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Antinomian Controversy


ANTINOMIAN CONTROVERSY, a theological dispute begun in Boston by Anne Hutchinson in the fall of 1636. She had been a parishioner and devout admirer of John Cotton in Boston, England, and with her husband followed him to the new Boston, where they were admitted to membership in the First Church. She was exceptionally intelligent, learned, and eloquent and began innocently to repeat to small weekday gatherings the substance of Cotton's sermons. Soon, however, she commenced delivering opinions of her own. At the height of her influence, about eighty persons were attending lectures in her house.

She caused turmoil by reinterpreting the clerical doctrine of the covenant of grace. The standard view held that the elect entered a covenant with God on the condition of their believing in Christ, in return for which God contracted to give them salvation. Thereafter these "justified saints" devoted themselves to good works, not in order to merit redemption but as evidence of their having been called. Hutchinson declared that stating the matter in this way put too much emphasis upon works and denied the fundamental Protestant tenet of salvation by faith alone. Consequently she preached that the believer received into his soul the very substance of the Holy Ghost and that no value whatsoever adhered to conduct as a sign of justification.

This conclusion, feared the New England clergy, would hasten the decline of morality that Protestant theologians had everywhere endeavored to resist, and it could clearly lead to disastrous social consequences. They identified in Hutchinson's teachings a form of "Antinomianism," that is, a discarding of the moral law. She made matters worse by accusing all the clergy except Cotton of preaching a covenant of works, so that, in the words of John Winthrop, the governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, it began to be as common in Massachusetts to distinguish the party of works and the party of grace "as in other countries between Protestants and papists." Thus she threatened to split the colony into factions, particularly when she was supported by her brother-in-law, the Reverend John Wheelwright, and the new young governor, Henry Vane.

The other clergy and magistrates believed that the existence of the whole colony was at stake; led by Winthrop, and employing consummately clever tactics, they regained control of the government in May 1637, then proceeded to disarm Hutchinson's partisans and suppress the movement. Hutchinson was examined by a synod of the ministers, which found her guilty of eighty erroneous opinions. John Cotton publicly repudiated her and Wheelwright was banished to New Hampshire. Hutchinson was arraigned before the general court, where she boasted of having received explicit revelations from the Holy Ghost, a possibility that no orthodox Protestant community could for a moment admit. She was excommunicated from the First Church in March 1638, John Cotton pronouncing sentence upon her, and banished from the colony by the court, whereupon she fled to Rhode Island.


Battis, Emery. Saints and Sectaries: Anne Hutchinson and the Antinomian Controversy in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1962.

Hall, David D., ed. The Antinomian Controversy, 1636–1638: A Documentary History. 2d ed. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1990.

Lang, Amy Scrager. Prophetic Woman: Anne Hutchinson and the Problem of Dissent in the Literature of New England. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.

Miller, Perry. Orthodoxy in Massachusetts, 1630–1650. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1933.

PerryMiller/a. r.

See alsoMysticism ; Religious Liberty ; Religious Thought and Writings ; Women in Churches .

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