The Free Grace Controversy, also known as the Antinomian Controversy, was a religious and political conflict in the Massachusetts Bay Colony from 1636 to 1638. It pitted most of the colony’s ministers and magistrates against some adherents of the Free Grace theology of Puritan minister John Cotton. The controversy was a theological debate concerning the “covenant of grace” and “covenant of works”.
Antinomianism quite literally means being “against or opposed to the law” and was a term used by critics of those Massachusetts colonists who advocated the preaching of “free grace”. The term implied behavior that was immoral and heterodox, being beyond the limits of religious orthodoxy. The free grace advocates were also called Anabaptists and Familists, groups that were considered heretical in New England.
The conflict initially involved a difference in views concerning “religious works” or behavior, as well as the presence and role of the Holy Spirit. For example, the Puritan majority held the view that an individual’s salvation is demonstrated by righteous behavior or “good works,” while the Antinomians argued that one’s spiritual condition had no bearing upon one’s outward behavior. However, the debate quickly changed, as the Antinomians began to claim that personal revelation was equivalent to Scripture, under the influence of Anne Hutchinson’s teachings, while the Puritan majority held that the Bible was the final authority, taking precedence over any personal viewpoints.
The debate was one of the earliest debates in American history regarding religious freedom/expression of one’s viewpoint not being higher than another’s. The ideology of one’s religious practice over another’s, many centuries later, is still a struggle that the American spiritual “norm” continues to face. Although the Puritans were a very strict Protestant belief, while Christianity was the minority/not even existing, the times have switched gears into making Christianity the dominant religion of America. Yet, those that were once persecuted for being Christian or even Catholic have began to persecute others for not following their beliefs within recent hundreds of years. This can be seen with the intolerance of Muslim, Eastern Orthodox, Judaism, and other non-western religious beliefs. It seems that no matter what religious belief dominates a country, persecution, hatred, and control always seems to fill the body and mind of humanity’s society. But now that we are aware of the pattern, the question is, how do we break free of that cycle?