Lesson From Boston: Let's Not Exile Religious Dissenter Anne Hutchinson Again

We need to embrace Anne Hutchinson and what she stands for, not attempt to exile her once again.

My family and I enjoyed a nice vacation last week in Boston and its environs. The weather was clear, and the days were full.

We spent some time at the beach, but like dads everywhere, I made sure to mix a little education in with our recreation. Thus, we trooped along Boston's celebrated "Freedom Trail" (in 96-degree heat!), visited Minute Man National Historical Park in Concord and spent a day in Salem.

The Salem trip was very interesting. This charming bayside town emphasizes its involvement in the witchcraft hysteria of 1692. To be honest, some of the attractions are a bit garish, but others are done with more taste. There is a memorial to the 20 victims that consists of a series of granite slabs, each inscribed with a victim's name. Its simplicity is moving.

It's important that we remember the victims of theocratic religious hysteria. And the Salem museums, despite their occasionally florid flourishes, ensure that will happen.

The victims of the Salem hysteria are remembered today, but others who succumbed to the Puritans' religious fanaticism are not as well known – and efforts are under way to sweep them under the rug.

Consider the case of Anne Hutchinson. Hutchinson was an early religious dissenter. She challenged Puritan orthodoxy by holding "illegal" religious meetings in her home. Expelled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, she settled in Rhode Island for a time before moving on to New York. There she was killed during a violent conflict with Native Americans.

It's important that we keep the memory of Hutchinson and those like her alive because there are forces out there that want us to forget. In Texas, a fundamentalist faction on the state school board has brought in three "experts" to add a generous dose of Religious Right revisionist history to the state's social studies standards. The trio has recommended that the standards omit references to Hutchinson.

One of the three, Massachusetts minister Peter Marshall, says Hutchinson is not a prominent enough colonial leader to warrant special study. (Marshall, who heads up a "Christian nation" outfit and has no degree in history, goes so far as to assert that Hutchinson's main accomplishment was "getting herself exiled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for making trouble.")

These three could not be more wrong.

As the state of Massachusetts observes on a Web site, "More than perhaps any other colonial woman, Anne Hutchinson paved the way for religious liberty, and America's constitutional division of church and state." (Gee, maybe that's why the right wing wants us to forget about her!)

Students need to learn about Hutchinson. They need to learn about her brother-in-law, John Wheelwright, who was also expelled from the colony for preaching "heresy." They need to learn about Mary Dyer, one of several Quakers hanged on Boston Common in 1660 for no other reason than her religion. And yes, they need to learn about the victims of Salem's hysteria.

I'd like to see an entire unit on religious liberty in social studies courses – how we got it and what it means. Figures like Hutchinson, Wheelwright, Dyer, Roger Williams and the clergy who opposed state-established churches during the time of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison would feature prominently in that instruction. We can't expect young people to appreciate the rights we have today if they have no idea how we got them.

We need to embrace Anne Hutchinson and what she stands for, not attempt to exile her once again. If you live in Texas, I urge you to speak out against this travesty. You can submit online comments here.

It has been said that those who do not remember history are condemned to repeat it. One could also say that those who attempt to censor history become active agents in the fostering of ignorance.

In my view, that is a much worse fate.