The View From 1776

Theocracy: the Origin of American Democracy

The nature of theocracy in the New England colonies is widely misunderstood.  Few recognize that the New England town meeting, the prototype of American institutions of democratic self-government, was nothing more than the governing process of each Congregational (Puritan) church community.

Theocracy is a broad term encompassing many different degrees of religious influence in civil government.  Critics of New England Puritanism focus on two aspects: exclusion of non-church members from civil government, and reprobation of moral laxity.

Looking back at Puritanism only through the lens of present-day cultural standards leads most people to conclude that Puritans were repressive and anti-democratic.  H. L. Mencken in the 1920s summed up liberal intellectuals’ judgment when he declared that Puritanism was a form of neurosis.  This is the view taught in public schools and in our colleges and universities.

If one’s values extend no further than the adolescence of the Roaring 20s and today’s New York Times’s advocacy of rudeness, crudeness, and sexual promiscuity, that may be an understandable assessment.

If, however, one looks at fundamental matters the picture changes dramatically.

The foundation of our constitutional government ? the concept that the source of civil power is the people of the nation, not the king ? originated in the 17th century with the English Puritans and their Scottish confreres, known there as Presbyterians.  Both groups opposed the luxury and elaborate ritualism of the episcopalian Church of England, along with its levels of hierarchical authority that dictated to the church members.  In civil government they opposed the related doctrine of divine right of kings.

In “Democracy in America,” Alexis de Tocqueville noted :

“Puritanism was not merely a religious doctrine, but corresponded in many points with the most absolute democratic and republican theories. It was this tendency that had aroused its most dangerous adversaries. Persecuted by the government of the mother country, and disgusted by the habits of a society which the rigor of their own principles condemned, the Puritans went forth to seek some rude and unfrequented part of the world where they could live according to their own opinions and worship God in freedom.

“....The general principles which are the groundwork of modern constitutions, principles which, in the seventeenth century, were imperfectly known in Europe, and not completely triumphant even in Great Britain, were all recognized and established by the laws of New England: the intervention of the people in public affairs, the free voting of taxes, the responsibility of the agents of power, personal liberty, and trial by jury were all positively established without discussion.”

When James I succeeded Queen Elizabeth in 1603, he brought from his native Scotland an antipathy for Presbyterianism and vowed to suppress Puritanism in England.  He also brought his Stuart family’s insistence upon the divine right of kings and loathing of “interference” by Parliament.

His harassment of Puritans led some of them to flee to Holland, whence came in 1620 the founders of the Plymouth colony in Massachusetts.  Other Puritans, centered in Cambridge University, elected to remain within the Church of England and to work for reforms that aimed to return the church to the simplicity of its founding era under the Apostle Paul, a period without a hierarchy of bishops in which the church members elected elders and deacons from among their local members to administer each church’s affairs.

James’s son, Charles I, succeeded to the throne in 1625 and became even more abusive of religious and civil liberty than his father.  Forced by Parliament to accept the 1628 Petition of Right, one of the fundamental documents of the British constitution, he simply refused to call Parliament into session for eleven years beginning in 1629.  During this period he permitted Anglican Archbishop William Laud to employ crown troops to imprison and execute Puritans, making the Court of Star Chamber synonymous with arbitrary injustice. 

Puritans led by John Winthrop and others in Cambridge University sorrowfully determined that the possibility of reforming the Anglican Church was too remote for them to remain in England and suffer Archbishop Laud’s depredations.  They managed in 1629 to purchase the royal charter for the Massachusetts Bay Company, assembled a group of fellow Puritans, and sailed on the Arbella to establish a new church community in more tolerant circumstances.

The English political expression of Puritanism, after the end of Cromwell’s Protectorate, was the Whig Party that emerged in opposition when James II became king in 1685 and resumed the earlier civil and religious suppressions of his father Charles II.  James II’s deposition in The Glorious Revolution of 1689 produced the English Bill of Rights, another fundamental document of the British constitution, and the model for our own Bill of Rights.  It also most notably produced the “Second Treatise of Civil Government” by Puritan John Locke, the philosophical foundation, down to the borrowing of phraseology, for our own Declaration of Independence and Constitution.

The concept of the Biblical covenant is essential in understanding the civil and religious government in Puritan New England.  Just as God established through Moses a covenant with the tribes of Israel making them His chosen people, so the Puritans en-route to found Boston solemnly instituted a covenant between themselves and God to establish a church community in the new world that would follow the Ten Commandments and be a “city upon a hill” serving as a model for reversion to the righteous simplicity of the original Christian churches.

As endlessly proclaimed by Old Testament prophets, the covenant between God and his chosen people was a two-way street.  God would bless them so long as they remained faithful to His commandments, but would visit His wrath upon them when they strayed.  So was the understanding and intent of the Puritan covenant entered upon with the founding of the Massachusetts Bay colony in 1630.

From this flows what 20th century hedonists construe as repressive intolerance.  What they forget is that the peoples of Plymouth in 1620 and of Boston in 1630 voluntarily and gladly accepted the pledge of their covenants, as did all towns (Congregational churches) subsequently founded in Massachusetts and Connecticut.

Putting this into a current-day framework, few people would describe General Motors or Citibank as intolerant or repressive because they require all people accepting employment also to accept their rules of conduct or be fired for breaches of those rules.

The Massachusetts Bay Company was in fact a corporation whose charter was owned by John Winthrop’s group, the founders of Boston.  Thus they had both civil and religious authority, subject to the will of each church congregation, to set their own rules of conduct.  Church members became shareholders in the chartered corporation.

For those early Puritan communities, adherence to their solemn covenant with God was regarded literally as a matter of life or death in the harsh conditions of wilderness in the formative years of each church community.

For that reason, when church members were deemed by their local church fellows to have engaged in conduct conflicting with the founding covenant, they were excluded from fellowship until they repented and reformed their conduct.  No person coming into a church community was permitted membership in the church without satisfying the church members of his faith in Jesus Christ and his commitment to Godly conduct.

What must be stressed is that, within each church community, subject only to their covenant, the democratic wishes of all members of each congregation was the sole source of religious administration and civil authority.  The 1648 Cambridge Platform, the product of the General Court, the colony-wide gathering of elected representatives of each local congregation, affirmed this in explicit detail.

Ministers undoubtedly exercised great influence on both church and civil administration, but that was a consequence of their having been selected and hired by each congregation and their subsequent satisfactory performance in office.  No Puritan minister had independent authority to impose any doctrine or judgement upon any New England community.  Ministers who attempted it were summarily dismissed by their congregations.

When congregants irreconcilably disagreed with their fellows, they departed and founded new churches.  What few people know is that New England towns in the early 17th century were simply church communities.  My home, Stamford, Connecticut, founded in 1641 as a split-off from the Wetherfield, Connecticut, church, was the last of those founded in New England.

The Cambridge Platform affirms that the people within each church community were the sole source of authority, subject to the Word of God.  They elected their own preachers, teachers, elders, and deacons, each member having an equal vote.  There was no external or overriding hierarchical body with the power to gainsay each church’s will.

These Congregational meetings became in subsequent years the celebrated New England Town meeting.  Puritan Congregational Churches thus were the origin of American concepts of democratic self-government.

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