Micheal Winship on the Free Grace Controversy in the Puritan Colonies


It has always been interesting to me that when Martin Luther stood before the Diet of Worms; one of the primary concerns was that Luther would be fostering a divergent and fractured community. The concern was not so much that Luther had a new way of looking at scripture so much that this new way of thinking would be fractious and divided. There have been some that may chalk this concern to a group of men trying to maintain their power base. There may have been some of that involved, but this concern has also proved to be prophetic in nature. Like a culture in a petri dish since breaking off from the catholic church, Protestants have not been able to stop the dividing.

Michael Winship’s book Making Heretics is not so much about a doctrinal crisis as it is an example of the frustrations of a group of Protestants trying to maintain a sense of unity in a new, discordant, and rapidly changing world. Winship writes that “in pursuit of that freedom from discord puritans proved among the most zealous heresy hunters in the Elizabethan and early Stuart Church of England. There was a powerful drive among them… toward a ‘monolithic, disciplined Christian community.’ ”[1] These seekers of unity sought to maintain an ever vigilant battle to maintain unity within the community, within the theologies of the community, and within the experiences of the community’s residents. As Winship notes in his introduction, this unity was also more “provisional” than actual.[2] In a sense you could say that Winship’s book is an example of this early Roman Catholic criticism playing itself out.

The main thrust of the book is the analysis of the interplay of this cognitive dissonance within the communities of Massachusetts. Within Boston and the outlaying areas the years 1636 to 1641 saw a serious and zealous discussion of the Christian concepts of free grace. Within this discussion Winship appears indifferent to divining the rights and wrongs of this controversy. His defining interest is not in a discussion of who was a heretic and who was not; nor, is it in a discussion focusing on what someone writing in 2002 thought of the discussion. This is a welcome change from much of the writing on these sets of topics. As his title suggests he is more interested in the environmental factors, and in how good and noble people on both sides came to the point of name-calling, trials, separation, and banishments. His interest is not in heretics, but the making of heretics. Winship notes that:

“even if Hutchinson and others voiced truly radical doctrinal ‘inquiries,’ in other ways there were scrupulously, normatively, and impressively godly… ‘very humble, holy, and spiritual Christians, and full of Christ,’… per formatively orthodox, and demonstratrably sanctified, whatever their opinions about sanctification: strict in lives, godly in their conversations, and outstanding in extemporaneous prayer, the latter a semi-public activity that could make or break lay reputations.” [3]

In this light is interesting to look at the conditions that enabled these good people to become ‘heretics.’

With this framework in mind, a good starting point would be an understanding of the controversy itself. Winship decides that this controversy was primarily centered on several points.[4] First, both sides of the controversy saw themselves as foot soldiers in an on-going battle between “militant Protestantism and it enemies.”[5] This emphasis can be found, and was encouraged by preachers on both sides. In terms of the practice of the church, this emphasis provided “an emotionally compelling drama” which in turn “may have invested their lives with supernatural and urgent purpose; and it may have lifted them out of their parochial perspectives and located them within an international Reformed Church.”[6] In this sense Thomas Shepard is not just another minister frustrated by the fact that he continually finds himself preaching that which he has not obtained. He is a defender and protector of the church. He is not so much preaching from his lack, but is preaching from a divinely ordained pulpit. Likewise Anne Hutchinson is not just another bored housewife struggling against the constraints placed on her by society. She is a disciple loved by and spoken to by God. She is not a Jezebel manipulating her court, but an honest and sincere seeker trying to understand and live out a very important faith. Both are able to step out of the frustrations of daily life and walk out their faith in very important ways.

It would seem almost inevitable then that two sides who viewed themselves as upholding all that is just and true might soon find themselves at counter purposes. As that clash heated up both sides took their fight out into the streets, and sought direct contact with their enemies. The sight of this intense and protracted struggle in the public squares drew support for both sides, and ensured that everyone in the community was soon forced into taking sides. For Winship this very public clash of beliefs forms the second reason for the controversy. In this case Henry Vane shares more than his fair share of the blame. As Winship states early and often, it was at Vane’s urging that the controversy took hold, and it was attributable to Vane’s immaturity that the controversy continued to grow. Likewise Shepard’s and other’s inability to compromise also exacerbated the crisis. There are many times within the narrative that Winship discusses compromise gestures by Winthrop, Cotton, and others might have ended the crisis, yet Vane, Shepard, or Hutchinson’s refusal to stand pat and keep quiet ended whatever chance was actually there. Had this debate never entered the public sphere it may have been unproblematic for both sides to step back from the brink. However, once the debate hit the public eye and cheering sections formed neither side could blink. To do so would have meant admitting that their rhetoric had been just that rhetoric. It also would have meant admitting that they did not have all the answers and were not the ‘noble’ warriors that they imagined themselves to be.

Despite the inability of the combatants to look deep inside the longer that this most public of squabbles continued, the more the motives and actions of the parties came to be questioned. Some would then go ahead and ascribe this search for “unconscious hypocrisy, shows of false holiness, and the human pride that would substitute its own inventions for the will of God.” Shepard cannot be given a pass at this point, just because it is assumed that his side won and must have been right. Many historians have attempted to paint the crisis using 20th and 21st century ideals of women as the brush. To some this controversy is simply about the men of society slapping down an uppity woman. Some of the primary sources do lend itself to this conclusion. There is an interesting line of questioning and related commentary from Hugh Peters, one of those involved in Hutchinson’s church trial. He instructed Hutchinson to “consider that she had stepped out of all the various subordinate identities she occupied- she had been a husband rather than wife, a preacher rather than a hearer, and a magistrate rather than a subject- and she had not been humbled for this multiple subordination.”[7] To our 21st century ears this seems overly harsh, but if Winship’s scholarship is to be trusted there is more than a little truth to the accusation. Hutchinson had her own well-developed ability to find hypocrisy and pride. Her conventicles were designed to discuss that week’s teaching by John Cotton, yet the theology discussed there often went beyond anything Cotton had meant. She had often acted as judge and jury in her condemnations of the Boston ministers. Even though she may have been more right about the Boston ministers than anyone of the day was willing to say. Even though her “questioning” of Cotton’s teaching may have been more closer to Cotton’s real meaning than Cotton realized. Whether or not it was Hutchinson’s place to say and say so in such an ungracious manner is debateable. On several occasions Hutchinson’s public comments were good and instructive, but her intemperate remarks in private only made the situation worse. It was these private remarks that would bring about the trials, and while on trial it would be several more unbalanced remarks that would do the convicting. Right or wrong, she had to some degree overstepped her bounds, and accounts from her two trials show that she was anything but embarrassed about it. Did she deserve her eventual gruesome death at the hands of the Indians? Winship would say no. Had she allowed her convictions to push her farther out on the limb than was feasible? Winship would probably agree.

To state that Boston had a fully-orbed radical wing of “Hutchinsonians” is to miss the point. “Hutchinson’s ‘following’ was one that picked and chose discriminatingly, to the point where the word ‘following’ becomes debatable.”[8] There was a radical wing being pushed and supported by Vane. However, this wing was far from monolithic, and in fact may have included a large number of people with no other common attribute other than the fact that they held opinions that were outside the mainline of Reformed Christianity. It is possible also to overplay the actions of Shepard and his side. Winship points out that Shepard never felt like the ‘winner’ that modern historiography paints him. Shepard would forever be marked by “psychic scars” from this controversy. One cannot help, but wonder what could have happened had these two scared, embattled souls been able to tone down the rhetoric and truly listen and learn from each other. In Shepard’s devotion to intellectual piety and concern for order, Hutchinson could have found a watchman to keep her inquiries from running across borders and boundaries set up by orthodox Christianity. Perhaps then she could have remained in Boston and escaped the horrible fate that awaited her. From Hutchinson’s esoteric and mystical understanding of God and her ability to truly interact with Him, perhaps, Shepard could have found the peace and assurance for which he seemed to long. In a sense, the story of Shepard and Hutchinson reminds me of the relationship between John Wesley and the Moravians. When Wesley, the staunch Anglican, met and learned from the deeply emotional piety of the Moravians, he found his peace. Then again this unlikely combination of “methodist” rigor and “Moravians” piety would also split the church. So perhaps the early Catholic critics were right. Perhaps Protestants are destined to long for unity and find division more easily. As I listen to the story of the Massachusetts Reformed Church, I wonder. I hope, too. I hope for peace, and that all those of us involved In the leadership of the church to be men and women of an irenic nature. In a way controversy is never so far away, and there is still a lot to learn about ourselves and each other.


[1] Winship, Michael P. Making Heretics: Militant Protestantism and Free Grace in Massachusetts, 1636-1641. Princeton UP: 2002, 3.

[2] Winship, 3.

[3] Winship, 59.

[4] A full discussion of these six points can be found in Chapter 11, ppg 228-231. As is its focus, this paper will focus on the 3 structural reasons given.

[5] Winship, 228.

[6] Winship, 21.

[7] Winship, 206.

[8] Winship, 54.

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