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John Cotton and the Antinomian Controversy, 1636–1638: A Profile of Experiential Individualism in American Puritanism

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  02 February 2009

Michael Jinkins
Brenham Presbyterian Church900 South Jackson StreetBrenham, Texas 77833United States of America


There is much going on in the modern religious scene, particularly in America under the name of ‘Evangelical Christianity’, that seems strange to those of us whose Church experience is shaped more emphatically by an Old-World Presbyterian, Anglican or Lutheran theological orientation. The emphasis upon the individual and the individual's personal ‘saving’ experience sounds strange to ears more attuned to social responsibility and the development of the Christian character in the nurture of the Church community. Where does this emphasis on the individual and his or her personal experience come from? And how did it come to be so much a part of American Church life? Both of these questions could introduce ponderous volumes of social, historical and theological research. But, generally speaking, this tendency to reduce the religious life to an experience of salvation can be traced to the era in the history of dogma which gave rise to Reformed Scholasticism. On the American continent, this approach to Christian faith was promoted by the early Puritan settlers in the context of their own theological concern to maintain a particular manifestation of the nature-grace dichotomy which stressed the legal duly of the individual Christian, and to gain a sense of assurance of election, however elusive that sense might be. While it is well beyond the limitations of this brief essay to trace the development of the Puritan theological orientation, this study will examine one incident in the life of the Massachusetts Bay Colony to profile the development of this Puritan inclination toward experiential individualism which, in various forms, still endures.

Research Article
Copyright © Scottish Journal of Theology Ltd 1990

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1 Hall, David, ‘Introduction,’ Puritanism in Seventeenth-Century Massachusetts, (New York: Holt Rinehart and Winston), 1968, p. 1.Google Scholar

2 An important and often quoted description of Federal theology (especially in New England) is, of course, Miller's, Perry. ‘The Marrow of Puritan Divinity’, as it appears in his Errand Into the Wilderness (New York: Harper and Row, Publishers), 1956, pp. 48ffGoogle Scholar. While his understanding of the theological developments of federal theology are in need of the kind of theological correction provided by recent scholarship, his remains an important social/historical analysis. See: Miller, Perry, The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century, (New York: The Macmillan Company), 1939, pp. 365462Google Scholar. Also: McGiffert, Michael, ‘From Moses to Adam: The Making of the Covenantof Works’, The Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. 19/2 (Summer 1988), 131155CrossRefGoogle Scholar. The single most substantial contribution to historical/theological research concerning Federal theology in recent years is Weir, David Alexander, Foedus Naturale: The Origins of Federal Theology in Sixteenth Century Reformation Thought, Ph.D. Thesis, Saint Andrews University, Department of Ecclesiastical History, July 1984Google Scholar. Weir also provides a fairly complete bibliography of literature, primary and secondary, relative to Federal theology.

3 Hall, , Puritanism in Seventeenth-Century Massachusetts, p. 1.Google Scholar

4 Both Samuel Eliot Morison and Perry Miller have provided scholarship which counters the popular notions of the Puritans as moralistic killjoys, and have roundly criticised Mencken for confusing Puritanism with Victorianism.

5 The controversy actually lasted for about seventeen months, from October 1636 to March 1638. These dates are given, following David Hall, in the old style of the calendar, Puritan. The Antinomian Controversy, 1636–1638: A Documentary History, Hall, David D., editor, (Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press), 1968, p. 4Google Scholar. Primary sourses quoted from this edition will be cited according to their original titles.

6 Historian Charles Francis Adams felt that the Antinomian Controversy could not properly be appreciated if it were approached from a theological point of view. Adams, , Three Episodes of Massachusetts History (Boston, 1892) cited in The Antinomian Controversy, 1636–1638: A Documentary History, pp. 1011Google Scholar. However David Hall disagrees with Adams' dismissal; the social event cannot be understood without careful consideration of the theological.

7 The Antinomian Controversy, Hall, David, ‘Introduction’, pp. 410.Google Scholar

8 Stoever, William K. B., ‘A Faire and Easie Way to Heaven: Covenant Theology and Antinomianism in Early Massachusetts (Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press). 1978, p. 24Google Scholar. Stoever provides the most detailed and precise analysis of the historical and theological data available to date, though his partisanship in favour of the ‘Elders’ of the Bay Colony against John Cotton, in the end, makes his study essentially an apology for Calvinist Scholasticism.

9 Hall notes that three editions of Winthrop's Short Story of the Rise, reign and mine of the Antinomians… were bought up eagerly by English Puritans hoping to find a way to deal with the crop of Antinomians that sprang up after the Puritan Revolution broke out in 1640. Prefatory notes to Cotton, John, The Way of Congregational Churches Cleared, in The Antinomian History, pp. 396ff.Google Scholar

10 Winthrop, John, A Short Story of the Rise, reign, and ruine of the Antinomians, Familists & Libertines, in The Antinomian Controversy, pp. 219ff.Google Scholar

11 Stoever, pp. 24–25.

12 Just how modest these revisions were is apparent when one looks at the final discussions between Cotton and the Elders of the Colony as they came to reconciliation. See: Cotton, John, A Conference Mr John Cotton Held at Boston With the Elders of New-England, and The Way of Congregational Churches Cleared, also by Cotton, in The Antinomian Controversy, pp. 173198 and 396–437.Google Scholar

13 In the end it was her claim to having received direct divine revelations that provided the pretext for her banishment. ‘The Examination of Mrs Anne Hutchinson’. pp. 311ff. Also see: ‘A Report of the Trial of Mrs Anne Hutchinson before the Church in Boston’, pp. 349ff. Both in The Antinomian Controversy.

14 Winthrop, John, A Short Story, in Antinomian Controversy, p. 219.Google Scholar

15 Hall, , ‘Introduction’, The Antinomian Controversy, p. 11.Google Scholar

16 Ibid., p. 11.

17 The growth of this contention may be seen in the correspondence between Cotton and Thomas Shepard (dated before june 1636), between Peter Bulkeley and Cotton (mid-1636) and in the remarkable series of question and answer documents between the Elders and Cotton (during the year of 1637). The Antinomian Controversy, pp. 24–198. The fullest presentation of the views of the Elders to appear in this series of documents was published in the Hall edition for the first time, in the form of ‘The Elders Reply’, pp. 60ff. The most complete exposition of Cotton's views during the debate appear in John Cotton's ‘Rejoynder’ which stands, on its own, as one of the most remarkable documents of New England theology, pp. 78ff.

18 Stoever, p. 10.

19 Ibid., p. 10.

20 To understand the theological discussion more clearly this study will focus upon Cotton because his was the mostsophisticated, and the original, statement of the socalled Antinomian viewpoint in the Colony. All other colonial Antinomian statements in the controversy were derived, distorted as they sometimes became, from his more careful and subtle statements. The English Puritan, Thomas Shepard's influential works, in particular, will provide the focus for the present examination of the Elders' position.

21 Stoever, p. 10.

22 David D. Hall, ‘Introduction’, p. 6. Cf. Stoever, pp. 10–11. Also see: ‘The Examination of Mrs Anne Hutchinson’, The Antinomian Controversy, pp. 318f. Mrs Hutchinson should not, however, be understood simply as a wild enthusiast with a muddled mind. Her sharp answers to the judges' interrogations prove this. Cf.John Wheelwright, ‘A Fast-Day Sermon’, the sermon preached on January 19, 1637, which shattered the peace of the colony and led to Wheelwright being found guilty, in March, of ‘sedition’ and ‘contempt’: crimes for which he was banished from the colony. The Antinomian Controversy, pp. 152–172.

23 Cotton, John. Sixteen Questions of Serious and Necessary Consequence, in The Antinomian Controversy, p. 53.Google Scholar

24 Stoever, p. 11.

25 It is not merely coincidental that when Jonathan Edwards wrote his Treatise Concerning Religious Affections he quoted Thomas Shepard more than any other writer. Cf.: Hall, , ‘Introduction’, The Antinomian Controversy, p. 20.Google Scholar

26 For the distinction between the ‘how’, the ‘what’ and the ‘who’ of atonement the writer is indebted to the lectures of James B. Torrance who adapted the use of these terms from Dietrich Bonhoeffer's criticism of nineteenth-century Liberalism. See: Bonhoeffer, D., Lectures on Christology, trans. Robertson, E. (Glasgow: Wm Collins Sons & Co.), 1966.Google Scholar

27 Cotton, John, A Conference Mr John Cotton Held at Boston With the Elders of New England, in The Antinomian Controversy, pp. 173198.Google Scholar

28 Hall, , The Antinomian Controversy, p. 13.Google Scholar

29 Beza, Theodore, A Briefe and Pithie Sum of the christen faith, made in forme of a confession, with a confutation of all such superstitious errours, as are contrary thereunto, translated by R.F., (London, 1572), pages numbered alternately, Bodleian Library, Oxford UniversityGoogle Scholar: Perkins, William, The Works of William Perkins, ed. Breward, Ian (Appleford: The Sutton Courtenay Press)Google Scholar; Ames, William, The Marrow of Sacred Divinity Drawne Out of the holy Scriptures, and the Interpreters thereof, and brought into Method (London, 1643), Bodleian Library, Oxford UniversityGoogle Scholar. Cf. Sprunger, Keith L., ‘Ames, Ram us, and the Method of Puritan Theology’, The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 59 (April, 1966) No. 2., pp. 133151.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

30 Shepard, Thomas, Certain Cases Resolved. Specially, tending to the right ordering of the heart, that we may comfortably walk with God in our general and particular Callings. (London, 1648), p. 171. University of Aberdeen, King's College Library, Special Collection.Google Scholar

32 Ibid., pp. 171–172.

33 Ibid., p. 172.

34 Ibid., p. 172.

35 Ibid., pp. 172–173.

36 Ibid., p. 173.

37 Ibid., p. 72.

38 Ibid., p. 73.

39 Shepard is quite expansive concerning the character of God which Christ reveals to ‘us’ (meaning, ‘the elect’): In Christ the glory of God ‘breaks out like the Sun through the clouds most brightly, in respect of us, and therefore in and through his human nature we are onely to behold God, in whom all that a Christian desires to know, is to be seen, which is the face and heart of so dear a friend,’ Ibid., pp. 73–74. But, in order to construct a fuller view of the nature of God, Shepard does not hold himself to God's revelation in Christ.

40 Shepard, , The Sincere Convert, p. 12 (Emphases in printing belong to Shepard's own text).Google Scholar

41 Ibid., p. 13

42 Ibid., pp. 13–14.

43 Ibid., p. 14.

44 Ibid., 15.

45 Ibid., 16.

46 Ibid., 17.

47 Ibid., pp. 17–18.

48 Ibid., p. 82.

49 Miller, Perry, The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century, p. 10.Google Scholar

50 Ibid., p. 10. Miller amusingly remarks that some Puritans paid no more than lip service, however, to this fundamental article of their faith: ‘Cotton Mather in his heart of hearts never doubted that the divinity was a being remarkably like Cotton Mather.’ Perhaps Cotton Matherwas not the only Puritan before or since who shared this conviction. But Miller continues on to say that a definition of the Puritan spirit might be put no better than in these words: ‘What God is, none can perfectly define, but that hath the Logicke of God himselfe.’ The Puritan textbook attempted, however imperfectly they conceived their task, to trace the outworking of this ‘logicke’, to piece together ‘an imperfect description which commeth neerest to unfold God's nature’. This they did by enumerating in logical sequence the divine attributes, pp. 10–11.

51 Ibid., p. 18.

52 Winthrop, John, History of New England (Boston, 1853)Google Scholar, cited in Hall, , ‘Introduction’, The Antinomian Controversy, p. 15Google Scholar. The story is also cited in Miller, , New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century, p. 56.Google Scholar

53 The following will give a much more complete discussion of the historical/social dimensions to the controversy: As previously mentioned David D. Hall, ‘Introduction’ The Antinomian Controversy, 1636–1638: A Documentary History: William K. B. Stoever, ‘A Faire and Easie Way to heaven’; Petit, Norman, The Heart Prepared: Grace and Conversion in Puritan Spiritual Life (New Haven: Yale University Press), 1966Google Scholar; and Ziff, Larzer, The Career of John Cotton: Puritanism and the American Experience (Princeton: Princeton University Press). 1962CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and, of course, Perry Miller's two volumes on The New England Mind, volume 1, The Seventeenth Century, and volume 2, From Colony to Province.

54 Shepard, Thomas, Certain Select Cases Resolved, pp. 4852.Google Scholar

55 Cotton, John, Letter to Thomas Shepard, in The Antinomian Controversy, p. 30.Google Scholar

56 Cotton, John, Letter to Peter Bulkeley, in The Antinomian Controversy, pp. 4041.Google Scholar

57 Stoever, pp. 138ff.

58 Bell, M. Charles, Calvin and Scottish Theology: The Doctrine of Assurance, (Edinburgh: The Handsel Press), 1985, pp. 151ff.Google Scholar

59 Shepard, Thomas, The Sincere Convert, p. 87.Google Scholar

60 Ibid., pp. 87–88.

61 Shepard, Thomas, Certain Select Cases Resolved, p. 88.Google Scholar

62 Stoever, p. 198.

63 Shepard, , Certain Select Cases Resolved, pp. 8889.Google Scholar

64 Ibid., pp. 89.

65 Ibid., pp. 89–90.

66 Ibid., pp. 90–91.

67 Ibid., pp. 92–94.

68 Ibid., p. 94.

69 Ibid., p. 96.

70 Ibid., p. 110.

71 Bulkeley, Peter, The Gospel-Covenant; or the Covenant of Grace Opened (London, 1646; second edition 1653), cited in The Antinomian Controversy, pp. 3435.Google Scholar

72 Hall, , prefatory comments to correspondence between Peter Bulkeley and John Cotton. The Antinomian Controversy, p. 35.Google Scholar

73 Perhaps the greatest contribution of Stoever's study to scholarship on the Antinomian Controversy was his rebuttal of Miller's influential theory that the controversy centred on legal preparation for salvation. This is clearly not the case, because the preaching of the law was accepted by Cotton and by the Elders as an appropriate pre-requisite to the preaching of, the gospel to demonstrate to auditors the hopelessness of gaining salvation by works of the flesh. See: Stoever, , ‘Appendix: “Preparation for Salvation”’, pp. 192199Google Scholar. Stoever comments in his ‘Bibliographical Note’ that Norman Petit also follows a similar argument, p. 241. Cf. Miller, Perry, The New England Mind: From Colony to Province, chapter IV. pp. 5367.Google Scholar

74 Cotton, John, Letter in answer to Bulkeley, mid-1636, The Antinomian Controversy, p. 37Google Scholar. Cotton here is citing Ames, , Medulla Theologica (Amsterdam, 1634), Bk. 1.84–93Google Scholar. Cf. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, II. v. 11., in which Calvin discusses passivity and faith.

75 Ibid., p. 37.

76 Ibid., pp. 37–38.

77 Ibid., p. 38.

78 Ibid., p. 38.

79 The manuscript is unclear at this point, according to the editor, and might read ‘worke’.

80 Cotton, Letter to Bulkeley, p. 39. Hall notes that Calvin cites ‘these same four causes in discussing the relation ship between grace and works’. Institute, III. xiv. 17.

81 Ibid., p. 39.

82 Ibid., p. 40. In the fullest account of Cotton's thought at the time of the Controversy he writes, ‘ I … do lake the Spirit himself to be ever proxima efficiens causa fidei, both procreans and conservans, The principal proper and effectual cause of faith.’ Cotton, John, ‘Reyjoynder’, The Antinomian Controversy, p. 80.Google Scholar

83 Ibid., p. 40. Cotton continues: ‘I dare not acknowledge any liberum Arbitrium to close with christ, till Arbitrium be liberated. And lieratum Arbitriumis not, but by christ and in christ, John 8.36. For out of christ we are servants [in] Sinne.’ pp. 40–41.

84 Shepard, Thomas, Certain Select Cases Resolved, pp. 218219.Google Scholar

85 Cotton, , ‘Rejoynder’. The Antinomian Controversy, p. 11.Google Scholar

86 John Winthrop, History, I. 239, cited in Hall, , ‘Introduction’, The Antinomian Controversy, p. 11.Google Scholar

87 Stoever, p. 68. (italics added).

88 Ibid., p. 69.

89 Cotton, , ‘Reyjoynder’, The Antinomian Controversy, p. 93.Google Scholar

90 Ibid., pp. 92–93. Cf. Shepard's, Thomas discussion of the ‘benefits of Christ’ in Certain Select Cases Resolved, pp. 222223.Google Scholar

91 Ibid., p. 103.

92 Calvin, John, Institutes of the Christian Religion, (two volumes) ed. McNeill, John T., transl. Battles, Ford Lewis, (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press), 1960, II.xv.6Google Scholar. Calvin knows no divisions between sanctification as a divine/human work overagainst justification as a purely divine work. For him, all parts of our salvation are completed in the person of Christ. Cf. Institutes, II. xvii.1–6. and III.xiv.3–4.

93 Cotton, , ‘Rejoynder’. The Antinomian Controversy, p. 98.Google Scholar

94 Hall, , ‘Introduction’. The Antinomian Controversy, p. 12.Google Scholar

95 ‘The Autobiography of Thomas Shepard’. Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, cited in Ibid., p. 12.

96 Cotton, , ‘Rejoynder’, p. 98.Google Scholar

97 Ibid., pp. 98–99.

98 Ibid., p. 109.

99 Ibid., p. 112.

100 Ibid., p. 113. Cotton quotes Calvin (as Hall notes, probably from Institutes III.xv.), a little further on in his argument, when he says that ‘Assurance of faith’ does not arise ‘from our Works’, nor is it ‘founded thereon’. But ‘Works’ maybe considered a ‘posterior probatio accedere instar signi (‘ a later proof added like a sign’). In this same context Cotton makes a fine distinction between seeing sanctification as an evidence of justification, which he would allow, and seeing sanctification as the ground of justification, which he would reject, pp. 116–117. His distinction may, despite its validity, have clouded the argument more than it helped, however, considering his previous statements. Cotton's basic point in all of this was that a person ‘will never be convinced to see life in to his Sanctification, till he sees life in his justifying faith, which is that that putteth life into his Sanctification: He will ever fear that without faith his best works of Sanctification are but splendida peccata, goodly glistening beautiful sins’, p. 113.

101 Ibid., p. 121. Transl. Hall — ‘The grace of God and the certainty of salvation and faith neither arise from works nor depend on them.’

102 Ibid., p. 139.

103 Stoever, pp. 69–70.

104 The concerns of the Elders and of Cotton surfaced in their standards for church membership. Conventional Puritan practice required that a candidate for church membership should be able to demonstrate ‘soundness of doctrine and evidence of good behaviour’. However, to these Cotton wished to add another requirement, the testimony concerning the candidate's experience of conversion. That this third requirement did, in fact, by the mid-seventeenth century, become common-place is significant, and lies in the background of the crisis which eventually comes to a head in the ‘half-way covenant’ controversy.

105 That Cotton desired to remain true to ‘Protestant’ and ‘Reformed’ theology is certainly the case, as may be seen in his frequent allusions to the conflict between Protestant and Roman Catholic theology over the question of whether good works may be used to gain assurance of salvation. See: allusions to Ambrose Catharinus (1487–1553) and Robert Bellarmine (1542–1621), both Roman Catholic theologians, and to David Parseus (1548–1622), the Reformed theologian, and to John Calvin, in Cotton's ‘Rejoynder’, p. 93. Also see Cotton's comparison of the meaning of grace in Augustine's ‘Doctrine of Conversion’, Luther's ‘Doctrine of Justification’ and Calvin's ‘Doctrine of Predestination’. Cotton goes on to compare and contrast these doctrines with Bellarmine, Pareusand Zancheus. Cotton, A Boston Conference, pp. 188–190. Cotton was aware that the soteriology of the Elders was similar, in the place it gave to human works in the process of salvation, to the soteriology of Roman Catholic Scholastics. He warned, ‘If we will speak as Protestants, we must not speak of good works as causes or waies of our first Assurance. For Effects and consequents are not so much as wales much less are they causes unto those things where of they are effects and consequents. For waies, though they be not causes yet they are Antecedencts to the things unto which they are waies. And though you deny good works to be the grounds and causes of our Assurance of Faith, yet indeed you carry it otherwise: for you maintain that a man may gather his first Assurance of his justified estate from his works of Sanctification. From when it will unavoidably follow that our works are the grounds and causes of our first Assurance; for you know well that Causa efficiens est a qua res est [“The efficient cause is that by which the thing is produced”]’ p. 133. Cotton proceeded to claim that by clothing the idea of ‘good works’ in other words such as ‘gifts of Grace’ or ‘saving graces’ or ‘Sanctification’, the elders were, in effect, doing nothing but clothing ‘unwholesome and Popish doctrin’ in ‘Protestant and wholesome words’. Cotton's “Rejoynder”, p. 134. Cotton, however, did not seem to perceive that the doctrine of salvation of the Elders and his own soteriology both sprang from Scholastic roots similar to those from which the Roman Catholic doctrines had sprung. Thus, his criticism of Puritan Calvinism, and of Roman Catholicism, was, in the end, merely parochial, and destined to remain at the level of the partisan and anti-Roman invective, which was sadly so characteristic of the age.

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