Among the several seventeenth-century female Puritans who wrote letters, meditations, and narratives, Lucy Hutchinson (1620-1681) stands out as a particularly erudite and prolific figure. Though often only remembered for her Memoirs of her husband, Hutchinson also translated and crafted her own theological poems and treatises. Most notable are her epic poem on Genesis, Order and Disorder, and her treatise on the basics of Christianity, On the Principles of the Christian Religion. Overall, Hutchinson’s writings show the best of Puritan theology—practical and doctrinal—from a woman’s perspective. For ministers wanting to make good on their resolution to read, learn from, and share more female theologians, Hutchinson’s work is a great place to start, especially for those already interested in Puritanism.

Hutchinson’s Order and Disorder: A Female Puritan Perspective on Genesis

Hutchinson’s epic poem on Genesis is just that: a very long poem on a very long book of the Bible, and thus impossible to summarize in a few words. However, knowing a bit about Hutchinson’s aim in writing it can partly show us its great value.

In writing this poem, Hutchinson claimed that she wanted to honor rather than distort Scripture by sticking closely to the text (which seems to be a stab taken at Milton’s Paradise Lost as it went beyond what is found immediately in the text).[1] To do this, she used the method of meditation, which Norbrook describes as “a secondary form of writing, one whose main aim is not to tell a story but to summarize it and suspend the action to discourse on its meaning.”[2] He further posits that “Hutchinson internalized Scripture so deeply that in one sense all that she writes is quotation, while in another sense she shows herself well aware that quotation is a pointed, deliberate art.”[3] Thus, in saying she wanted to stick closely to the text Hutchinson did not mean her words were Scripture, but that she wanted to discourse on its meaning in her own words. Thus she explains she does not use elevated charms or language because she would “rather breath forth grace cordially [i.e., from the heart] than words artificially.”[4]

Not surprisingly, this leads Hutchinson to pay special attention to women in Genesis (again, in contrast to Milton who seemed to neglect them), drawing from her own experience as a woman, wife, and mother to understand what the Bible says about women, wives, and mothers, and what can be learned from their lives.[5] Thus, Hutchinson’s poem is not only considered to be “the first epic poem by an Englishwoman” but also referred to as “Eve’s version of Genesis.”[6] For ministers wanting to re-experience the stories of Genesis in a fresh way and from a woman’s perspective, this poem is sure to inspire new thoughts, feelings, and questions. 

Hutchinson’s Principles: A Female Puritan Perspective on the Basics of Christianity

Like her long poem on a long biblical book, Hutchinson’s treatise on the basics of Christianity is impossible to summarize in a few words. Yet, again, knowing a bit of its background can show us its value.

From a young age Hutchinson had a passion for theology, and as she grew into adulthood she engaged theological thought on an academic level as much as possible though being denied access to a formal education outside of the home. Beyond this personal interest and success, it seems in her writing of Principles that Hutchinson was saying women were capable of doing theology and should do theology, since she wrote this document as a woman and for a woman, namely, her daughter Barbara. In an prefatory letter, Hutchinson explained that she wrote this treatise to encourage Barbara to hold to the common principles of the universal faith instead of sinfully separating from it, and that she does this despite personal and societal limitations, appealing to the authority of God’s truth, the story of Solomon, and her sense of duty as a mother. Ministers wanting to explore Puritan thought from a woman’s point of view will find that Hutchinson’s Principles give a concise and comprehensive look at their practical and doctrinal theology. Click To Tweet

First, she claims that though her treatise may have some weaknesses, “the substance of it the truths themselves are of God and for his authority mine ought to take some place with you.”[7] Second, though Barbara was recently married, Hutchinson reminded her that “the wisest King” (i.e., Solomon, a man and ruler) said to “not despise the instruction of a mother” and made it his practice to “record notwithstanding his owne exterordinary inspired wisedome his mothers holy instructions.”[8] Third, Hutchinson explained “the sence of my owne duty carries me on in this worke against all discouragements from my selfe or otherwise to giue you my light in Christian practise as well as in the doctrine.”[9]

After explaining the purpose of this document in her letter, Hutchinson spends the length of her treatise delineating several traditional categories of Reformed thought, describing God as creator, redeemer, and sanctifier, and humanity as created, corrupted, and restored. Typical of Puritan thought, she continually draws her readers to communion with God in the midst of discussing the technicalities of various doctrines. What makes this document even more special is that, according to Clarke, it is “much more like a theological treatise than any other surviving seventeenth-century writing by a woman” and thus unique to its time.[10] Happy for Hutchinson, the nineteenth-century reviewer that critiqued her work for being “intimately allied with . . . Calvinist doctrine” is exactly why Calvinists will enjoy it today.[11] Overall, ministers wanting to explore Puritan thought from a woman’s point of view will find that Hutchinson’s Principles give a concise and comprehensive look at their practical and doctrinal theology.


Endnotes

[1] Lucy Hutchinson, Order and Disorder, ed. David Norbrook (Oxford: Blackwell Publications, 2001), 5. Marion Ann Taylor and Agnes Choi, Handbook of Women Biblical Interpreters: A Historical and Biographical Guide (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012), 282.

[2] David Norbrook, “Order and Disorder: The Poem and its Contexts,” in Order and Disorder, Lucy Hutchinson (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2001), xxvi, xxv.

[3] Ibid., xxviii.

[4] Hutchinson, Order and Disorder, 5.

[5] Shannon Miller, Engendering the Fall: John Milton and Seventeenth-Century Women Writers (Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press, 2008), 108, 113.

[6] Norbrook, “Order and Disorder: The Poem and its Contexts,” xiii; Sarah C. E. Ross, Women, Poetry and Politics in Seventeenth-Century Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 177.

[7] Lucy Hutchinson, The Works of Lucy Hutchinson, Volume II Theological Writings and Translations, ed. Elizabeth Clarke, David Norbrook, and Jane Stevenson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 2:193.

[8] Ibid., 2:245.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Elizabeth Clarke, “Introduction,” in The Works of Lucy Hutchinson, Volume II Theological Writings and Translations, Lucy Hutchinson, ed. Elizabeth Clarke, David Norbrook, and Jane Stevenson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 157.

[11] David Norbrook, “General Introduction,” in The Works of Lucy Hutchinson, Volume II Theological Writings and Translations, Lucy Hutchinson, ed. Elizabeth Clarke, David Norbrook, and Jane Stevenson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), xv.