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Theocracy:...The Origin of American Democracy

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  • James
    By Thomas E. Brewton Theocracy: the Origin of American Democracy July 31, 2006 10:45 AM EST The nature of theocracy in the New England colonies is widely
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 31, 2006
      By Thomas E. Brewton
      Theocracy: the Origin of American Democracy
      July 31, 2006 10:45 AM EST

      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' advocacy of rudeness, crudeness, and
      sexual promiscuity that may be an understandable assessment.

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

      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

      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

      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 judgment 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.

      Thomas E. Brewton is a staff writer for the New Media Alliance, Inc.
      The New Media Alliance is a non-profit (501c3) national coalition of
      writers, journalists and grass-roots media outlets.

      His weblog is THE VIEW FROM 1776

      Email comments to viewfrom1776@...
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