Anne Hutchinson Takes the Fall for John Cotton

The story of how the Puritans punished Anne Hutchinson for heresy is told often; less so the way John Cotton escaped the blame for the controversy that caused her banishment.

She was a woman, he was a man. She was a strident, outspoken midwife. He was a gentle, conciliatory theologian, the most important in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

She was home-schooled and self-taught. He had a B.A. from Trinity College and a master’s and bachelor of divinity from Emmanuel College at Cambridge. His knowledge of languages was said to be phenomenal.

Cotton’s teaching about salvation sparked the Antinomian Controversy of 1636-38, a monumental event in the fledgling society. Hutchinson was banished for her role in it; Cotton paid little price.

Historian Charles Francis Adams wrote that in the early colony, ‘there was in truth no episode more characteristic, more interesting, or more far-reaching in its consequences, than the so-called Antinomian controversy.’ As a result of it, the Massachusetts Puritans committed to strict religious conformity.

John Cotton

John Cotton by John Smibert

John Cotton by John Smibert

John Cotton was born Dec. 4, 1585 in Derbyshire, England. After 14 years of study he was ordained, and at 27 he became the minister at St. Botolph’s Church in Boston, Lincolnshire. His fame as a scholarly, persuasive preacher spread. But he believed the Anglican Church clung to too much popery, and he clashed with the Anglican hierarchy.

Starting in 1632, Cotton hid in the Puritan underground for about 10 months. The leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony sent him letters urging him to join them. He would be the only eminent clergyman in the colony. He and his wife set sail from England in 1633. Thomas Hooker and Samuel Stone were also aboard.

Anne Hutchinson and her family, including her brother-in-law, the Rev. John Wheelwright followed Cotton to America a year later. They had been devoted to Cotton and his teachings in Lincolnshire.

Antinomian Controversy

Cotton taught salvation is a free and private gift of God, a departure from the prevailing Puritan belief that it is something a person must earn by obeying God’s laws. He drew a battle line, claiming faith in Jesus got you to heaven, not just obedience.

It seems odd today that people could get so worked up over that difference. Historians have pointed out its larger meaning: The Puritan leaders were trying to create a perfect theocracy in a howling wilderness. They thought everyone needed to toe the line, and their survival was threatened by people who took off on a private quest for grace.

Henry Vane

Henry Vane

Hutchinson, Wheelwright and a growing number of colonists followed Cotton’s teaching. And then there was Henry Vane, the aristocratic young governor of Massachusetts. He encouraged Hutchinson to hold meetings at her house to review sermons, discuss scripture and pray. Vane came to Hutchinson’s home for those meetings, which drew as many as 60 people.

Historian Michael Winship believes that Vane and Cotton, not Hutchinson, were the key players in the Antinomian controversy. Vane was well connected in England and able to help or harm Massachusetts. Cotton presided over the biggest and most active church in New England. That was why the disagreement was so explosive: It was led by two of the most important men in Boston, and it undermined the Puritan establishment.

Banishment and Compromise

Anne Hutchinson stands trial

Anne Hutchinson stands trial

By 1636, Puritan ministers began to question whether Hutchinson and Cotton were orthodox enough. Their questions spilled into an open debate as ministers argued with each other through their weekly sermons. Tensions rose and the General Court called for a day of fasting.

Magistrate John Winthrop got involved and decided to run against Henry Vane for governor. Winthrop won in 1637.

The tide had turned against Cotton and his followers. Vane returned to England. Wheelwright was banished Wheelwright and Anne Hutchinson was tried for sedition.

Cotton, meanwhile, quietly papered over his differences with the other Puritan ministers. Hutchinson by 1638 was banished and excommunicated, and her supporters were disenfranchised, disarmed, excommunicated or banished. They followed her to Rhode Island, where Roger Williams encouraged her to settle.


John Cotton continued as pastor of his church in Boston and led the establishment of Congregationalism in New England. He wrote books, gave sermons and corresponded with prominent men in England. The ministers and magistrates of Massachusetts overlooked his earlier transgressions.

Winship explained why:

The earliest chroniclers of the controversy writing from the late 1630s to the 1640s had political reasons to magnify her importance. They wished to draw attention away from the parts played by leading and still important men.

Cotton caught a cold while crossing the Charles River to preach to Harvard students late in 1652 and died on December 23. He is buried in King’s Chapel Burying Ground. His daughter Maria married Increase Mather, the son of Richard Mather; they had a son named Cotton Mather. John Cotton’s widow married Richard Mather.

John Wheelwright went on to found Exeter, N.H. Anne Hutchinson and six of her children left Rhode Island when Massachusetts threatened to take it over. She and five of her children were massacred by Indians in what is now the Bronx, N.Y., in 1643. Vane was beheaded for high treason in 1662 after Charles II was restored to the monarchy.


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