Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Mark David Hall: The Influence of the Reformed Tradition on the American Founding, Part III

By Mark David Hall

The Reformed Tradition in America

Protestantism’s progress began auspiciously in England when Henry VIII severed ties with Rome and created the Church of England in 1534. However, this institution remained too “popish” for many Calvinists, who became known as Puritans for their desire to completely purify this church. Some Puritans eventually gave up hope for reformation of the English church and, facing increasing persecution in their homeland, fled to Holland around 1608 and then to America in 1620. Before these Separatist Puritans aboard the Mayflower disembarked, they created a covenant that represents important aspects of early Puritan political thought. This agreement, known today as the Mayflower Compact, committed the people and the rulers to “the Glory of God, and the Advancement of the Christian Faith.” Its legitimacy stemmed from the consent of the 41 men heading households on the Mayflower, and it required rulers to govern justly.

The Mayflower compact is the most famous early civil covenant made in America, but it is not unique. As David A. Weir illustrates in his exhaustively researched book, Early New England: A Covenanted Society, hundreds of ecclesiastical and civil covenants were created whereby people joined together before the eyes of God to pursue different projects ultimately aimed at glorifying God. Each of these covenants reinforced the idea that governments are legitimate and binding because they were established by the consent of the governed. This view is reflected well by Henry Wolcott’s notes of a 1638 election sermon by one of Connecticut’s founders, Thomas Hooker:

Doctrine. I. That the choice of public magistrates belongs unto the people by God’s own allowance.

II. The privilege of election, which belongs to the people, therefore must not be exercised according to their humors, but according to the blessed will and law of God.

III. They who have the power to appoint officers and magistrates, it is in their power also to set the bounds and limitations of power and place unto which they call them.

Reasons. 1. Because the foundation of authority is laid, firstly, in the free consent of the people.”

Not only did the people consent to the original form of government; most men could participate in town meetings and freemen elected representatives to the colonial legislatures. Of course there was an expectation that citizens would elect and defer to godly, talented magistrates. John Winthrop famously lectured Massachusetts Bay’s General Court on this point in 1645, and thirty five years later Connecticut’s Samuel Willis reiterated the sentiment with a greater emphasis on class when he declared that “[t]he making of rulers of the lower sort of people will issue in contempt, let their opinion be what it will.” Such statements have led some scholars to overemphasize the importance of social class in the era, but others such as Joy and Robert Gilsdorf have persuasively argued that eighteenth century Connecticut citizens were more concerned with competence (and, I would add, godliness) than social standing or wealth. Moreover, the colonies, led by those in New England, clearly grew more democratic as the seventeenth century progressed.

Early Puritan societies are often described as theocracies, and their founders and leaders undoubtedly attempted to create thoroughly Christian social and political institutions. However, within these societies the institutions of church and state were kept separate and distinct. In early Massachusetts clergy could not hold political offices or otherwise serve in a civil capacity (this restriction was eventually lifted), and the Massachusetts Body of Liberties (1641) specifically banned European practices such as ecclesiastical courts and made it clear that ecclesiastical sanctions such as excommunication had no impact upon holding civil office. The state was to be a “nursing father” to the church (a phrase taken from Isaiah 49:23), by creating a society that encouraged true Christianity. Throughout New England (with the exception of Rhode Island) the Congregational church was supported financially through taxation, there were religious tests for office holders, and statutes required church attendance and punished vice. Protestant dissenters in the region were tolerated if they remained quiet and did not disturb the public order. However, vocal and disorderly dissenters such as the Quakers and perceived troublemakers such as Anne Hutchinson (1638) and Roger Williams (1636) were banned or exiled.

The Puritan conviction that rulers should promote true religion might suggest a powerful state, but this possibility was tempered by the belief that civil power should be strictly limited. Early legal codes enumerated rights and judicial procedures, including protection against double jeopardy, torture, and “inhumane Barbarous or cruell” bodily punishments. The power of the state also was constrained by what John Davenport called in 1669 “the Law of Nature” which is “God’s law.” Puritans believed that if rulers violate natural law, they may legitimately be resisted. A striking expression of this idea is found in a 1678 sermon by Massachusetts’s Samuel Nowell called “Abraham in Arms,” where he contended that the “Law of nature . . . teachth men self-preservation.” Moreover, he proclaimed that there “is such a thing as Liberty and Property given to us, both by the Laws of God & Men, when these are invaded, we may defend our selves.”

Like their descendents, Puritans were concerned with “liberty,” but it is critical to recognize that they never understood the concept to include the excessively individualistic idea that men and women are free to do anything except physically harm others. They distinguished between liberty and personal license. Puritans were primarily interested with freedom from sin, but they also understood liberty as the ability of a people to govern themselves and to do what God requires of them. They came closest to embracing modern notions of liberty was with respect to freedom of conscience, but even here religious actions judged by the community to be disruptive could still be restricted. As Barry Alan Shain has demonstrated, this constrained understanding of liberty remained dominant in America until well into the eighteenth century.

Few scholars question the influence of the Reformed tradition on the early Puritans, but some have argued it declined rapidly. Clearly the way New England colonists thought about society and politics changed in response to increased prosperity and events like the English Civil War, the Restoration, the Glorious Revolution (especially the rule of Governor Edmund Andros), the First Great Awakening, and the English victory in the French and Indian War. In spite of a variety of significant changes, both civic and ecclesiastical leaders in the Reformed tradition remained committed to the political principles discussed above, and many became even more convinced that America had a special role to play God’s advancing kingdom.


15. Daniel L. Dreisbach and Mark David Hall, eds., The Sacred Rights of Conscience: Selected Readings on Religious Liberty and Church-State Relations in the American Founding (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund Press, 2009), 86.

16. Weir, Early New England. See also Daniel J. Elazar, Covenant and Commonwealth: From Christian Separation through the Protestant Reformation (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1996).

17. Perry Miller, ed., The American Puritans: Their Prose and Poetry (New York: Columbia University Press, 1956), 89; Alice M. Baldwin, The New England Clergy and the American Revolution (1928; reprint, New York: Frederick Ungar, 1965), 26-27; and Richard L. Bushman, From Puritan to Yankee: Character and the Social Order in Connecticut, 1690-1765 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967), 154-59.

18. John Winthrop, “Speech to the General Court,” (1645), in Miller, The American Puritans, 90-93; Bushman, From Puritan to Yankee, 12; Joy B. and Robert R. Gilsdorf, “Elites and Electorates: Some Plain Truths for Historians of Colonial America,” in Saints and Revolutionaries: Essays on Early American History, ed. David D. Hall, John M. Murrin, and Thad W. Tate (New York: W.W. Norton: 1984), 207-244; Robert E. Brown, Middle-Class Democracy and the Revolution in Massachusetts, 1691-1780 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1955); and Perry Miller, “Hooker and Connecticut Democracy,” in Errand Into the Wilderness (New York: Harper & Row, 1956), 16-47. J.S. Maloy argues persuasively that modern notions of democratic accountability can be traced to colonial New England, and that Calvinist ecclesiology encouraged the development of democratic political institutions and practices in The Colonial American Origins of Modern Democratic Thought (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), esp. 86-170. See also Clark, Language of Liberty, 8.

19. Dreisbach and Hall, Sacred Rights of Conscience, 83-213; Edmund S. Morgan, Puritan Political Ideas, 1558-1794 (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1965), xiii-xlvii; T.H. Breen, The Character of the Good Ruler: A Study of Puritan Political Ideas in New England, 1630-1730 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970).

20. Massachusetts Body of Liberties, articles 42-46, in Bruce Frohnen, The American Republic (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund Press, 2002), 18.

21. John Davenport, “A Sermon Preach’d at The Election of the Governour” (Boston, 1670), 4. See generally Baldwin, New England Clergy, 13-21. Similarly, two years early Jonathan Mitchel declared in his election sermon that “the Law of Nature, is part of the Eternal Law of God.” Mitchel, “Nehemiah on the wall in troublesome times…” (Cambridge, 1671), 11. Note that in these examples (and numerous others could be given) indisputably orthodox clergy appealed to “the law of nature” as a source of authority. For discussion of natural rights and the Reformed tradition see Georg Jellinek, The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizens: A Contribution to Modern Constitutional History, trans. Max Farrand (1901; reprint, Westport: Hyperion Press, 1979); Witte, Reformation of Rights; and Clark, The Language of Liberty, 93-125, esp. 113.

22. Samuel Nowell, “Abraham in Arms,” (Boston, 1678), 10-11. Some scholars consider any hint of a right of self-preservation to be evidence of the influence of Thomas Hobbes and/or John Locke. However, the right to protect oneself had long been a part of the natural law tradition, and it is clearly present in Reformed works written well before Hobbes’ Leviathan.

23. Shain, Myth of American Individualism, esp. 155-288. See also Witte, Reformation of Rights, 1-37, 277-319;

24. Arguments for and against the declension thesis include Perry Miller, The New England Mind: From Colony to Province (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1953), Edmund S. Morgan, “New England Puritanism: Another Approach,” William and May Quarterly 3rd ser. 18 (1966), and Cooper, Tenacious of Their Liberties, 133-150. Bushman’s From Puritan to Yankee is indispensible on this subject, but he overemphasizes the degree and scope of theological change in eighteenth-century Connecticut. See also Weir, Early New England, 227 and Breen, The Character of the Good Ruler, 240, on the persistence of covenant ideals in New England.

25. See, for instance, Thomas Kidd, The Protestant Interest: New England after Puritanism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004) and Hatch, Sacred Cause of Liberty.


Pinky said...

The tree of American political thought that grows out of these roots flourished in many ways.
Jefferson's Summary View written to the First Continental Congress in 1774 stated, " propose to the said congress that an humble and dutiful address be presented to his majesty begging leave to lay before him as chief magistrate of the British empire the united complaints of his magesty's subjects in America; complaints which are excited by many unwarratable encroachments and usurpations, attempted to be made by the legislature of one part of the empire, upon those rights which god and the laws have given equally and independently to all."
I see Jefferson reaching into that Doctrine and commentary provided in Jonathon Rowe's article. It lays ground for separation--giving legal precedent for separating from any society that fails to provide provision for the "pursuit of happiness".

Pinky said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tom Van Dyke said...

D of I: ...attempted to be made by the legislature of one part of the empire

This points up the colonists' argument that they were not under the authority of the English parliament. Their charters were from the king, and with no representation in parliament, that body was not their legitimate ruler.

This supports Dr. Hall's quote from the 1638 election sermon by one of Connecticut’s founders, Thomas Hooker:

Doctrine. I. That the choice of public magistrates belongs unto the people by God’s own allowance.

II. The privilege of election, which belongs to the people, therefore must not be exercised according to their humors, but according to the blessed will and law of God.

III. They who have the power to appoint officers and magistrates, it is in their power also to set the bounds and limitations of power and place unto which they call them.

Reasons. 1. Because the foundation of authority is laid, firstly, in the free consent of the people.”

King of Ireland said...

This is not even close to what it taught about the Puritians in any History class I have ever been in or any text I have read or taught from. Barton's larger point stand unmolested. The secular version of history is myth.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Hall is doing good work. The Final Frontier, as it were, correcting "Whig theory" and the "Harvard Narrative."

The American Revolution wasn't a new thing based on some new idea; it had its "dry run" in the English civil wars of the 1600s. They had a "political theology," well before Locke published his "political philosophy" of the Second Treatise [and the First] after the smoke had cleared in 1689.

Locke published it all anonymously, BTW, just in case the smoke hadn't cleared.

John Lofton, Recovering Republican said...

Good stuff here. Hope you'll visit our site, please, read some articles, listen to some radio shows, give me some feedback. We are Christians FIRST and not Republican Party cheerleaders. God bless you, your family, your work.

John Lofton, Editor,
Communications Director, Institute On The Constitution
Recovering Republican

Sample radio show: My interview with Ken Ham of "Answers In Genesis." Comments welcome:

Might want to visit my Facebook Wall.