discovering the light within them.

Hutchinson's "heresy" put her on a collision course with the leaders of the colony. In Massachusetts, a theocracy, the ministers ran the government. To disagree with orthodox religious ideas, as she did, was political treason.

Most historians agree that the uproar caused by Hutchinson's preaching was fundamentally political; her beliefs posed a threat to the established order. The fact, however, that Hutchinson was a woman added fuel to the fire. Her belief in herself, her "masculine" sureness of mind, was highly offensive to those in power.

To the male leaders of the colony Hutchinson was a criminal three times over-a religious heretic, a political traitor, and a woman who did not conform to her role. Calvinist theologian John Knox had written that "woman in her greatest perfection was made to serve and obey man." Hutchinson was imprisoned and tried twice, by both civil and ecclesiastic courts. It is clear from the transcripts of these proceedings that the crime of not conforming to her sexual role was the felony most despised by her judges.

Hutchinson was accused of provoking other women "to be rather a husband than a wife ... a preacher than a hearer... a magistrate than a subject" Minister John Cotton, once Hutchinson's mentor, reported in court that her doctrine of individualism was so depraved that though he did not think "you had been unfaithful to your husband, yet, that will follow' upon it." Cotton's statement highlights the state of mind of the colony's leaders. Though sexuality had nothing whatever to do with Hutchinson's rebellion, the very fact that she was a woman made them view her crime in sexual terms.

Hutchinson was found guilty and ordered "as a leper to withdraw" from Massachusetts. She and her family moved first to Rhode Island and later to Long Island, where they were massacred by Indians. The Puritans believed the slaughter an appropriate punishment. "God's hand is seen herein," wrote one about the death of Mistress Hutchinson and her children.




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