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Mar 1, 1980

Samuel Gorton: Antinomian Radical

“Gorton returned to America and War-wick, bringing with him the radical unrest of the English Civil War.”

Philip F. Gura
University of Colorado, Boulder

“The Radical Ideology of Samuel Gorton: New Light on the Relation of English and American Puritanism.” The William and Mary Quarterly 36(January 1979):78–100.

Samuel Gorton (1592–1677), the antinomian Puritan who preached during the English Civil War of the 1640’s among the radical Puritans, soon stirred up New England’s deepest fears that his mystical independence would transport political, social, and religious unrest to the new world. He raised political questions of civil disobedience and resistance by denying the jurisdiction of magistrates over individual conscience. For Puritans committed to an “Independent” or Congregational ecclesiastical policy, Gorton raised the problem of non-conforming political resistance [56] based on mystical religious faith. Eventually Gorton and his civil disobedient followers would see that their ideas were embodied in Quakerism.

Gorton’s first “offense” was his principled defense in 1638 of his maidservant’s smiling at a Sabbath meeting. The established ministry of Plymouth tried Gorton “for religious and civil insubordination.” Exiled from Plymouth, he was in turn whipped and banished from Portsmouth for refusing to honor the local government’s authority in a trespassing complaint. Even in Roger Williams’s Providence, Rhode Island, a haven for dissenters, Gorton stirred up opposition through his civil disobedience in rejecting Massachusetts Bay Colony’s jurisdiction over him. Gorton and his followers were eventually arrested in Warwick and tried in Boston as “heretics and enemies of civil government.” Once released, he sailed to England to preach his dissenting ideas and to protest his treatment by Massachusetts.

The heart of Gorton’s “heresy”—which excited the civil authorities of the Bay Colony, Plymouth, and Rhode Island— resembled the antinomian anti-authoritarianism of the dissenters in England which later became a key part of Quaker theology. “He argued for an essential divinity in all human beings, a divinity that was defined by the Holy Spirit’s presence and that precluded any arbitrary distinctions (be they religious or political) between saints and sinners.” The believer’s personal connection with God exempted him or her from obedience to all mankind’s perverse laws. Gorton’s theology linked him with some of Oliver Cromwell’s chaplains in the New Model Army. The inner experience of God, not laws, bestowed true freedom. God had not “made man to be a vassal of his own species.” To display personal responsibility to civil or religious authority was idolatry and postponed the millennium. If Christ were a “sufficient King and Ruler in his Church, all other Authority and Government erected therein is superfluous and a branch to be cut off.”

Gorton’s anti-authoritarian ideology threatened the political-religious hierarchy of New England with the ideal of individual liberty and the egalitarian priesthood of all believers. His radical democratic beliefs provoked a 1649 pamphlet against him, entitled The Danger of Tolerating Levellers in a Civil State. Gorton himself published counter-tracts in England between 1644 and 1648 against social hierarchy and moved in the complex radical community that revolved around the preachers in the New Model Army.

Gorton returned to America and War-wick, bringing with him the radical unrest of the English Civil War. Having absorbed the spirit of toleration in England, Gorton protected American Quakers. He is best understood in the context of “English radical spiritualism.” He affronted New England’s complaisant sense of inner stability and rightness.