One of the names being proposed for the new Sakonnet River Bridge is Anne Hutchinson. Like many early settlers, she moved to Massachusetts Bay Colony seeking to worship freely. Anne had no formal education but was instructed by her father who was a dissident Puritan clergyman. Anne and her husband William had eleven children when they arrived in the New World in 1634 and their family eventually grew to fifteen. Anne invited other women to her home where they studied the Bible, discussed religious issues, and current events. These gatherings were so engaging that soon men as well as women filled her home to participate in lively discussions. Her following grew to eighty people, too large a gathering for a house so they moved to a church.
Although the early settlers of Massachusetts Bay Colony left England in order to worship freely, they themselves did not believe in the free expression of religion. The Puritans set up a theocracy where all people were expected to follow the same religious laws. Anne Hutchinson directly challenged the moral and legal codes of the Puritans as well as advocating for the rights of women and Native Americans. Like Rogers Williams, she was put on trial for her heretical views and banished from Massachusetts Bay Colony. In 1638, Anne Hutchinson, her family, and sixty of her followers settled in Pocasset, what we now call Portsmouth, Rhode Island.
At a time when women were told to be quiet and obedient, Anne Hutchinson spoke out and defied the established order. At a time when it was taught that women were cursed, Anne held a steadfast belief that to be a woman was a blessing. Certainly, she had plenty of reasons to be complacent including the moral codes of the time and her massive responsibilities as the mother of such a large family. There was no model for her actions. However, she was moved by her own conscience, the teachings of her father, and her reading of the Bible which gave her a vision of a more harmonious world.
She started small, inviting neighboring women to join her for conversation. Her message and the energy that resulted could not be contained. In just four years from when she arrived in Massachusetts Bay Colony, her following grew enough to be perceived as a threat to the establishment.
In 1639, a year after Hutchinson’s group established Pocasset on the northern end of Aquidneck Island, half of the group led by William Coddington and Nicholas Easton moved south to form our city of Newport. Following their conscience, many of them became Baptists believing in the separation of church and state. This was codified into law in the Newport Town Statutes of 1641. Newport is one of the first secular democracies.
Many times, we become discouraged with the complexity and scale of the problems of our times. There are so many needs, so much that is broken and needs fixing. The powers of government seem too entrenched with the interests of big business to really care about our well-being and that of the down-trodden.
Anne Hutchinson did not complain that she was born into the doomed generation or find excuses for inaction. She lived out her beliefs. We must do the same.
Living in a small state as we do, we have an opportunity to effect legislation and bring about positive change. One of the blessings of our country is that we are free to express our opinions and to advocate for change. Our state senators and representatives work for us. Whenever constituents take the time to communicate our message is taken seriously.Although the outcome may not be clear from where we stand, a few people can build a bridge to a better world.