“Case in Point” column
Official Student Publication
Covenant Theological Seminary
When the English Puritans brought their religious convictions to the colonies in the 17th Century, they brought their divisions as well as their unity. This is to say that while both major parties of English-Colonial Puritanism (Presbyterian & Independent or Congregational) held to the complete sovereignty of God over their entire lives, the Massachusetts Bay Puritans (roughly representing the theocratic position of the English Presbyterians) wanted the church to reign supreme in their colony; at least all office holders (and voters) had to be church members. The Independents, on the other hand, (roughly espousing what amounted to a liberal political view aligned with Lilburne and Locke) founded Rhode Island with the idea that there should be freedom of worship and that “soul liberty” should be given top priority, even over political considerations.
There were three other basic differences between the two strains of English-Colonial Puritanism:
1. The Independents favored a “gathered” church rather than a parish church. In other words, they favored a church composed of only those people who had accepted the “covenant” from God, into His family. Only those who had made personal commitments of their lives to Christ were treated as brothers and sisters in the Lord. Both Calvin and Luther required that all children in the church locality be baptized. Thus the entire population was included in the church’s membership.
2. The Independents laid a heavier stress on the continual role of the Holy Spirit in guiding the everyday actions of believers to conform to the Scriptures.
3. The final distinction was the Independent demand for a separation of church and state to prevent laws of forcing religious uniformity being enacted in the Colonies.
The Independents were led by Roger Williams who founded Rhode Island. Taking some of Robert Browne’s Baptist views of the church, Williams argued that the church consists only of members who had made a conscious and deliberate step of faith (“decision”) for Christ as their Lord and Savior. Along with this step of faith there was a commitment to be made concerning the following of the covenant requirements. This view, which devalued the sovereignty of God and increased the innate ability and wisdom of man, gave encouragement and comfort to those who would later follow the theology of James Arminius. But it is unfair to attribute incipient Arminianism to Roger Williams. This freedom of choice, or intense spiritual democracy, gave way to the same view of civil authority. That is, if people are treated as individuals and worthy of consideration on Sunday, they are going to demand something other than serfdom during the week. People who are free to choose their own pastors and their own religion are going to demand that they have the right to choose their own magistrates and politicians. Every single individual became a church member only by deliberately undertaking personal responsibility for testimony and good conduct, so the Rhode Island Puritan church was constituted by a contract among members under God’s law. J. H. Nichols, in his Democracy and the Churches, states,
“The gathered church was an association constituted by the voluntary adherence of each of its individual members to the specific constitution instituted by Jesus Christ. The political equivalent of the gathered church consequently, was the ‘social contract.’ according to which the political community itself was conceived as constituted by an explicit or tacit ‘owning of the covenant’ by each citizen. In these matters, John Locke, the classic theorist of Anglo-American democracy, showed himself a true son of the Puritan Independents.”
Nichols’ conception of the rationalist John Locke being in the same political theory camp as the a-political Robert Williams shows a common historical ignorance as to what Williams was all about. In spite of this error, Nichols’ comparison of the “gathered church” and “social contract” is a valuable addition.
As far as the working of the Holy Spirit is concerned, the difference lay between Massachusetts Bay and Rhode Island on one side and Roman Catholic Maryland on the other. The Puritans generally believed that the Holy Spirit was instructing every individual believer. And on difficult questions by coming together for discussion and prayer, the Truth about any problem could be arrived by the corporate usage of the Holy Spirit’s guidance. The Catholics, however, believed that the Truth was contained with the Pope and in the Canon law, and therefore, corporate discussion among believers to arrive at the Truth was a waste of time. Herein lies a very important aspect of our Christian-Puritan heritage in constitutionalism. The Puritans believed in debate; they believed that everyone had a right to voice their opinion before decisions were made. Furthermore, even minority opinions have the opportunity and real possibility to change the majority’s opinion, and therefore there is always the chance for adjustment and compromise. Such an emphasis on all opinions in the decision-making process in order to arrive at the best solution (Truth) has given rise to political parties to convey public discussion of civil issues. Thus, the absolute need for opposition parties (“loyal opposition”) since only through challenge and debate can the public good be served. In no Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox nation has a true party system of government emerged. The opposition party is not necessary for the general welfare of the people. On the contrary, many times it is seen as a threat, and even on occasion, an enemy of the state.
Over the issue of separation of church and state, the Puritans really did ‘split the sheets.’ The Massachusetts Bay and New Haven Colonies followed Calvin and Knox in expecting the state to maintain church discipline. Roger Williams in Rhode Island, on the other hand, believed the state should not be concerned with ecclesiastical control but should be guided in its actions only by those moral laws accessible to the reason and conscience of even non-believers. He substituted what is called the “compact theory” or covenant conception of political obligations for the older Puritan “divine right” of political obligations. Divine right was the philosophy that the political state is established and sanctioned by God. Williams agreed with the divine source of government in general, he also agreed with Richard Hooker in that the order of government is to be grounded in God’s natural law rather than revealed law; that is, the state is an order of creation rather than grace. In sum, the state is divine in origin because it is natural. Christ, himself, gave credence to this view when He distinguished between state affairs and ecclesiastical affairs. (Luke 20:25). Williams applied this to 17th century Rhode Island thusly: “A Civil Government is an ordinance of God to conserve the Civil peace of the people, so far as concerns their Bodies and no farther.”
So Williams, in his Rhode Island colony arrived at the philosophy that no one could force another’s religious obedience or faith, and similarly, no one could force another politically. Government in Rhode Island was thought to be a made-by-man institution resting on the consent (covenant) of the governed and founded on the assumed equality of the subjects. For defense, he used the examples of the Independent “gathered” churches coming together under a “social contract.” (So here we have ecclesiastical polity determining civil polity.) Furthermore, Williams viewed the church, not composed of believers called together by Christ, but a collection of individual believers coming together to worship because they share the same spiritual experiences and religious convictions. By carrying this view over into the civil arena, we can see that Williams decided that the state was an association arising from an agreement (covenant) among men.
Williams’ driving ambition was to keep the church pure in all respects. It was for this supreme goal that Williams refused to implement any bridge connecting religion and the state in Rhode Island, such as existed in Massachusetts Bay. Williams correctly understood that a Christian theocracy apart from Old Testament Israel is not a live option for God’s Children. His arguments for this position involved three basic elements:
1. The New Testament does not give license for religious coercion.
2. The church and the state are completely separate societies.
3. The Old Testament pattern of a national church is no political precedent for a Christian theocracy.
The Biblical Israel has no successor in the modern world.
By recognizing this and by taking steps to prevent state intervention in ecclesiastical affairs, Williams set part of the stage for a vital Christianity in America. Regardless of what humanistic historians (Parrington, Ernst, Brockunier) maintain, Williams was no political theorist or radical like the deistic Jefferson. Williams wanted dis-established Christianity in America so that the purity of God’s worshipping body would be protected from state corruption and influence. Jefferson, on the other hand, wanted a dis-established church so that the state could be kept free from ecclesiastical influence and control.
Williams rightly perceived government as a manmade tool to stem the tide of human sin. It was only a pragmatic science (although originally instituted by God), however necessary it might be. Being a pragmatic undertaking among sinful men to help them maintain a semblance of justice and peace, Christian idealism and faith could only be corrupted by participation on a corporate level. This is a lesson many of our Christian brothers need to understand today. There is no divinely elected denomination or organized body of believers today in the same sense as Israel was God’s elected people in the Old Testament. God’s elect today are in every denomination, every Society, every nation and every tribe in the world. There is, and can be no organized lineal des¬cendant of the nation of Old Testament Israel until Christ returns and establishes His Kingdom. Ironically, Massachusetts Bay, which maintained its established church until the early 19th century, finally dis-established the church at the behest of evangelicals. It seems the Unitarians began to occupy too many of the state supported church pulpits!
Williams, however, did not make a totally positive contribution to the Christian situation at the time. His emphasis on the subjective experience and opinion of individual Christians led to a Christian existentialism which gave rise to theologies which broke away from the Reformational moorings which mothered and stabilized them. These new theologies which characterized the newer denominations had no roots in political philosophy, social ethics or historical tradition. While some maintain that Williams helped usher in the “Enlightenment” in America (he did help usher out any form of theocracy in America), in fact theocratic Massachusetts Bay was the “Enlightenment” stronghold. By attempting to maintain both natural reason and Godly piety in their theology, the New Englanders constantly walked the tightrope between both extremes. Consequently, when Godly piety diminished human reason quickly engulfed the church.
Perry Miller, in his collection of Puritan writings entitled, The Puritans, gives us the result of this Puritan give and take which existed in 17th century America, “In the eighteenth century, for the first time since the fall of the Roman Empire, religion could be separated from politics, doctrinal orthodoxy divorced from loyalty to the state, and the citizens of a nation permitted to worship in diverse churches and to believe different creeds without endangering the public peace.”
It is my opinion that this is an altogether fine result and in theory, a Biblically sound societal state, given the circumstances. The Puritan legacy to us 20th century Christians is therefore not only theological or ecclesiastical, but practical as well. They demonstrated the destructiveness of a Christianity which legislated itself into power over a secular constituency on one hand, and the vitality of a Christianity which maintained freedom from corporate state involvement on the other. In a period of increasing Christian politicizing, we would do well to increase the use of our knowledge of American Puritan thought.