Puritanism as a Political Concept

 In Church History, Puritans, The Church

In the eyes of the Puritan New England majority, theology translated best into all areas of life. As we have previously asserted, the Calvinistic tendencies of Puritanism created a number of significant implications for society. The theological thought of Puritanism not only impacted the religious sphere of life but, rather, all areas of society. The spiritual was not and could not be separated from the secular.

Understanding Basic Puritan Political Thought  

To Puritans, it seemed virtually non-Christian to assert that one could separate the theological from the temporal. In other words, the theological aspects of life were not just one slice of the pie but the pie itself. Thus, this cohesive formation of theology fostered the pivotal Puritanistic belief that God governed humanity as one unified body rather than two separate organisms. God’s uniformal governance could not be neglected.  

A Puritan who found himself working as a tradesman did not merely view himself as a tradesman but a theologian disguised as a tradesman. Through his vocation, he was ultimately on mission and not business. The theological implications of God’s rule could not be separated from the reality of everyday life and politics. 

Total Depravity and Puritan Life

To best understand the Puritan political theory, we must first wrestle through the waters of total depravity. For the majority of seventeenth-century New England, a thorough understanding of human nature has proved to be an instrumental piece of knowledge in the task of grasping how the world functioned. This apparent instrumental piece of knowledge hinged upon the idea that human nature lacked any sense of natural virtue.

Children were not taught to disobey, slander their parents, or crudely function in their own self-interest. These attributes were a result of the fall and, therefore, embedded naturally within humanity. The only scapegoat, in finding freeing from such dreadful bondage, was through God’s mercy of regeneration. This traditionally Calvinistic way of understanding the rhythm of humanity profoundly impacted Puritan politics. In fact, a large majority of Puritan theologians asserted that God’s people were best governed not by an “orthodox” conceptualization of democracy—although Massassuchetts Bay would come to accept some form of democracy amidst the revolutionary period—but through the governing principles of God’s law.

The Massachusetts Bay Legislative Structure 

The political structure of the Massachusetts Bay Colony was quite complex. Through the colony’s royal charter, instituted under the reign of King Charles I, highfalutin Puritan politicians were granted the right to establish a “Great and General Court.” All legislative, administrative, and judicial duties were to be held within this institution. During the court’s first meeting in October of 1630, a lonely total of eight representatives took action to establish the Council of Assistants. A subsection under the canopy of the General Court, the Council of Assistants would theoretically function as a pre-Revolutionary Senate. Although, prior to 1644, the Council sat collectively with representatives from the General Court. 

In 1642, a court case regarding a widow’s missing pig was reversed by the General Court and then later that very bill was vetoed by assistants. It was here that representatives resolutely decided that the Council should sit separately from the Court, as an upper house. Therefore, the General Court, otherwise known as the House of Deputies, operated as a pre-Revolutionary House of Representatives while the Council of Assistants closely resembled our modern Senate. Yet, the subjection of the Council of Assistants did not negate the fact that both bodies must agree, via majority voting sessions within each chamber, before legislation could be passed.

Understanding the Theocracy  

Why, then, is the political structure of Massachusetts Bay commonly understood as a theocracy? The theocratic tendencies of Puritan New England are best recognized when looking at the key requirements for political office. In that, not everyone could be a state representative in colonial Massachusetts. Those of African descent, ethnic minorities, women, and those who did not acquiesce to the statutory form of theology were restricted from holding public office. In short, holding office was dependant upon satisfactory meeting these requirements.  

Political representatives, who happened to be of the Puritan creed, believed that the government should dutifully enforce a universal law that was properly molded by the inerrant Word of God. Thus, anyone who broke the law was not only violating the authority of the sovereign but also disregarding God’s will in the process. In this way, God actively played a part in the everyday affairs of humanity. The implementation of a biblically-oriented political structure was, in a strictly Puritan view, a prerequisite in Winthrop’s utopian pursuit of a “city upon a hill.” 

Puritans believed that a theocracy was best for the believers’ own personal battle with holiness and the collective’s wellbeing as a spiritual unity. This system was not only fixed to keep colonists in check with everyday law, but it also served as a spiritual check for Christians who desired to serve God with reverence and awe. Laws regarding the regulation of church attendance, protection of theological ideas, condemnation of trivial practices, and the protection of the Sabbath are all examples of rules established in order to promote the spiritual welfare of the state. 

An Unfortunate Irony 

The enforcement of a theocratic structure, along with the numerous theological requirements for political office, created a social rhythm marked by an expansive scope of government and limited freedom of conscience. Puritans ironically reasserted a “medieval” political Catholicism when they institutionalized a religious government that chastised those who did fall in line with the beliefs of the theological majority. The irony of Massachusetts Bay is best understood as the accidental implementation of the very aspects of medieval Catholicism, such as a limited focus on individual interpretation of Scripture, that the Puritans’ spiritual forefathers—being the European Reformers—sought to separate themselves from.  

Rather than adhering to Tertullian’s idea that religion “is of human right and natural liberty,” Puritans deviated from the political genius of their ancient church fathers and simulated an environment in which the conscience was subject to spiritual tyranny. To reference Tertullian’s treatise Ad Scapulam, religion was not treated as someone’s ius humanum (human right) or within one’s potestas naturalis (natural capability) for Puritan Massachusetts. The chief end of both governing houses of colonial Massachusetts, both the Council of Assistances and the General Court, was a commitment to the idea that society must remain theologically pure. 

Synthesis and Conclusion 

Seventeenth-century Puritan political theology engineered a social fabric that resolutely intertwined all things together. The things of Caesar were the things of God and vice versa. There was no clear distinction between the two. Although we may understand this muddled formation of a society to be an idea of the past, does any such thing resemble it today? I speak, of course, not of modern politics. But, rather, of social and political church structure.     

Have church governments entrapped faithful believers under a nonsensical canopy of perpetual ignorance? Is freedom of conscience really viewed as a virtue in today’s protestant church culture? As we may pridefully scoff at the foolish collapse of Massachusetts Bay, let us first consider our own culture. Do we truly value the freedom of thought that Christ speaks of when he urges us to love God with our whole mind? Do the blinding stage lights of contemporary evangelicalism hinder our ability to reasonably glorify and understand the Divine? 

These are the questions we need to be asking ourselves. As we dive further into the history of Puritanism, let us more accurately make connections between the past and the present. History, accurately understood, is not merely the study of the past. More precisely, history is the lens through which we may view the present.   

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