By Dr. Jeremy Dupertuis Bangs, PhD
That New England's Calvinist Puritans created theocratic governments is a stereotype that owes much to the nineteenth-century myth that Calvin established theocratic government in Geneva. In his Institutes, Calvin distinguishes between the jurisdiction of civil and ecclesiastical governments, stating that the magistrate in a Christian society has general authority over the entire society, including the obligation to protect and enforce religion and morality. Clergy have authority within the congregation only, including excommunication. While laws should conform with biblical precept, Calvin believes that many Old Testament regulations were abrogated by the New Testament. No way to ensure biblical conformity is described. Calvin expresses no preference when considering monarchic, aristocratic, or democratic forms of government. Calvin's ideas had little effect on Geneva's centuries-old system of syndics, co-optative small and large councils, and an electorate of privileged burghers rather than all residents. Throughout Europe, even where Calvin's ideas guided the reformation of the church and the replacement of canon law, Calvin's ideas caused scant change to the forms of established civic government. Nowhere did they lead to a dominance of political affairs by the clergy. Moreover, it was no innovation to insist that civic officials be church members (though now that meant Protestants); nor was medieval government, despite personal imperfections, conceived everywhere to be necessarily inconsistent with biblical precept.
Establishing colonies outside the bounds of functioning European laws brought opportunity for innovation. New England's colonies present shifting solutions to the problem of giving structure to government. John Robinson, the Pilgrims' minister, shared Calvin's view of the duties of the Christian magistrate but became convinced of an obligation for mutual religious toleration (at least among Protestants) by the time Plymouth Colony began. He insisted that church officials had no authority over the magistrates except within the congregation. With the Mayflower Compact, patterned on church covenants, the colonists acknowledged subordination to the English king (and consequently his laws) and agreed to live by mutually consented by-laws. Guided by Robinson's writings, the colonists drew up laws intended to be "equitable" without respect to church membership; and covenanted church membership never became a prerequisite for suffrage in Plymouth Colony. In its initial years there was no minister in the colony; later, ministers were rarely consulted by the court. Plymouth's 1636 constitution follows English legal precedent with few exceptions. Those are principally in the direction of biblically warranted charity - guaranteeing a widow's usufruct of a third of her husbands estate, replacing primogeniture with equal divisions among all children but with two portions to the first-born son, and restraining the collection of debt against an estate to prevent dispossession and maintain sustenance for widows and poor orphans, for example. Following advice from Roger Williams, Plymouth attempted to treat Indians equally before the court regarding land title, as people equally possessed of the image of God. In 1645 the majority of Plymouth's magistrates favored total religious toleration among Protestants, but Governor William Bradford prevented the proposed vote. Dissent against Congregationalist dominance continued, leading to sympathetic support for Baptists and Quakers - but in 1660 Governor Thomas Prence disenfranchised magistrate James Cudworth (co-author of an exposé of mistreatment of New England's Quakers) and the Quaker Isaac Robinson (John's son), a punishment repealed when Josiah Winslow succeeded Prence as governor.
Although Governor John Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony may have wanted to ground laws chiefly on biblical precedent, and Rev. John Cotton provided detailed advice, competing interests represented by other colonists limited the possibility of divergence from precedents found in existing English law. Nonetheless, suffrage was long restricted to covenanted church members. Besides denying other colonists the sacraments of communion and baptism, this restriction could deny rights to distribution of common lands among the freemen. The Massachusetts Fundamental Liberties (1641) drawn up with advice from Rev. Nathaniel Ward, correspond with Calvin's ideas that civil authority may enforce that the "peace, ordinances, and rules of Christ" be "observed in every church according to his word." Church office did not exempt anyone from being dealt with by civil authority. Church censure had no repercussions regarding "any civil dignity, office, or authority." Unlike in England, eventual slaves were to be guaranteed "all such liberties and Christian usages which the law of God established in Israel concerning such persons doth morally require." These few nods towards Calvin do not constitute theocracy.
The Plantation Covenant of New Haven (1639) Colony asserted that the scriptures contain a "perfect rule for the direction and government of all men in all duties, which they are to perform to God and men, as well in families and commonwealth, as in matters of the church." Rev. John Davenport supervised the organization of the government by church members only, following the theocratic guidelines devised by Cotton but not implemented in Massachusetts Bay Colony. The Fundamental Orders of Connecticut (1639/40) did not require covenanted church membership for the status of freeman, but the governor was obliged to be a covenanted church member.
Roger Williams, in Providence Plantations, was distinctly anti-theocratic, having experienced the power of the magistrate to enforce religious conformity in Massachusetts. Williams may have been inspired by the strict separation of church and state advocated by Baptists Thomas Helwys and John Murton. The non-theocratic government in Rhode Island was stated in mutual agreements among the planters (1641, 1642), guaranteeing "liberty of conscience" and making doctrinal disunity not actionable. These agreements received confirmation by charter in 1643.
Local towns varied in attitudes towards theocracy. Dedham (1636) attempted to reject non-covenanted residents. Controversies in Hingham and Scituate (ca. 1645) focused on opposition to dominance by covenanting Congregationalists.
Through land grants to Sir Ferdinando Gorges and John Mason, among others, in the 1630's, Archibishop William Laud hoped to abolish Puritan governments and introduce in New England the Anglican theocracy (in which bishops sat in parliament and controlled separate courts to punish infractions of the church's moral code). The project evaporated during the English Civil War.
New England never presented sufficient unity to be "a theocracy"; theocratic tendencies existed, but differed from England largely in asserting Congregationalist rather than Anglican dominance.
This article was written for the Lion Handbook, "The History of Christianity", Oxford: Lion 2007 (forthcoming, Jonathan Hill, editor), in which an abbreviated version will appear. The full article is published here with permission.