Anne Dutton and Her Reasons for Writing

Anne Dutton and Her Reasons for Writing

            From the time of her youth in 17th-century Northampton, England, Anne was described as a lively and outspoken girl. Over the course of her life, she combined this zeal and candor with her natural clarity of thought and expression in order to provide Scriptural encouragement and advice.

            Her endeavors rose quite a few eyebrows. Was it proper for a woman to provide counsel to others – men included – especially when this counsel was published for all to read? Anne offered a well-thought and coherent reply.

A Life Moved With Passion for the Gospel

            Anne Dutton was born in Northampton, probably in 1695. Raised in a Baptist family, she blossomed under the ministry of John Moore, where she found “fat, green pastures. The doctrines of the Gospel were clearly stated,” she said, “and much insisted on in his ministry.”[1]

            After marrying in 1714 (the name of the husband is unclear), she moved to London and joined the Baptist church in Cripplegate, where the minister, John Skepp, continued to preach the same “free grace,” “with abundance of glory, life, and power.”[2]

            When her husband died in 1720, she returned to her family in Northampton. The next year, she married a lay Baptist preacher, Benjamin Dutton, a clothier who had studied for the ministry in different places, including Glasgow University.

            Skepp’s death, the same year, marked a season of trials for Dutton, who felt she was not being spiritually fed by the new minister. She longed to move to Wellingborough, under the ministry of William Grant, but had to wait for a while. Her diary reveals the priority the ministry of God’s Word had in her life.

            After spending two years in Wellingborough, Dutton was called to be the pastor of the Baptist Chapel in Great Gransden, Huntingdonshire, where the couple stayed for the rest of their lives. Anne, who continued to be childless, devoted much time to writing letters and essays, with the encouragement of her husband (her “dear Yokefellow,” as she called him).

            It was Benjamin who, in 1740, urged her to publish these writings. She agreed, seeing her writing as a ministry to others and a way to use her God-given talents for His glory. In the meantime, the church in Great Gransden was growing, so much that in 1743 they built a new meeting-house and minister’s house.

            The same year, Benjamin travelled to America to raise funds for the building, and took Anne’s books with him as tools for the encouragement of others. He stayed there until 1747. Anne was encouraged by his success, but missed him terribly and was concerned for their pastorless church. They expected him back every year, but each time there was some impediment.

            In 1747, she heard that a ship carrying her husband had finally returned, but she didn’t hear from him for six months. “This tried me exceedingly,” she said. Finally, a letter came, but it didn’t bring good news. “Instead of my husband’s safe return, I heard of his Death, and that he was cast away on his Passage home, by the foundering of the Ship! How grieving was this to Nature! How trying to my Faith and Hope! The real loss of my dear Yokefellow; the seeming Denial of my earnest Prayers; and the Failure of my Expectation, as to his Return.”[3]

            Anne stayed in Grand Gransden, where she was comforted by the arrival of another good minister, and continued to write. In 1764, she began suffering from a throat condition that prevented her from swallowing food. It might have been cancer. In any case, she knew her life was not going to last much longer. With this thought in mind, she worked 16-18 hours per day in order to prepare eight volumes of her unpublished letters for publication. She died the following year.

Anne’s Purpose for Writing

            Anne's published work (about fifty volumes of poetry, letters, hymns, treatises, and an autobiography) attracted the censure of some who thought it was improper for a woman, especially because many of her letters contained advice to men - including leaders as John Wesley and George Whitefield.

            Her reply, attached to the autobiography, includes four arguments of defense. First, she only wrote to the glory of God and the benefit of others. Second, she believed that the publication of her writings was “not against any of the laws of Christ in the sacred records.”[4] The biblical references to women being silent in the church in 1 Timothy 2:12 and 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, she said, speak specifically of “public authoritative teaching in the church,”[5] and do not include personal writings.

            Her third argument rested on the biblical exhortation to edify one another (Romans 14:19). She believed this command was given to all, male and female. “And unless women were excluded from being members of Christ’s mystical body,” she said, “their usefulness, in all due means, ought not to be hindered.”[6]

            Finally, her writings were meant to be read privately by people at home. She brought up the biblical example of Priscilla teaching Apollos in a private setting (Acts 18:26).

            Besides, her work had been done with the encouragement of her husband and many other ministers, including Whitefield, who could not deny that her lucid, warm, and Word-grounded way of writing provided invaluable counsel and strength to many.

The Value of Her Writings

            Anne’s theological writings and letters of advice were greatly esteemed in her day, even though she often had to publish them anonymously (few printers were willing to publish works by a woman).

            Some of her most vibrant theological works are the ones addressed to those who, in her view, had fallen prey to false doctrines. In these, she shows not only a clear understanding of Scriptures and of the gospel, but also the vigor that springs from it – a vigor that stood in opposition to Wesley’s conviction that a belief in God’s unconditional grace made people lazy.

            Anne disagreed with Wesley on many things, including his novel idea that Christians must reach perfection in this life. In turn, he interpreted her opposition as an indication that she had not yet “crucified the flesh with its affections and lusts.” Her reply is a testimony to the extent to which her assurance of God’s grace had permeated her life.

            If she had not yet crucified the flesh, Anne said, it meant she didn’t yet belong to Christ. “But oh! for ever adored be Free-Grace,” she said, “the boundless Grace and Faithfulness of my God, my Interest in Christ, is not so soon destroy’d in itself, as it is by your Affection. No, blessed be God, that stands firmer than Heaven and Earth, upon the solid Basis of the eternal Will, immutable Covenant, Word, and Oath of a God that cannot lie!”

            This doesn’t mean that she didn’t believe in fighting sin. She devoted many letters to this subject. But she kept this struggle in its biblical perspective.

            One of the most prevalent themes in her writings is her Trinitarian understanding of the Christian life and faith. Her work in this respect is both similar and complementary to John Owen’s On Communion with the Triune God, which she knew and quoted. Her strength lies in her ability to communicate in practical and vibrant terms the ways in which each Person of the Trinity works in the great work of redemption, and the ways in which this understanding enriches a Christian’s daily life.

            Her writings also show a great amount of wisdom and compassion. For example, when Howell Harris, a leader of the Methodist revival in Wales, asked her to write a tract to reprove backsliding Christians, she didn’t write as sharply as he would have liked, explaining that – after all – both wise and foolish virgins were sleeping. “There needs a great Deal of spiritual Wisdom,” she said, “to Cry aloud against Sin without wounding the Faith of God’s dear Children, as to their Interest in Christ and his Salvation.”[7]

            And her ministry to others was not limited to her correspondence. “Visiting the Saints is one of the Duties of Love we owe them,” she wrote in a “Letter to All the Saints.” “They that fear the Lord should speak often to one another. … And let us not make Excuses, that we han’t Time, etc. Short visits well improv’d are preferable to long ones misimprov’d.”[8]

            Besides her service as an apologist, adviser, and comforter, Anne provided great inspiration to other women of her time, including Selina Hastings and Ann Steele, the famous hymn writer who inherited Anne’s Bible and continued much of her work of encouragement to others.

[1] Anne Dutton, Selected Spiritual Writings of Anne Dutton: Discourses, poetry, hymns, memoir, ed. by Joann Ford Watson, Macon: Mercer University Press, 2004, 87.

[2] Ibid., 88.

[3] Anne Dutton, Selected Spiritual Writings of Anne Dutton: Autobiography, ed. by Joann Ford Watson, Macon: Mercer University Press, 2006, xliv

[4] Ibid, xlvi

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., xlvii

[7] Quoted in Michael Sciretti, “Anne Dutton as a Spiritual Director,” The Center for Christian Ethics at Baylor University, 2009, 33.

[8] Anne Dutton, Selected Spiritual Writings of Anne Dutton: Miscellaneous correspondence, ed. by Joann Ford Watson, Macon: Mercer University Press, 2007, 90


Simonetta Carr