THREE HUNDRED YEARS AGO people were deeply concerned about their souls. They believed that those who earned a state of salvation through good works would make it to heaven, but that sinners faced everlasting hell and damnation. The problem was that sins in 1630 were as easy to catch as the common cold, and almost every Puritan in the Massachusetts Bay Colony was terrified of perdition.

Covenant of Grace is a fascinating novel about the life of Anne Hutchinson, a charismatic teacher who told her neighbors and friends that salvation lay in a state of grace, a unity with Jesus Christ that had nothing to do with a person's day- to-day activities. It was a comforting belief in a time when strict religious thought dominated an already harsh and uncertain existence, and Anne attracted many followers. But she also threatened the colony's ministers and politicians who saw her influence as disruptive and her doctrine as dangerous. If sins were not punishable with hell, then lawlessness would be pervasive. Anne was eventually charged with heresy, excommunicated from the church, and banished from Boston, a devastating sentence for a woman who believed that God had chosen her to lead the colonies into a covenant of grace,

It takes considerable skill to write a novel about obscure points of theology and make it interesting, but Rushing has succeeded, weaving a fine story from the threads of religion, politics and personalities in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. There is Anne's spiritual life and her secular one, her family and her role as midwife to the community of women. There is the conniving and collusion between Governor John Winthrop and the colony's leading men and the betrayal by her mentor, minister John Cotton. And, to contrast with the Puritans' high-minded obsession with God, there is the very earth-bound story of Anne's servant, Elizabeth Joan, widow and then adulteress.

Covenant of Grace isn't a fast-paced book, but it's full of the details of life in another era that give immediacy and intimacy. The plot is interwoven with the rhythms of colonial life: the daily chores, the women's prayer meetings, the long Sabbaths spent in a communal meeting house listening to the preachers. It's a thought-provoking glimpse at the grim conscience of the Puritan mind and a book I highly recommend.