Heresy Is a Cradle

“Heresy is the eternal dawn, the morning star, the glittering herald of the day. … It is the perpetual New World, the unknown sea, toward which the brave all sail. It is the eternal horizon of progress. …Heresy is a cradle; orthodoxy, a coffin.”Robert Green Ingersoll

In the perpetually new world that is America, orthodoxy is never more than a temporary consensus. Yesterday’s heresy is today’s revelation—and today’s revelation is tomorrow’s worn out creed. Most great religious movements begin as heresies; when they cease to inspire, they are either revivified or supplanted by new heresies.

However reviled and despised their ideas might be, heretics—important historical ones like Pelagius, Martin Luther, and Giordano Bruno, and obscure contemporary sectarians like Marie-Paule Giguère, the self-styled reincarnation of the Virgin Mary and the founder of The Community of the Lady of All Nations, aka the Army of Mary—aren’t nihilists or wishy-washy relativists; they are believers par excellence. “In former days the heretic was proud of not being a heretic,” G.K. Chesterton wrote in his book Heretics. “It was the kingdoms of the world and the police and the judges who were heretics. He was orthodox.”

Heretics was published in 1905, when Victorian certainties were being sharply questioned, when Marxism, Freudianism, Einsteinian relativity, and esthetic modernism were turning the known world upside down—and when traditional belief had become a kind of heresy in its own right. A practicing Catholic and an eloquent and witty apologist for the prerogatives of mystery, Chesterton understood that the torture chambers of the Inquisition had no place in the modern world, but he feared that the age of reason was engendering horrors of its own that would beggar the imagination of a Torquemada.

Chesterton believed in original sin, but he also believed in redemption and grace. “The madman is not the man who has lost his reason,” he wrote. “The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.” For Chesterton, the particulars of orthodoxy—or for that matter of a heresy—mattered less than the all-pervading sense of seriousness that it engendered: the conviction that right and wrong were real things that genuinely existed. To be a heretic was to say no to moral complacency, to refuse to compromise one’s other-worldly ideals for the kingdoms of this world.

Consider Anne Hutchinson (1591-1643), whose arguments with mainstream Puritanism made her, at one time, the most hated woman in America. “Your opinions fret like a gangrene and spread like a leprosy, and infect far and near, and will eat out the very bowels of religion,” her erstwhile teacher Minister John Cotton admonished her, as she was excommunicated from the Church of Boston and consigned to the mercies of the wilderness. The Puritans celebrated when they received word of her death seven years later; its grisly circumstances—she and more than a dozen members of her household, including six of her fifteen children, were scalped by an Indian war party—were regarded as wondrous evidence of divine providence.

American history textbooks usually describe Anne Hutchinson as a martyr to Puritan narrow-mindedness, as an early—perhaps the first—American feminist, and a courageous champion of civil liberty and religious tolerance. There is a germ of truth in this description of her, but it does justice neither to her nor her persecutors.

The controversy that brought about Anne Hutchinson’s expulsion from Boston revolved around questions that had been roiling Christianity since its beginnings: Did good works play any role in one’s salvation, or was salvation something unmerited and unearned, a gift freely bestowed by God through Christ? If human beings are so steeped in sin that only Christ can redeem them, do they cease to be human when and if they’re saved? Since obedience to the law doesn’t earn one grace, does breaking the law cause grace to be forfeited?

Those who answer this last question in the negative are called Antinomians. The word (which means “against the law”) was coined by Martin Luther to describe the errors of his student Johannes Agricola, who argued that believing Christians might abandon every scruple without any risk to their souls. “Art thou steeped in sin, an adulterer or a thief?” he asked. “If thou believest, thou art in salvation. All who follow Moses must go to the Devil.”

Most of the particulars of Hutchinson’s alleged doctrinal errors, wrapped as they are in obscurities, are difficult for modern readers to grasp.  “Theological controversies are as a rule among the most barren of the many barren fields of historic research,” Charles Francis Adams wrote in his classic Three Episodes of Massachusetts History (1892), “and the literature of which they were so fruitful may, so far as the reader of to-day is concerned, best be described by the single word impossible.” With offhand condescension, Adams portrayed Hutchinson as an irritatingly superior busybody, a bored housewife who took a dislike to her ministers and got in over her head. “She knew much,” he sniffed, “But she talked out of all proportion to her knowledge. She had thought a good deal, and by no means clearly; having not infrequently mistaken words for ideas.”

Though the Puritans feared Antinomianism, they didn’t really believe that Hutchinson, the deeply pious mother of fifteen children, was an advocate of free love or lawlessness. But Massachusetts’s ministers keenly resented her imputation that they themselves were in error, that if they showed their flocks a way, as she put it, “it was a way to hell.” What infuriated the Puritans the most wasn’t how Hutchinson parsed this or that doctrine (when push came to shove, she would formally abjure her most extreme positions), but her implacable self-certainty. She was convinced that her way was the Godliest—God himself had told her so.

During one of her trials, she told the court how God had urged her to leave England and go to Massachusetts, where, Daniel-like, she would triumph over her ungodly persecutors. “And see this Scripture fulfilled this day in mine eyes,” she prophesied from the dock, “Therefore take heed what ye go about to do unto me, for you have no power over my body, neither can you do me any harm, for I am in the hands of the eternal Jehovah my Savior, I am at his appointment, the bounds of my habitation are cast in Heaven, no further do I esteem of any mortal man, then creatures in his hand, I fear none but the great Jehovah, which hath foretold me of these things, and do verily believe that he will deliver me out of your hands, therefore take heed how you proceed against me; for I know that for this you go about to do to me, God will ruin you and your posterity, and this whole State.”

Where had Anne Hutchinson learned such an outrageous idea—that a person can be in direct communion with God? From the Bible; from the promptings of her heart. Minister John Cotton—who would later condemn her so severely—had taught her that the inward dwelling Spirit of Christ was more than a mere metaphor or abstraction. “It is not you that speak (and consequently not you that think or do),” he had written, “But the Spirit of your Father that speaketh in you.”

Just as Antinomianism wasn’t something that Hutchinson had cooked up on her own, but an ineluctable (if morally and philosophically problematic) corollary of the doctrine of Justification by Grace Alone, there was ample biblical precedent for Hutchinson’s conviction that she could hear God’s voice. When the court demanded that she tell them how she knew that it was God who spoke to her and not the Devil, she answered with a question of her own: “How did Abraham know that it was the voice of God, when he commanded him to sacrifice his son?”

During the years of her exile, Hutchinson became a Seeker, a radical variant of Puritanism that held that all churches were false and that questioned the existence of the Trinity—but that believed in the inward dwelling spirit of Christ. Many Seekers would join George Fox’s Society of Friends, whose members the Puritans would persecute as zealously as they did Anne Hutchinson, imprisoning, banishing, and even executing them.

Charles Francis Adams might have deprecated the theological importance of the Antinomian Controversy, yet he acknowledged that it was a seminal event in American history—“the first of the many New England quickenings in the direction of social, intellectual and political development.” Hutchinson, he wrote, for all her foibles, was “the great prototype” of a New England Transcendentalist.

In a lecture at Boston’s Masonic Temple in 1842, Ralph Waldo Emerson defined the Transcendentalist as one who:

    Adopts the whole connection of spiritual doctrine. He believes in miracle, in the perpetual openness of the human mind to new influx of light and power; he believes in inspiration and in ecstasy. He wishes that the spiritual principle should be suffered to demonstrate itself to the end, in all possible applications to the state of man, without the admission of anything unspiritual; that is anything positive, dogmatic, personal.

Hutchinson had all of Emerson’s interiority, not to mention the passion of a Margaret Fuller and the principled civil disobedience of a Henry David Thoreau. But she didn’t share their broadmindedness, their universalist spirit. If Hutchinson’s faith in her own divinity anticipated their mystic raptures, she was still a Calvinist to the core, convinced of humankind’s innate depravity. The Transcendentalists’ talk of Oversoul and Godhead and Brahma would have mystified and very likely scandalized her.

But three and a half centuries after her death, she still has the power to inspire—and, just as she did in her own day, to drive some people crazy. Just as I began to write these pages, a story broke in the news about the Public School Textbook Committee that was recently appointed in Texas. One of its members, Peter Marshall (whose eponymous ministry is “dedicated to helping to restore America to its Bible-based foundations”), objected when a proposed fifth grade history textbook included Anne Hutchinson in a list of “significant colonial leaders” along with William Penn, John Smith, and Roger Williams. “Anne Hutchinson does not belong in the company of these eminent gentlemen,” Marshall wrote. “She was certainly not a significant colonial leader, and didn’t accomplish anything except getting herself exiled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for making trouble.”

Hutchinson’s troublesomeness was inscribed on her DNA. Her father Francis Marbury attended Christ College, Cambridge, and took orders for the clergy. At some point in the 1570s he penned an allegorical play in the style of the University Wits called The Marriage Between Wit and Wisdom. It was performed in London and survives today in a fragmentary and difficult-to-decipher manuscript that was transcribed, edited, and published by the Malone Society in 1961. Towards the end of the play, the allegorical figure of Wit is traduced by Idleness and thrown into jail. Before Good Nurture can secure his release, Wit is heard lamenting in his cell:

The silly bird once caught in net
if she escape alive
will come no more so nigh the snare
her freedom to deprive
but rather she will leave her haunt
the which she used before
but I alas when steed is stolen
do shut the stable door
for being often caught before
yet could I not refrain
more foolish then the witless bird
I came to hand again
Alas the chains oppress me sore
wherewith I now am laid

Though the play is a farce, the scene strikes a somber note, for Marbury would be imprisoned himself.

During Marbury’s childhood in the 1550s, the Church of England was still undecided about how Reformed it intended to be, whether it was a Catholic church with an English king filling in for the Roman pope or altogether Protestant. Edward VI, who ascended the throne in 1547, was England’s first openly Protestant ruler, but he was a weak king and his reign was short—he was just fifteen years old when he died. His Catholic successor Queen Mary executed scores of Protestants between 1553 and 1558; their stories fill the pages of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.

Zealous to purge every last vestige of Romanism from the English church, Marbury was much more of a dissenting Protestant or Puritan than a loyal Anglican. And like his daughter would be, he was an incorrigible gadfly, a provocateur. No sooner did he leave Cambridge to take a living as a deacon in Northampton than he began to publicly berate his colleagues for their ignorance and slackness. Like Wit in his play, he was twice arrested. Even so, he refused to toe the line. In November, 1578, he was arrested for libel for a third time and hauled before the ecclesiastical Court of High Commission in London.

“I come not to accuse but to defend,” Marbury declared to the presiding bishop. “But because you urge me for advantage, I say the bishops of London are guilty of the death of as many souls as have perished by the ignorance of the ministers of their making whom they know to be unable.”

“Use my Lord more reverently,” the court secretary remonstrated Marbury. “He is a peer of the Realm; I perceive your words are puffed up with pride.”

“Sir, I speak but the truth to him,” Marbury retorted. “I reverence him so far as he is reverend and I pray God to teach him to die.”

“Thou speakest of making ministers!” the bishop expostulated. William Shakespeare was only fourteen years old in 1578, but the bishop sounds uncannily like one of the officious buffoons that turn up in so many of his comedies. “Thou takest upon thyself to be a preacher, but there is nothing in thee; thou art a very ass, an idiot and a fool. Thou art courageous, nay, thou art impudent! By my troth, I think he be mad, he careth for nobody.”

When the bishop tried to reason with Marbury, to make him understand that the church could only work with the human resources it had at hand, Marbury’s comeback—categorical and utterly unanswerable—epitomizes the heretical spirit of his famous daughter: “It is better to have nothing than that which God would not have!” As the jailer conveyed Marbury off to prison, he flung back a curse disguised as a benediction: “I am to go whither it pleaseth God, but remember God’s judgments. You do me open wrong. I pray God to forgive you.”

Marbury was restored to the pulpit again two years later, at the church of St. Wilfrid’s in Alford, Lincolnshire. In addition to his duties as vicar, he served as master of the Alford Free Grammar School, where one of his students was John Smith, of Jamestown, Virginia, fame. Marbury married and had three daughters, two of whom survived; when his first wife died, he married Bridget Dryden, whose older brother’s grandson would be the poet John Dryden (yet another famous name—the world was at once much bigger and much smaller in those days). Anne was Bridget’s third child and the second to survive; twelve more would follow.

Marbury would have one last run-in with church authorities in 1590, just before Anne was born, when he criticized its ill-educated bishops as “self-seeking soul murderers.” He was placed under house arrest and remained in limbo for the next three years. It was around this time that he adapted the transcript of his earlier trial as a play and had it published in an anthology of Puritan tracts.

The lines I quoted give a fair sense of its flavor—it is livelier and much more to the point than the stylized, high-browed waggery of The Marriage Between Wit and Wisdom. Marbury’s sangfroid as he deftly turns his accusers’ judgments back on themselves can’t but remind readers of his famous daughter’s equipoise during her own trials, six decades later and a continent away. His parting words to the bishop foreshadow Anne’s after she was delivered up to Satan, accounted a “Heathen and a Publican,” and formally excommunicated from the Church of Boston. “The Lord judgeth not as man judgeth,” she said as she walked out of the meeting house for the last time. “Better to be cast out of the church than to deny Christ.”

It was a role she was destined to play; she had been rehearsing for it since her earliest girlhood. Along with the Bible and Fox’s Book of Martyrs, Marbury had used his version of his trial as a primer when he taught Anne and her siblings how to read.

It’s tempting to construct an elaborate Freudian apparatus around Anne Hutchinson, what with all the attractive-yet-compromised father figures she had to contend with (her mentor John Cotton shrank from the implications of his most radical ideas; her father, too, eventually reconciled with the Anglican establishment). One of the crimes the Puritans charged her with was violating the Fifth Commandment, “which commands us,” Governor John Winthrop reminded her, “to honor Father and Mother, which include all in authority.”

But when all is said and done, the Texas textbook commissioner might have said it best: Anne Hutchinson was a troublemaker—her most important legacy was her very ungovernableness. Hutchinson epitomized Jesus’s all-or-nothing morality and Protestantism’s dissenting spirit. During America’s birth pangs, when our Puritan forefathers were assembling the machinery of a theocratic state, the truest, deepest believer of them all—a woman and a midwife yet, who was pregnant most of her adult life and up to her elbows in blood and bodily fluids—tried to toss a monkey wrench into the works.

The America we live in today is built on a foundation of paradoxes and tensions: its strong government co-exists with extravagant ideals of personal liberty; its citizens’ religiosity is guaranteed by its government’s religious neutrality. The authoritarian Governor Winthrop and the disobedient Hutchinson—the American Jezebel, as he called her—are two sides of the same American coin, forever in tension: thesis and antithesis, Yin and Yang.

Nathaniel Hawthorne invoked “the sainted Anne Hutchinson” in The Scarlet Letter; he also paid tribute to her “extraordinary talent and strong imagination” and her “irregular and daring thought” in a sketch he wrote about her in 1830. “There is a delicacy … that perceives, or fancies, a sort of impropriety in the display of woman’s naked mind to the gaze of the world,” he averred. Hawthorne pictured Hutchinson as she is frequently depicted in engravings, standing “loftily before her judges, with a determined brow and, unknown to herself … a flash of carnal pride half hidden in her eye.”

In April of 1851, Herman Melville wrote Nathaniel Hawthorne a letter. He apologized that he hadn’t been able to find a cobbler in Pittsfield to fashion a pair of boots for one of the Hawthorne children, and he raved about Hawthorne’s newest book, The House of Seven Gables. Theirs was not an easy friendship—Melville’s emotional intensity was off putting to Hawthorne, and he had the disquieting habit of projecting his most eccentric, not to say transgressive, ideas onto his famous friend.

In the review of Mosses from an Old Manse that Melville had published in The Literary World a year before, he’d written of the blackness that shrouds one half of Hawthorne’s soul, a blackness “ten times black.”

Whether there really lurks in him, perhaps unknown to himself, a touch of Puritanic gloom,—this, I cannot altogether tell. Certain it is, however, that this great power of blackness in him derives its force from its appeals to that Calvinistic sense of Innate Depravity and Original Sin, from whose visitations, in some shape or other, no deeply thinking mind is always and wholly free. … Still more: this black conceit pervades him, through and through.

In his letter from Pittsfield, Melville told Hawthorne that he embodies “the tragicalness of human thought in its own unbiased, native, and profounder workings.” We mortals, Melville continued, “incline to think that God cannot explain His own secrets, and that He would like a little information upon certain points Himself.” But if we would only cease our theologizing, we would begin to apprehend the universe’s deepest truth: that it is what it is. “Take God out of the dictionary, and you would have Him in the street.”

Melville proposes that grace is to be found in moments of Zen-like silent attentiveness, in what the poet John Keats, in a different context, called “negative capability”—“when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” True spirituality is the reward of an open mind; anything “positive, dogmatic, personal” is inimical to it.

“There is the grand truth about Nathaniel Hawthorne,” Melville concludes his letter. “He says No! in thunder; but the Devil himself cannot make him say yes.”

For all men who say yes, lie; and all men who say no, —why, they are in the happy condition of judicious, unencumbered travellers in Europe; they cross the frontiers into Eternity with nothing but a carpet-bag, —that is to say, the Ego. Whereas those yes-gentry, they travel with heaps of baggage, and, damn them! they will never get through the Custom House.

Whether or not Melville accurately plumbed the depths of Hawthorne’s soul, he captured the essence of religious inspiration—and of heresy too. Heretics—and Melville was every bit the heretic that Anne Hutchinson was—simply don’t know how to say “yes” to anything that is dogmatic, authoritarian, or unspiritual.

Which is why we need them so badly.

Arthur Goldwag is the author of The Beliefnet Guide to Kabbalah (Doubleday, 2005), Isims & Ologies (Vintage, 2007), and Cults, Conspiracies, and Secret Societies (Vintage, 2009). A contributing editor at Scholastic’s Storyworks magazine, he also writes for children.