During the early seventeenth century the group known as the Puritans left England and settled the area of New England, there setting up their colony. They would do this due to a combination of wishing to escape religious persecution in England and the desire to create for themselves a sanctuary where they could develop their ideas and prove to the world that their form of religion could work.
In the creation of their colony the Puritans wished to be sure that the same sort of situation were the church was dominated by the government would not occur in their colony as it had in England, however at the same time they wished to create a “city upon a hill.” In organizing and making their colony a reality the Puritans would need to have a working relation between the church and the state to give liberty to their citizens but also to ensure discipline and deter depravity.
Three authors that discuss this dynamic in various ways are Jack P. Greene in his book Pursuits of Happiness, Thomas J. Wertenbaker in The Puritan Oligarchy, and David D. Hall in his book The Faithful Shepard.
Each work discusses the topic and for the most part, each work agrees fluidly on the way that the Puritans organized their colonies and dealt with the issue of the relationship between the church and the state.
The State’s Duty to Maintain the Church
In his book Pursuits of Happiness, Jack Greene delves into the formation of the British colonies in North America and their social, cultural and economic development. In his discussions Greene spends some time addressing the creation of the Puritan colonies and the relationship they had between church and state.
Greene is quick to note the desire of the Puritans to become a model for the Christian world to form itself after and that in this desire for such a Christian model the Puritans would need a powerful church and clergy.
Furthermore, in order to create such a model the relationship between the religious and civil leaders would need to be a close knit, supportive one. The Puritan colonists desired a community of Christian love and of people of the same mind as themselves.
They desired to keep order, hierarchy, and subordination and in doing so to exercise control over the economic, moral and social conduct of the citizens; all imperative for maintaining their model Christian colony.
This was coupled with a desire to exclude and isolate those who opposed their beliefs, a justification for being highly intolerant of other religions.
In the course of reaching these ends the magistrates passed laws mandating that communities establish schools for the purpose of creating in children the right religious and social principles desired. The state thus required religious schools.
Furthermore, Puritan voting rights were based upon the classification of freemen, a classification which was given only to those with church membership. Greene even goes so far as to note that in the duties of the magistrates apart from “establishing political institutions, allocating land, making laws” and “dispensing justice” included “reinforcing the position of the clergy and churches.” It is this relationship and debates over the organization of church government, focusing much on voting rights, which would cause the Puritans much trouble later.
Not only does Greene discuss the way in which the civil aspects cooperated with the religious, but the religious also worked towards helping the civil government. The Puritans accepted a social hierarchy as well as the authority of their magistrates, authority which was enhanced by the cooperation of the clerical leaders.
The religious leaders believed that it was their responsibility to create and maintain a “political society which would have as its primary emphasis the protection of the rights of the churches.”
The Puritans believed the community was bound in a covenant with God. This visible group of secular and clerical leaders, which they often brought with them from England, gave authority to the government as well as the church through their cooperation.
Finally Greene notes the strong power of family in the Puritan community. According to Green these strong, extended, patriarchal families played a part in helping to keep the social control and in guaranteeing peace. This power was so much that it leaned towards oligarchy as a few wealthy families dominated office, families that had previously grown from the older powers.
All in all Greene views the Puritan relations between church and state as a cooperative one. The church helped the state and in turn the state helped the church, thus giving the ministers considerable political power. To top it off the community as a whole was dominated by powerful, near oligarchic, families.
Church & State – Mutually Supportive Enforcers
In his book The Puritan Oligarchy Thomas Wertenbaker approaches the relationship between the church and the state from multiple angles and for the most part, Wertenbaker and Greene agree on how this relationship was conducted. He notes the close relationship between the civil and the religious and expounds upon the degree to which they worked as one.
Beginning with the founding, Wertenbaker notes that the Puritans intentionally tied the government with the church in the colonies due to their failure to gain support in England before their migration.
In this the ministers had a powerful influence in the community; a power that was not only religious, moral or intellectual, but also political.
The amount of power that the minister held is made apparent in the voting laws. As Greene had also pointed out, in order to vote a person had to be a freeholder, or freeman, and in order to be a freeholder a person had to be a member of the church.
The rationale for this was that only people of God could elect godly leaders.
The minister’s power came in that he had the ability to excommunicate the members of the church. This ability would thereby indirectly give the minister the power to decide who voted and who didn’t, a considerable political tool.
To further tie the state and the church Wertenbaker describes how it was the congregation that elected the minister but it was the town as a whole that paid the minister’s salary. This meant that even those not a member of the church still paid for the minister (although at least for the first generation there were few inhabitants who weren’t members of the church).
Wertenbaker describes the Puritans as a whole creating a mutual ruling relationship between the church and the state. In support of this he quotes the Puritan Urian Oakes as declaring “the commonwealth and holiness in the churches inseparable” and that “to divide what God hath conjoined… is folly in its exaltation;” that God’s interests are set in both the institutions.
The church government was there to strengthen the civil government rather than to oppose it and the civil government was there to support the faith and suppress all others.
Both church law and civil law where to be based upon the Bible, thus it was also the duty of the magistrates to punish such things as blasphemy, heresy and idolatry. The magistrates were thereby in effect responsible for punishing sins.
Finally, Wertenbaker makes it apparent that for all intents and purposes, most of the people who ran the state also ran the church and vise-versa.
Since in the beginning almost everybody was in the church it was not unusual for the congregation and the political body to be one and the same, even though on paper the two where separate institutions. The freemen assembled in a meeting-house that the community was built around and as Wertenbaker notes they discussed both religious and civil affairs; as Wertenbaker puts it “it (the council) could at one moment be considering the matter for the common fence around a grain field and the next, if it so chose, convert itself into the congregation without leaving the meeting room.”
Wertenbaker builds a picture of the Puritan community as one were the church and state enter mutually supportive roles. Each was there to strengthen the other and to serve God. They were meant to work together and as Wertenbaker points out this was quite easy as the same people that made up the civil government also made up the congregation.
Church & State in Conflict
As with Greene and Wertenbaker, David Hall in his book The Faithful Shepard also describes the close relationship between the Church and State in Puritan New England.
Unlike Greene and Wertenbaker, Hall focuses more on the struggles concerning the minister’s role in the society and the changes in that role throughout the Puritan period, primarily changes concerning the appointing of the minister and voting rights. Hall’s goal is to follow the evolution of the minister’s status, power and conflicts from the founding through the declension.
He takes a slightly different stance on the church and state relations.
Hall begins his chapter on Church and State by describing John Winthrop telling his shipmates that “a covenanted people must build their form of civil government upon the basis of the word.”
This is quite similar to Wertenbaker’s statement that the Puritans believed both civil and church law were to be based upon the Bible. However, unlike Greene or Wertenbaker, Hall goes on to note that with the creation of a godly state in mind, a “’Theocracy’ in which the civil government served the will of God” was the plan for the Puritans.
The Puritan ministers at a point began to speak in terms of “soldiers” and how these soldiers should act in Christ’s stead to rule the kingdom.
The magistrates, according Puritan Thomas Cartwright, were there to defend the church.
According to Cartwright “the civil magistrates must remember to subject themselves unto the Church, to submit their scepters, to throw down their crowns before the Church, yea, as the prophet teacheth, to lick the dust off the feet of the Church.”
Despite this goal of a sort of theocracy and the harsh subjection of state to church that Cartwright promotes, Hall describes a relationship between church and state that is quite adversarial.
Hall points out the church membership requirement in voting and how the Puritans believed this was vital in order for the state to be a tool for enforcing moral law. The state and church were also close in that the ministers had power and used it such as in cases of warfare where the minister had to be consulted beforehand. Even further the colonies extended the protection of the state to ministers.
Hall describes them as believing that the church and state should help and strengthen one another, allowing the ministers to intervene in state affairs, have direct consultations with the government and to attend sessions of the General Court, even when it met as a judicial body. This meeting of the ministers with the court went so far as to even allow the ministers in at least one case to listen to debate, give advice and make motions on the court floor. The meeting days would even be scheduled on lecture days so that the most ministers available could attend.
This shows great cooperation between the church and state, yet even with all of these factors to create a close relationship between the Church and State they were still often at odds with each other.
Puritan John Cotton insisted that the two institutions be separate but equal, both seeking to promote the good of men and God’s glory. He believed that both religious power in state hands and civil power in church hands were wrong.
Ministers turned to politics when attempting to turn theory into practice and found politicking useful for maintaining social order, the state fought against this.
In cases where this happened the social authority of the minister could be degraded. Furthermore, offices could not be held in both institutions such as in the case of Increase Nowell, an elder of the church who was told that he could not be both an elder and the secretary of the Massachusetts government. To make this matter more fragile there was the conflict over voting rights, and furthermore over whom it was that could ordain pastors, God or the people. The Puritans believed the post to be an “ordinance of God” but also needed to elect the individual, thus they sought ways around this.
With these complicated relations between the church and the state in New England a sort of compromise was reached in the time of the declension, though not to the original desire of either side. Hall notes how around the 1640s, the ministers joined with John Winthrop and his magistrates in order to fight against the “purists to their left and the worldly to their right” during the declension.
This alliance between church and state is still apparent, though it wasn’t the norm but rather a reaction to troubled times.
Hall shows just how complicated the relationship between the church and the state were in Puritan New England.
He shows them as being two institutions that weren’t meant to be crossed but that often worked together. He also shows them as being adversarial and working against one another at times despite their closeness, fighting to keep themselves separate and from becoming as they had in England, one institution dominating the other.
Putting It All Together
On the whole the three texts discussed all work together to create an agreeable theory. The three all recognize the requirement of church membership for the allowance of voting rights and the power of the ministers in regard to this, but also the strife that it caused between the church and the state. All three also agree on the close relationship between the church and the state and the power that both the ministers and the magistrates held.
They all note that the two worked together, or at least that the ministers had a strong hand in the affairs of the civil government and they also all recognize the state carrying out the lack of toleration of those not of the faith, persecuting for the church and its religious mandates such as those against blasphemy.
Whether the church and state are described as “separate but equal” or as a group of people fulfilling two roles, the mutually supportive relationship is the same.
Finally they all also agree on the power of the family, Wertenbaker even to the point of calling the colonies a “Puritan Oligarchy.” In these ways the three texts complement each other, each offering a good picture of the Puritan life. Each offers a slightly different point of view, whether the slight overview offered in Pursuits of Happiness, the focus on the founding, family, and decay in The Puritan Oligarchy, or the analysis of the minister’s changing duties and roles throughout the Puritan period in The Faithful Shepard.
Though there are no major contradictions there are some grievances between the conclusions reached by the authors.
Where Greene points to a hierarchy Wertenbaker argues against one, especially within the church government of the colony. Greene states that the Puritans wished to maintain a hierarchy and to subordinate those that disagreed with them. Contrary to this Wertenbaker notes that, especially in the church, the Puritans believed that there should be no hierarchy as it “had no sanction in the Bible.”
Hall also differs from both Greene and Wertenbaker in his depiction of the negative relations between the civil and the religious aspects of the Puritan society.
While all three describe the closeness that the church and state felt and the openness of the civil government and magistrates to the opinions and desires of the ministers, Hall more-so than Greene or Wertenbaker describes the disdain of the magistrates for the ministers meddling in civil affairs, especially towards holding office in both church and civil government. Hall also more than the others describes a subordinate position of the state to the church through the eyes of Thomas Cartwright.
The differing conclusions reached by each author show us one primary fact about the Puritans, the Puritans were not monolithic. If we read the writings of individual Puritans we find that some desired a more hierarchical system while others believed this unbiblical. We’ll find that many desired a close relationship between the church and the state while others saw this as problematic.
We will also find that the views of the Puritans as a group changed over time. During the first generation the Puritans as a group – while they still had their differences – were fairly homogenous. This is why it can be noted that early on to only allow church members to vote still resulted in most everybody being able to vote.
Yet as time passed the first generation gave birth to a second generation and a third. These latter generations were tied less to the ideals of their parents and grandparents. This resulted in an inevitable tension between those who were ostracized by the Puritan system, with tensions growing between the groups on the matter of how closely the church should identify with the state (and vis versa).
The Puritans had a close relationship between church and state, one that could be at times interpreted as a theocracy but was in fact much more complicated and filled with much more tension. It was a system in which the church attempted to guide the formation of the society through its influence in the state, but which ultimately could not be sustained as the society grew and became more diverse.
Eugene Lilley (MDiv, MA) is a member of the Society of Christian Philosophers and the American Chesterton Society.
He may or may not be a Time Lord.