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How Reformed Theologians’ Commitment To Self-Rule And Resisting Tyranny Helped Form America


The following essay is part of The Federalist’s 1620 Project, a symposium exploring the connections and contributions of the early Pilgrim and Puritan settlers in New England to the uniquely American synthesis of faith, family, freedom, and self-government.

Last year marked the culmination of The New York Times’s controversial 1619 Project. The project rightly brought attention to the importance of the African American story of enslavement and the 400-year struggle for freedom. Yet its original claim that the United States was founded in 1619 rather than 1776 went too far.

Indeed, if one were to select a year from the 17th century, a better year to mark America’s founding would be 1620, the year the Pilgrims consented to the Mayflower Compact and, shortly thereafter, began America’s experiment in self-government. This year marks the 400th anniversary of the signing of this important document.

In a speech commemorating the 200th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ landing at Plymouth, the great orator Daniel Webster lauded these refugees as the authors of American “civil and religious liberty.” A few decades later, Alexis de Tocqueville observed that “Puritanism was not only a religious doctrine, but also at several points it was mingled with the most absolute democratic and republican theories.” He contended that understanding this “point of departure” is “the key to the whole book” of his magisterial “Democracy in America.”

Alas, on the 400th anniversary of the fateful landing, many Americans believe these settlers were dour Christians who, according to Nathaniel Hawthorne, wore “sad-colored garments” or, in the words of the 19th-century English professor Moses Coit Tyler, “cultivated the grim and the ugly.” More recently, H.L. Mencken described them as harboring a “haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy,” and the playwright Arthur Miller said they were “theocrats” who desired to prevent “any kind of disunity.”

In truth, the Pilgrims, and the Puritans who followed them, were not 21st-century liberal democrats, but they created political institutions and practices that profoundly influenced the course of American politics and facilitated later experiments in republican self-government and liberty under law. They valued natural rights, rule by the consent of the governed, and limited government; and they were convinced that citizens have a right, and perhaps even a duty, to resist tyrannical governments. Four hundred years since the signing of the Mayflower Compact, we should honor their contributions to the creation of the American republic.

The Reformation: A Very Brief History

To understand the Puritans, we must briefly consider the Protestant Reformation. This movement may be conveniently dated to 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the Wittenberg castle church door. The Puritans came out of the Calvinist (or Reformed) wing of the Reformation. Like other Reformers, John Calvin emphasized doctrines such as sola gratia, sola fide, sola scriptura, and the priesthood of all believers. But concerning politics, he and later Calvinists developed ideas and practices that were innovative, empowering, and conducive to human flourishing.

Reformers rejected the idea that the church and its priests were necessary intermediaries between ordinary people and God, and that the church as an institution possessed the authority to speak for Him. Individuals were told that they were responsible for their relationship with God and that His will for them is most clearly revealed in the Holy Scriptures. These last two beliefs led to an emphasis on literacy and a commitment to translating and printing the Bible in the vernacular.

The significance of the explosion of literacy in Protestant countries cannot be overestimated. In the mid-seventeenth century, literacy rates of Italy and France were 23 percent and 29 percent, respectively. In contrast, scholars estimate that up to 95 percent of males in New England at that time could read. Widespread literacy helped undermine existing hierarchies and paved the way for the growth of republican self-government.

The Reformation had several false starts in England — most notably those led by John Wycliffe and William Tyndale, both famous for translating the Bible into English (a “crime” for which Tyndale was burned at the stake). King Henry VIII was not particularly interested in Protestantism, but he did want to divorce Catherine of Aragon. Because the Pope refused to annul his marriage, he cut ties with Rome in 1534 and created the Church of England. Henry made himself rather than the Pope the head of this new church, but otherwise was largely content to leave it alone.

When Henry’s daughter, Mary, became queen in 1553, she persecuted and killed Protestant leaders, actions that earned her the pejorative nickname “Bloody Mary.” Many Protestants fled England for Calvin’s Geneva, Switzerland. After Mary died in 1558, these “Marian exiles” returned to their homeland with a renewed desire to “purify” the Church of England. In 1564, they were first called “Puritans” by their opponents.

Most English Puritans were content merely to purify the Church of England, but a subset of them saw no biblical precedent for a national church, believing each Christian congregation constituted a church and should govern itself. Because of their desire to separate from any sort of national church, they became known as “Separatists.” To freely practice their faith, a group of them fled to Holland in 1608, and then to America aboard the Mayflower in 1620.

Puritan Political Thought

Before these English Separatists, more commonly known as Pilgrims, disembarked from the Mayflower, they made an agreement that represents an important political innovation. This covenant, known today as the Mayflower Compact, committed the people and their rulers to pursue “the Glory of God, and the Advancement of the Christian Faith, and the Honor of our King and Country.” Its legitimacy stemmed from the consent of the 41 men — most of whom were Separatists — heading households on the ship.

Some scholars have attempted to downplay the importance of the Mayflower Compact by arguing that it was not well known until the 19th century and was not called the “Mayflower Compact” until 1793 — a fact that, while true, remains irrelevant. Verily, the Compact is significant because it represents the commitment many Reformed leaders had to the idea that people must consent to civic and ecclesiastical institutions if they are to be legitimate. The Pilgrims, and the Puritans who followed them, created civil governments that are among the most republican the world had ever seen.

Before the Protestant Reformation, most Christian thinkers contended that either a monarchy or a monarchy checked by a legislative body was the ideal form of government. The Protestant emphasis on literacy, the priesthood of all believers, and, in some cases, congregational ecclesiastical polities, helped to undercut hierarchical forms of government. In the 17th century, Reformed authors began to argue for the first time that the Bible sanctioned only republican governments. They adopted this idea from an unlikely source: commentaries on the Old Testament written by Jewish rabbis.

Reformers believed that ministers and scholars should read the Holy Scriptures in their original languages, which led many of them to learn Hebrew. Moreover, as Eric Nelson explains in his wonderful book “The Hebrew Republic”:

… to understand the Hebrew Bible, they insisted, one should consult the full array of rabbinic sources that were now available to the Christian West. One should turn to the Talmud and midrash, to the targums and medieval law codes.

In these texts, Protestant Reformers discovered a set of ideas that scholars now refer to as “political Hebraism.”

The most important political idea that Reformed thinkers drew from rabbinical commentaries was that republics were the only form of government approved by the Bible. From these works, they learned to interpret passages such as 1 Samuel 8 as condemning the Jewish people’s desire for a king, not their desire for a ruler other than God. By the mid-17th century, many Reformed leaders had come to embrace these views in theory, and civic leaders in New England could put these ideas into action as early as 1620.

Yet while the Mayflower Compact reflects aspects of Hebraic republicanism, it is far from unique. In the 1630s, waves of non-Separatist Puritans came to New England, where they created hundreds of ecclesiastical and civil covenants whereby people joined together for various purposes, all of which were ultimately aimed at glorifying God. Each of these covenants reinforced the idea that governments are legitimate and binding because they were established by the consent of the governed.

Not only did the people consent to the formation of governments, but most men could also participate in town meetings and be elected to public office.

Of particular significance for America’s later break from the British Empire, Calvinist political thinkers developed a strong commitment to the idea that tyrants must be actively resisted. Traditionally, many Christians understood Romans 13 and related texts to prohibit rebellion or active resistance to tyrannical rulers. Reformers initially embraced this approach, but almost immediately changed their minds.

Calvin, one of the most politically conservative of the Reformers, contended that in some cases inferior magistrates may resist a tyrant. Nevertheless, other Calvinists including John Knox, George Buchanan, Theodore Beza, Christopher Goodman, John Ponet, Samuel Rutherford, argued that inferior magistrates must resist unjust rulers, with some even permitted private citizens to do so.

Reformed Americans had experience resisting tyranny well before the War for American Independence. New England Puritans supported Parliament during the English Civil War, and John Cotton even preached a sermon defending the execution of Charles I.

After the Restoration, England attempted to “improve” the governance of the colonies by combining New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Plymouth into a single administrative unit known as the Dominion of New England (1686–89). The second governor of the new entity, Sir Edmund Andros, immediately made himself unpopular by demanding that a Congregational meeting house in Boston be made available for Anglican services and by restricting town meetings.

On April 18, 1689, shortly after news of the Glorious Revolution reached Boston, Puritan civic leaders arrested Andros and returned him to England for trial. The new monarchs wisely abandoned the Dominion and issued a new charter for Massachusetts, one that incorporated Plymouth Colony into its borders.

Long before John Locke wrote his “Second Treatise on Government,” Reformed civil and ecclesiastical leaders were convinced that the Bible taught that governments should be based on the consent of the governed and that unjust or ungodly rulers must be resisted. They created political institutions that were profoundly republican, and their descendants had roughly 150 years of experience governing themselves before the King embarked on a “long train of abuses” aimed at “reducing them” to despotism.

England would have done well to heed Edmund Burke’s 1775 warning to Parliament that Americans “are Protestants; and of that kind which is the most adverse to all implicit submission of mind and opinion. This is a persuasion not only favorable to liberty, but built upon it.”

The Puritans as Theocrats?

Early Puritan colonies are often described as theocracies, but this cannot be the case if by “theocracy” we mean either rule directly by God or ruled by priests. Non-Separatists were permitted to consent to the Mayflower Compact and were included in Plymouth Colony’s civic life. Clergy in Massachusetts Bay were initially banned from holding civic offices, and early Puritan legal codes specifically prohibited European institutions such as ecclesiastical courts. Furthermore, these statutes stipulated that ecclesiastical sanctions such as excommunication had no effect on civic officeholders.

Puritans were committed to creating social and political institutions that they believed were mandated by the Bible. This aspiration is illustrated well by the 1672 declaration by the Connecticut General Court that: “We have endeavored not only to ground our capital laws upon the Word of God, but also all other laws upon the justice and equity held forth in that Word, which is a most perfect rule.” But the implications of this approach are far from theocratic, at least as the term is usually used.

The influence of scripture upon New England’s laws is most obvious in each colony’s capital laws. Crimes such as adultery and incest were not punished by death in England, but the Puritans, looking to the Old Testament for guidance, made them capital offenses. Lest there be any mistake about the biblical warrant for this punishment, each capital law cited scriptural authority. For instance:

If any child, or children, above sixteen years old, and of sufficient understanding, shall curse, or smite their natural father, or mother; he or they shall be put to death: unless it can be sufficiently testified that the Parents have been very unchristianly negligent in the education of such children; or so provoked them by extreme, and cruel correction: that they have been forced thereunto to preserve themselves from death or maiming. Exod. 21. 17. Lev. 20. 9. Exod. 21. 15.

Such laws are harsh — especially compared to our modern sensibilities — but in practice, the death penalty was rarely enforced. Only three people, for instance, were hanged for adultery in Puritan New England and no one was ever put to death for being disrespectful to his parents.

On balance, the Puritans’s use of scripture as a guide for criminal law had a liberalizing effect. In 17th-century England, a person could be put to death based on circumstantial evidence, but the Puritans, drawing from Deuteronomy 19:15 (“One witness shall not rise up against a man for any iniquity, or for any sin, in any sin that he sinneth: at the mouth of two witnesses…”), required two witnesses to the same act in capital cases.

Similarly, a third of all English criminals were sentenced to death; a person could be executed for stealing property worth little more than a shilling. But American Puritans interpreted biblical texts such as Exodus 22:4 (“If the theft is certainly found alive in his hand, whether it is an ox or donkey or sheep, he shall restore double”) to require restitution as the penalty for theft rather than death.

The Puritan legal revisions were extensive. David D. Hall of Harvard Divinity School observes in his masterly “The Puritans” that they included “adding a cluster of rights and privileges for plaintiffs and defendants … Out went torture, high fees, and long delays … Overnight, the cruelties of the English law and the abuses of power and money it sanctioned gave way to the value of peace, ‘mutual love,’ and equity.” American law owes much to these biblically inspired Puritans.

Nursing Fathers

The Puritans considered civil magistrates to be “nursing fathers” (a phrase taken from Isaiah 49:23) to the church, and so like most countries and colonies, they established churches. The only European colony or country that declined to have an established church in this era, Rhode Island (also known as “Rogues Island”), was viewed by almost everyone as an experiment gone horribly wrong. It was commonplace to require church attendance, support favored churches with tax revenue, give special privileges to its ministers, and place restrictions on dissenters.

In the late 17th century, Pennsylvania and a few other colonies declined to create officially established churches, and unlike Rhode Island, they were viewed as being reasonably successful. Yet even these colonies had religious tests for civic offices and the government actively punished vice and promoted Christianity.

For instance, Article 37 of Pennsylvania’s first laws (1682) held that magistrates should punish such offenses against God as “swearing, cursing, lying, profane talking, drunkenness, drinking of healths, obscene words, incest, sodomy, rapes, whoredom, fornication, and other uncleanness (not to be repeated) … all prizes, stage-plays, cards, dice, May-games, gamesters, masques, revels, bull-battings, cock-fighting, bear-battings, and the like, which excite the people to rudeness, cruelty, looseness, and irreligion.”

The point, of course, is not that religious tests and bans on “vices” such as stage-plays, cards, and dice are prudential, it is simply that Puritans were not unusual in enacting such restrictions.

Puritans were more tolerant than is often assumed. Most non-Congregationalists were tolerated if they remained quiet and did not disturb the public order. Massachusetts law recognized that civic authorities should not attempt to “constrain [citizens] to believe or profess against their consciences.”

In other words, Puritan rulers did not attempt to compel belief. But they also did not permit men and women to disturb the public order. So, for instance, Anabaptists were banned from the colony not because they held erroneous views, but because “they have been the incendiaries of commonwealths” and are “troublers of churches.”

Likewise, Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson were exiled from the colony for being too vocal about their dissenting and dangerous (at least to Puritan ears) theological views. Most famously, the Puritans executed four Quakers on Boston Commons and 19 citizens accused of witchcraft in 1692, all episodes worthy of further exploration for the intellectually curious.

Limited Government and Bills of Rights

The Puritan conviction that rulers should promote true religion and virtue suggests a powerful state, but this possibility was tempered by their view that civil power must be strictly limited. Puritans believed that all humans are sinful and that Christians struggle with sin (Romans 7: 13-25). Like Lord Acton, they understood that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Accordingly, they placed a variety of checks on rulers, including regular elections and legal restraints on civic officials. The Massachusetts Body of Liberties (1641) contains numerous protections later found in the American Bill of Rights, including prohibitions against double jeopardy, torture, and “in-humane, Barbarous or cruel” bodily punishments.

Seven years later, these laws were revised and published as “The Book of the General Lawes Liberties and Liberties Concerning the Inhabitants of Massachusetts.” This was the first printed code of laws in the Western world, an innovation that made it possible to distribute the statutes more widely than if they were copied by hand. As Michael Winship observes in his excellent book “Hot Protestants”:

In New England, the colonists created legal systems that were simple, equitable, inexpensive, speedy, transparent, and grounded in law codes crafted to protect colonists’s rights against overbearing local rulers.

In the final analysis, while the Puritans were not 21st-century liberal democrats, neither were they intolerant theocrats. They created some of the most republican political institutions the world had ever seen and strictly limited civic leaders by law. They valued liberty and had, as David D. Hall puts it in “A Reforming People,” an “animus against ‘tyranny’ and ‘arbitrary’ power that pervaded virtually every sermon and political statement.”

We do not need to join Webster and Tocqueville in overstating their contributions, nor to replace 1776 with 1620 as the nation’s birthday to recognize that they played an important role in the formation of American religious and civic liberty. As John Adams observed late in life, without the “great exertions & severe sufferings” of the Reformers, the United States of America might never have existed.

An earlier version of this essay was published in Chronicles.