February 5: Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson, Prophetic Witnesses, 1683, 1643

Welcome to the Holy Women, Holy Men blog! We invite you to read about this commemoration, use the collect and lessons in prayer, whether individually or in corporate worship, then tell us what you think. For more information about this project, click here.

•   •   •


Roger Williams
Anne Hutchinson

About this commemoration

Born in London in 1603, Roger Williams was ordained and served as a priest in the Church of England. Williams found that he could not abide by the rigorous, high-church policies of Archbishop William Laud, and in 1630, he sailed to New England in search of religious liberty.

Upon his arrival in Boston, Williams encountered further obstacles to religious freedom. In particular, Williams objected to the ability of the civil authorities to punish religious offenses, and he advocated for a “wall of separation” between civil and religious powers. He believed also in the fundamental right of all people to follow their consciences in matter of religious belief. He left Massachusetts and founded a nearby settlement called Providence, believing God had guided him to this new land. He was eventually granted a charter for the colony of Rhode Island, the new constitution of which granted wide religious latitude and freedom of practice. Williams founded the first Baptist Church in Providence, though he refused to be tied to the tenets of an established church.

Like Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson also immigrated to Massachusetts in hope of finding religious freedom. She was an outspoken advocate of the rights and equality of women, challenging the dominant views of the Puritan leadership. She held Bible studies in her home for the women of her community, at which she welcomed critical examination of the faith. As a result of her activities, she found herself at odds with not only the religious authorities, but with the state civil authorities as well, and in 1638, she was tried by the General Court of Massachusetts, presided over by Governor John Winthrop, and was branded as a dangerous dissenter and banished from the colony. Anne eventually relocated to what is now Bronx, New York, where she and her family were killed, save one daughter, by a group of Siwanoy Indians in 1643.

Today, both Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson are remembered as early champions of religious liberty in this nation and as prophets of the individual’s freedom of fellowship with the Creator.


I    O God our light and salvation, we offer thanks for Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson, whose visions of the liberty of the soul illumined by the light of Christ made them brave prophets of religious tolerance in the American colonies; and we pray that we also may follow paths of holiness and good conscience, guided by the radiance of Jesus Christ; who with thee and the Holy Spirit liveth and reigneth, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

II    O God our light and salvation, we thank you for Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson, whose visions of the liberty of the soul illumined by the light of Christ made them brave prophets of religious tolerance in the American colonies; and we pray that we also may follow paths of holiness and good conscience, guided by the radiance of Jesus Christ; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


1 Kings 17:1–16

1 Peter 1:13–16

Luke 9:51–62

Psalm 133

Preface of God the Father

Text from Holy Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints © 2010 by The Church Pension Fund. Used by permission.

•   •   •

We invite your reflections about this commemoration and its suitability for the official calendar and worship of The Episcopal Church. How did this person’s life witness to the Gospel? How does this person inspire us in Christian life today?

If you’d like to participate in the official online trial use survey, click here. For more information about the survey, click here.

To post a comment, your first and last name and email address are required. Your name will be published; your email address will not. The first time you post, a moderator will need to approve your submission; after that, your comments will appear instantly.

18 thoughts on “February 5: Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson, Prophetic Witnesses, 1683, 1643

  1. Hebrew reading: Elijah and the widow of Zarapheth? How does that fit?
    But at least this time 1 Kings 17 is used we get a fuller story.

    • And, he needs a ‘who is he’ and ‘why is he important’ statement and a ‘he died statement.’ She has both.

  2. Did Williams actually use the phrase “wall of separation” before Jefferson did in his letter to the Baptists?

    Or would it be more accuarate to say that Williams believed in what Thomas Jefferson would later call “a wall of separation?”

    Inquiring Virginians want to know!

    • Cynthia … I am afraid to tell you, but Roger Williams wrote in 1644 in his book “The Bloody Tenent of Persecution”:

      “When they [the Church] have opened a gap in the hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world, God hath ever broke down the wall itself, removed the Candlestick, etc., and made His Garden a wilderness as it is this day. And that therefore if He will ever please to restore His garden and Paradise again, it must of necessity be walled in peculiarly unto Himself from the world, and all that be saved out of the world are to be transplanted out of the wilderness of the World.”

      Jefferson lived from April 13, 1743 – July 4, 1826. The Reverend Williams used the phrase nearly 100 years before the future President was born.

      • They used the concept for different purposes. Jefferson was stating that governments had no business getting involved in religion.

        “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God; that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship; that the legislative powers of the government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their **legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between church and State.** This statement means that in his opinion, the people decided (when they ratified the Constitution), that they did not belief the government had the power to establish a state religion, had no right to infringe upon religious observation, or interfere with an individual’s right to worship as he or she sees fit. This wall is therefore an established protection demanded by the people to protect their religious worship from state regulation or control. This separation did not really exist as firmly as he was trying to assert it, hence the “I contemplate” rather than “I respect, or I acknowledge”

        Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore man to all of his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.”

        “[W]hen [the Christians] have opened a gap in the hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world,
        God hath ever broke down the wall itself, removed the Candlestick, etc.,
        and made His Garden a wilderness as it is this day. And that therefore if
        He will ever please to restore His garden and Paradise again, it must of
        necessity be walled in peculiarly unto Himself from the world, and all
        that be saved out of the world are to be transplanted out of the wilderness
        of the World.”
        Williams is clearly talking about the the hedgerow that should stand “between the garden of the church and wilderness of the world,” in a manner that displays his contempt for the secular world and his fears that the secular world would infect the garden of the church, this is different than Jefferson promise that he would try to keep religion from becoming part of the public sphere. He said that he thought the people intended to prevent the government from establishing a state church, Williams worried the state would spill over into the church, not that the state would insert the church into itself. They had very different intents.

  3. I find it difficult to enthuse about this commemoration. They were certainly significant in tthe history of New England and of American Puritanism, and I’ sure God loves the., but I’ll pass on this one

  4. I have a lot of questions about this commemoration.

    First, I’d suggest that the two be separated into two; they don’t really go together, and having two different commemorations on the same day is pretty common in HWHM.

    Second, their designation as ‘prophetic witnesses’. I don’t really know what the SCLM means by that statement, but it seems to me that it might apply to Williams, but ought not to be applied to Hutchinson. If we want to commemorate her as an early example of a woman engaging with the leadership of the church, we might find a way to do that, but I think it would have to be as someone who suffered for her faith rather than as someone who was a ‘prophetic witness’. All I can discover about her prophetic side makes her sound like someone whose example should be avoided rather than followed. She claimed to have direct revelations from God independent of the Scriptures or the consensus fidelium, and I’ve never seen anything good come from those who make that claim. I can’t find out what revelations she actually revealed, but the claim alone makes me question the wisdom of commemorating her.

    It’s not clear from anything I can find on her that religious liberty was a value for her; she seems to have cared only about the theological propositions usually associated with antinomianism, so much that is in the collect may not actually apply to her. I think she needs to be thought about more carefully, and if appropriate given a commemoration of her own.

    The collect needs work, even if applied to Williams alone. I’m not sure ‘liberty of the soul’ is right; ‘liberty of conscience’ was the usual phrase, in Williams’ day and in ours, and is probably best left alone. And I believe most of us would uphold liberty of conscience even for those not ‘illumined by the light of Christ’, so it might be good to think again about that. ‘Brave prophets’ reminds me of one of my aunts would speak to when I was a kid—‘that’s my brave little man’, but perhaps that’s just me. The petition, ‘that we also may follow paths of holiness and good conscience’ seems a bit vague in this context.

  5. When I read this commemoration I had a feeling of emptiness. To me, it was odd that we would hold up two individuals who are an example of leaving the church behind. I realize that’s not the whole reality, and carrying one’s faith into a new context usually means moving away from one context in order to move into a new context, but I didn’t get a strong influx of positive content on a new context here — mostly just the moving “away” part.

    A second area of discomfort is the question of perspective. The same story can be told from various points in the narrative — a victim, a villain, a bystander, a child, etc. Choosing which perspective shall be one’s narrator (or center around which the story revolves) is a choice. In this story the two commemorated are that center, and in my estimation that would be “victims” — of institutional abuse. But the “abuse” story is not told in any but a passing, minimized way. So, in a sense, we lack both the abuse story (what they’re moving away from) AND a positive account of the (presumably expected, for “HWHM”) HOLY life they moved into as their new life.

    The collect, consequently, made no sense in its representation of individuals: “whose visions of the liberty of the soul illumined by the light of Christ made them brave prophets of religious tolerance in the American colonies.” What vision — escaping a bad situation? I can’t blame them, but that’s not a vision, that’s just a survival tactic. I’ll accept that they had faith in God, but I don’t see what is being specified as illumination by the light of Christ, as this story is being told. Everybody going their own way is at odds with any notion of community or the church as having a common mission that overlaps with the individual’s growth in Christian maturity. “Religious tolerance” wasn’t exactly an ideal as this story was told here — claiming their survival tactic as a societal ideal strikes me as overreaching the facts and putting an false face on something understandable but much less than is claimed for it. (Okay — I accede the point that they were in the American colonies.)

    As a commemoration, I didn’t think it passed muster. I didn’t pursue the selected readings. I hope this one does not make it into the calendar. It doesn’t illustrate the Christian Gospel and the Church pursuing the objectives for which God in Christ calls us as a people and as individuals.

    • About “Prophetic Witnesses” — I think that’s a lame phrase that we use when we either don’t know what else to say, or it’s getting late and we don’t want to be late for supper. To whom did they witness, and in what way did their witness exceed that which is “normal” expected of every baptized Christian? As for the “Prophetic” part, — that usually is used in situations where it says a moral message regarding a social situation where we agree with the message in question and disapprove of the situation they challenged. I agree — abuse isn’t good. That doesn’t make them prophets, though. “Prophetic,” it seems to me, should mean more than moral reformer. It should include something about God’s overall vision for his creation, for history, for his people, or about new life in Christ. This commemoration is a good example of calling them “prophetic witnesses” as a default (but not meaningful) term, because its the term we use when we flat out don’t know what else to say. Its use cheapens “prohpecy” and makes “witness” sound like something reserved to the few.

    • Yes–to say Williams couldn’t abide Laud’s ‘rigorous, high-church policies’ makes him sound like me updating my CDO profile after a year in a diocese I shall not name. In fact, like the tens of thousands who came to New England in the 1630s, he was leaving an active persecution that was already bad and widely expected to get worse sooner rather than later. But as far as leaving the church is concerned, it would help if the bio explained that most of those who came did not think of themselves as leaving their church, but as going where they could keep it the way it had been instead of what it was becoming under the new management. That gives me, at least, a certain sympathy for Williams, and he really was, I think, the first member of the Church of England to go into print with the idea of liberty of conscience.

    • They did not leave the church behind. I thought the entire foundation of protestantism is based on an individual and his or her relationship with God, not whether or not they are willing to sacrifice their own personal convictions for a group of flawed believers. He was more of a protestant than those who stayed behind and did not speak up or try to establish personal relationships with God.

  6. Presumably, we don’t know the date of his birth: if we do, it should be shown.

    Line 6, second paragraph: substitute “matters” for “matter”.

    Line 1, third paragraph: add “(born Anne Marbury at Alford, Lincolnshire, England, in July 1591,)” after “Hutchinson”.

    Last line, third paragraph: substitute “on August 20” for “in”.

  7. Michael – re ‘wall of separation’ – I didn’t know that! Thank you. I’ll bet a lot of people who pick up HWHM harbor the same misapprehansion as mine. Maybe the text should be revised to give make this clear.. Now I wonder if that is where Jefferson found the phrase or if his use is simply a coincidence. Any Jefferson scholars out there? I’ve learned so much from this blog – both the texts of HWHM and the commentary – thank you all.

  8. Although I’m delighted that we have this commemoration of two courageous bu iconoclasitc folk, I must relate that at the divinity school (originally a Baptist foundation) in Rochester, NY, where I was Dean of Bexley Hall for many years, sported a commemorative window of Williams in its chapel. A non-Anglican colleague once remarked, “Honoring Roger Williams with a stained glass window is like giving Moses the Golden Calf Award.”

  9. I’m usually on the other side of these sorts of arguments, but both Williams and Hutchinson strike me as deserving of a place in our calendar. Both suffered persecution for a vision of religious tolerance and freedom of conscience which is far closer to the ideals of nearly all of today’s Episcopalians than the views of, say, Thomas Aquinas or “that monster of wickedness, Archbishop Laud.” As Williams and Hutchinson were contemporaries (born 1603 and 1591, respectively), left England to escape the same episcopal tyranny, and were persecuted in America by the same authorities (the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay), it’s even appropriate that they share a date.
    As for Hutchinson’s theology and spirituality, earning a spot on Governor Winthrop’s enemies list strikes me as a point in her favor. “Antinomianism” was pretty much the Puritan’s charge of last resort, used against “uppity laypeople” or “independent theologians” whose arguments they could not otherwise refute. (When Winthrop referred to Hutchinson as “a woman of ready wit and bold spirit,” he didn’t mean it as a compliment.) And if we’re going to deny commemoration to those who claim “direct revelations from God independent of the Scriptures or the consensus fidelium,” we’re going to have to drop a lot folks, starting with Sts. Peter and Paul . . .
    As noted, both Williams and Hutchinson left England to escape Archbishop Laud’s reforms. I know we’re stuck with Laud, but few of his many modern defenders could stomach Laud’s church any more than Williams and Hutchinson could. As John Morrill notes in The Oxford Illustrated History of Britain, Laud’s reforms “incensed all Puritans and worried most other men. . . . The most notable visual effect of Laud’s archepiscopate was the removal of the communion tables from the body of the church to the east end, where they were placed on a dais and railed off. . . . In the House of God the priest stood at the altar raised above the laity who were to sit in awed humility beneath his gaze. Sinful man could not come to salvation through the word of God alone, or at all, but only through the sacraments mediated by His priesthood.” And as for his influence on Charles I’s policies as a member of the Star Chamber and the king’s trusted advisor and confidant, Laud’s most fitting memorial may be found in the U.S. Constitution, particularly Article I Section 9, Article III Sections 2 and 3, and the 1st, 5th, 6th, and 8th Amendments.

Leave a Reply to Michael Hartney Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s