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A heretic's overdue honor

THE BRONZE statue of the colonial heretic Anne Hutchinson in front of the Massachusetts State House will be dedicated Friday, more than 80 years after it was installed. Commissioned in 1920 by several women's groups emboldened by the constitutional amendment allowing female suffrage, the statue caused controversy from the start.

Looking at the statue now, it's not clear why. This Hutchinson, sculpted by Cyrus Dallin, is feminine piety personified. She stands erect, her eyes raised to heaven. Her cloak enfolds her little girl Susan, the next to youngest of her 15 children.

Yet the Boston Public Library refused the gift. The state accepted it, but the Legislature waited two years before acknowledging the statue, indefinitely postponing its dedication. Now, as Boston celebrates its 375th birthday, there is new interest in the role of women in founding America.

Most 17th-century female voices are silent, but Anne Hutchinson's voice can still be heard. Her legacy includes thousands of words of testimony she gave during her two trials, one in Harvard Square and the other downtown. In an era when a woman could not vote, hold public office, sign legal documents, or teach outside the home, Hutchinson brazenly told the judges of the Massachusetts General Court, ''I will give you the ground of what I know to be true."

A protean figure, Anne Hutchinson embodies seemingly contradictory traits -- heresy and piety, femininity and political power, reactionary and radical tendencies. Like many figures in history, she is a vessel for our imaginations. She becomes who we want her to be.

As a girl growing up in Massachusetts with a great aunt who told me I was a direct descendant of the heretic, I was terrified by Hutchinson. Founding governor John Winthrop, who lived across the road from her in the 1630s, considered her a witch, an ''ally of Satan," the greatest threat that Massachusetts had ever known. After her death (in an Indian raid on a Dutch settlement in the Bronx in 1643) he called her ''this American Jezebel," making an epithet of the name that any Puritan would recognize as belonging to the most evil woman in the Bible.

Now, as Hutchinson's biographer, I try to see her as a flesh-and-blood person like us all. She was a child of Elizabethan England and of Shakespearean London. Born in Lincolnshire in 1591, she spent her adolescence in a vicarage across the Thames from the Globe Theatre. Her father, a brilliant preacher who was himself tried and imprisoned by the Church of England, gave her a defiant self-confidence and the gift of explaining Scripture. From her mother, a cousin of the poet John Dryden, she learned midwifery. At age 21 she married a wealthy merchant and returned to Lincolnshire, where she taught Puritan theology to other women at her home.

Hutchinson collaborated for 20 years with the famous Puritan divine John Cotton, founder of the Congregational Church. The Rev. Cotton credited her with ''preparing souls" for him to convert: ''She had more resort to her for counsel about matters of conscience and clearing up men's spiritual estates, than any minister." In 1633, after the Church of England silenced him, Cotton sailed for Boston. The Hutchinsons followed. By 1636 she lectured weekly to audiences of as many as 80 women and men in her parlor at what is now the corner of Washington and School streets downtown. She accused some colonial ministers of neglecting the central role of God's grace in salvation by preaching a ''covenant of works."

Threatened by her formidable power, Winthrop brought her to trial on a charge of heresy, banished her, and had her excommunicated from the Puritan church. Undeterred, she walked to Rhode Island, where she became the only woman ever to cofound (with Roger Williams) an American colony. Her belief in the power of the individual conscience to determine what is true inspired the religious freedom clauses in the 17th-century Rhode Island charter and the 18th-century United States Constitution. She was also midwife to the nation's first college. The Massachusetts court ordered the building of Harvard College immediately after her banishment to enforce orthodoxy and to prevent a charismatic radical from ever again holding sway in Boston.

In removing Hutchinson, Winthrop restored the Puritan myth of America as a land specially favored by God. How ironic, then, that a descendant of hers, George W. Bush, is the nation's president -- having defeated a Winthrop descendant, John Kerry, in 2004. Another Hutchinson descendant, Mitt Romney, occupies the corner office in the Massachusetts State House. And it is her statue that is finally being dedicated on the lawn.

Eve LaPlante is the author, most recently, of ''American Jezebel: The Uncommon Life of Anne Hutchinson, the Woman Who Defied the Puritans."

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