• Eaton, baptism, the womb & the Northern Antinomians

John Eaton, ‘the first of the Antinomians’ in Ephraim Paggit’s account who had gained his reputation at Wickham Market, Suffolk before moving to London, developed what had already been generated within Pietist-Puritanism; there was nothing ex-nihilo. For Eaton, Christ’s sacrifice had done away with ‘actuall sins and originall sin’. And, for him, this grace was conferred by baptism. Bozeman makes out that Eaton replaced the vindictive, Old Testament deity with a purely beneficent New Testament God. This can only be partially substantiated and Como is surely right in arguing that in Eaton’s mind those who remained locked up in the ‘Dead Faith’ were on their way to damnation. The legalists had to repent and switch sides to the ‘Honeycomb’ argument. And, although good Antinomians would obey the Law, they could hardly be bound by it. Whether they held to it or not could have no impact on whether they were Elect. Shaw was rather blunter: he dwelling in obedience was ‘no Christian’.

DSCN2998 - CopyJohn Eaton’s key works, ‘Honeycombe’ and ‘Dead Faith’ were almost certainly in wide circulation amongst Antinomians, long before posthumous publication following the collapse of censorship at the beginning of the 1640s. They were copiously referenced with both Luther and Calvin amongst others – see the margin.

Also in London, Robert Towne, Brierley’s former co-preacher at the Halifax Exercise under John Favour, wedded Eaton’s ideas even more firmly to Calvinist Election, the Precisianist position becoming a mere half-way house. Towne is often set aside for the order of Faith and Repentance in his theology. For him, the Puritan exclusions had to include Faith, ‘so that faith is but a revelation of what was secret’. Peter Shaw absorbed the same idea: faith neither saves nor dams; neither justifies nor ‘unjustifies’ – as his accusations post-1629 imply. He believed that Christians should have no focus on whether they were Elect or not. It was a recycling of Grindleton’s belief that the Christian has no interest in salvation. Christianity is to be treated as a Treasure in itself (schat, no less in Hiëlist terminology – as in Ackerschat, lit. ‘field treasure’ in Dutch).

Many Puritans, far from being openly antagonistic to such a position, were merely confused by it for, in many respects, it was only an extension of existing logic. Perhaps confusion on the issue was even Anne Hutchinson’s arch-enemy, Thomas Shepherd’s experience when he declared that he had once wondered whether the ‘glorious estate of Grindleton’ might not have been the truth?

On the face of it, this all seems like a radical departure. But Towne and Eaton were not really making any innovations in Protestant thought, just recycling arguments on the margins. In Canterbury in 1610, godly minister of St. George, Thomas Wilson, had discovered that his local opponents held exactly that view. It might even be telling that, in spite of his extended periods in Suffolk and in the capital, Eaton was actually Kentish by birth.

Of course, it is important to note that this was imputation and nothing more. Eaton called this perfection ‘to Godward’. Nothing about the individual became any more perfect; God just ceased seeing his imperfections. Both Towne and Eaton denounced what they understood to be ‘Familist’ inherentism. Furthermore, their many cited references read as a history of Protestantism. Nobody got greater veneration (verging on idolatry even) than Luther himself. Of course, the citations are partial and selective, skipping over his arguments with Johannes Agricola (‘Magister Islebius’), for example.


Johannes Agricola – Sourced from J. G. Schelhorn – ‘Ergötzlichkeiten aus der Kirchenhistorie und Literatur’.

Moreover, using the same logic as the mainstream Puritans used against English ‘Arminianism’ (which was never Arminian), they accused their opponents of ‘innovations’. When Thomas Taylor (of Regula Vitae fame) referred to the Antinomians’ ‘model of new divinity’, Towne snapped back, “Nay, it is most ancient, like the good wheat sown by God himself, before your tares came to be mingled in it.”

Justification at baptism takes arguments so far. However, in radically-minded (possibly Traskite-tinged) Somerset, things went further. Predestination could not be constrained by either baptism or birth. A child might be justified in the womb. Amongst the laity, John Otteyes said exactly this in 1614 whilst also purportedly attacking the Book of Common Prayer and hanging around alehouses. But it was neither just the West Country nor simply the laity.

Further north, the Newcastle Puritan, Robert Jenison, was thrown into a state of confusion by reading Richard Rothwell (d. 1627), who suggested that the Elect are sanctified in the womb. Notably, the Lincolnshire minister and later key player in the Massachusetts Free Grace Controversy, John Cotton, collected as many of his papers as possible. Although residing in Mansfield at the time, Rothwell was no Midlander. He was known as the ‘Apostle of the North’, having being born in Bolton (England’s Geneva) in 1563. He was playing bowls in Rochdale amongst Catholics when Richard Midgley, the non-Conformist minister of Rochdale (Brierley’s baptiser and father of Joseph Midgley), called him to one side. From then onwards he called Midgley his spiritual father. [I think the Midgley connection is new information here, having not been cited in Como’s ‘Blown by the Spirit’. Are we slowly stumbling closer to Brierley’s elusive Newcastle link?]