American Christian Politics
October 24, 2012
Trends in the study of the Puritans have long functioned as a mirror reflecting broader cultural trends. For George Bancroft in the decades before the Civil War it was the Puritans as heralds of democratic freedom. Progressive historians at the turn of the 20th century treated Puritans as the kind of repressed, mean-spirited, theological bigots that right-thinking Americans were finally learning to live without. In the era dominated by the shocks of Depression, World War, and Cold War, Perry Miller and a host of historians in his train returned to respect the Puritans precisely because of their intellectual rigor, high-mindedness, and lofty moral aspirations. A significant number of evangelical Protestants in the mid-20th century and after have followed the lead of Martyn Lloyd-Jones in finding the specifics of Puritan theology the perfect medicine for a spiritually diseased age. In the 1970s and later, American social historians reflected the culture's displacement of "hegemonic" ideals by ideals attending to the marginal and the victimized, or by no ideals at all. These historians moved early New England studies away from high theology to explorations of land acquisition, generational conflict, the female life course, Indian wars, economic transactions, and the survival of magic.
If this rough account of correlations between scholarly trends and cultural trends holds, it is intriguing to ask what the fine crop of recent books on the Puritans reveals about our era. Scholarship on Jonathan Edwards, who lived at the very end of the Puritan period, has never been so comprehensive and so sympathetic to Edwards main concerns. Essays in Books & Culture have recently drawn attention to outstanding books by Mark Valeri and David Hall that, while obviously benefiting from the research of social historians and by no means providing simplistic propaganda for the Puritans, nonetheless argue persuasively for their significance in theological as well as social terms.
Now, along with other important studies, comes Michael Winship's meticulously researched argument for the distinctly "republican" character of early New England. Winship displays considerable respect for Puritan efforts to live up to their name—that is, to purify self, church, and society and so fulfill the incomplete promise of the English Reformation. In particular, the book details the significant achievement of the Puritans in establishing a godly political order in the new world, but also the many reversals, ironies, and unexpected twists that attended that achievement.
Godly Republicanism exploits sources on both sides of the Atlantic to explain what the Puritans accomplished. The achievement arose from their character as the real Protestants of their age. Other Protestants might claim to be following the Bible, but Puritans were positively obsessed with the effort to define the church in truly scriptural terms. This obsession then led on to political consequences flowing naturally from that effort. Winship patiently challenges several ideas long accepted by scholars of 17th-century New England before he is ready to draw his own conclusions:
- The search for a truly biblical church led New England to practice what can be called "determined" (my word) "puritan congregationalism" (Winship's phrase).
- Despite conservative opposition of many kinds in England and radical opposition from Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams in Massachusetts, that ecclesiology was successfully implemented. Moreover, it supported a vigorous religious life, but also great vigor in politics and society, from the founding of Massachusetts in 1629 until King Charles II pulled the original charter of the Bay Colony in 1684.
- By contrast, this determined form of Puritan congregationalism never succeeded in England, where it was first utterly rejected by Anglican opponents but also turned aside almost as definitely by competing Puritan options, and then was fractured by the radical Christian movements unleashed during the English Civil Wars and the rule of Oliver Cromwell (1642-1660).
- The determined Puritan congregationalism practiced in New England supported a genuinely Christian form of republican politics, with republicanism defined negatively as constant wariness about the abuse of unchecked power and positively as a belief that the virtue of citizens was the key to the health of a nation.
- For the long term, the success of "godly republicanism" in 17th-century New England meant that when the colonies began to protest against King George III's "tyranny" in the 1760s, the republican ideology behind their protests enjoyed a distinctly Christian precedent even as it was also fueled by more secular Enlightenment principles.
Winship engages in quite a bit of densely footnoted inside baseball to defend these conclusions. First, "New England" means primarily the Plymouth colony (founded by "Pilgrims" in 1620), Massachusetts Bay, and New Haven (a separate colony on the north shore of Long Island Sound that existed from 1638 until absorbed into Connecticut in 1662). Connecticut, first settled as a kind of outpost of Massachusetts in the mid-1630s, but where its definite charter of 1662 came from the king and whose churches always leaned a little bit more toward presbyterianism, also counts as "New England" but not quite as purely.
Godly Republicanism directly challenges long-accepted opinion that has denied the general importance of the Plymouth Colony. It was founded by "moderate separates" who had abandoned efforts to reform the episcopal Church of England and whose wanderings had taken them to the Netherlands before they came to America. Their key role, according to Winship, was to display an actually functioning model of a truly scriptural church for the Puritans who arrived in great numbers from 1629, but whose protests against Anglican abuses had never clearly united behind a single alternative for a biblically reformed church life. Thus, Plymouth strongly supported the initial Massachusetts church, founded at Salem in 1629, when it established itself as a "militantly" (my word) Puritan congregation, and then guided succeeding Massachusetts churches toward their determined form of Puritan congregationalism.
Winship also challenges the many accounts of early-modern republicanism that have pictured it as an essentially secular ideology strongly inimical, with its all-out focus on worldly power, to the Puritans' strict Calvinism. Instead, he argues that the "godly republicanism" of early New England came directly from spiritual sources. The Puritans' greatest desire was to bring about biblical reform of churches corrupted by abuses of unchecked power. In Massachusetts and New Haven, Puritans also set up a system to ensure that truly virtuous citizens controlled the body politic. This was a scheme whereby the freemen (male citizens) elected the colony's officials, the sole qualification to be a freeman was church membership, and church membership required a testimony of God's gracious work in one's life. Explicitly Christian virtue thus grounded the health of the "commonwealth," an expressly republican term. Those scholars, including myself, who have described the republicanism of the Revolutionary era as secular may reply that the early Puritan arrangement was soon modified by the Puritans themselves and then completely abrogated when Massachusetts was taken over as a royal colony in 1684. But Winship nonetheless makes a strong case for a definite Christian root to the founding republican principles of the United States.
This re-interpretation of early New England history hinges on careful discrimination among the different varieties of English and American Puritans. Never, one might think, has a scholar made so much of so little. Yet paying close heed to how he describes these Puritan varieties is, in the end, convincing. The following chart, which sets things out as an "invention" in the Ramist logic so beloved by the Puritans, summarizes those distinctions, though it would have clarified Winship's argument if he himself had provided such a scorecard.
Stuart Anglicans were the monarchs, James I and Charles I, and their bishops who opposed Calvinism, promoted Arminian theology, and moved toward Catholicism in their rituals. To the Puritans they constituted a stupendous barrier to the biblical reforms that the English church so desperately needed.
In Winship's usage, Puritans were the great promoters of church reform, but who also insisted on maintaining "Christendom," or the comprehensive church-state unity that had been the European norm for more than a millennium.
Conforming Puritans were willing to live with the Anglican system of bishops if they were free to promote Calvinist theology and biblical preaching.
Presbyterian Puritans wanted to replace the bishops with regional and national synods of godly pastors and lay elders. They expected congregations to aid in selecting pastors, but, once selected, the pastors, acting in presbyteries, were to be the controlling force in promoting godliness. Presbyterian Puritans, closely aligned with Scottish Presbyterians, gained the upper hand in the early years of the English Civil War, during which time they organized the Westminster Assembly that produced the famous Confession and other Presbyterian standards. But these English Presbyterians lost out to the congregational and more radical elements during the ascendancy of Oliver Cromwell.
Congregational Puritans sought churches organized by covenants among members, ministers elected by congregations and responsible strictly to those congregations, and (in New England) church membership on the basis of a testimony of God's saving grace. The goal was to insulate biblically formed congregations from the corrupting abuses of power.
Determined congregational Puritans dominated New England. Winship says they practiced "separation-without-separating" because they claimed to be only reformers of the national church and because they allowed fellowship with godly Puritans who remained in the parishes of the Church of England.
Militant congregational Puritans were those like in the Salem church who refused to offer the Lord's Supper or baptism to anyone who maintained fellowship with anyone in the Anglican churches.
Moderate separatists were "separating congregationalists" like the great theologian William Ames and also the settlers at Plymouth. They removed themselves completely from the Church of England but still enjoyed fellowship with the Puritans who shared their general theology, especially with the determined congregational Puritans. For example, the governors of Plymouth (William Bradford) and Massachusetts (John Winthrop) maintained cooperative fellowship with each other in New England's early days.
Radical separates wanted to break with Anglicanism as completely as possible. The most radical of all was Roger Williams, the sweet-tempered thorn in the side of the Massachusetts establishment. He denounced "Christendom" by name as an anti-biblical system, attacked all ties between church and state, and refused any fellowship (even to pray, even with his wife) with anyone who did not both separate from the Church of England and separate from those who did not completely separate from Anglicanism.
This elaborate scheme of distinctions allows Winship to make his final judgments about what the American Puritans did. It also opens a path to speculate on how the revival of scholarship focused on the Christianity of Puritanism might be a sign of hope for our own day.
Winship leaves two carry-away conclusions. First, the early generations of New England deserve great respect. They were deeply committed to the authority of Scripture. They sensed correctly the corrupting potential of unchecked authority in state or church. They made great sacrifices—especially taking on the immense difficulties of immigration to an unknown land—in order to follow their Christian principles. They greatly feared the ever present threat of their own sinfulness. Most of all, their actions were always in their own minds altruistic. Puritans could be harshly repressive to those who resisted their regime, but the Puritan vision of the Kingdom of God on earth was the great thing to be protected, not personal power or wealth or status.
The hope for Christian politics today is that those who advance into the public arena as "godly republicans" might be as serious, as repentant, as principled, as biblically informed, and—above all—as altruistic as the Puritans.
Winship's second concluding point is that, despite the Puritans' herculean labors and the luster of their ideals, they failed. In Massachusetts, the perfect reform of church and state was in place by the mid-1630s. John Cotton defined it as "authority in magistrates, liberty in people, purity in the church." It was nothing less, as several other early Puritans proclaimed, than a "new heaven and earth," or in Winship's summary, "an unprecedented recovery of New Testament Christianity."
Yet even in the moment of triumph, things started to crumble. Roger Williams challenged the biblical basis for the Christendom assumptions of the entire New England Way. The clear-eyed Bible-reader Anne Hutchinson charged that the "works" required to build a Puritan social ordered violated the crucial doctrine of "free grace" that grounded all of Puritan theology. In the 1640s, concern began to grow about the increasing numbers of rising adults who, though living upright lives, could not or would not make a profession of saving grace. That problem, which threatened the entire system, became the subject of intense divisiveness for more than a century. In the 1650s, the violent potential of the system broke out when Massachusetts executed four Quakers for returning to the colony after they had been banished. And then in the 1680s, when the dynamics of power shifted in England and Massachusetts lost its charter, which again made voting a function of property, the colony meekly gave up the crucial mechanism that had grounded their entire system.
None of these upsets completely compromised what John Winthrop and the other early Puritans had hoped to accomplish in the new world. Yet all of them spoke to how much easier it was to protest evils in church and society than to translate dedicated personal holiness into a godly political regime. All also spoke to the really difficult problem of getting deeply committed Bible-believers to agree on what Christian politics actually entailed.
The message of hope from such scholarship today is that whatever shape Christian politics now takes, it would benefit by learning from the Puritans. They were indeed heroic spiritual ancestors. But if they—even with unusual purity of heart and unusual dedication for the long haul—could not succeed, then those of us who are weaker in faith and less self-sacrificing in resolution should look first in our politics to cultivating the virtues that even these hardy pioneers sometimes neglected, including modesty, patience, gentleness, kindness, and self-control.
1. See the magisterial studies, both relying on the solid work of many others, by George Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (Yale Univ. Press, 2004); and Michael J. McClendon and Gerald R. McDermott, The Theology of Jonathan Edwards (Oxford Univ. Press, 2011).
2. Lauren F. Winner on Valeri, Heavenly Merchandize: How Religion Shaped Commerce in Puritan America (Princeton Univ. Press, 2010), Books & Culture, Nov/Dec 2010, pp. 27-29; Mark Valeri on David D. Hall, A Reforming People: Puritans and the Transformation of Public Life in New England (Knopf, 2010), Books & Culture, July/Aug 2011, pp. 25, 27.
3. An informative and accessible book of character sketches that reinforces many particulars of Winship's study was published at about the same time: Francis J. Bremer, First Founders: American Puritans and Puritanism in an Atlantic World (Univ. of New Hampshire Press, 2012).
4. Mark A. Noll, America's God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (Oxford Univ. Press, 2002), pp. 53-72.
Mark Noll is Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame. The third edition of his book Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity has recently been published by Baker Academic.
Copyright © 2012 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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