In January, 1637, my ancestor, the Rev. John Wheelwright, gave a sermon to his congregation in Boston. His ‘Fast-Day Sermon’ lit a final match to what became known as the Free Grace Controversy (or Antinomian Crisis), and resulted in the Reverend’s and his more famous sister-in-law, Anne Hutchinson’s banishment from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. John Wheelwright urged Anne and her family to accompany him and his congregation north to the ‘Province of Mayne’. Sadly, she instead joined Roger Williams in Rhode Island, and shortly after met her gruesome death at the hands of the native americans in Pelham NY.
The Free Grace Controversy was a dispute over the saving of souls – essentially, whether the path to salvation was a private or public matter. Wheelwright and Hutchinson believed in the Covenant of Grace, the possibility of spiritual grace received by private revelation. They accused their opponents of believing in the Covenant of Works, public gestures sanctified by the religious oligarchs of the Colony (one of whom, John Winthrop – who denied believing in the Covenant of Works – was my wife’s granddad the same number of generations back). Think of The Tea Party in control of the state and one of the myriad reasons to vote for…and cast one’s fate with…Progressive Thinkers.
In As It Is On Earth, the character Zerviah Thatcher recalls my thinly disguised ancestor, and helps Taylor to imagine alternate fates:
The Reverend Littlefield, Mt. Vernon’s Pastor of the Mount, never missed an opportunity in his sermons to point out the stronger Faith of the few radical English Saints that had finally cleared a path into Maine. “For all of us,” he would admonish from his high pulpit, arms spread like a victory eagle, but thin neck rising from his collar like a vulture that had spotted carrion. They had been called by a higher spiritual grace than either the Church of England or the lesser Separatists of the Massachusetts Bay Colony: forty Antinomian Elect – “including your ancestor Zerviah Thatcher” (a discrete nudge in the pew from Esther on behalf of…family) – banished from Boston for apostasy and cast once again into the hands of Providence.
Clinging to the rough edge between the northern forest and the ocean, my forefathers, the last straggling pilgrims, hacked their way “down east” – Governor Winthrop at their backs and French papists from the Bay of Fundy up ahead – before finally settling in worship between the Ogunquit and Kennebunk rivers just north of Portsmouth. It was not much of a Promised Land, but it was good enough to get Maine and the Thatchers up and running.
Whether I like it or not, if Zerviah hadn’t gone wandering with his lord, further than most, into the New England wilderness, I too would be elsewhere. I dwell on this thought.