Published online by Cambridge University Press: 20 February 2010
In the years around 1580, a feeling was growing amongst England's more zealous Protestants that the most terrifying threat to truth came no longer from the Catholics but from the Family of Love, “a deadly heresie of all others.” The Family's enemies sounded the alarum for a new battle in the old war between heresy and truth, and they discussed the subject in the starkest of theological terms. Followers of the Family's Dutch founder, H. N. or Hendrick Niclaes, were fiercely criticized for each of their central tenets: that “good-willing” humans could reach a state in which they were inhabited by divinity, or “godded with God” that in this state, sin was vanquished and perfection attained; and that much of scripture was to be interpreted allegorically. Such heresies, in association with the Family's controversial belief in the legitimacy of dissembling before hostile inquisitors, opened “a very window” to all manner of other dangers. Through this window, John Knewstub and others peered anxiously at the dark prospect of a Familist future, marked by “the overthrow of the common wealth,” “lewdnesse of life,” and “a monstrous new kind of speech never found in the scriptures.”
In practice, however, the perils of heresy were not as black and white as this. All heresies were connected with one another in the eternal battle, but some were worse than others. Orthodoxy and its opposites were very much in the eye of the beholder.