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How did Newport, Rhode Island Get its Start? But for the Grace of God…

Newport, Rhode Island owes its founding to William Coddington and Anne Hutchinson, early colonists in Massachusetts, and one of the oldest theological debates there is. Are souls saved by grace or by good works? In other words, will God give you a pass into heaven just because you are a repentant believer, or must you earn your way in by your actions?

Anne Hutchinson on trial

Anne Hutchinson on trial

The debate has existed for centuries, and it was one of the hottest issues that came to America along with the colonists. The Puritans believed that God’s grace was granted to a predetermined group of people. But how could you know who was who? The theory crept in to their beliefs that you could tell who was going to heaven by their actions on earth. Hard work and prosperity were thought to be signs that someone was living in a state of grace.

To Anne Hutchinson, who arrived in Massachusetts in 1634, it seemed the church leaders were beginning to step too far away from church teaching. That they were implying that good works led to salvation and she said so. In fact, she said so to just about anyone who would listen, holding meetings in her home and criticizing the leaders of the church and community for their poor theology.

That a midwife and a woman would speak up against the church was not an idea that sat well with most of the puritans. But Hutchinson, who had a quick mind and even quicker tongue, had a strong group of supporters. Nevertheless, her pronouncements were, more and more, being seen as a threat to the established church and its power. Massachusetts was sharply divided over Hutchinson, but not for long.

In the 1637 election to choose a governor, the incumbent Henry Vane (a Hutchinson supporter) was defeated by John Winthrop (a Hutchinson foe). The decision set the stage for one final confrontation. Hutchinson was brought to trial in Cambridge for her speeches. Winthrop questioned her and got her to admit that she believed God spoke directly to her. That was blasphemy, and Massachusetts banished her from the colony.

Roger Williams of Salem, who had been banished himself in 1835 for encouraging religious freedom, urged Hutchinson to join him in Rhode Island, where he was establishing a community far more tolerant than Massachusetts.

Hutchinson and her supporters made the move, purchasing Aquidneck Island from the Narragansett tribe in 1838 and establishing a town in what is now Portsmouth, R.I. and forming a government. They chose William Coddington as chief magistrate. Infighting soon broke out, however, as Hutchinson wanted her husband to be the chief magistrate, and within a year Coddington had been replaced.

With a small group of supporters, Coddington moved south and established what is today Newport in 1639.

10 comments

  1. >Are souls saved by grace or by good works?

    That simple question defines the political divide in America today.

    The descendants of the Puritans — the Yankees who went on to settle the upper midwest and the west coast — believed in good works. It was a bit more subtle since most believed in pre-destination so you couldn’t positively change your fate, but you could work as hard as you could to make this world as perfect as possible. One, however, might negatively change your fate by failing to work hard to improve this world and forfeiting their predestiny. They built the city on the hill (Boston), that hub for everyone else to look towards to for inspiration and aspiration.

    The Northern protestant traditions all embraced essentially this view, as science developed these traditions came to view the Bible as allegory rather than literal truth. Unfortunately, this period of change also weakened the churches and saw the Southern traditions become the overwhelming dominant religion in political discourse.

    The Southern protestant traditions that evolved focused on grace. Take the central tenant of Southern Baptists — if you believe in Jesus, you can live forever with him. To the Southern traditions the world is inherently wicked and irredeemable, but you personally can be saved by your faith. Improving this world doesn’t matter — you can’t fix it, and even if you did it doesn’t matter towards getting into Heaven, and if you believe the rapture is a few years or few centuries away things like climate change just don’t matter.

    Take a look at the map of Red and Blue States and you pretty much have a map of where Northern and Southern protestant traditions dominated the local culture. Map it by majority white counties and you can see border states like Ohio divide into three tiers depending on where their settlers came from and their religious traditions. The major exception being from the re-alignment of the Democratic & Republican parties among blacks after the civil rights movement where you have areas in the Southern religious tradition but voting in a coalition with Northern liberals.

  2. Elaine Selwood Inkster

    Shouldn’t be any debate. The Bible is very clear about it.

  3. Molly Landrigan

    When did the people with the money move in? Which side were they on?

  4. Rob Laughlin

    As long as there is the holier-than-thou crowd there will always be debate.

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