Making Heretics

Making Heretics: Militant Protestants and Free Grace in Massachusetts, 1636-1641 by Michael P. Winship

Winship is going for a deeply revisionist account of the “antinomian controversy” (which tore through New England in the late 1630s) with Making Heretics. He even goes as far as to rename the controversy the “free grace controversy”, arguing the debate centered not around if being saved freed a person from the demands of man and god’s law but over if god gives his “free grace” to those who prepare themselves (through living a godly life) or if “free grace” comes through god’s inscrutable reasons alone. But he goes beyond that distinction to argue that historian have deeply misunderstood the conflict by centering it around Anne Hutchinson. Instead, the real focus should be on the theological and political battles between various men – especially the half-forgotten Henry Vale and Thomas Shepard. He also seeks to recast John Winthrop as much more moderate force than most modern accounts credit him as.

Centrally, according to Winship this was not a battle of structural forces (such as patriarchy vs. female assertiveness) but a fundamentally political battle whose outcome was always contingent on the various personalities involved. Also quite centrally, he argues that the controversy was not a unified orthodoxy attempting to overawe a clearly outsider/opposition heterodoxy, but instead was a product of the very divided nature of Puritanism and Puritan theology itself. The opponents of Cotton and Hutchinson, in Winship’s telling, were out on as much “theological limb” as those they criticized.

Much of Winship’s argument is well-taken – especially his argument to the centrality of Vane’s presence (or lack thereof) to the conflict. However, he simply does not take gender seriously enough. Winship argues  that recent scholarship – by focusing on Hutchinson almost exclusively – has reenforced seventeenth century assumptions instead of toppling them. However, this is not very convincing. Winship has no real explanation for why Hutchinson was singled out of all the lay radicals in Bosten (beyond that she was an easy scape-goat) nor does he not have a real examination of what it meant to be a radical in Boston (for men or women). Much of Winship’s revisionism is very convincing but his myopic focus on the ministry fails to engage with any aspect of the controversy outside that class and its concerns.

Thus Winship’s book is a compelling revision of the standard account of this controversy but not without its own flaws and shortcomings.

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Author: Roy Rogers

I am currently a PhD candidate in American History at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York (CUNY). My undergraduate education was at Shepherd University (Political Science & History) and I received an MA in History from George Mason University. As a historian, my research interests include early American history, the early American republic (1780 to 1830), political history, religious history, and gender history. I live in Brooklyn with my girlfriend and our cat.

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