Historian Perry Miller began his monumental reexamination of American Puritan thought with Orthodoxy in Massachusetts (1933). In patient labor over the next thirty years, Miller sketched out the lineaments of the uniquely configured Protestantism that shaped what he called “the New England mind.”
Since Miller’s death in 1963, his vision of this single New England orthodoxy has come under increasing criticism. Literature professor Janice Knight went so far as to title her 1994 book Orthodoxies in Massachusetts to underscore her point that there were competing orthodoxies within the leadership structure of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. According to Knight and other recent students of American Puritanism, only after the “antinomian” crisis and the expulsion of Anne Hutchinson and her followers in 1638 did one version triumph, and even then, a quasi-antinomian variant lived on as a kind of underground theology.
Now, in Transgressing the Bounds, Louise A. Breen, who teaches history at Kansas State University, pushes the “diversity” thesis still further, surveying a variety of challengers to orthodoxy in seventeenth-century Massachusetts. Some, notably the antinomians, were theologically unorthodox; their obsession with personal “conversion” led them to question whether the “visible saints” governing the colony were truly saintly. But even among the theologically orthodox, Breen contends, there were plenty of mavericks. There was the New England Artillery Company, a private military organization of prominent Bostonians, which lobbied for greater toleration. There was the Puritan evangelist Daniel Gookin, who tried to “Christianize” and befriend the colony’s Indians when just about everyone else wanted them to disappear. There were greedy merchants like Robert Keayne, who was fined by the Massachusetts General Court and admonished by the church for “selling his wares at excessive rates.” Indeed, Breen contends, all those who ventured beyond the geographical limits of the colony, whether by trafficking with Indians and Frenchmen at one end of the colony or engaging in transatlantic trade at the other, were to some degree “subversive” of the existing order.
That the activities of all these groups and individuals contradicted, to one degree or another, the Puritan ideal of a “cohesive godly community” is certainly true. But this is hardly news; historians have been chronicling these contradictions for a long time. Breen, however, tries to go beyond rehashing their stories. What she seems to be aiming at is a general theory of subversion that will hold them all together. The key, she thinks, is antinomianism.
Before examining Breen’s use of “antinomian,” we need to keep in mind its meaning in colonial New England. Antinomianism was a form of hyper-Puritanism, carrying to extreme lengths the Reformation doctrine that we are saved not by human “works” but by God’s “free grace.” God grants grace to some people and withholds it from others, and there is nothing anyone can do to earn it. After receiving grace, the person’s whole life changes—the former reprobate is now full of zeal to do God’s will. In Reformation language, conversion is “justification,” and the effect it produces on the individual is “sanctification.” But the causality goes only one way: justification produces sanctification, but a person cannot, simply by acting piously and charitably, find justification.
No Puritan would dispute any of this, but mainstream Puritanism in America tended to leave some room for human endeavor. We might not be able to earn grace, but we can at least extend our hands to receive it. Less metaphorically: we can prepare ourselves (by prayer, Scripture reading, humbling our hearts, and so on) to receive this unearned gift. Furthermore, while sanctification must always follow, not precede, justification, a person’s sanctified bearing—his outward appearance—can be used as evidence that he has undergone a true conversion.
All of this was connected to political legitimacy. To hold office or even vote in colony-wide elections you had to be a church member. And to become a church member you had to convince the congregation that you had undergone a real conversion. Political power in seventeenth-century Massachusetts thus rested, finally, on the authenticity of an inward experience. The fragility of this foundation became evident when Anne Hutchinson and other members of the Boston congregation began to question the spiritual credentials of church leaders (and, at least implicitly, the political establishment). They charged that, with very few exceptions, the ministers were “walking legally,” were led only by religious law, and had not undergone an inner conversion. The charge came very close to saying that most of the colony’s religious leaders were frauds. Not content to voice these views in their own Boston church, the antinomians journeyed to other towns and heckled ministers during their sermons.
In 1637 the political establishment struck back. Anne Hutchinson was brought to trial before the General Court and charged with sedition. In a dramatic confrontation, Hutchinson told her accusers that she was inspired by a direct revelation from God and threatened that “if you go on in this course you begin you will bring a curse upon you and your posterity, and the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.” In 1638 she and the other ringleaders were expelled from the colony, and the others recanted.
To make antinomianism the key to understanding all the other “subversive enterprises” in the colony, Breen takes considerable liberties with the term. “Antinomianism,” for her, stands for more than a set of heretical opinions; it becomes an open-ended critique of the “New England Way.” This permits her to argue that all the seemingly different challengers to orthodoxy were quasi-antinomian, even if they “were not necessarily antinomian in a theological sense.” They were connected to the antinomians because they spoke in a “language of protest” like the antinomians, or because they gave “varying degrees of support” to antinomian dissenters, or because what they said “paralleled” antinomianism, or simply because antinomianism “resonated” with them. Instead of telling us what it was that bound together all these seemingly different challenges to orthodoxy, she resorts to analogies—comparing, for example, capitalist merchants and antinomian mystics because the merchants’ “free trade” was something like the antinomians’ “free grace,” because it was a “mysterious, unsystematized, and cosmopolitan mercantile ethos that resisted world control of local authorities.” This seems strained, to say the least.
Breen may have overreached in her attempt to tie antinomianism to other “subversive enterprises,” but she makes a good case that antinomianism was subversive enough by itself. At the heart of antinomianism was its subjectivism, its insistence that the community’s estimation of a person is useless, even deceptive, because the person could be a hypocrite. This had enormous consequences. In his famous speech written aboard the Arbella, the flagship of the Puritans’ fleet in 1630, the soon-to-be-governor John Winthrop announced the founding of a new community that was to be knit together by Christian love. Six years later the antinomians were charging that the community was knit together by deception. As Breen perceives, this was politically disastrous. “If outward appearances were as deceiving as the antinomians suggested, then the godly community could be little more than a pleasant fiction with no basis in reality.”
These were doctrines not of socially marginal elements but of very respectable people in the colony. Indeed, the doctrines of John Cotton, one of the colony’s leading theologians, came very close to antinomianism, close enough to prompt Anne Hutchinson to call him as a witness on her behalf. (Cotton was one of the two ministers Hutchinson exempted from her charge of “walking legally.”) Cotton, Breen notes, “denounced all mere outward sanctification as ‘counterfeit treasure’ and argued that anyone who based [his] assurance on such appearances alone—rather than the direct witness of Christ—was a ‘hypocrite’ who deserved to be ‘blamed of going aside to a Covenant of Works.’” Cotton’s severe judgment came not from the application of any community norms but from his own mystical intuitions. It is here, I think, that Breen shows considerable insight.
Historians have tended to focus on the “soft” side of Cotton, his tender mysticism of Christian love; critics at the time considered him too “free and easie.” Breen wants us to consider another possibility: that his salvation doctrine “was too harsh and dispiriting for the average colonist.” It was orthodoxy, not antinomianism, that was responsive to the sensibilities of ordinary people. “The orthodox premise that the seen and the unseen world were commensurable accorded well with the common sense of ordinary settlers.” The antinomians turned this common sense upside down by suggesting that the community’s spiritual leaders—people who lived blameless lives, many of them showing exemplary kindness and charity—might really be reprobates. Can anyone blame the majority for regarding antinomianism as a subversive doctrine? Left alone, it would have destroyed what Winthrop called the “ligaments” of the society, the mutual love and trust of its members.
But whose fault, ultimately, was that? Was it the fault of antinomianism, for pushing the Puritan doctrine of “free grace” to the edge of solipsism and anarchy? Or was it the fault of the orthodox Puritans themselves, for embracing a doctrine that could so easily lead mystics like Anne Hutchinson into solipsism? Or can we push back the indictment still further? If antinomianism was hyper-Puritanism, what was Puritanism but hyper-Protestantism? As Perry Miller observed, “Protestantism liberated men from the treadmill of indulgences and penances, but cast them on the iron couch of introspection.”
But we needn’t go that far. The issue was not Protestantism but the political uses of a certain kind of Protestantism. To found a political regime on something as ineffable as a conversion experience is virtually to invite antinomian challenges. And what to do then? Tolerate them, let them destroy the ligaments of the community, or suppress them? The Puritans chose suppression, but they never quite suppressed the doubts raised by Anne Hutchinson and her supporters.
What happened after that is still a matter of dispute. Did the Puritan commonwealth finally succumb to the forces of individualism and secularism? Or did it absorb and contain those forces, adapting itself to change without losing its essentially religious essence? Breen rejects the “declension” model because she insists that the subversive forces were there from the beginning. But if so, what caused the changes? And how did Puritanism evolve? She only hints at this, but the suggestion seems to be that some of the leading Puritan apologists tried to resolve the doubts left by the antinomians by shifting the locus of justification from the individual to the community—creating, as it were, a kind of collective antinomianism. She quotes one influential writer who went to the length of decrying preparation for war; it was unnecessary and presumptuous, he said, because God guides “every bullet that is shot at you.” An intriguing thought, and not without irony: orthodox Puritans finally admitted that many of the “visible saints” guiding their community might be reprobates, but then insisted that the community itself was assured of salvation. Somehow it sounds very American.
George McKenna is Professor of Political Science at City College of New York and author of The Drama of Democracy.