Anne Hutchinson, Roger Williams, Quakers and Beyond! The Question of the Puritans 3

Continuing my posting of my comprehensive exam answers. What follows is the second part of the first question relating to early colonial religion. Part One of Question 1 can be found here and Part Two is here.

Roger Williams sought an even more pure expression than even the Baptist, putting him in the category, one might say, of a sanctified Seeker, always looking for the pure expression of the church and unwilling to compromise with less pure expressions. And it was precisely the willingness to compromise that helped the Puritans continue a variously integrated expression in the colonies and in England. But they would not compromise on everything. Something that Anne Hutchinson found out. As a key element of ecclesial renewal was about leadership and authority, the Puritans in the colonies were no less wary of challenges to their authority than the leaders in the Church of England back in the home country.

This led to the persecuted becoming persecutors as they sought to maintain their chosen expression of church and community. Hutchinson and her family had followed John Cotton to the colonies, becoming a leading and influential family, both as merchants and as religious lay leaders. In the Hutchinson narrative, however, we see a distinct fissure in Puritan theology, that had the potential of causing a rift in the earliest years. The question was how one might know they were
among the elect.

Some, including John Winthrop and Thomas Shepard, asserted it was through the following of the law, a sanctified expression revealed the justified life. This legalistic approach, truly nomist, was contrasted by what may be considered a more mystical expression. Works are to be avoided, and it is only a direct testimony of God to the person that reveals who is saved.

This was given the pejorative title of antinomianism, as it was seen as being against the law, and thus affiliating it with the more scandalous antinomian expressions such as occurred at the oft cited Muenster excesses. However, Hutchinson and others, including her brother in law Thomas Wheelwright and most likely John Cotton, sought a holy life but did not see this holy life as a sign of their salvation.

As an early lay leader, Hutchinson was a visible expression of this developing fissure. While it may be suggested it was in her identity as a woman that she caused scandal, overstepping her bounds, this likely was not at the root of the core issue. Indeed, the willingness to have lay leaders and discussion groups and religious fellowship societies in addition to the established services of the church was one of the key ways Puritanism was expressed wherever it was found. As a leader of a very popular Bible discussion group, Hutchinson was expressing what troubled the establishment Church of England hierarchy about Puritanism in general, it was emphasizing a popular religious movement that had only a cursory connection with clearly defined hiearchical control.

The commitment to the unity of the church was then seen as suspect, and this is precisely what also raised suspicion in the leaders of the Puritan colony. In the course of her trial, determining if she rejected the ministerial leadership, Hutchinson went several steps farther than what might have been expected. She not only increasingly protested the faithfulness of the Puritan leaders, she also increasingly claimed her own authority, an authority given to her and to others& God himself. She may have expected more support from key leaders, but her brother-in-law was likewise in trouble, the wealthy and influential Henry Vane left for England and did not return, and John Cotton—for whom she moved to the colonies—disassociated from her and her positions, quite possibly less as a matter of belief and more as to save his own position.

In their attempt to ward off fissures and separation, the Puritans leaders continued to seek balance within the contexts of a continuing reform of the Church of England. They pushed back, often strongly, against those who would seek to define themselves as a church in contrast to the Church of England. Williams and the Baptists were thus resisted, but because they were willing to exist outside the bounds of Puritan territory they were tolerated and increasingly understood, even if not agreed with. While Williams rejected the idea of a ‘hireling’ ministry he still saw the importance of clear religious leadership and training, holding to his own expression of nomist Puritanism.

The Baptists, likewise, sought such reforms as required separation, but they also saw the importance of clear ministerial leadership and sought to give renewed definition to the core attributes of the church rather than strike them down entirely. As such, they challenged traditional expressions, as did the Puritans, but did not challenge the whole structure.

The Quakers did. Indeed, it might be argued that the Quakers took the radical reforming of Roger Williams even further. They took up the radical positions that God truly does speak to each person, and indeed this direct interaction is more trustworthy than church leadership, tradition, or even Scripture. This latter point, though, is sometimes misunderstood. George Fox and the early Quakers did not reject Scripture, nor did they undermine it or relegate it to as being unimportant. It was considered a secondary resource, with the Holy Spirit as the primary guide, echoing what Jesus said in John 14.

Instead of dismissing Scripture’s authority, they attacked the interpretive framework of ordained clergy, arguing that in the power of the Spirit an uneducated Quaker might have a better sense of the true meaning than an educated clergyman. In doing this, the Quakers radically pushed the puritans goals to their extremes, arguing that the church was a work of God, not an expression of rules or traditions. They thus found no need for clergy or even the Lord’s Supper or Baptism. In this respect, it has been argued that the Quakers were an extreme expression of the fourth category of Puritanism, that of mysticism. While the first, that of nomism, was clearly the priority of the Puritans in Massachusetts, the second, that of Evangelical Piety, found more quiet expression in England in the early parts of the 1 7th century, and the third, the rationalist, found an even smaller expression in England, the mystical expression found a wide variety of continuing expression both in the colonies and in Britain.

For the most part, this could be categorized as a classical mysticism, one that followed traditional models of heightened prayer and spiritual devotions, as expressed throughout the centuries. The Quakers, however, radicalized this mysticism into a holistic direction, applying their embrace of a wide and active work of the Spirit to their whole understanding of community and church.

Indeed, this emphasis on the work of the Holy Spirit, especially in Fox and Barclay, might make the term mysticism a bit of a misnomer. Among the many categories of heresy in the 17″ century, enthusiasm was a popular one. An enthusiastic mysticism might be expressed in all kinds of ways, lacking restraint or focus. However, Fox and later Barclay, were not simple enthusiasts, but rather stated both an experience and a theological foundation of the Holy Spirit, leading the early Quakers to be more of a deeply pneumatological movement, and thus grounded theologically, rather than a rootless mysticism based solely in experience.

However it might be termed, though, it was clear that Quakers presented the most radical challenge to the establishment and to the Puritan movement. While many other movements veered off into clear heresy, the Quakers were more trouble, as they continued to embrace a more or less consistent orthodox understanding of God with a highly radicalized understanding of Christian community. They could not be so easily lumped into any of the many categories of heresies, and continued to stand up to the establishment as being an even more faithful representation of continued work of God.

The Puritans found themselves, curiously enough, on the front lines in defending the Church of England against this much more radical expression. The Quakers pressed the themes of the Puritans even farther than the Puritans were comfortable with, indeed pushing farther the themes that both Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams endorsed. It is in light of the curious pressing toward continued reformation while continuing to strongly resist outright separation that the Puritan movement is now best understood. It is not a simple movement to categorize, and focusing on specific expressions or priorities often hides as much as it reveals. Overall, it was a movement that sought to bring to the Church of England a more holistic expression and through the renewing of this church to be a light to the country and a light to the world.

In this pursuit the Puritans would not conform to the establishment but neither would they separate. They would dissent when necessary, even if this dissent caused them to be pushed out of the established bounds. For, even if they were arguing that they were on the side of the Church of England, the structures of power saw them as a danger, politically and ecclesiastically, making occasionally dramatic moves to isolate them. However, as a renewal movement, the Puritans themselves became increasingly incorporated within the overall Church of England, and by the time the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Puritans may have nominally still existed in the form of Dissenters, but the force of their renewal had been left behind. This did not, however, mean the Puritan impulse itself was over. It just was to find a new name, a new leader, with the same sort of tenuous relationship with the mother church.

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