Making Heretics: Militant Protestantism and Free Grace in Massachusetts, 1636–1641. By Michael P. Winship. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002, 2014. 322 pages. Paper, $32.50.
This book recently came out as a paperback. In it, Winship deals with what is commonly called the “antinomian” controversy of the Puritans in the Massachusetts colony in the seventeenth century. He prefers to call it the “free grace” controversy, and suggests that it was the most important event of that century in the American colonies.
Clearly this history would be of interest to many readers of the JOTGES. The losing side of the controversy called it the “legalism” controversy and claimed that their opponents were heretics for saying that obedience to God’s laws would save them (p. 1).
Winship maintains that the controversy cannot be understood simply as a religious debate. It also involved politics and strong personalities. John Cotton and Anne Hutchinson, leaders of the free grace side, were supported by Henry Vane, the ex-Governor of the colony. This caused the dispute to become visible. The opponents of the free grace side wanted to use the power of the state to purge those with whom they disagreed (pp. 7-9).
Assurance was a hot topic of debate in the controversy. Some theologians in England in the late sixteenth century said assurance was of the essence of saving faith and that sanctification sprang from assurance (p. 14). The Puritans, such as William Perkins and Richard Rogers, said that many did not have assurance and it could be found through hard work and visible piety. Those that had doubts should pursue sanctification more fervently. Over time, they began to trust their good works in order to save themselves (p. 16).
The Puritans held that doubts and fear about one’s salvation were good things and a mark of godliness (p. 17) A leading opponent of the free grace movement said one could conclude he was spiritually saved if he was convinced he was not actually saved but genuinely desired Christ to deliver him. Unfortunately, one hears similar things today when it comes to assurance.
This lack of assurance among the Puritans had the practical affect of lay people coming to the pastors to find assurance. Ministers would tell them what they needed to do to find this assurance, which included a commitment to the community of believers. Some parishioners complained that this was the same thing they saw in Catholicism, where the people go to the priests to gain a measure of assurance. Interestingly, Winship points out that this was a departure from the original Reformers.
Other Puritans said that assurance was the result of the witness of the Holy Spirit. Some Christians had this witness while others did not (p. 22). This led some parishioners to seek assurance through a kind of mystical/charismatic inner witness and communion with the Holy Spirit. The reliance on the ministry of the Holy Spirit led into other kinds of error. The opponents of the free grace movement worried that assurance of salvation would lead to moral laxity and charismatic revelations.
Winship says that the issues over free grace and assurance were very complicated. There were free grace lay people who attended churches where the pastors taught contrary doctrine. In addition, mainstream puritan ministers differed on these issues between themselves (p. 26).
John Cotton came from England in 1633 and brought with him a form of free grace theology. Christians received assurance through the promise of Christ, but the Holy Spirit would give a more complete assurance. It appears that Cotton taught a kind of gradual assurance. At first, the mainstream Puritans were tolerant of free grace views even though they were uncomfortable with the teaching (pp. 35-36).
Anne Hutchinson arrived a year after Cotton. Prior to her arrival, she had struggled with assurance but realized that when she lacked assurance and looked at her sanctification to obtain it she had turned from grace to works to save her. Winship says that even though she was misunderstood, and many today would question the leading of the Holy Spirit in her life, Hutchinson did not receive “immediate” or “extra-scriptural” revelations from God. Like Cotton, she was more or less accepted at first (pp. 40-42).
Hutchinson and others on the free grace side did rely on “revelation” from the Spirit. However, this revelation would come from the Scriptures. God would emphasize a verse to a person, and the verse would speak of grace. This would be taken as a sign that God was telling them they were saved.
Vane was the one who brought the free grace issue to the forefront. He encouraged Hutchinson in her beliefs. Winship points out that just as in the mainstream camp, there were differences of opinion among free grace adherents as well. We cannot speak monolithically about either group. Hutchinson, for example, had strange beliefs. These included that the physical body itself would not rise (pp. 50-55).
Before it became a controversy, Hutchinson was tolerated because she and her free grace people were outwardly godly. The vast majority of people did not understand the differences in theology. In addition, Hutchinson had a fairly large number of what could loosely be called followers. Winship says that some even saw the differences as healthy as it caused Christians to search the Scriptures for clarity. The differences were generally seen as petty (p. 62).
Hutchinson was eventually brought up on charges, put on trial, and excommunicated. However, even after the trials, there were differences of opinion. The controversy went on for at least three more years (p. 211). Some even in the mainstream did not think the issues were very serious. Some of those who were excommunicated started their own churches. Some of those opposed to free grace theology began to emphasize even more strongly the necessity of good works for salvation and assurance.
Winship strongly believes that the problem came to the forefront because political people like Vane and a popular preacher like Cotton became involved. Cotton was popular in both the colonies and England as a speaker. After the controversy, he once again enjoyed that status. The book is informative because it shows that a theological debate can have others factors driving the controversy. For instance, Vane was involved politically both in the colony and in England. It may be that his support of Hutchinson was based partially on political considerations. Winship believes that Puritanism was flexible enough to allow theological differences and that these other factors dictated what happened.
For the readers of the JOTGES, this book shows that the issues of assurance and the essence of saving faith are not things that only recently appeared on the theological scene. It is safe to say that people in Christendom have wondered about these things from the very beginning. Winship reminds us that even in theological controversies it is possible that people have various motives. The book is very well annotated. It is not an easy read because it deals with many different people and different intrigues. It also uses many quotes using seventeenth century English. Since Winship deals with motives, not all historical scholars agree with his findings. However, the book is extremely interesting and deals with issues near and dear to those who are involved in the Free Grace movement. I highly recommend the book.
Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society