Home Massachusetts Anne Hutchinson Takes the Fall for John Cotton

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.



The Connecticut Nun Who Kissed Elvis - New England Historical Society December 5, 2016 - 9:55 am

[…] The nuns bought an old factory complex and established the monastery. A devout Congregationalist, Robert Leather, donated a hill covered with pine trees. He had often prayed on the hill, and he […]

Flashback Photo: Trinity Church, Boston, 1956 - New England Historical Society December 13, 2016 - 2:19 pm

[…] Brooks (1835-1893) was descended from the Rev. John Cotton on his father’s side and Samuel Phillips, the founder of Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., on […]

Trinity Church, a Parish Priest's Dream - New England Historical Society December 13, 2016 - 3:49 pm

[…] Brooks (1835-1893) was descended from the Rev. John Cotton on his father’s side and Samuel Phillips, the founder of Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., on […]

Six Revere Bells - New England Historical Society December 31, 2016 - 8:32 am

[…] no resident of Boston would sell land for a church that wasn't Congregationalist. John Winthrop and John Cotton are buried there; so is William Dawes, who rode with Revere on that famous midnight […]

Black Sheep: The Rev. John Cotton Jr. Story - New England Historical Society March 19, 2017 - 9:47 am

[…] black sheep a fair description of Rev. John Cotton Jr.? His father, after all, condoned casting Anne Hutchinson out of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, branded as a […]

The Maypole That Infuriated the Puritans - New England Historical Society May 1, 2017 - 2:43 pm

[…] the years other rebels and free-thinkers have lived in Merrymount, which became Wollaston. Anne Hutchinson, who challenged the Puritan theocracy, lived there with her husband when they first arrived in New […]

The 1673 Murder of Rebecca Cornell and the ‘Good Fire’ - New England Historical Society August 2, 2017 - 7:18 am

[…] Rebecca, originally from England, had been innkeepers in Boston. They departed Massachusetts in the wake of Ann Hutchinson's expulsion for her religious beliefs. The Cornell's were sympathetic to the more tolerant society […]

Lady Deborah Moody, A Dangerous Woman, Comes to New England - New England Historical Society May 17, 2018 - 8:45 pm

[…] hardly have chosen a worse neighbor. Peter was one of the ministers who had successfully prosecuted Anne Hutchinson just two years earlier for her Anabaptist […]

From the Biblical to the Bizarre: Puritan Names - New England Historical Society June 27, 2018 - 9:29 pm

[…] The New England Puritans valued family ties, and children were often given the surnames of a parent. So Increase Mather named his son Cotton after his maternal grandfather, John Cotton. […]

Ann Smith Franklin, First Lady of Rhode Island Journalism - New England Historical Society November 21, 2019 - 10:03 am

[…] who was indentured to him. The New England Courant got him into trouble. James criticized the Puritan theocracy, and in 1722 he was imprisoned for a month for printing ‘scandalous libel.’ He continued to […]

Dolores Hart, The Connecticut Nun Who Kissed Elvis - New England Historical Society January 30, 2020 - 7:45 pm

[…] The nuns bought an old factory complex and established the monastery. A devout Congregationalist, Robert Leather, donated a hill covered with pine trees. He had often prayed on the hill, and he […]

The Dutch in New England: More Than Sinterklaas and Koekjes - New England Historical Society February 4, 2020 - 8:50 am

[…] called it Elizabeth’s Neck. Massachusetts had banished them for their support of the heretical Anne Hutchinson. The Feakes later built a house, the Feake-Ferris House, in what is now Old […]

Comments are closed.

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Join our mailing list to receive the latest artciles from the New England Historical Society

Thanks for Signing Up!

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Join Now and Get The Latest Articles. 

It's Free!

You have Successfully Subscribed!