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
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
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