The Precisianist Strain

The Precisianist Strain: Disciplinary Religion and Antinomian Backlash in Puritanism to 1638

Theodore Dwight Bozeman
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  • Book Info
    The Precisianist Strain
    Book Description:

    In an examination of transatlantic Puritanism from 1570 to 1638, Theodore Dwight Bozeman analyzes the quest for purity through sanctification. The word "Puritan," he says, accurately depicts a major and often obsessive trait of the English late Reformation: a hunger for discipline.The Precisianist Strainclarifies what Puritanism in its disciplinary mode meant for an early modern society struggling with problems of change, order, and identity.Focusing on ascetic teachings and rites, which in their severity fostered the "precisianist strain" prevalent in Puritan thought and devotional practice, Bozeman traces the reactions of believers put under ever more meticulous demands. Sectarian theologies of ease and consolation soon formed in reaction to those demands, Bozeman argues, eventually giving rise to a "first wave" of antinomian revolt, including the American conflicts of 1636-1638. Antinomianism, based on the premise of salvation without strictness and duty, was not so much a radicalization of Puritan content as a backlash against the whole project of disciplinary religion. Its reconceptualization of self and responsibility would affect Anglo-American theology for decades to come.

    eISBN: 978-1-4696-0102-1
    Subjects: Religion, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. xi-2)
    (pp. 3-8)

    In late Tudor and early Stuart England many were gripped by the belief that the Elizabethan Settlement of 1559 had arrested the English Reformation at an immature stage. With much disagreement on details, they still shared a desire to resume and complete the process. In time some came to judge the national church irreformable and made a Separatist schism, but a majority improvised ways to live with present imperfections, to adjust as well to ever-changing political and cultural circumstances, and yet to continue the witness for further reformation. This study examines one facet of their witness: Christianity, whatever else it...


    • CHAPTER 1 Disciplinary Themes in the English Reformation
      (pp. 11-28)

      The first decades of Elizabeth’s reign were a polarizing time. Reflecting the temperate aims of the religious settlement of 1559, the outlook of, say, John Whitgift, Richard Field, or Richard Hooker was measurably less personal and exacting than that of the presbyterian militants who came to the fore in the 1570s and 1580s. Nowhere was the contrast sharper than in disciplinary issues. All defenders of the arrangements of 1559 emphasized law and moral reformation, but within a context of moderation and conformity. Favoring more and more the liturgical religion of the Book of Common Prayer, seeking quiet and collective consent...

    • CHAPTER 2 Disciplinary Themes of the Presbyterian Movement
      (pp. 29-39)

      Conservative defenders of the arrangements of 1559 had good reason to berate Thomas Cartwright (1535–1603) and his presbyterian peers as disciplinary extremists. Presbyterian theology, to begin with, belonged to the longer curve of development traced above. It endorsed the special commitments to moral transformation, law, and duty evident in pre-Marian theology and tended toward rigorous versions of Reformed soteriology. Sheer grace and faith only, the Lutheran core, were ever prominent but commonly paired and occasionally blended with behavioral requirements. Faithandworks, gospelandlaw, NewandOld Testament, individualandcommunal redemption: these and other ubiquitous pairs reproduced...

    • CHAPTER 3 Discipline as Stabilizer in Shifting Times
      (pp. 40-60)

      In presbyterian visions of reformation, the theological ellipse of pre-Marian days still held firmly in place. Yet its disciplinary pole, buttressed by calls for strictness and exactitude and by the canons of Deuteronomy, now stood more prominent. To prepare for later discussion of the Puritan pietist phase, we must try to give a fuller account of this development. Presbyterian ideals were related to earlier phases of the English and Continental Reformations, but they reflected too a variety of contemporary cares and opportunities. Presbyterians were harsh critics of the Roman church, and their struggle for moral reform met a need to...


    • CHAPTER 4 Richard Greenham and the First Protestant Pietism
      (pp. 63-83)

      Despondency aptly describes Puritanism after 1590:

      The early Elizabethan Puritans were the first wave of the [Puritan] movement. . . . [Their phase] ended about 1590 with the ignominious collapse of the presbyterian classis movement and the Marprelate scandal. Once more after 1640, Puritans and parliamentarians . . . took the initiative. . . . But for the period between 1590 and 1640—the middle span of Puritanism—the story was different. . . . This half-century was Puritanism’s slough of despondency.

      The term, indeed, encapsulates the nonseparatists’ sense of grudging resignation to a church they had failed to reform....

    • CHAPTER 5 Piety and Self-Management after Richard Greenham
      (pp. 84-104)

      Timely and cogently recast in Protestant idiom, the project of self-command through an ordered praxis of piety rapidly was adopted by the spiritual brotherhood of godly but generally moderate clergy who were coming to the fore at the turn of the sixteenth century and were to dominate Puritan theological and pastoral expression in the decades following. William Perkins (1558–1602) was chief among them in the early stage, breaking upon the scene in the late 1580s with a rapid succession of edifying treatises, many in multiple editions. With few exceptions, they were explicit media of the new spirituality. Since many...

    • CHAPTER 6 Introspection and Self-Control
      (pp. 105-120)

      Puritans in an age of piety aspired to surpass the dull average of religious conviction and practice, and one factor nerving them to aim high was belief that an improved regimen of introspection would enhance self-control. Self-control: this theme, propounded and refined over several decades in a steady barrage of sermons, personal counsels, and books aimed at the laity, not only was central to the new pietism, but it also was to become a great precipitant of antinomianism after about 1620. Thus it must figure large in our story. Making the expanded array of devotional rites subservient to the struggle...

    • CHAPTER 7 Cases of Conscience
      (pp. 121-144)

      Martin Luther’s preoccupation with the tormented conscience echoed anxieties widely shared on the eve of the Reformation. Since, for the medieval Christian, redemption could be assured “only in direct proportion to the degree to which the Christian is no longer sinfulin re,”anticipation of the Judgment seldom was free from fear and unrest. Yet a series of pre-Reformation developments closely related to the Catholic penitential system worked further to complicate the relation between morality and assurance. In the penitential manuals of the sixth through the tenth centuries, emphasis fell upon the gross and public transgression; there was less interest...

    • CHAPTER 8 More Piety and More Doubt
      (pp. 145-168)

      At once the most prolific Elizabethan Puritan writer and the new piety’s greatest literary popularizer, William Perkins shared the doctrinal and practical essentials described above (Chapters 4–7), including the belief that religious certainty flowed jointly from the Spirit’s inward testimony and from signs of a regenerate life. His concern with the problem of assurance was especially evident in his doctrine of “a little or weak faith.” A famous leitmotiv of his spiritual counsel, it was the subject of his 1597 tractA Graine of Musterd-Seede. Designed expressly for “troubled . . . consciences,” it stated that even the smallest...

    • CHAPTER 9 Taking Stock: Piety’s Gains and Costs
      (pp. 169-180)

      By early Stuart times the pietist way had created a legacy of grinding demand and, for some, a large potential for confusion and unfulfillment. Not without reason, Jean Delumeau makes it the supreme example of the unrelievedly morbid, ascetic, guiltand fear-ridden spirituality that he finds pervasive in early modern Europe. Such a reading is understandable, yet overstated. It would have rung untrue to Puritan saints, most of whom deemed their penitential rigors not only endurable but fulfilling. Certainly the practice of piety, taken in the strictest sense, was impossibly hard. A composite of the godly life drawn from the works...


    • CHAPTER 10 John Eaton and the Antinomian First Wave
      (pp. 183-210)

      Our modern understanding of early New England’s antinomian conflict has been enriched by a growing appreciation of its English roots. It is now clear that the controversial ideas of Anne Hutchinson, John Wheelwright, and their followers must be understood in the context of a theological insurgency that predated the founding of the Bay colony. Almost certainly the American antinomians drew upon English antecedents. Before their emigration, Thomas Hooker, John Cotton, John Davenport, and possibly other Massachusetts clergy had jousted with antinomian doctrines. Thomas Shepard briefly had been drawn to the Grindletonian variant (discussed below) early in his religious pilgrimage. Martha...

    • CHAPTER 11 John Cotton: Antinomian Adumbrations
      (pp. 211-230)

      Since by and large the religiosity of early congregational New England was shaped by the pietist way, it is easy to understand why the largest insurgency of free grace before the midcentury period of turmoil in England happened there. In that eruption, however, an eminent pietist divine was to play a cardinal role. John Cotton in midcareer made two seemingly contradictory moves. First, he joined the emergent congregational wing of the fraternity. But, even as he affirmed the strong disciplinary commitments of the congregational way, he began to develop contrary tendencies. Unwilling to break with the tradition of Richard Greenham...

    • CHAPTER 12 John Cotton in America: Hypocrisy and Crisis
      (pp. 231-256)

      In light of the Puritan pietist awakening and the antinomian backlash it evoked, it is time to approach the famed controversy that wracked Massachusetts in 1636–1638. The key ingredients were in place by mid-1636, and John Cotton, teacher at Boston’s First Church, his disciple Anne Hutchinson, and possibly Henry Vane (invited lodger in Cotton’s house and member of First Church, elected governor in May) were catalysts. Completing a doctrinal shift begun in Lincolnshire, Cotton by that date had begun to air opinions akin to those of John Eaton and other exponents of free grace in the parent country. The...

    • CHAPTER 13 John Cotton in America: Transcendent Gifts and Operations
      (pp. 257-280)

      In America, Cotton retrenched the holy walk, but he did so by accenting the vintage Puritan urge to make religion less human and more divine. The objects of his critique were akin to the liturgical and ecclesiological “human inventions” that Puritans long had assailed. To the practice of piety in the 1630s he applied the same rule he was to apply to New England lawmaking in the 1640s—that the more a statute “smells of man, the more unprofitable.” Yet, to remove the human savor, a critique of duties, conditions, and qualifications was but an initial step. A positive strategy...

    • CHAPTER 14 John Cotton and the American Antinomians
      (pp. 281-305)

      New England’s free grace movement was a varied blend. It was shaped in part by the exceptional religious excitements and freedoms of the early years as well as by the difficulties and uncertainties of the Great Migration and early settlement in a wilderness. Most of the insurgents were members of Boston’s First Church. Several—including William Coddington, Atherton Hough, Thomas Leverett, William Dinely, and Oliver Mellows—had been Cotton’s parishioners in old Boston, and others had ties of family or neighborhood to the Hutchinson family in Alford, Lincolnshire; but dissidents of First Church stemmed from several English locales. If some,...

    • CHAPTER 15 The Construction of American Antinomianism
      (pp. 306-332)

      The beliefs of John Wheelwright and Anne Hutchinson can be reconstructed in some measure, but much remains obscure. Did, for example, Wheelwright approve of or tolerate his sister-in-law’s spiritist tendencies? His encounter with Hanserd Knollys earlier in the decade, at about the time of his entry by marriage into the Hutchinson family, suggests that he would have been so inclined. Yet his Fast Day sermon of 1637, focused upon what he saw as the crucial points then at issue, offers no encouragement or sanction for personal revelations beyond the seal, and in later years he stiffly denied that he ever...

    (pp. 333-342)

    This study has approached the first antinomian wave, and more particularly the American Antinomian Controversy of the mid-1630s, as an outcome of choices made and directions taken over the course of a century. Around 1615 scattered agitations arose against the Puritan pietistic faith, the dominant force in English spirituality of the time. The crux of its offense was a zest for control and purity so strict as to evoke the epithet “precise.” Perpetuating in Protestant guise the ancient mystique of Christian asceticism and contemptus mundi, building upon the strongly ethical bent of the earlier English Reformation and of Reformed Protestantism...

  10. INDEX
    (pp. 343-349)