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The Antinomian controversy—a seventeenth-century theological crisis concerning salvation—was the first great intellectual crisis in the settlement of New England. Transcending the theological questions from which it arose, this symbolic controversy became a conflict between power and freedom of conscience. David D. Hall’s thorough documentary history of this episode sheds important light on religion, society, and gender in early American history.
This new edition of the 1968 volume, published now for the first time in paperback, includes an expanding bibliography and a new preface, treating in more detail the prime figures of Anne Hutchinson and her chief clerical supporter, John Cotton. Among the documents gathered here are transcripts of Anne Hutchinson’s trial, several of Cotton’s writings defending the Antinomian position, and John Winthrop’s account of the controversy. Hall’s increased focus on Hutchinson reveals the harshness and excesses with which the New England ministry tried to discredit her and reaffirms her place of prime importance in the history of American women.
Letters between Thomas Shepard and John Cotton
THE letters that Thomas Shepard and John Cotton exchanged sometime before June, 1636, are perhaps the earliest documents of the Antinomian Controversy. In the first of these letters, Shepard expressed his dismay at the themes of Cotton's sermons and asked him to explain his views more fully. Over the next several months Cotton's opponents were to learn that pinning him down was not an easy business. Shepard may have learned this lesson already, for he requested that Cotton "give us satisfaction by way of wrighting rather then speech." Though both men were confident that the differences between them could be resolved, the exchange served only to clarify their disagreement on three points: the relationship between the Word and the Spirit; the activity of a sinner before he received the Holy Spirit; and finally, the life of righteousness as evidence of redemption. All three became major issues in the Controversy.
The letters bear no dates, but the time of the exchange may be fixed approximately from other information. Shepard arrived in Massachusetts in October, 1635. Thomas Hooker, to whom Cotton refers as if he were living with Shepard, left Newtown (Cambridge) at the beginning of June, 1636. These two dates would seem to fix the period within which the letters were written. Shepard would not have been prepared to comment on Cotton's preaching immediately after arriving from England; thus 1636 seems more likely than 1635. And the reference he makes to "our church" may place the exchange after February 1, when he and a group of friends formed themselves into a church in Newtown.
The manuscripts of the two letters are in the Cotton Papers, Prince Collection, Boston Public Library. Their condition is such that a full text cannot be established. Words in brackets represent readings warranted by fragments of letters or by the sense.
Thomas Shepard to John Cotton
It is the earnest desire not only of my selfe, but of diverse of our members, whose harts are much endeared to you, that for the farther clearing up of the truth, you would be pleased to give us satisfaction by way of wrighting rather then speech for this on time to these particulars
1: Whether the man Christ Jesus in suffring the death of the soule, did not only loose the life of Joy; but also (to his own feeling) the life of righteousnes, or of the first Adam, and so lived by faith in the Duity; and hence [he puts] out the life of legall righteousnes and extinguisheth Adams righteousnes in all his members, and causeth him to live by that faith of the son of god.
2: Whether A Christian finding a qualification of a promise saving [wrought] in him; can, or should lay hold or close with the Lord Jesus according to that promise; but rather to stay for a more full, and clearer Revelation of the spirit: for if he is thus to set that promise by, and so to wait for the spirit; [then] doth he not refuse to give present honour to gods truth and love revealed in the promise; and on the other side; if he is to stay and rest his soule upon the promise before the spirit comes, doth he not then build on somewhat in him selfe, and receives the promise before god gives it to him? I doe gladly consent [to] that which you delivered last Thursday, that he that stayes his soule upon the promise is bound to wait for a farther revelation or declaration of gods mind to him by the spirit in the ordinances and in the promise; and I thinke there is little love in that woman to her absent husband, that is quieted with his letters of his purpose to returne; and [longs?] not the more from the receiving of them, to see and enjoy himselfe; but my question if you observd it, is different from this;/
3: Whether this revelation of the spirit, is a thing beyond and above the woord; and whether tis safe so to say; because the spirit is not seperated from the woord but in it and is ever according to it:/
4: Whether a man can Truly lay hold on any promise, but that either he must be de facto in Christ, or in fieri, immediatly and nextly preparing for Christ: for if he truly lay hold on a promise and never meet with Christ, then I would gladly know, [how] you can free the Lord and his [promise] from Falshood; for the promise speakes plainly that Christ is come to seeke and save the lost; now if he that is truly lost beleeves this promise, and yet Christ never come to save him, then where is the truth of the promise? and on the other side: if he cannot truly lay hold on it, then I doe humbly desire you, to cleare your owne speeches this last Thursday; for you sayd (if I mistook not) a man might be truly lost (mentioning the promise first) and yet Christ never seeke nor save him, for then you sayd all the woorld which is lost, should be saved; and then Judas who not only was lost but felt himselfe also lost, is saved: to which I conceived I had no call publikely to reply; that Judas was not lost neither felt [himself] lost, in the sence and meaning of the promise; for lost men are [willing and] glad to follow there guide; which he was not; therefore is it not safer to say that a man may misapply the promise, and so thinke he doth truly close with Christ and the promise, rather then to say plainly that a man may truly lay hold on a promise, and yet misse of Jesus Christ? for under correction I doe perceive that the inferences made upon such speeches, will be very dangerous: not that I goe about to instruct you, whom god hath so greatly enriched what you should speake; for the Lord knowes I account it one of the greatest New England mercies that the providence of the Lord hath placed me so neare unto you; to be taught and to learne of you, but this that I speake tis from that due respect I beare to your selfe, and love and tendernes to your precious ministry, that it may suffer no blur; and also to cut off all seeming differences and jarrs: I make no question, with you, but a man may not only lay hold upon a promise, [but] also upon Christ himselfe, yet loose and misse of Jesus Christ; yet the truth is cleare to me that whosoever Truly layes hold of or closeth with a promise; but that either he hath Christ, or shall have Christ and the promise:/
5: Whether a Christian having once his sonship sealed to him by the spirit ever doubts agayne of Gods love to him as a son, though he fail into diverse grosse and scandalous sins:
6: Whether a Christian may be so far clensed by the blood of Christ, that although he comes not to the perfection of Adams righteousnes, yet he may come to attayne the same essence and truth of righteousnes that Adam had, and yet fall away: for I doe willingly consent thus far with you,
1: That by Christs blood a man may be sanctified, and set apart from prophane and common use, to speciall use in the church, in the judgement of which he may be truly sanctified, as all the churches Paul writ to were Saints and sanctified: yet many reall hypocrites among them that were visible Saints.
2: [That] a man may not only outwardly [and] in the judgement of the church be sanctified, but the man in his own feeling and in the sight of god himselfe be inwardly sanctified, or made [legally] righteous; but yet Inward legall righteousnes seemes to me to be far different, in Essence from Adams righteousnes: Aehues inward seale was far different from Adams seale; tis true Adams righteousnes was not immortall seed, but the same true holiness and righteousnes, those that are in Christ are only renewed unto, and being sown agayne in their harts by Christ it is so far cherished by Christ that its made now immortall seede; ofwhich true holines and righteousnes I know no grounds as yet to thinke that any unregenerate man is renewed unto.
3: [I doe?] also grant that many professors do cozen themselves with inward legall righteousnes, either wrought in them by vertue of the spirit of bondage or fetcht from Christ himselfe, and take legall acts and dispositions as sure signes and markes of being in Christ; but yet still I desire to know of you whether this is the same righteousnes that Adam had for essence, differing from it only in degree; and whether tis the same holines and righteousnes that true beleevers have differing on from another only in the efficient, faith woorking the one, the law and the spirit of bondage woorking the other: I beseech you for speedy satisfaction send a speedy answer to these; for we shall not be able to stir out this weeke many sad imployments being now upon our church; on thing more I doe with submission desire you not to [be] mistaken in; as if that the Familists doe not care for woord or ordinances but only the spirits motion; for I have bin with many of them and hence have met with many of there bookes; and I doe know thus much of them, that scarce any people honour woord and ordinances more, for they will professe that there they meet with the Spirit and there superlative raptures; H.N: the author of them cites scripture abundantly, and Jesabell Revelation 2: who hath her depthes, calls her selfe a prophetesse, tis her glory to interpret scripture; and but that I should hold you too long I could send you diverse of there Theses de Sacra Scriptera, by which you might soone see what honour they put upon the woord; and if your servant, after his mariage would not heare you, because the spirit moved him not; it was not its likely out of any contempt to the woord, but Because he might happily account your selfe a legall preacher; so (as they tearme them) to heare whom the spirit never mooves them; or if he did not thus judge of you, he had not fully learned his lesson; and he may well stand for an exception agaynst a generall rule; this I speake from the enforcement of my conscience, least under this colour of advancing woord together with the spirit, you may meet in time with some such members (though I know none nor judge any) as may doe your people and ministry hurt, before you know it; and thus I have plainly writ my hart unto you, being persuaded that in the spirit of meeknes, you will not thinke I have thus writ to begin or breed a quarrell; but to still and quiet those which are secretly begun and I feare will flame out unles they be quenched in time; I desire therefore that you would answer me in wrighting as soone as ever you can; and I do beleeve we shall not differ when things are hereby ripened for we are desirous and glad to learne; thus beseeching the god of all grace and peace to fill blesse and prosper you; with remembrance of my respect to that precious gentleman with you, and to your wife I rest. Yours in the Lord Jesus
From New town:/
Addressed: To the reverend his deare friend Mr Cotton teacher at Boston be these ld
John Cotton to Thomas Shepard
I thanke you unfeignedly for this labor of your love, to acquainte me with such passages in my ministery, as through eyther? misexpression on my Part, or misconstruction, or misreport of others, might hinder the worke of christ amongst us. The particulars you enquire of are many, and the Returne of your Messenger is short, and therefore I shall (god Helping) returne you (as I may) short, and plaine Answers there unto.
1. Your 1. Quaere concerneth me not, nor any Doctrine or opinion of mine. I have some times heard it, and pleaded against it, as not safe if it should be receyved; But I know noe man that holdeth it, or even mentioned it, but by way of Inquiry, and Disputation.
2. To your 2d. I looke at all Promises as given us by the covenant of grace, and the covenant of grace as given us by christ. So that I doe not satisfy my selfe in closeing with a Promise, or with the covenant of grace but as I first close with christ, in whom the covenant, and the Promise is made, and confirmed, Isaiah 42.6: Galatians 3.16: 2 Corinthians 2.20:
And I conceyve the soule closeth with christ, by feeling himself [a] poor desolate soule, lost for want of christ, sensible of his owne Insufficiency to reach him, and unworthy also to receyve him, yet seeking, and [1 word mutilated] for him in every ordinaunce, and spirituall Deuty, though finding it selfe unable to beginne, or continue seeking or waiting, farther then christ shall helpe, and worke with him. Thus closeing with christ wee safely close with every Promise so farre as the Lord revealeth it, and applyeth it to us: which also stayeth the soule though not from searching farther after christ, and the seale of his spirit, yet from sinkeing. [I suppose] David closed with the Promise applyed to him by Nathan 2. Samuel 12.13. and so gave honor to the trueth, and love of god revealed in the promise, yet rested not so, but searched after farther sense of the sprinkeling of the blood of christ, and comfort of the spirit Psalms 51.7.8.
3. The word, and Revelation of the spirit, I suppose doe as much differ, as letter, and spirit. And therefore though I consent to you, that the spirit is not separated from the word, but in it, and ever according to it: yet above, and beyond the letter of the word it reacheth forth comfort, and Power to the soule, though not above the sence, and Intendment of the Word.
4. I doe not conceyve, that any man can truely lay hold of a [saving] Promise, till he lay hold of christ, and so the promise never fayleth him, nor his takeing hold of it.
As for that Promise, that christ came to seeke, and to save that which is lost, if he that is truely lost, doe truely beleive this Promise, I doubt not, christ certainly came to save him; the promise to such is a word of trueth.
Nor doeth this crosse (to my Remembrance) any speach delivered by me the last lecture. For though I saide, A man might be truely lost (as I saide, all men were by the fall) yea and feele him selfe to be lost (as I saide, Judas did, and others doe, by a spirit of bondage, or Despayre) yet I spake not of men truely lost according to the full meaning of the promise, but according to the common apprehension of it, when sundry seeing their lost estate by a spirit of bondage, hearing that word doe fo[rth] with beleive it belongeth to them. As for that sence which you give of truely lost, I refuse it not: though I conceyve the promise may reach lower then to such. For what if the soule can not finde it selfe glad to follow his guide but feeleth it selfe lost for want of a guide, and of grace to follow him: is it in such an estate, as Christ [will] seeke and save if it feele it selfe lost [for want of Christ? I doe not remember nor doe I beleive that ... hath saide ... may truely lay hold on a Promise and yet misse of Christ ...]
against mine owne judgment who doe not see how a man can truely lay hold of any promise before he have layde hold of christ. I blesse the Lord for your love to me, and tender respect to my unworthy labors: and I truely returne you this office of thankfullnesse, your person and worke findeth a large roome in my heart, though my heart it selfe be straite, and narrow. As for differences, and jarres, it is my unfeigned desire to avoide them with all men especially with Brethren: but I doe not know, I assure you, any difference, much lesse jarres, betweene me, and any of my Brethren, in our Publique ministery, or other wise, to any offence.
5. Your 5th Quaere I more affirmed, but doe conceyve that a childe of god sealed by the spirit falling into divers grosse, and scandalous sinnes may doubt againe of gods love; onely this I would say, that the sonnes of god so sealed doe more rarely fall into such sinnes (for it is some what contrary to their sealing) (which stampeth a character of christs Nature upon them:) yet sometimes such as doe so fall may yet reteyne or doubtlesse clayme unto gods fatherly love, as Isaiah 63.16.17.
Neverthelesse I have found by some experience (more wayes then one) that god doeth leave his sealed children some times to such renewed doubtings, the better to rayse up their hearts rather to lay up all our joy in christ, then in our owne songs in the Night.
Excerpted from The Antinomian Controversy, 1636-1638 by David D. Hall. Copyright © 1990 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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