I once did some research on the Russian Orthodox Old Believers, a split-off from the Russian Orthodox Church originating in the seventeenth century. There’s not a lot of information about the movement online – certainly not in English. However, I recall one commentator calling it a kind of Reformation in the Russian Church, but, as he described it, whereas the Protestant Reformation was a reformation to the left, this was one to the right.
That makes the Reformation sound very unappealing, but the accusation is mitigated by the old distinction between radical and conservative reformers. This needs to be maintained as a hard distinction. Traditionally, one thinks of only the Anabaptists as radical reformers, but I want to make the argument that even sects such as the Puritans and hardline Dutch Reformers were radical.
The way I see it, a radical reformer is one who proposes a hard break with the history and traditional structures of authority and hierarchy of the church. He is one who wants to reinvent the wheel, to remake institutions from the ground up. While this view claims to maintain the highest regard for the authority of Scripture, Scripture itself is interpreted in an ahistorical, semi-rationalist fashion. What the commentator on the Old Believers had in mind, of course, was a Protestantism that broke with all of history and tradition, a liberal kind of Protestantism that is to be resented. This radical view has given rise many modern-day heresies – “female ordination should be permissible in our time, because Paul wrote for his historical context” – as if the historicity of the divine document means it has no genuine authority over us today.
Puritanism followed a similar line: while the English Church had a high regard for tradition, hierarchy, and natural order or authority, Puritanism broke with historic Christianity on several levels. One of these was their counterproductive theological distinction between “gospel holiness” and “legal holiness,” which enabled a sentimentalist understanding of holiness in New England, which in turn set the tone not only for the later development of radical two-kingdom theology, but also for post-Enlightenment feminism.
Following this sentimentalist approach to sanctification, Cotton Mather, the famous Massachusetts Puritan pastor, wrote back in 1691 that there are “far more godly women in the world than men.” Another Puritan preacher, Benjamin Wadsworth, went as far as to describe any “any unkind carriage, ill language, [or] hard words” spoken by a husband against his wife as a violation of God’s Law. Wadsworth provided no qualification that harsh words were appropriate for wives in rebellion.
Women in Puritan society also ruled over men in the positions of “spiritual advisers.” One such spiritual adviser was a very influential woman in the Massachusetts Bay colony, named Anne Hutchinson. During the 1630s, she regularly held meetings at her house to discuss and criticize the (mostly orthodox) preaching of ministers. While the meetings were initially only attended by other women, she would later invite men to her meetings as well. Her meetings, which itself were never condemned, were influential in spreading of the heresy of antinomianism in Puritan New England.
In the Dutch Reformed tradition, some radical movements also took on similar pietistic paths that effectuated leftism. The “Doppers” (Afrikaner Puritans) in South Africa, for example, have historically been the strongest advocates for radical two-kingdom theology. It was in the heyday of Dopper political influence in the Transvaal that Judaism flourished in Boer lands and synagogues were erected with government aid. This denomination also maintained a neutral stance towards the apartheid government in the twentieth century because politics was, in their estimation, a worldly, i.e. lesser matter.
Conservative reformers, on the other hand, valued continuity, hierarchy, and tradition. A prime example was the very much underrated second-generation Italian Reformer, Girolamo Zanchi. While solidly Calvinistic, he maintained an explicit appreciation for Aquinas and the medieval tradition in general. This sentiment is also reflected in his maintenance of the Septuagint as the ecclesiastical text of the Old Testament over the novel Jewish Masoretic text then accepted by most of the Reformers.
These sentiments of historical rootedness and continuity, along with an appreciation for hierarchy, also present at times in the Anglican Church, was completely absent in Puritanism and Dopperism, both of which, though not essentially feminist or egalitarian in themselves, advanced an erroneous understanding of pietism that laid the groundwork for much of the later advances of the left.