Escaping the dominion of grace: Holy power and mystic subversion in seventeenth century English texts

Elisabeth Marie Magnus, University of Pennsylvania


This dissertation explores two contrasting "ideas of the holy" in the Reformation and the seventeenth-century English texts that sprang from it. The first is that of Luther and Calvin, an "absolutist theology" describing a divine rule closely and explicitly analogous to absolute monarchy. The second is that of spiritualism, a mystical movement within the Radical Reformation whose deeply anti-absolutist conceptions of God became influential in England during the seventeenth century. Issues of grace were as central to defining the power of God as they were to defining the power of kings. In absolutist theology, a grace defined as favor bridged the vast distance and disparity of rank and power between sovereign and subject and reconciled the will of subjects to a sovereign will described as essentially alien to their own. Grace's power to conform the will rested on subjects' continuing sense of lack and deficiency, their utter dependence on their Lord for worth and protection. For spiritualists, such grace was a "rape of the spirit." Their God was not an enclosed being set apart from his creation, but the one, undivided essence of the world's manifold appearances, and a will that made itself the "common" or "universal" will. Alienation from God existed only in human perception, and salvation was a process of healing and awakening the mind. "Grace" was redefined as an "inner Christ," an enlightening energy always present in anyone open to experiencing it. Spiritualism described a transpersonal subjectivity that was neither totally self-determining and self-enclosed nor based on lack and passively determined by power. In seventeenth-century England, Donne's writings imagine a system of grace even more absolutist than Calvin's. Herbert's writings are far more expressive of a spiritualist sensibility, and they again and again escape the Lutheran/Calvinist and courtly contexts to which interpreters have tried to confine them. And Winstanley's pamphlets offer a radical critique of grace in both spiritual and social realms, and a spiritualist means to overthrow the dominion of grace in both the psyche and the state.

Subject Area

British and Irish literature

Recommended Citation

Magnus, Elisabeth Marie, "Escaping the dominion of grace: Holy power and mystic subversion in seventeenth century English texts" (1991). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI9211966.