Religion and Social Movements

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.

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