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Early in 1646, an intriguing little book came forth from Giles Calvert's press. FreeGrace, or, The Flowings of Christ's Blood Freely to Sinners by John Saltmarsh--at that time rector of Brasted in Kent and shortly to assume a chaplaincy at headquarters of the New Model Army--evoked caustic rebuttals from divines of high caliber and prominent profile, each sporting a nose for troublemakers and a willingness to controvert and condemn. This, prima facie, is mildly perplexing. For the demeanor of Saltmarsh's book is not obviously contentious. Rather, Free-Grace is studied in its disinclination to engage argumentatively with specific protagonists; it is neither thunderous nor acidulous, and makes scant effort to situate itself in the to-and-fro of the paper wars conducted in the mangled mid-century terrain of English practical divinity.
And yet Saltmarsh, having sent forth his little book, would make his name on a national stage as heretic, blasphemer, impugner of the godly ministry, and paragon of antinomian error. Opponents would treat his name as a byword for theological perversity. The "antinomian," as wrongful speaker and immoral doer, offered a template for early-modern connoisseurs of the perverse. In mid-century controversies over grace and works, various proponents of antinomian grace--that is to say, of a grace so "free" in its dispensation that it either severely diminishes or altogether cancels the operational competence of divine law--had stated their case with ferocious commitment, displaying in their polemics an ominously combative disposition. One thinks of John Eaton and Tobias Crisp, preachers who linked the moral law with sin, death, and Satan, and who made plain their audacious message that the law's tyranny was being propped up in anti-Christian days by the very agency that purported to dedicate its every resource to the promulgation and ministration of the grace of Christ--namely, the puritan pastorate. Antinomians were spoiling for a fight, and the defenders of orthodoxy were spurred by the vigor of their adversaries' language, and the egregious consequences of their adversaries' doctrines, to resist the contemptible irresponsibility of antinomian aggression. At issue, for the pastorate, was no ephemeral eruption of strained sensibilities, no flash-in-the-pan quarrel over incidentals. Subtle theological differences had too often eluded the brokers of peace and unity and instead escalated into unmanageable divisions within the community of faith. As early as 1615, a preacher had been so alarmed by the circulation of antinomian and Familist doctrine as to identify his own times as "perillous times, that is, such wherein Satan will most busily strive to stirre up Sects and heresies, strange, grosse, blasphemous and devillish doctrines." The puritan pastorate would be sorely challenged in London in the 1620s and early 1630s, and in New England in the mid-1630s; Eaton and Crisp would become posthumously embodied in heavy tomes in the early 1640s, by which time the antinomian tide appeared to be rising to an uncontainable level. (1)
There was plenty of baggage, then, that Saltmarsh could be made to carry as he let fall his suspicions about the moral law and articulated his understanding of the primacy of grace. Saltmarsh, though, had inched his way toward antinomianism. Truth might be "discovered" in the settlement of controversy, but discourse need not proceed in fire and earthquake. Heat and dust, Saltmarsh averred, were impediments to truth. But diffidence of this stripe could be massaged, by an unsympathetic audience, into a pillar of dissimulation: to his enemies, the theology of Saltmarsh was all the more treacherous for its not being cast in the incendiary idiom of Eaton. Accordingly, Saltmarsh could appear a vector of faction precisely in his retreat from divisive and derisive manners; Free-Grace was too sophisticated a contaminant to bludgeon its targets with the sort of effrontery put forth by the likes of Eaton and Crisp. That, in any case, was one way in which to father antinomian credentials upon John Saltmarsh. The man, indeed, had become a victim of the intemperate clerical speech that had been bothering him for some time prior to the appearance of Free-Grace.
In 1644, Saltmarsh had registered distaste at the "intemperacy, and unnaturall heats" with which disputation was being conducted; the more "dust that we raise in arguing," he admonished his reader, the "less discernable" truth becomes. But God had made an "engine for discovery" out of the clash of differences, and Saltmarsh proceeded to invoke, by way of illustration, "the case of the Antinomians," whose "errour about free Grace hath drawn our Divines into more studying and preaching it then before, and stating it clearer." Saltmarsh limned an agenda for further study. It would be necessary "to seeke out how the riches of free Grace are offered, and how the Law is established by the Gospel." Christian "duties" and "graces" must not be looked upon as products of the law, but instead as effects of Christ the "fountain" and "cause." Mysterious matters will dominate future seekings: how "our being" is "in" Christ and he is "in us," and how this interpenetration enables the circuitry of duties and graces "that flow from Christ into his, and back again from his into Christ." (2) By 1646, it was evident that English divines were minded more by matters of law than of gospel, and that Saltmarsh must himself serve as an agent of clarification. He entered the arena, for the subject at hand was controversial, but remained wary about raising dust and radiating heat.
One is struck by the serenity with which Saltmarsh administers his spiritual physic. To be sure, eyes and ears are receptive to the controversies over grace and duty that rang from the pulpits and poured off the presses of the age, but these are artifacts of division, and bring no credit to their sponsors. Discourse has become ugly, and Saltmarsh pleads for judicious restraint. "Uncomely" expressions fill the air, and "all sides" harbor "unwarrantable notions"; vivified by mutual "jealousies," each "party" consumes itself in "over-suspecting the others doctrine." Fragmenting suspicions are the sour fruit of party "names"--would that names "be laid down" for the sake of peace. The supplication, as we learn from Saltmarsh's book, does not portend a relaxation of the enterprise of discriminating truth from error or light from darkness, but it is indicative of weariness with disagreement that escalates into purposeful misrepresentation. Arguments among divines, Saltmarsh has determined, are nothing more than the "carnal suspitions" of mutually hostile parties. (3)
Saltmarsh occupies a minor place, or several minor places, in scholarly treatments of the mid-seventeenth century. For William Haller, Saltmarsh was "that strange genius, part poet and part whirling dervish," though Haller's pages were loaded with too many other presences to allow Saltmarsh an opportunity to put himself in motion. The whirls of Saltmarsh's career as pamphleteer and army chaplain were traced by Leo Salt and A. L. Morton, though neither man attended closely to matters concerning redemption and the care of the soul. In Geoffrey Nuttall's vivid exposition of puritan pneumatology, Saltmarsh jostles for space with a host of Spirit-minded contemporaries; John Coolidge passed interesting reflection on Saltmarsh's ecclesiology and soteriology, though again the scope of concern called for brevity of treatment. Christopher Hill's nation of prophets opened its doors to Saltmarsh--a small voice in a large and raucous crowd. Ernest Kevan assembled a puritan crowd in surveying the theology of the moral law, upon various topics in relation to which Saltmarsh can occasionally be heard, speaking both curiosities and commonplaces, from an antinomian terrace. Others have tended to deploy Saltmarsh for contextual purposes, requiring him to serve the truth-patrolling needs of the hunters of antinomians--in particular, Richard Baxter, Thomas Edwards, Samuel Rutherford, and Thomas Gataker. (4)
The time is ripe, perhaps, to look at John Saltmarsh for his own sake and in his own terms. Accordingly, the present article focuses upon polemical style in the service of practical divinity, offering analysis of an agile mind's championship of "free redemption" as a remedy to the problems and predicaments of the puritan care of the soul.
* Law, Grace, and Christian Freedom
One of the many virtues of David Como's important study of the antinomian controversy that raged in London during the 1620s and early 1630s is that it shows us how the ambiguities of puritan theology, and the crisis-harried forms of puritan sociability, could occasion the emergence of particular strands of heresy centered on the relative competencies of law and grace. On this view, a "deep internal fissure" opened up within puritan struggles to work through the tensions that complicated the interface of grace and curse, of faith and doubt; antinomianism, so conceived, takes its rise as a puritan subculture, and Como brings out, in particular, the consanguinity between puritan soteriology and the "imputative" strand of antinomianism whose most garrulous partisan was John Eaton. (5) John Saltmarsh, in the 1640s, offers further evidence that antinomian-minded theologians during the Caroline period were cut from puritan cloth, that theirs, as Michael McGiffert asserts, was the "characteristic and defining heresy" of puritanism. (6) Free-Grace is the work of a man who esteemed the gracious inclinations of puritan theologians, but who had experienced the painful consequences of rigorous pastoral applications of puritan "legalism." Saltmarsh's reaction was to put trust in a grace at once free and unconditional, and to hone a sensitivity to the vexatious effects of legalistic piety. He retreated from the "antinomian" label, but found little fault with antinomian theology. Antinomians, according to Saltmarsh, had exaggerated the operation of grace, but they had not erred in retrenching the Mosaic law. Antinomianism, by Saltmarsh's lights, was a theological rather than a behavioral phenomenon; accordingly, Saltmarsh could ignore the commonplace that the abandonment of Moses would precipitate a spoliation of morality. Grace effected freedom from Mosaic bondage, and with grace came an unstoppable outpouring of good works--spontaneous acts inspired by the gift of love, not mechanical requisites of a cudgeling law.
Saltmarsh might well have quoted amenable passages from antinomians; instead, he turned to masters of the mainstream in order to authenticate his law-renouncing message. He turned to Calvin and to puritan worthies--to scholarly pastors such as William Perkins and Samuel Bolton. His concurrence with such authorities was factitious because partial; no less interesting than the words that Saltmarsh quoted from the likes of Perkins and Bolton were the words that he found expedient to overlook and the ellipses that he saw fit to impose upon his texts. Saltmarsh in the 1640s, like Como's antinomians in the 1620s and 1630s, sowed in the fertile soil of puritan soteriology, but, like them, he harvested a product calculated to put puritan pastors on notice.
Saltmarsh's Free-Grace spends its first half in dramatic discussion and tutelary observation. An Answerer responds, sometimes monosyllabically, sometimes with insightful elaboration, to the probes of a knowing Questioner. These exchanges dramatize the afflictions of the soul in its passage through the course of salvation; they set forth the "frame of the spirit" as it experiences conversionary comings and goings in the competitive arena of law and gospel. The Answerer is a veteran of "the work of nature and grace, and spirit and Satan"--presumably a mouthpiece for the author's recollection of personal experiences and professional cares. Law-wrought doubts and temptations set the sin-minded Answerer on edge. Put to rack by fear of damnation, haunted by recidivistic flaws, "enlightned" to discernment of sin yet "dark" in gospel "conceivings," violently tempted and "full of terrour," the Answerer is ready-made for the liberating ministry of free grace. (7) And Saltmarsh, guiding witness to the proceedings, intervenes from time to time to intermit discussion and draw practical conclusions from the interlocutors' discourse. The second half of the book turns from interrogatory drama to doctrinal collection, where a string of numbered topics fall, article-like, into place to "clear the way of Salvation a little further." Enquiries conducted "in this present" age into free grace are then given hasty treatment in a penultimate section; and the final dozen pages, dedicated to authoritative "sparkling" of free grace, deliver apposite "truths" from Calvin's Institutes and the works of various luminaries of the puritan brotherhood. (8)
As early as the prefatory apparatus the reader is introduced to a "legal" ministry that plagues the ignorant under the gospel no less than under the law itself. Moses threatens to supersede Christ even "in the divinity of these later times," and the Mosaic inflection of "Preachings for REFORMATION" bears consequences for spiritual health requiring urgent remedial attention. As the law is permitted to discharge its regulatory ways into the precincts of the Reformation, so there arises--to occasion singular problems for soul physicians--the hybrid species of "legal believers." These, the law-bound faithful, are rabid self-tormentors; attuned more readily, Saltmarsh contends, to "the voice of Moses" than to "the voice of Christ," they are subject in their apprehensions as much "to death and bondage ... under the Gospel, as they were before, under the Law." (9) The law worked its misery by trammeling and burning: by rolling stones upon the heart and kindling fires in the wounded soul. (10)
Such misery, Saltmarsh knew, was endemic to the puritan schooling of the penitent wayfarer. It was an experience fostered by a particular strain of Perkinsian ambiguity." William Perkins had found it necessary to explain that our being "bound" in "service of God" was not a return to Hebraic "bondage"; rather, our obedience is "voluntary," and in being bound by obligations of godly duty we manifest our "perfect liberty." This is not to say that we are saved by the rectitude of our service: "Christs merit, and the merit of our workes, agree even as fire and water." (12) We bind ourselves to the law without reducing ourselves to bondage, but we must grasp the truth that this voluntary commitment to obedience is not essentially connected with our salvation. Indeed, we jeopardize our blessedness by wrongfully esteeming our obedience, by relying on good works as though they were agents of saving grace. The law's "curse and condemnation" would be defused through spiritual grace, not through legal works. (13) And so Perkins and his heirs turned to the task of alerting sinners to the perils of the law--to the rigor of its precepts and the ferocity of its penalties, culminating in the eternal disinheritance of such as would invest hopes in its works at the point of justification. (14) But Perkinsian pastors had also enlisted the law, as "schoolmaster" and "rule of good life," into the disciplines of conversion and sanctification. Perkins himself had offered plain, stark lessons--though Saltmarsh, eyeing Perkins on the law of the Spirit, declined to quote Perkins on the legal difficulties bedeviling the sinner. (15) The law was to be dreaded, but on no account could it be avoided. With this truth established, horrors as well as benefits tumbled from Perkins's pen. The Perkinsian law might chaperone the unrepentant to execution; equally, the affectivity that it stimulates might serve a contrary turn--operating as schoolmasterly rod to deflect the sinner from the path of damnation. As "horrible curse," the law presided over "eternall woe and misery." To be endured in the present life, at the law's instigation, were "manifold accusations, terrors, and feares, ... flashings (as it were) of the fire of hell"; and, rounding out the legal curse, the "second death" looms in the afterlife, this being "separation of body and soule from God, with a full apprehension of the wrath of God." (16) Torments, Perkins announced, will then be applied …