In 1637, Anne Hutchinson stood trial before the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. During her examination, she confessed that she had experienced an “immediate revelation” from God. She described hearing “the voice of his own spirit to my soul.” After discussion with authorities, John Winthrop concluded that “…this is the thing that hath been the root of all the mischief.” She was found guilty and banished from the colony.
In 1775, Freeborn Garrettson had a similar mystical experience. “In the night I went to bed as usual, and slept till day break: just as I awoke, I was alarmed by an awful voice, ‘Awake, sinner, for you are not prepared to die.’ This was strongly impressed on my mind, as if it had been a human voice as loud as thunder.” Shortly thereafter he went on to have a conversation with God which, despite verbal interruptions from the devil, resulted in his conversion. Like Hutchinson, Garrettson experienced an immediate revelation from God. Unlike Hutchinson, Garrettson was not banished for the experience. In fact, he chose to publish it and went on to become a key figure in the rise of Methodism in the United States. In the years between Hutchinson’s trial and Garettson’s conversion, American religion had changed. Democracy had changed it.
While the impact of religion on democracy has been well documented, it is difficult to trace the impact of democracy on religion. Nevertheless, historians like Nathan Hatch argue that democracy was a significant influence on the development of American religion. Hatch identifies three marks of democratic spirit found in early American religious movements – redefined leadership, acceptance of spiritual experience, and grand ambitions. All three are exemplified in the contrast between Hutchinson and Garrettson. In order to examine the impact of democracy of American religion, it will be helpful to consider each of these three impacts as seen in the contrast between Anne Hutchinson and Freeborn Garrettson.
Democracy redefined leadership. Because of the ideals of democracy, authority that was once held by the elite was taken by the masses. Hatch explains that: “Increasingly assertive common people wanted their leaders unpretentious, their doctrines self-evident and down to earth, their music lively and singable, and their churches in local hands.” The days of appeal to institutional and clerical authority had come to an end. Alexis deTocqueville refers to this as “the intellectual domination of the majority.” Through the influence of democracy, authority was no longer reserved for a minority comprised of respected clergy.
This shift is clearly displayed in the contrast between Hutchinson and Garrettson. During Anne Hutchinson’s trial, her claim to have experienced direct revelation was immediately referred to an expert for validation. The expert witness was John Cotton. Though Cotton’s own theology was similar to Hutchinson’s, he was a respected clergyman and...