Friday, March 22, 2013

Opinion, Fact

The featured article of the day over at Wikipedia is about Anne Hutchinson and the Antinomian Crisis in early puritan Massachusetts. I remembered a fair bit about it, relearned some material, and learned new things as well. There you go then, Wikipedia. That’s what you’re for, isn’t it?

Nonetheless, there are problems, not with the facts per se, but in treating what is clearly opinion as if it is fact. The events are interpreted through a prism of gender issues, or more acurrately, The Gender Issue, because there is only one: sometimes women are treated unfairly. The claims are not offered as opinions of knowledgeable persons, they are stated as facts. They may be the best opinions. They may be shared by the people who have studied and contemplated the relevant documents most. But they are opinions. Examples:
Taking further Cotton's doctrine of the Holy Ghost dwelling within a "justified person", Hutchinson "saw herself as a mystic participant in the transcendent power of the Almighty." This theology was empowering to women in a society where the status of a woman was determined by her husband or father; in Hutchinson's case, it gave her a voice. While prophesying was actually part of the culture of Elizabethan England, for a woman to do this was an open display of defiance toward the authority that men derived from their gender.
Thus, we are to believe that Anne Hutchinson’s teachings were rejected as heterodox because they were, well heterodox, but because they came from a woman. Her prophetic voice was not rejected because most puritans tended to be extremely suspicious of such things, but because it opened an avenue for “voice” for women, and they couldn’t have that. Such an understanding might indeed be the most illuminating. But it is not deserving of the status of declaration. (It should be noted that some of her teachings are more similar to current evangelical thought than standard 17th C puritan doctrine would be. Others were outside most Christian traditions altogether.)

We can see this better if we reverse the game. If we take another historical movement, Women’s Suffrage, and try to explain it in terms in terms other than women’s rights, we see how quickly the whole understanding goes awry. Me, I'm going to take the naive view that the movement was about votes for women. 

We can note that a few prominent advocates for women’s suffrage thought it was necessary to dilute the votes of black men, and evidence that from their own speeches and writing. But we can’t make a declarative statement that this was the motive of the movement. We can likewise point out that temperance advocates saw women’s suffrage as a means to banning alcohol, and draw out a host of examples to illustrate this. But that still does not get us to the declaration that Suffragettes were predominantly motivated by this*. We can discover that the movement thrived most among women of NW European heritage, and conclude from that that the whole thing was born of a cultural tradition of greater sexual equality, or heck, maybe a desire for fish, or more snow, or the goddess image of the Ice Queen. Critics declared the women were mere publicity seekers. Each of those might turn out to be the best opinion, the one that unlocks the understanding of the roots of women’s rights.

But really, we have to start from the obvious understanding: women wanted the vote because they thought it was fair, and wanted the influence that came from it. Why not start by taking them at their word on that, before seeking other explanations? Making it more complicated doesn’t illuminate. So too, maybe puritans objected to Hutchinson’s teachings because they were regarded as outside of the puritan, or even Christian, mainstream?

No fun for historians, though, is it? Much more fun to think that what those people in other ages really cared about were the issues we care about now. And, you get to nod knowingly to boot. Chronocentrism, or chronological snobbery.  Or Bulverism.

*My brother tells me – and he describes this with approval – that Ken Burns’s documentary about prohibition attributed much of the motivation for same to anti-Irish and anti-Slav bigotry, relating this to the implicit racism of drug laws today. Just maybe, says I, some of the temperance motivation may have come from people who wanted to see children, especially their own children, fed and not beaten. Or a desire to rescue loved ones who had become addicts and ruined their lives. Or from the real but mistaken Christian belief that God disapproves of alcohol. Call me crazy, but these seem to be possible explanations.


Sam L. said...

AVI, this is a macro-agression. You deny their hobby-horses.

james said...

Gin Lane

Can't you see the animus against the Irish and Slavs all over the picture?

True, Hogarth didn't like the French much--so maybe Prohibition was really all about Freedom Fries! And he paralleled it with Beer Street and 0.5% beer was legal during Prohibition; more proof!

Seriously, the chutzpa of our era is insane. Lounging at the pinnacle of human civilization we know more science and engineering than ever before (true), our political philosophies are better (unproven), and we even know what our ancestors really meant to say even when they died to assert the opposite.

Kurt said...

The feminist interpretation of the Antinomian Crisis which dominates the Wikipedia article you reference really gathered steam throughout the 1980s, though it could conceivably be traced back to the 1970s. Feminist scholars latched on to Hutchinson as a woman who dared question Puritan orthodoxy and, through their scholarship, turned her into an icon for their cause. Two publications come to mind from the research I did on the topic in the late 1980s: This article by Patricia Caldwell from 1976 was not strictly feminist in orientation, but it inspired further research into the topic. This book by Amy Schrager Lang from 1987 is technically more about the image and influence of Hutchinson's legacy, but it makes more use of feminist approaches.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Kurt, I had forgotten you were once up on all this stuff and know many of the main corridors. Thanks.