Here is a little local history. Anne Hutchinson was a Purtian woman who was expelled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for disparaging some of the ministers and encouraging others to establish a direct relationship with God. In short, she was a real troublemaker. And the fact that she was a woman raising all this ruckus was even worse.
Let me start by pointing out that Anne Hutchinson's trial took place in Cambridge, in the meeting house of the First Church in Cambridge, the predecessor of First Parish in Cambridge (now Unitarian Universalist), where I go to church today! Considering that my book club takes place at the church, I think we were all struck by the irony. As a congregation and as a religion, we pride ourselves on being open-minded and tolerant. But in this case we were on the wrong side of history (which may be why we don't hear too much about that history!)
Anne Hutchinson was brought to trial because she was such a charismatic and persuasive teacher and preacher. Of course, as a woman, she could not preach from the pulpit. But she did conduct informal discussion groups in her home, where she would explain and elaborate and - yes - sometimes contest the ministers' sermons.
That said, Eve LaPlante makes it clear that Anne Hutchinson was not brought to trial because of her beliefs, for the doctrinal differences were so minor as to be almost incomprehensible to the non-Puritan. Believe me, the book includes much of the transcript of the trial... incomprehensible. Anne Hutchinson was brought to trial because she was perceived as a threat to the stability of the young Massachusetts Bay Colony. She was encouraging her followers to pursue a relationship directly with God, disputing the infallibility of the ministers as middlemen.
It would be dangerous if a man were to espouse this point of view. Some did, resulting in political battles. But to have a woman make these claims was insupportable, and Governor John Winthrop knew that he had to find a way to get rid of her.
Banished from Massachusetts, Anne Hutchinson went down to join Roger Williams in Rhode Island. This free-thinking and religious liberal had been living down there by himself with the natives. But when Anne showed up, she brought her large family and many of her followers - and so Rhode Island was founded.
Freedom of religion was the founding principle of this state. The founders just wanted the freedom to worship whom and how they wanted. (Funny, isn't that what the Puritans wanted when they left England?)
One of the first written rules in Rhode Island was as follows: "No person within the said colony... shall be in any wise ways moldested, punished, disquieted or called into question for any differences in opinion in matters of religion, and do not actually disturb the civil peace of our said colony; but that all and every person... may freely and fully have and enjoy his and their own judgments and consceinces in matters of religious concernments..."
In fact, there was no formal church in early Rhode Island, as individuals went about their religious life in a more private way. Anne was free to hold informal gatherings to read and discuss the Bible, but there was no church building or hierarchy.
Eve LaPlante points out that the ideas and language of the Rhode Island charter contribute directly to the First Amendment of the US Constitution, which states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Anne Hutchinson, LaPlante argues, laid the groundwork for the relgious tolerance that we enjoy today.
The question arises about whether or not Anne Hutchinson was a feminist. I mean, she did not believe that women should have the same rights and priveleges as men. She raised 16 children and nobody heard her complaining about that! She was not advocating to change the situation of women in her society.
But actually... she was. She believed that women had the right and the ability and the spiritual necessity to have a direct relationship with God, without the intermediary of a male preacher. This was a radical and decidedly feminist idea, which she defended even as it meant her banishment from the colony. She was way ahead of her time.