One of the challenges of engaging with the scholarship in a given field is that the field, and its arguments, predates you. Gerald Graff has a nice description in They Say/I Say of this process being like wandering in late to a dinner party where there is an animated conversation that does not make much sense. One takes a seat, listens patiently, and eventually feels comfortable enough to venture a contribution to the discussion.
For early Americanists like ourselves, this process is more complicated, in that while there is a conversation at the table about New England, but many of the people at the table keep getting up and wandering back and forth to the bar at one end of the room, where there is a louder and more animated conversation taking place about 17th century England, one that is, in fact, so contentious that the discussants dispute the most basic terms -- was there, or was there not, a "revolution"? Did the Ranters even exist?
Michael Winship's "The Most Glorious Church in the World" typifies this tendency, in that it endeavors to engage in this English debate to make an intervention in interpretations of the the Antinomian Controversy, about which we will learn more soon. What follows is an oversimplification of some of the major points, but this is the kind of argument that depends on subtle nuances of interpretation in a way that makes it resist summary. If you are interested in this discussion, you should read the article, and/or Winship's Making Heretics. As a narrative, this article offers a useful bridge between the Winthrop of "A Modell," and the Winthrop of "A Short Story," in that it details the forces that tended to promote the cohesion of the church in Boston, and those that tended to pull it apart. As such, it helps explain the shift from the image of the Puritan settlement as a body bound by the ligaments of Christ Winthrop imagined from the deck of the Arabella, to the apocalyptic showdown of Winthrop's "Short Story."
Winship bridges the gap between these two extremes by showing how "a fragile unity of hot Protestants was maintained and the ways in which personalities and contingencies could disrupt it." (72) More generally, Winship bridges the gap across the Atlantic by showing how the case of the Antinomian Controversy foreshadows the fate of Puritanism in England in the 1640s and 1650s.
For our purposes, Winship's arguments relative to the situation in New England are of primary interest. One principal achievement of the article is to reveal the heterogeneous nature of the leading Bay Colony clergy, against the prevailing image of a phalanx of orthodox ministers on one side, and John Cotton on the other. Another is to challenge the familiar image of Anne Hutchinson as an exceptional and radical presence in Boston. Instead, Winship points to the arrival of Henry Vane, Jr., as the precipitating cause that unraveled the hard-won cohesion of the Bay Colony theocracy.
In this frame, Winship focuses on a conflict between Thomas Shepard and John Cotton as the fundamental catalyst of the controversy. For Winship, it is Shepard's intransigence, as much as Cotton's radicalism, that causes the conflict to reach the scale that it does. As he describes the situation, "the ebb and flow of clerical opinion indicates that the Antinomian Controversy was not the clash of two inexorably opposed camps, but, rather, the outcome of determined party building." (88) One interesting aspect of this intepretation is that Anne Hutchinson's fate emerges as collateral damage from a clash between John Cotton and Thomas Shepard. As we will see in the days to come, the curious malleability of the Anne Hutchinson story is one of the most persistent phenomena of early American studies.