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Powerful portrait of Anne Hutchinson is marred by proselytizing

"American Jezebel" makes good reading these days, as our government tries to foil radical Muslim puritans who would kill nonbelievers in the name of their religion. It is the story of our own radical Protestant Puritan, the zealous Anne Hutchinson, who was banished from Boston in 1637. Elements of her tale beg for comparison with today.

Intolerance of dissident religious views? John Winthrop is thy name. A "divine slaughter" of innocent victims? That was how the Puritans described their mass killing of the Pequot Indians in Connecticut. Severed heads displayed on a bridge? Fallujah, Iraq, we learn, was no more barbaric than London in the 17th century.

A midwife and a brilliant woman, Hutchinson was reared on unyielding Puritanism in England. In 1634, at the age of 43, she sailed with her husband and children to Boston, where she began what amounted to a house church -- at first only for women, but later also for men. Using the chair reserved in each house for the man, she interpreted Scripture, critiqued sermons, and preached a theology of salvation that, in contrast to the colony's official theology, rejected any role for human will or effort. You were saved or you were not, and doing good works could make no difference.

As author Eve LaPlante points out, the fact that Hutchinson, as a woman, exercised any religious or political influence in the patriarchal Puritan theocracy -- her accusers called her "more bold than a man" -- doomed her to being "reduced," or brought before authorities to be corrected and suppressed. Hutchinson's refusal to recant and her brazen intellectual jousting with her judges only compounded her offense. She was tried in 1637 before the Great and General Court of Massachusetts, headed by Governor Winthrop; exiled in 1638 to Rhode Island, where she was joined by followers; and later moved to New York, where she was scalped by Indians in 1643.

With powerful characters, a compelling tale, and a strong narrative writer in LaPlante, "American Jezebel" should have been a slam dunk. It is not.

LaPlante, who, like President Bush, is a direct descendant of Hutchinson, errs by proselytizing on behalf of her protagonist, who clearly does not need it. Every other detail is used as a sign of Hutchinson's brilliance or the failings of her male accusers. Hutchinson's gender is central, to be sure, but the author's labored, relentless feminist critique lacks historical depth or subtlety. LaPlante writes, for example, that Hutchinson founded American feminism, the colony of Rhode Island (she joined Roger Williams there), and Harvard College (because it was established to prevent future Hutchinsons), and that she was America's first career woman.

LaPlante depicts Hutchinson as a civil rights champion crushed by theocrats. Hutchinson did suffer intolerance, as a result of which her Rhode Island settlement proclaimed religious liberty. But Hutchinson was no egalitarian; she was elitist to the core. Hutchinson believed that she was an elect of God and thus knew God's will -- for others as well as herself. She gave no credence to the state, the authority of which she saw as inferior to her own favor with God. The dangerous implications of such views for a democratic society are unexplored as LaPlante makes Hutchinson a Puritan Rosa Parks.

LaPlante also chose a theological frame, rather than leaning on her strength in narrative prose. Her primers on Calvinist theology and Puritan ideas about grace and works serve their aims but are didactic and inadequately developed. She confuses terms and omits important context.

Despite such failings, "American Jezebel" is a powerful and fascinating book that deserves wide reading. It shows religious zealotry in an American context, and it does so from the inside out. That makes this book especially appropriate now, not only because of American concern about a new form of religious extremism, but because both political candidates vying for the White House are descended from the Puritans.

LaPlante weaves storytelling based on research and even fictionalized elements into her narrative, providing a portrait of the daily lives of Boston's settlers, how they saw the world and how they coped with obstacles. She reminds us, for example, of the extent to which Puritans drew on Hebrew thought and styled themselves as new Israelites, which is evident in their 24-hour Sabbath, their ban on graven images, and even their dress, which bore echoes of Judaism. LaPlante takes us inside Puritan households.

LaPlante is not to be faulted for such narrative techniques. In the end the material they produce is more satisfying than her ideological framework.

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