The American Puritan Context: The Antinomian Controversy
In order to understand the American Puritan context for Edwards' Affections, it is imperative to gain a complete and full understanding of the historical and theological issues in play during the Antinomian Controversy. The word antinomian literally meant “against law” and the position described the exaltation of internal and subjective elements of Christianity, particularly the inner “witness of the Spirit,” over external elements, such as obedience to the moral law.
This position first appeared in the American colonies around the time of Anne Hutchinson’s immigration in May 1634. By November 1634, her husband, William Hutchinson, was elected deputy from Boston to the Massachusetts General Court. Anne occupied herself in visiting neighbors, particularly during times of childbirth. Soon she began to hold meetings in her home for the purpose of discussing the previous Sunday’s sermon. In her opinion, many ministers preached a “legal” religion, because they argued for a necessary connection between sanctification and justification, between a believer’s works and salvation.
As a result of these deviant opinions, some area ministers wondered if John Cotton, teacher at Boston’s First Church, had anything to do with the spreading “heresy.” On 25 October 1636 the ministers of the Massachusetts Bay met with Cotton, Hutchinson, and her brother-in-law, John Wheelwright. John Winthrop reported that
Mr. Cotton was present and gave satisfaction to them, so as he agreed with them in the point of sanctification, and so did Mr. Wheelwright; so as they all did hold that sanctification did help to evidence justification. The same he had delivered plainly in public, divers times; but for the indwelling of the person of the Holy Ghost, he held that still, as some others of the ministers did, but no union with person of the Holy Ghost, (as Mrs. Hutchinson and others did,) so as to amount to a personal union.The New England clergy believed that the situation was under control; on the key point of sanctification evidencing justification, Cotton was in agreement with them. However, the Hutchinsonians were not quieted; in December, 1636 another meeting was held with the ministers of New England. At this meeting, Cotton received a list of sixteen questions to answer in writing to the satisfaction of the ministers. His answers engered several exchanges, as the keepers f orthodoxy sought to pin him down theologically.
On 17 January 1637 John Wheelwright preached the fast-day sermon. Wheelwright, described by a contemporary as “a man of bold and stiff conceit of his own worth and light,” preached what this observer deemed “a seditious sermon.” Warning his hearers of the dangers of falling into a “covenant of works” by linking evidences of salvation too closely to salvation itself, Wheelwright’s sermon created a firestorm. He was called before the court, “and his sermon being produced, he justified it, and confessed he did mean all that walk in such a way...After much debate, the court adjudged him guilty of sedition, and also of contempt, for that the court had appointed the fast as a means of reconciliation of differences, etc., and he purposely set himself to kindle and increase them.” Though Wheelwright was convicted of sedition, the court deferred his sentencing in order to allow him to repent. He did not and was banished from the colony.
After a riotous election time, during which Henry Vane, a Hutchinson supporter, was voted out of the governor’s office and replaced by John Winthrop, all of New England gathered at the end of August, 1637, for a general synod, the first in New England’s brief history. The New England elders listed eighty-two errors of the Antinomian faction, but only five points stood in the way of a full agreement between Cotton and the other ministers. After a series of negotiations, the number was reduced to three; Cotton then agreed on those three points and a reconciliation was effected.
However, there was no reconciliation available for Anne Hutchinson and her followers. In November 1637, Anne Hutchinson was placed on trial for countenancing those who were seditious and rebellious against the authorities. During the trial she appeared to hold her own, until she claimed that she had immediate revelations from God’s Spirit. This became the charge against the Hutchinsonians; Winthrop said as much: “We have been hearkening about the trial of this thing and now the mercy of God by a providence hath answered our desires and made her lay open herself and the ground of all these disturbances to be by revelations...The groundwork of her revelations is the immediate revelation of the spirit and not by the ministry of the word.” Hutchinson and her followers were banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony and left to help establish Rhode Island.
From this historical survey of the Antinomian Controversy, it appears that one key figure was John Cotton. This Antinomian teaching developed in his church and he was charged with maintaining these teachings “too obscurely.” At the trial of Anne Hutchinson, it seemed at times that Cotton was on trial rather than Hutchinson; though he agreed with his clergy brothers in principle, forced to go through a public purgatory.
The other representative theological mind in the debate was Thomas Shepard, minister at Cambridge. In June 1636, Shepard began preaching a series of sermons, eventually published as The Parable of the Ten Virgins. The preface reported that those messages sought to combat the “leaven of Antinomian and Familistical opinions [which were] stirring in the country,” which were being “spread elsewhere by the new lights of these times.” Not only did Shepard preach against Cotton and the Hutchinsonians, but he also engaged in correspondence with Cotton, seeking to understand his views. As a result, investigation of Cotton and Shepard’s thought on the nature of true religion is vital to understand the later development of Edwards.