Cotton’s Dilemma: Another Look at the Antinomian Controversy

    By Norman Pettit

    SEVENTEENTH-century New Englanders examined their hearts with an intensity now quite alien to the American mind. In their religious expression the image of the “heart,” the biblical metonym for the “inner man,” held a central position from which their thoughts moved out and to which they inevitably returned. The heart could be “proud” or “humble,” “stoney” or “fleshy,” the source of perpetual corruption, a jealous and indifferent barrier to grace, or the final realm of understanding, the ultimate dwelling place of God. When they touched their hearts they touched their deepest faith. If they could deceive others with their tongues, they could never deceive themselves in their hearts. Beyond the voice, behind the conscience, the heart told them the truth about themselves and their relation to God. Only there could self-examination be effective. Only there could God’s will be known. What “assurance” of faith they possessed, however weak, had to be discovered in the inner man; for it was written: “Let the hidden man of the heart be . . . before God a thing much set by” (I Peter 3:4).

    This deep concern with the common depravity and potential holiness of the human heart prevailed in all of Puritanism. No other facet of Puritan spirituality so dominated the written expression of the interior life. But in the sermon literature of early New England the image of the heart took on special significance; for if in theory there was nothing one could do to bring on, or even to anticipate regeneration, piety in New England demanded that the heart be put in order for the coming of the Spirit. Through introspective meditation, within the depths of the self, it was possible and indeed necessary to “prepare the heart” for salvation.

    Those who preached preparation, and believed it to be consistent with predestination, were concerned with the problem of a possible period in time before conversion neither wholly the work of the Spirit nor entirely beyond man’s control. While natural man did not have the power to make the Gospel effectual, or to choose Christ out of the power of nature, he could do more than was ordinarily done. By preparation they meant a period of prolonged introspective meditation and self-analysis in the light of God’s revealed Word. In this process man first examined the evils of his sins, repented for those sins, and then turned to God for salvation. From conviction of conscience, the soul moved through a series of interior stages, always centered on self-examination, which in turn were intended to arouse a longing desire for grace.

    No other point in New England theology was more significant for religious introspection than how much a man could do to predispose himself for saving grace, or how much through preparation he could dispose God to save him. From the earliest settlement sound conversions had been few, and as piety seemed to wane all were exhorted to prepare. Yet all were told, at the same time, that no matter how much they prepared, no matter how thoroughly they searched beneath the surface of human appearances, God’s mercy could be denied in the end. The “prepared heart,” while a necessary prerequisite to the conversion experience, was no guarantee of salvation. The lost soul could be left in utter confusion, between preparation and conversion, in “horror of heart, anguish and perplexity of spirit,” even in the “very flames of hell.”1 Uncertainty of outcome could lead, and often did, to an inner tension and agony of soul disruptive in a new society; for if preparation was preached to encourage sound conversions in some, it provoked critical questioning from others. Was there an inherent logic between preparation and predestination, or were they mutually exclusive? Did the concept comply with biblical prescription according to Reformed interpretations, or run against it? And what of the consequences, the possibility of error? Was there danger of leading the unregenerate first into pride, then into despair, putting grace at a further remove? These questions, and others like them, aroused a searching controversy which virtually molded the New England mind.

    To strict predestinarians, preparation was a veritable doctrine of “works,” elevating natural abilities and cheapening grace. Contrition and humiliation, they maintained, were not antecedents to conversion, but consequents of the conversion experience itself. In 1637 Mistress Anne Hutchinson, John Wheelwright, and John Cotton opposed the preparationists on the grounds that they were teaching a “Convenant of Works” rather than the “Covenant of Grace.” Our “drowsie hearts,” they said, cannot awaken unless Christ makes an opening for himself. And the encounter which followed, known as the Antinomian Controversy, was to decide which way orthodoxy would go in the most formative period of New England theology. When preachers such as Thomas Hooker, Thomas Shepard, and Peter Bulkeley demanded that all comers prepare their hearts for salvation, Anne Hutchinson and her followers said that this demand implied not only regeneration by “merit,” but erected a barrier to grace as well. If contrition and humiliation were not in themselves signs of grace, they asked, how could one ever find “assurance” of faith? Far from being a “comfortable” doctrine, it was bound to lead to despair. Far from bringing the reprobates in, it was sure to keep them off. But if these objections were doctrinally sound, the founding divines were not moved. They sent all save one, John Cotton, beyond the borders of the realm.

    In the Old Testament, as interpreted by Paul, man gained righteousness through adherence to the Law of God as handed down at Sinai (Exodus 20). In the New Testament righteousness by the Law is abolished, as man is saved by grace through faith alone, “being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24). Yet the Law, in the days of the Gospel, retains its “use,” which is to lead the soul to Christ. Its ceremonial and judicial aspects no longer apply, but its moral function remains efficacious. The moral Law, by the threat of damnation, convinces man of his sins, brings him to despair, and forces him to see that Christ is his only hope for salvation; for God does not allow man to partake of Gospel grace without some foregoing sense of bondage. This convicting work of the Law drives the soul to Christ; while righteousness by the Law no longer applies: “For I through the law am dead to the law, that I might live unto God” (Galatians 2:19). Natural man, in sinful lusts, is kept under the domain and bondage of the Law until, in conversion itself, the Law kills sin. Once sin is dead, man is then freed from the Law’s tyranny; for the Law is “our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith” (Galatians 3:24).

    In orthodox Reformed theology this foregoing sense of bondage is greatly emphasized, but it is reduced in time to the moment of conversion itself. God proceeds immediately from one extreme to another, so that man is virtually wrenched by the Law into Gospel grace. In the Zwinglian tradition no allowance is made for a period of extended time, under the Law, when man may be said to “return” to God or “do” anything of his own volition.2 “The Word of God is so sure and strong,” wrote Zwingli, “that if God wills, all things are done the moment that he speaks his Word.” Paul, Zwingli points out, was “thrown to the ground and rebuked”; therefore grace comes only “when you find that the Word of God . . . crushes and destroys you, but magnifies God himself within you.”3

    Under such conditions, all who looked to the scriptural exhortations to “prepare” for grace were confronted with a genuine dilemma. Indeed, for the great Cambridge University divines who founded the Puritan tradition, this blanket condemnation of human response presented immeasurable problems. As “spiritual” preachers, “physicians of the soul,” and builders of faith, how could they urge on all men the biblical question, “What must I do to be saved?” without violating this rigid discipline derived from Reformed dogmatics? In short, how could they encourage the doubtful, who had never been taken by storm, to seek assurance of salvation? At first, to be sure, they had no set solution for the problem; but the more they directed their preaching toward the experience and practice of religion, the less concern they showed for the rigors of theory.4 As an early Puritan remarked, divinity should tend “more principally . . . to the sanctification of the heart than to the informing of the judgement.”5 If men followed the workings of the Spirit in their hearts, and looked to the inner self for signs of grace, perhaps this was the beginning of the Christian life.

    Above all, the Puritans tried to effect in others the pattern of regeneration they themselves had experienced.6 Since rarely had this happened in the manner of Paul, but more frequently through the faintest beginnings, they had necessarily to be concerned with other possibilities. Was the Ordo Salutis a set procedure, inevitably initiated by a sudden realization of faith; or could conversions be variable, both empirically and biblically? When they turned to Paul’s relation of his own conversion, or to the Reformed interpretation of Pauline theology, they saw that grace came, to be sure, as a sudden seizure. But when they turned to Paul’s preaching, to the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels, or to the Old Testament itself, they discovered that faith could come in other ways; that it might be “weak” at first, and that it was possible to be prepared for its coming. As members of an evangelical, proselytizing and reforming movement, these Puritans were concerned not merely to inform of salvation, but to exhort to it.7 And to uphold the Pauline conversion as normative would surely discourage potential believers. Paul had neither sought nor asked for God’s redemptive love. He had been against Jesus from the start. Moreover, when he finally experienced regeneration, it was as an actual event, as a moment in time on the road to Damascus.

    And so it was, as I made my journey and was come nigh unto Damascus about noon, that suddenly there shone from heaven a great light round about me. So I fell unto ye earth and heard a voice saying unto me, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? . . . So when I could not see for the brightness of that light, I was led by the hand of them that were with me, and came unto Damascus. . . . Then I said, Lord, they know that I prisoned and beat in every Synagogue them that believed on thee.

    (Acts 22:6, 7, 11, 19)

    After his conversion, Paul believed that because he had persecuted Jesus the new life could have no relation to his strivings or desires. But it is important to remember that he did not uphold his own conversion as normative. The first Reformers, particularly Zwingli, assumed from the experience of Paul that if grace came, it would come as it had to a confirmed sinner. But the doctrine Paul himself had preached was that faith could be “weak” as well as “strong.” “Him that is weak in the faith take unto you” (Romans 14:1); for “if thou shalt . . . believe in thine heart . . . thou shalt be saved” (Romans 10:9).

    However much the Puritans preached rigid predestinarian concepts, their own ministerial enthusiasm led them to insist that a “weak” faith, or as William Perkins said, the “endeavor to apprehend,” the “will to believe with an honest heart,” was as much as most Christians could hope for.8 Salvation need not depend on the strength of faith, as even a “seed” of grace could save. “If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed,” said the Gospel, “nothing should be impossible unto you” (Matthew 17:20). And Perkins, as well as others, took this text as the basis of their exhortations to faith. As they looked with greater frequency to God’s mercy, rather than to his majesty, the way for preparation was opened; for Paul himself had warned the Corinthians to be “ready” lest he find them “unprepared” (II Corinthians 9:3, 4). “This yet remember, that he which soweth little shall reap little; and he that soweth plentiously shall reap plentiously. As every man wisheth in his heart, so let him give: not grudgingly, or of necessity; for God loveth a cheerful giver” (II Corinthians 9:6, 7).

    In the first Book of Samuel the Israelites are exhorted, “Prepare your hearts unto the Lord” (I Samuel 7:3). In the Book of Job, Zophar advises, “If thou prepare thine heart, and stretch out thine hands toward him . . . then truly shalt thou lift up thy face without spot” (Job 11:13, 15). And in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus warns, “Be ye prepared therefore . . . for the Son of man will come at an hour when ye think not” (Luke 12: 40). In other passages from Scripture, however, these exhortations are counteracted by the dictum that God, not man, prepares the heart for reconciliation: “Lord, thou hast heard the desire of the poor: thou preparest their heart” (Psalm 10:17). In still others the meaning is left ambiguous: “The preparations of the heart are in man, but the answer of the tongue is of the Lord”; and “The heart of man proposeth his way, but the Lord doth direct his steps” (Proverbs 16:1, 9).9

    The question to be answered, then, was how these biblical passages, with their apparent contradictions, should be interpreted; not only in the light of experiential religion, but against a background of Reformed dogmatics. If, according to Reformed thought, man cannot even anticipate salvation, should preparation be preached at all? And if preparation could be reconciled to some degree with Reformed theology, to what extent was it the work of man or God? The earliest Puritans could agree neither on the nature of preparation, nor even on its absolute necessity; yet the scriptural idea of the “prepared heart,” whether from God or man, gradually came into its own. As the Puritans never consciously separated experiential from biblical religion, but always assumed they were one and the same, the tendency was to move toward those proof texts which could best be correlated with individual experience.

    This movement in Puritanism toward experiential immediacy was exemplified most strikingly by a renewed interest in the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. The earliest Puritans were determined to show that grace came not from God as a removed creator, but through a personal experience of the direct operation of His Spirit. This meant, among other things, that grace was no longer an external “something” which descended from above, as in orthodox Reformed thought, but an “indwelling” of the Spirit which demanded “entertainment” in the heart. From the time of Richard Rogers, who wrote in the 1570’s, an increasing interest in the doctrine of the Holy Spirit allowed for a kind of enthusiasm which orthodox Reformed theology had not known. Where the early English Reformers had accepted the Word of God without qualification, or had simply found “careless rapture” in the experience of Scripture itself, the Puritans believed that as they read the Bible the Holy Spirit was at work, illuminating the Word and enlightening their hearts. Thus the assistance of the Spirit was considered essential for a saving knowledge of Scripture, uniting experiential and biblical religion in one.1

    In early Puritanism then, from about 1570, we find an increasing emphasis on the work of the Spirit coming by degrees, and on man’s duty not to “grieve” the Spirit.2 “Give him entertainment,” Richard Sibbes had said; “let us give him way to come . . . when he knocks by his motions. . . . Grieve not the Spirit by any means.”3 But could the heart be laid bare, as it were, to receive the impression? Could it be submitted to the operation of the Spirit in advance? Here was an interest not dogmatic in a theoretic sense, but primarily experiential. It was an interest experience had forced, and which, perhaps, only experience could resolve.

    Sibbes maintained that “It is not enough to have the heart broken”; for as “a pot may be broken in pieces, and yet be good for nothing; so may a heart be, through terrors and a sense of judgment, and yet be not like wax, pliable.” For Sibbes, the “spirit of love,” as preached in the Gospel, had always to be prized above the “spirit of bondage.” “True tenderness of heart,” he held, is first wrought by an expectation of God’s love.4 But for John Cotton, “true brokeness of heart” mattered more. Indeed, this alone is what he meant by “preparation.” For “our first union,” said Cotton, “there are no steps to the Altar.”5 Unlike Hooker, Shepard, or Bulkeley, he made no allowance whatsoever for man’s affective nature before the effectual call. And when circumstances brought him into conflict with these men, the issue boiled down to whether the process of conversion for New England would be patterned after Sibbes and other early Puritans, or more closely aligned with the Zwinglian and high Calvinist positions.

    Cotton was born in the market town of Derby, 4 December 1585, the son of Roland Cotton, a lawyer of strong religious conviction. At thirteen, the boy was sent to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he took the B.A. in 1602 and the M.A. in 1606. During his university years he read Calvin with great interest. His grandson, Cotton Mather, tells us that he “preferred one Calvin” above all others. “Even such a Calvinist was our Cotton!” And in later years, says Mather, he loved to “sweeten his mouth with a piece of Calvin” before going to sleep.6 As an undergraduate, Cotton heard many sermons on the efficacy of the Law, and on the need for threats and terrors to bring a man to Christ. But so little could he respond to any sense of terror in his own heart, that he was sure he would die in eternal reprobation. Indeed, it was not until 1612, while a fellow of Emmanuel College, that he began to feel the first stirrings of grace. Until then he had despaired of his condition. But now, at the age of twenty-seven, he could count himself among the elect. And the man he had to thank was none other than Richard Sibbes.

    From 1609 Cotton had gone frequently to hear Sibbes preach. Having despaired of righteousness through legal constraint, and having heard that the lecturer at Holy Trinity preached the Gospel above the Law, he eagerly sought out this great “physician of the soul.” In time his anxieties and doubts diminished. He felt the Holy Spirit illuminating his heart. Soon he began to imitate Sibbes in his own sermons. Cotton, in fact, quickly gained a wide reputation as a preacher of the Spirit. At Emmanuel, he became head lecturer, dean and catechist. At St. Mary’s, where he lectured, he acquired a large following. In 1612, the year of his conversion, he was chosen pastor at the parish of St. Botolphs, in the Lincolnshire seaport of Boston. There he continued to preach in the tradition of Sibbes.

    While at Boston, Cotton argued that sinners, although utterly depraved, could still be held accountable for their failure to achieve salvation. By “voluntarily falling . . . from the knowledge of God in nature,” he said, or by “abusing other talents and helps,” they shall find that God “rejecteth or reprobateth them.”7 Reprobation, then, according to Cotton’s doctrine at the time, was clearly conditional. And for this he was later taken to task by one William Twisse, who questioned his consistency. How could reprobation be conditional, asked Twisse, if the elect are predestined for salvation from the beginning of time? Cotton, however, chose to ignore the rebuke. From 1612 to 1632, when he held to this doctrine, the growth of Arminianism in Lincolnshire had led him to believe that it was better to tone down the rigors of God’s eternal decrees. Otherwise his flock might be attracted to those who would deny predestination altogether. Moreover, by the time Twisse wrote his pamphlet, in 1646, Cotton was in America, where he had altered his position several times.

    35. The Reverend John Cotton (1584–1652).

    The Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford

    To the extent that Cotton preached conditional reprobation, he had, in a sense, developed a concept of preparation. Natural men, he said, might “walk according to the knowledge and helps which they have received.”8 But the influence of Sibbes never went so far as to obviate the rigors of fearful constraint. And herein lies the essential difficulty of Cotton’s theology. Had he fully accepted Sibbes’s views, he would have been left with little choice but to negate the efficacy of the Law. He would have claimed instead that man’s natural response to the drawing activities of the Spirit is in itself efficacious. But this he did not do. In fact, the more he read Calvin, the more he began to insist upon the uses of the Law. While preaching at Lincolnshire, he gradually departed from his earlier concern with the gifts of the Spirit, and turned his attention to legal terrors—an extraordinary fact in the light of his own conversion. Most important of all, it was this rigorous side of his theology which he eventually carried to New England.

    During his first year in the wilderness, Cotton left the memory of Sibbes behind and began to preach according to his own interpretation of Calvin—an ominous turn of events for the early history of the Commonwealth. In contradiction to his previous position, he now held that no man can trust the first gifts of the Spirit, and so remains totally passive in conversion. “Rest in none of these,” he said, “for these you may have and yet want Christ and life in him; common graces may and will deceive you.” What is more, he now discarded conditional reprobation on the grounds that “it is not all the promises in Scripture that have at any time wrought any gracious changes in any soul, or are able to beget the faith of God’s Elect.”9 From the day Cotton delivered his first sermon in the New England Boston, the differences between his own doctrine and that generally held by his fellow ministers were all too obvious. John Wilson, who was pastor, was shocked and dismayed. John Winthrop, who as governor was responsible for order in the colony, feared a schism in the Boston church. Such a schism, he believed, would eventually dislodge his church from its normal relationship with the other churches of the Bay, and so disrupt the Holy Commonwealth.

    It was not long, in fact, before controversy ensued; for Thomas Hooker was now at Newtown preaching a doctrine of conversion entirely out of keeping with Cotton’s. To Cotton’s mind, the doctrine Hooker preached could be criticized from two sides: it both lowered and raised the standards of grace at the same time. It lowered the standards in that preparatory “evidences” of grace put sanctification too far down the scale in the Ordo Salutis. It raised the standards in that preparatory anxiety put off “assurance,” so that man could never really know whether or not he was saved. For Cotton, however, the greater danger was that of bringing the standards down. Hooker was admitting external convenanters to full church membership on the basis of preparatory “motions,” or a charitable “hope.” Such “evidences,” Cotton believed, were not conclusive proof of visible sainthood. Moreover, baptized covenanters, said Cotton, should have no more claim to “charity” than anyone else. Not all the covenant seed shall have the promises. Indeed, some are “choaked with the cares of this world,” and the “best seed” that was sown in them may be “unfruitful.” Although the Prophet exhorts Israel to “return unto the Lord” (Hosea 14:1), Israel cannot return, said Cotton, “unless the Lord take away their iniquity”; for “this is the way of the covenant of grace; whatsoever duties the Lord requireth to be done on our part, let us look unto Him. . . . Do not think you shall be saved because you are the children of Christian parents.”1 Indeed, terror of the Law, or the fear worked by the Law, can be the only true test of salvation. “Though the Lord giveth himself freely to the soul, without respect unto any work of the Law,” Cotton maintained, “yet the Law is of special and notable use, working fear in the heart.” We may be sure, he said of sinners, that “the Law of God is of marvelous use in the days of the Gospel . . . to break their hearts and drive them to Christ.” In conversion, God brings them to salvation not by stirring up the embers of faith, but through the “spirit of bondage” joined with the “spirit of burning.” (“For behold, the day cometh that shall burn as an oven; and all the proud shall be stubble. It shall leave them neither root nor branch” Malachi 4:1.)2 Together, these constraining activities provide all the preparation God will allow. Nowhere, in Cotton’s American sermons, are the baptized encouraged to anticipate the promises as rightful heirs of the covenant “seed.”

    For Cotton, then, the external covenant, and with it the conditional promises, must be obliterated by the rigors of legal constraint. Man can have no security in his external relationship to God, nor can he build upon the promises. There is no condition before effectual conversion, as “Christ is offered in a promise of free grace without any previous gracious qualification mentioned.” The promises “were never given to bring us to Christ,” as “faith uniting us to Christ is ever upon an absolute promise.” He who looks to the conditional promises “hath built upon an unsafe foundation . . . hay and stubble,” or a doctrine of “works.”3 “Reserving due honor to such gracious and precious Saints as may be otherwise minded,” Cotton once remarked, “I confess I do not discern that the Lord worketh and giveth any saving preparations in the heart till He give union with Christ. For if the Lord do give any saving qualifications before Christ, then the soul may be in the state of salvation before Christ; and that seemeth to be prejudicial unto the grace and truth of Jesus Christ. . . . It seemeth to me that whatsoever work there be in the soul, it is not there before Christ be there.”4

    In the new Boston, to a far greater extent than in the old, Cotton preached a doctrine of divine omnipotence and human depravity with relentless rigor. More “Calvinist” than Calvin himself, he was ever careful to remind his followers that nothing done on their part could bring them closer to Christ. But the preaching of a state of depravity from which man may be saved only by seizure, could lead (and often had in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries) to Antinomian opinions.

    Etymologically the word “Antinomianism” means antagonism, or opposition to the Law. By usage it meant without the help of the Law, independence of it, and elevation above it. In Europe the sect known as Antinomians were disciples of John Agricola, a tailor born at Eisleben in 1492 who later became a university scholar and preacher. As a disciple, and later an opponent of Luther, Agricola had carried to an extreme the doctrine of justification by faith in opposition to works. And while he later renounced his error, all who held to direct revelation were thereafter called “Antinomians.”5

    Those who were infected by the heresy trusted to an inner assurance of being brought into a right relation with God by direct revelation of His Spirit. They claimed to have “individual revealings” from God. But delusion, enthusiasm, and self-deception were the perils of the doctrine. As Cotton himself later realized, an extreme emphasis on the freeness of grace, no matter how strenuously one held to the Law, could easily lead to Antinomian opinions. “If any shall accuse the doctrine of the covenant of free grace of Antinomianism,” he wrote, “and say it teacheth men freedom from the Law, we see how false such an aspersion would be.”6 But “false” or not, this is what happened; and herein lies the irony of the Antinomian Controversy in Massachusetts: for Cotton, who conceived of conversion in terms of legal constraint, was ultimately responsible for, and initially backed, a heresy which denied the use of the Law. As Perry Miller has said, out of Cotton’s “radical disjunction between nature and grace,” the Boston Antinomians derived their conclusion that “no works could have anything to do with justification.”7 Therefore nothing, even “legal terrors,” could be offered as “evidence” before absolute assurance. In other words, they denied preparation on grounds which were clearly an offshoot from Cotton’s views, but significantly different and more extreme. Indeed, it was not until the controversy was well under way that the teacher of the Boston church began to realize the full significance of this.

    In the autumn of 1634, on 18 September, a boatload of immigrants arrived at Boston. Among them was Anne Hutchinson, a woman of mature years, who had been under Cotton’s ministry in Lincolnshire. She had come to New England, she said, “but for Mr. Cotton’s sake.” As for Mr. Hooker, she “liked not his spirit.” Soon she began holding meetings to discuss Cotton’s sermons with the women of the Boston church. Later the men joined in. At the same time she advanced the theory that anything short of a conscious feeling of union with God was a covenant of works; while being under a covenant of grace meant undoubted assurance of salvation. At first Cotton gave large support to her and her followers, for he regarded her views as a valuable means by which “many of the women (and by them their husbands) were convinced they had gone on in a covenant of works.” But in time matters began to get out of hand. In October 1635, Henry Vane, the youthful son of an influential royal counselor, landed at Boston. And the colony, which had tired of John Winthrop as governor, and had tried both Thomas Dudley and John Haynes in the job, elected Vane. It was not long before Vane declared himself an active supporter of Mrs. Hutchinson; and through their combined influence the Boston church came over to the Antinomian persuasion.8 Only the pastor, John Wilson, and ex-governor Winthrop, a leading member of the church, opposed the movement inside the church itself. But the ministers of the other towns, among them Thomas Hooker and Thomas Shepard at Newtown, strongly supported their opposition to the Antinomian faction. Then in May 1636, as Hooker was leaving for Connecticut, the opposition was thwarted by the arrival of another Hutchinsonian supporter, Anne’s brother-in-law, the Reverend John Wheelwright. The Antinomians wanted to install Wheelwright as a second teacher at the Boston church. Winthrop and Wilson managed to block their efforts, and to arrange that Wheelwright be given the church at Mount Wollaston, outside Boston. But the situation soon got out of hand, as the Bostonians now accused their own pastor, John Wilson, of teaching a covenant of works.9

    The historian Charles M. Andrews (1863–1943) believes that a letter from one Robert Stansby to Wilson (which contains the remark, “There is great division of judgment in matters of religion . . . which moved Mr. Hooker to remove,”) refers not only to the controversy in general, but to a personal dispute between Hooker and Cotton on the subject of faith and works.1 Andrews cites as further evidence a letter received at the Colonial Office, London, dated 3 January 1637, from a Mr. Law, minister in the Barbados Islands. Law submits certain “grievances of the clergy” for consideration by Church authorities, and asks “Whether there be any saving preparation in a Christian soul before his union with Christ.” This, says Law, is “Hooker’s opinion,” whereas Cotton is “against him and his party in all.”2 The eighteenth-century historian Thomas Hutchinson (1711–1780) tells us that “the great influence which Mr. Cotton had in the colony inclined Mr. Hooker to remove to some place more remote from Boston than Newtown. . . . Some of the principle persons were strongly attached to one of them, and some to the other.”3

    In the autumn of 1636, several months after Hooker had gone, Winthrop wrote a document listing his arguments against the Hutchinsonians. Before submitting it to his opponents, he sent it to Shepard for approval. Although the text has since been lost, Shepard’s criticism shows how sensitive the preparationists had now become to the vulnerability of their doctrine. On 15 December 1636, Shepard wrote to Winthrop:

    In your 5 argument your words are out of the parable of the sower; a man must have an honest and good heart before the Word can have any saving effect. That is as I expound, briefly; before the Word work faith to believe to Justification, the heart must be made honest and good, in preparation; which though it be a truth which for the substance of I have ever held and would not deny, yet an adversary will or may take much advantage upon the starting of so deep and doubtful a question, and may keep you off from the pursuit of his errors by persuing you for this, wherein he knows many of your friends that would stand by you in other controversies will be against you in this; and so while you are about to convince them of errors, they will proclaim yourself to hold forth worse.4

    We may assume, on the basis of this letter, that Winthrop preferred to destroy his document rather than open himself to charges of Arminianism.5 He was not, after all, a professional theologian.

    That same December of 1636 the ministers of the colony gathered in Boston to debate with Mrs. Hutchinson, who now openly proclaimed that only Cotton and Wheelwright preached the covenant of grace, while the rest of the clergy were under a covenant of works. On the last day of the year Cotton publicly rebuked John Wilson for teaching “sanctifying methods severely exacting,” while he himself taught “heart piety . . . self-assuring.”6 Twice during the autumn and winter of 1636–1637 Cotton was asked by his fellow ministers to answer in writing their questions on the disputed points. When asked whether there are any conditions in the soul before receiving the promises, Cotton answered, “Before regeneration we are not active at all in any spiritual Christian action”; for “Works of creation . . . needeth no preparation.” All a man can expect, he said, is “restraining grace to keep him from known sins,” and “constraining grace to provoke him to duty.” When hard pressed on this point, Cotton cried, “Let Calvin answer for me!”7

    The Synod held in the late summer of 1637, now called the Hutchinsonian Synod, had been suggested by Thomas Shepard as the only way to deal with the controversy. Cotton, in spite of the threat it presented to his doctrine, hoped that the meeting would clear up the prevailing confusion. As yet he could not be convinced that his theology had anything to do with the current wave of enthusiasm. Therefore he would take the opportunity fully to present his case. How could he, of all preachers, be held responsible for the rise of Antinomianism? Did he not, after all, preach the efficacy of the Law more vigorously than most? Hooker, interestingly enough, had originally opposed the calling of a Synod, as he believed such a gathering would “make things more and worse than they are.” In April 1637, he had written to Shepard from Hartford: “Your general Synod, I cannot see either how reasonable or how salutary it will be for your turn, for the settling and establishing the truth.”8 But Shepard, who had never run from Cotton, was determined to have the matter settled. His reply to Hooker, since lost, apparently convinced the Connecticut pastor to come back to Massachusetts and stand his ground. Accordingly, on 5 August, two days after Vane had sailed back to England in disgrace, Hooker arrived in Boston; and the Synod’s opening date was fixed for 30 August 1637, at Newtown.9

    Here, in the rude meetinghouse with “a bell upon it,” the leading New England divines gathered for the first Congregational Synod in America.

    With Thomas Hooker and Peter Bulkeley as moderators, the Synod held its sessions twenty-four days, during which time eighty-two “erroneous errors” were confuted and condemned. The majority of these, all of which were said to be held by the Hutchinsonians, either directly or indirectly denied the concept of preparation. The “errors,” collected by John Winthrop, were published by Thomas Weld in A Short Story (1644). They contain the following representations:

    Error: There can be no true closing with Christ in a promise that hath a qualification or condition expressed.

    Confutation: This opinion we conceive erroneous, contrary to Isaiah 55:1, “Ho, every one that thirsteth come ye to the waters.”

    Error: The Spirit acts most in the Saints when they endeavor least. Confutation: The more we endeavor, the more assistance and help we have from Him . . . Ask, seek, knock.1

    Weld, elected preacher of the Roxbury church in 1632, lists in his Preface to A Short Story some of the other errors discussed at the Synod:2 “That a man is united to Christ only by the work of the Spirit upon him, without any act of his; that a man is never effectually Christ’s till he hath assurance; that this assurance is only from the witness of the Spirit.” One of the “unsavory speeches” confuted by the Synod (delivered either by Anne Hutchinson or Wheelwright), clearly states the Antinomians’ position: “Here is great stir about graces and looking to hearts, but give me Christ. I seek not for graces but for Christ. I seek not for promises but for Christ. . . . Tell me not of meditations and duties, but tell me of Christ.”3

    Cotton refused to sign the official document listing the errors, as he would not condemn them all. But by now he had begun to fear for his own well-being. He may have realized at last that the doctrine he preached lay behind virtually all the errors cited. He was, indeed, in greater danger than ever before. “There was a dark day at the Synod,” wrote Cotton Mather, when his grandfather denied that the first motions of faith are preparatory to effectual conversion. “But after sorrowful discourses . . . Mr. Cotton the next morning made an excellent speech unto the assembly tending toward an accommodation of the controversy . . . an happy conclusion of the whole matter.”4

    The “matter,” however, had not as yet been brought to the “happy conclusion” Mather would have us believe. Although Cotton, as the Synod progressed, now willingly condemned additional errors, still he would not entirely disassociate himself from the opinions his followers expressed. What is remarkable about his behavior is not that he began to alter his position, but that he remained in the opposition so long; for the critical charge against the Antinomians was not that they denied preparation as such, but that they denied it on the basis of immediate revelations. This meant that they scorned not only the necessity of the Word—the basis of Christianity, the foundation of the Christian community—but of the Law, by which man is made conscious of his sins. Another “error” Weld lists is that “the Law and the preaching of it is no use at all to drive a man to Christ.” Yet Cotton would not sign the document which condemned this error! How, then, can we explain his support of the Hutchinsonians beyond the point which he, intellectually, was willing to go?

    Until now Cotton believed that he still had control over the Boston group. If certain wayward enthusiasts had gone to extremes, he was sure he could bring them round to his own convictions. In fact, he had identified himself with the Bostonians to such an extent that he fully believed their cause to be his own. Therefore it was not until he realized that the efficacy of the Law had clearly been challenged that he turned his back on the Antinomians once and for all. Only when members of his church attending the Synod began to contest errors he himself had condemned, did he alter his course. From that moment on he shifted his emphasis from the degree to which his doctrine supported their views to the degree to which it fell in line with the opinions of his fellow preachers. And when the Boston laymen left the Synod in disgust, he pronounced “some of the opinions to be blasphemous, some of them heretical, many of them erroneous, and all of them incommodiously expressed.”5

    The Synod adjourned 22 September, but the Hutchinsonians remained defiant of its conclusions; and so the General Court took matters into its own hands. At the November session Anne Hutchinson and John Wheelwright were put on trial; and in these proceedings we gain additional insight into Cotton’s continuing dilemma. Although he knew by now that Mrs. Hutchinson had departed from his doctrine far more than at first he had suspected, still he could not believe she had committed the crime of heresy.

    Then the Court laid to her charge the reproach she had cast upon the ministers, and ministry of this country, saying that none of them did preach the covenant of free grace but master Cotton. . . . Because they pressed much for faith and love without holding forth such an immediate witness of the Spirit as she pretended. . . . Then she appealed to Mr. Cotton, who being called and desired to declare what he remembered of her speeches, said that he remembered only that which took impression on him, for he was much grieved that she should make such comparison between him and his brethren; but yet he took her meaning to be only of a gradual difference, when she said that they did not hold forth a covenant of free grace as he did. . . . Upon this the Court wished her to consider that Mr. Cotton did in a manner agree with the testimony of the rest of the elders.6

    But Cotton, although he had satisfied the ministers to some extent, still would not condemn Mrs. Hutchinson’s revelations. For all he had to say about the necessity of legal constraint, he was strangely ambivalent on the subject of revelations. We may even suspect that he himself had at one time been drawn to the Antinomian persuasion; for he wrote: “You have heard of many that have attended to revelations, that have been deceived. . . . But yet on the other side, let not men be afraid, and say that we have no revelation but the Word: for I do believe, and dare confidently affirm, that if there were no revelations but the Word, there would be no spiritual grace revealed to the soul; for it is more than the Letter of the Word that is required to it. . . . There is need of greater light than the Word of itself is able to give.”7 While this statement is not extreme, it may shed some light on what now took place at the trial, as Cotton at first hesitated on the question of revelations. Indeed, if we again ask ourselves why Cotton was so reluctant to abandon the cause of his parishioners, we may find a partial explanation here. Thomas Dudley, the new deputy governor, cross-examined him:

    Dep. Gov.: I desire Mr. Cotton to tell us whether you do approve of Mrs. Hutchinson’s revelations as she hath laid them down.

    Mr. Cotton: I know not whether I do understand her. . . .

    Dep. Gov.: Do you believe that her revelations are true?

    Mr. Cotton: That she may have some special providence of God to help her is a thing I cannot bear witness against.

    Dep. Gov.: Sir, you weary me and do not satisfy me.8

    Before the trial was over, however, Cotton had changed his ground. When he realized that her denial of preparation was based entirely on divine illumination, he drew the line and turned against her. He came to see the danger of her stand, not only for his position in the colony, but for his own conception of conversion. As much as he may have sympathized with her views on revelations, he more greatly prized the finality of Scripture and the efficacy of the Law. He had backed her initially because she had denied preparation; but her insistence on divine illumination threatened the supremacy of biblical authority, and with it the very foundations of the state. Her opinions and practices, as Winthrop later recalled, had been the “cause of all our disturbances” in that “such bottomless revelations as either came without any word or without the sense of the word . . . if they be allowed in one thing, must be admitted a rule in all things; for they being above . . . Scripture, they are not subject to control.”9 And so, after she and Wheelwright had been sentenced to banishment by the Court, a trial for excommunication was held before the Boston church. At this trial, in March of 1638, Cotton became her chief prosecutor.

    If at first he thought he might finally correct her errors, and so save her from banishment and excommunication, his hopes were soon quashed; for as the ministers of the Bay again gathered, they heard Anne Hutchinson proclaim: “I do not acknowledge any graces in us accompanying salvation before conversion. . . . We are dull to act in spiritual things savingly.” Had Cotton been able to avoid the subject of preparation; had he simply persuaded her to deny her revelations outright; he might have saved her. But to the mind of Mrs. Hutchinson, Cotton’s own rejection of a preparatory phase was still the chief source for her doctrine of sudden conversion. Just the year before Cotton had told these same ministers: “Before regeneration we are not active at all in any spiritual Christian action . . . passive to receive help from God to do it.” Now Thomas Weld spoke to the ministers: “She told me that Mr. Cotton and she were both of one mind, and she held no more than Mr. Cotton did in these things.” Whereupon Cotton turned to Mrs. Hutchinson and said: “I confess I did not know you held any of these things . . . but it may be it was my sleepiness and want of watchful care over you.”1 And with these words he not only cut himself off from her for good, but denied what had been a basic tenet of his public theology. Indeed, in no other way could he escape from the dilemma which enclosed him.

    As the church trial came to an end, Thomas Shepard admonished Mrs. Hutchinson for having slighted the ministers of the colony. Had she not accused them of preaching a covenant of works? To which she replied: “It was never in my heart to slight any man, but only that man should be kept in his own place and not set in the room of God.” Then Cotton, whom she claimed as the source of her opinions, pronounced the sentence of excommunication. We are told that “first he remembered her of the good way she was in her first coming, in helping to discover to divers the false bottom they stood upon in trusting to legal works without Christ. Then he showed her how by falling into these gross and fundamental errors she had lost the honor of her former service.” “I confess,” said Cotton, “I have not been ready to believe reports, and have been slow of proceeding against any of our members for want of sufficient testimony to prove that which hath been laid to their charge. But now they have proceeded in a way of God, and do bring such testimony as doth evince the truth of what is affirmed, it would be our sin if we should not join in the same, which we are willing to do.”2 And when she left the church, the concept of preparation, in which man is assigned a part to play of his own, had triumphed over seizure, whether by legal constraint or direct revelation.

    With the trial over, Cotton considered moving to New Haven, as it was hard for him to remain in a situation where respect for his doctrine had been considerably diminished. Shepard, for one, was convinced that “Mr. Cotton repents not, but is hid only”; and others saw him as “the Trojan Horse, out of which all the erroneous opinions and differences of the country did issue forth.”3 Winthrop, on the other hand, was determined that the teacher at the Boston church should stay; for his leaving would indicate to the mother country that the colonists in New England were far from united in their theology. And Cotton finally agreed that this was by far the most important consideration. If it was necessary to compromise on doctrine, he would do so for the sake of the Holy Commonwealth.

    In his preaching after the controversy, Cotton stressed the efficacy of the Law as he had done before. But he realized, at last, that it was also necessary to stress the drawing activities of the Spirit—if only to avoid another Antinomian reaction. This is not to say that he altered his doctrine in a radical way. Quite to the contrary. He neither discarded his low conception of baptism, nor considered the conditional promises to be efficacious. As he now viewed the process of conversion, he insisted that we must, in a sense, respond to the gifts of the Spirit. But more than likely, he asserted, it may “be our death that we come not off in duties with spiritual life.”4 It was not until the mid-1640’s, when the need to defend the Congregational Way became his chief concern, that he began to attribute the least degree of efficacy to federal grace. Even then, however, he refused to concede any direct correlation betwen “common graces” and effectual conversion.

    After her excommunication, Anne Hutchinson went to Portsmouth, Rhode Island, where she lived until 1642. The following year she moved to Westchester county, where she was murdered by the Indians. Wheelwright went to Exeter, New Hampshire, which he helped to settle. Later he repudiated his stand and returned to Massachusetts, where in 1679 he died peacefully as minister of the Salisbury church.5 But the issue of preparation was far from resolved by the banishments; for the Puritan churches soon after the Antinomian Controversy began their debates on the extent of church membership and the right to baptism. In these debates, which were determined to a large extent by the changing state of affairs in England as well as America, preparation remained an important and lively issue.