White Horse Inn Modern Reformation

When Almost All the World is On a Fire: Part II

Published Monday, March 22, 2021 By Timon Cline

Part 1 of this series began the survey of the particulars of New England Puritan—and including those precursors and contemporaries upon whom they relied—political thought that were instrumental to the unprecedented level of social cohesion enjoyed by the colonies during the 17th century, “when all the world was on a fire.” The focus of part 1 was on the coordinate relationship between church and state envisioned by the Puritans, and the medieval assumption of society as organism undergirding said relationship. Part 2 endeavors to further flesh out some of the implications of that vision of society and church-state relations. Part 3 will conclude the analysis and bring the insights gleaned therefrom to bear on contemporary discussions.

“Joined without Confusion”   

Though, to the New England Puritans, church and state were coordinate powers (or states) within the city of God, the “mingling of civil and ecclesiastical estates” was to be avoided, a lesson Thomas Cartwright (1535-1603) found in Ambrose who forbade deliberation of doctrinal matters in civil courts—”A good magistrate is within in the church, not above it.” Any admixture would have produced a monstrous third kind, violating the integrity of each institution. The imperfect analogy here is the hypostatic union. To borrow from the Westminster Confession, church and state are “inseparably joined together… without conversion, composition, or confusion.” In this way, the union of the commonwealth is somewhat mysterious, though infinitely less so than that of very God of very God condescending to take on flesh. 

Cartwright and others argued forcefully, to a point, for the superiority of the church over the state, not that the church should rule the state as such—that would constitute the ill-advised “mingling”—but that the wellbeing and interests of the church necessarily transcended those of the state. The health of the latter, even of the whole commonwealth, was dependent on the health of the former. This, of course, followed seamlessly from the basic assumptions of Aquinas quoted in part 1 regarding man’s nature and destiny, which Puritans like John Cotton (1585-1652) regularly affirmed. Hence, “[T]he church is the foundation of the world, and therefore the common wealth builded upon yt,” said Cartwright.

Richard Baxter (1615-1691) argued the point with more balance and precision. Acknowledging that God had quite “nearly joined the Church and Commonwealth, and the Magistracy and Ministry, [because] both are of necessity to the welfare of each Nation,” Baxter addressed the inevitable question of supremacy with a distinction. As “distinct coordinate kinds… each is chief in his proper Office.” Each power has its place. But make no mistake, the temporal power, even whilst not ceding its rightful jurisdiction, was to recognize the cosmic and moral superiority of the church and tailor its policies and laws to the orthodoxy she expressed. As Baxter put it,

The Nation that vilifieth and despiseth the Ministry, despiseth Christ. And the Magistrates that grow jealous of their interest, and set against the work that Christ hath set them to do, do pluck out their own eyes, and destroy themselves, and unchristen their Commonwealth. Magistrates and Ministers therefore must join together in the work of God.

The foundational interests of the church, according to these presuppositions, were reflected in New England. Though there were sometimes debates over questions of original jurisdiction; though governor John Winthrop (1587-1649) often contested mightily for the independence of the General Court; and though officially the clergy were not legally permitted to hold civil office—ecclesiastical courts were also banned—the elders were repeatedly called upon to advise on matters of state, and especially moral policy. Cotton and Nathaniel Ward (1578-1652) were the first to draft codes of laws for the colony, the result of which was the Body of Liberties (1641).

It is also noteworthy that the Massachusetts General Court declined, for some 15 years, to fully articulate its political polity in print. Doubtless, this was to avoid unnecessarily agitating Archbishop Laud (1573-1645). It fell, then, to the clergy to publish disquisitions on political theory to keep a rudder on the ship. In the end, as Charles Bourgeaud rightly understood,

By law the civil government was distinct from the ecclesiastical but in fact it was strictly subordinate to it. Owing to their moral influence, the pastors and elders formed a sort of Council of Ephors; no important decision was arrived at without their consent.

This was, in part, because, in Herbert Osgood’s words, “Every public question had its religious bearing, and in many cases that aspect attracted the chief attention.” At the very least, the consensus on both sides of the Atlantic was that (baptized) magistrates were subject to church censure for their actions. Even the separatist Robert Browne (1540-1633) wrote, “[W]ho knoweth not, that though magistrates are to keep their civil power above all persons, yet they come under the censures of the Church if they be Christians.” And in New England, a prerequisite for public office was good standing church membership.

But Bourgeaud, like so many later observers, wrongly inferred that New England was a “theocracy,” that is, ruled by a clergy class. As the indispensable work of George Haskins later clarified, such a label was at no time appropriately attributable to colonial New England, as should be apparent from the distinction maintained between the two powers, the two swords, and the officers of each.

Both heads of church and heads of state, however appointed, are servants of God and thereby both subject to the dictates of Scripture, which was to be interpreted, as the fundamental law, in a sort of popular constitutional style. And yet, neither sphere was to overthrow nor usurp the other. Per Cartwright:

It is true that we ought to be obedient unto the civil magistrate which governeth the church of God in that office which is committed unto him and according to that calling. But it must be remembered that civil magistrates must govern it according to the rules of God prescribed in his word, and that as they are nurses so they be servants unto the church, and as they rule in the church so they must remember to subject themselves unto the church to submit their sceptres, to throw down their crowns, before the church, yea, as the prophet [Isa. 49:23] spaketh, to lick the dust of the feet of the church. Whereinn I mean not that the church doth either wring the sceptre out of the princes’ hands, to take their crowns from their heads, or that it requireth princes to lick the dust of her feet… but I mean, as the prophet meaneth, that whatsoever magnificence, or excellency, or pomp is either in them, or in their estates and commonwealths, which doth not agree with the simplicity and… poor contemptible estate of the church, that they will be content to lay down.

The invocation of Isaiah 49:23 would be repeated ad nauseum throughout the seventeenth century by the heirs of Cartwright in both new and old England, a tradition which Calvin himself had perpetuated (see also WCF 20.4).  

In the final analysis, then, the church was necessarily supreme, but in a rightly ordered society, the state would recognize this, build upon this “foundation of the world,” and not force her subjects to choose which of the two powers was to be obeyed. Rather, each power would work together to further the glory of God and the wellbeing of those under their authority; each would complement and support the other. Indeed, the predominate duty of the civil power was to preserve, enable, and defend the ecclesiastical power. For 17th century men, the governments of church and state were coterminous—something akin to Huldrych Zwingli’s Corpus Christianum but without the implicit Erastianism.

The expression of the coordinate yet unmixed and undefiled powers of the ideal commonwealth was often colorful and imaginative, and drawn from both exegesis and classical motifs. James Fitch (1622-1702), for example, commenting on Zechariah 4 in 1674, compared the glory of the spirit of God in a “Professing People’s” midst to a candlestick, “and the Rulers in the Common-wealth and Church were likened to two Olive Trees, who were to stand on the right side and left side of the Candlestick, to supply it with golden Oile [sic], that which is very precious, that the light of grace and splendor of Godliness might appear in them.” It is only insofar as both church and state are fed by God’s spirit, which Fitch locates in faithful preaching and the right administration of the sacraments, that the splendor of God appears in them. Later Fitch warned that “if Christ hath something against a Church or Christian Commonwealth, because they have left their first love and do not their first works, [then] they are in danger of the removal of their Candlestick if they do not speedily repent.”

Naturally, Cartwright’s favorite illustration was the myth of the Hippocrates twins, the emotions and wellbeing of which were totally interdependent. If the church neglected her duty, the state would suffer, and vice a versa: “deficiencies of the one produce deficiencies in the other. The commonwealth will not flourish until the church is reformed.” The two were to enjoy a symbiotic existence, but just as the church was ultimately supreme, so too could any impurity in her infect the whole commonwealth to disastrous effects. As Thomas Walley (1616-1678) put it,

If there be Sickness in the Church, there will be little health in the Common-wealth… a decay in Religion, it never went well with the Common wealth. Let us believe it, that things amiss in the houses of God, are the chief cause that it goes ill with the Country.

Osgood sums up the whole dynamic of interlocking fates and duties of church and state nicely,

According to this system an organic connection existed between church and state. It was the duty of the church to create a perfect Christian society, and of the state to furnish the necessary external conditions. Though the sphere of the church was far higher and the issues toward which it labored were loftier and more permanent than those of the state, they could not be reached without the assistance of the civil power.

“God’s Vicegerents”

This coordination between the two powers, ecclesiastical and civil, entailed certain duties for magistrates, ones that secular and evangelical Americans alike might now recoil from. New England was decidedly not an egalitarian society. Indeed, Winthrop (citing 1 Corinthians 12) saw in disparities of class and ability the beauty of God’s work in his people. God had ordered “all these differences for the preservation and good of the whole.”

That some men would be ordained of God—if chosen mediately according to human custom—was evident, said John Davenport (1597-1670) from both “the Light and Law of Nature” and scripture. Hardly surprising, this, since “the Law of Nature is God’s Law.” In any case, God “establisheth the Ruling Power over men,” and for their good (and his own glory). Hence, rulers, being ordained of God, were to do justice and fear God “if they would have his presence, assistance, and blessing with them in their public Administrations.” This entailed, inter alia, the duty to “uphold the Churches walking in the order of the Gospel… Their End should be to exalt Christ in dispensing his Government.”

That magistrates were to defend true religion was an assumption found, almost to a man, in the magisterial Reformers, and most of their heirs. For example, in book four of the Institutes, Calvin directed magistrates “to foster and maintain the external worship of God, to defend sound doctrine and the condition of the church,” in addition to promoting “civil justice” and the “common peace and tranquility.” What other duty could be required of those who “are vested with divine authority, and, in fact, represent the person of God”? Commenting on Psalm 2:10-12, Calvin said that David was telling magistrates, the “vicegerents of God,” to “make the power with which they are invested subject to Christ, that he may rule over all,” and that Isaiah 49:23 suggests the same principle.

In a word, if they remember that they are the vicegerents of God, it behooves them to watch with all care, diligence, and industry, that they may in themselves exhibit a kind of image of the Divine Providence, guardianship, goodness, benevolence, and justice.

That Calvin designated magistrates “vicegerents of God” is significant, for it was a title often reserved for the conscience in man all the way up through the 19th century (see e.g., James Buchanan (1804-1870)). John Flavel (1627-1691) famously said in his Pneumatologia (1698), “The voice of conscience is the voice of God; for it is his vicegerent and representative.”

It is not improper, then, to call magistrates the conscience of the commonwealth. That is, the act of the practical judgment—to follow, as William Ames (1576-1633) did, Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas, rather than Duns Scotus— informed by the moral law housed in the “storehouse” (or synteresis), to use another Ames idea, that is the church. Of course, this is an imperfect analogy; magistrates too had access to the natural law embedded in all men, as well as the revealed moral law unmediated by ecclesiastical authorities and were expected to avail themselves of that knowledge. But just as the conscience is God’s vicegerent in the soul, so too was the New England magistrate a sort of conscience of the commonwealth, approving good and condemning bad acts and executing just reward or penalty against them—Calvin also referred to the conscience as a “tribunal” within the heart. The province of the church was persuasion unto salvation, the regulation of doctrine, the administration of worship, and the like. The charge of the civil power was to manage conduct in accordance therewith and pave the way for the church to do its higher work.

“A Well-Bounded Toleration”

This position as to the magistrate’s duty necessarily inferred a limited toleration, as opposed to a radical toleration like we (allegedly) experience today, by the state. This too was the predominate view of the period, as John Coffey has demonstrated, even amongst Baptists (especially of the particular variety), and even in the separatist colony of Plymouth. Limited toleration entailed a willingness for factions apart from the established church to exist without state harassment or suppression. In 17th century England, in practice, this meant a toleration of sects that differed on church polity, liturgy, and (to some extent) baptism. It did not, however, require the toleration of open and notorious heresy (e.g., Socinians) blasphemy (e.g., Quakers), idolatry (e.g., Catholics), or immorality (e.g., practical atheists).

The duty of the magistrate to suppress these things, especially when publicly promulgated, was wrapped up not only in his duty to the glory of God and the preservation of true religion and the church’s mission, but also responsibility for the prerequisite social conditions for the church to flourish, viz., public order and tranquility. Conventional wisdom held that social cohesion was undermined by such subversive activities. “The State as well as Church is injured, by witchcraft, by perjury, by schism, and other sins, against the first Table,” said Thomas Cobbet (1608-1685). And at the end of the day, commonwealths were held together by shared religious commitments. Eroding those was tantamount to inciting violence, insurrection, or treason. 

A 1669 election sermon from Walley, preached at Plymouth, clearly reflects these assumptions,

A well-bounded Toleration were very desirable in all Christian Common-wealths, that there may be no just occasion for any to complain of Cruelty or Persecution; but it must be such a Toleration, that God may not be publickly [sic] blasphemed, nor Idolatry practiced. Neither ought any Errour to be tolerated, that hath a tendency in its own nature to Profaneness, or the disturbing of Peace and Order in Church or State.

Before you dismiss all this as too extreme and completely alien to the context of the American republic, recall the famous case of People v. Ruggles, an 1811 blasphemy case in New York. One John Ruggles was arrested for yelling in a crowded tavern that “Jesus Christ was a bastard, and his mother was a whore.” He was sentenced to three months in prison and a $500 fine (something close to $10,000 today). On appeal, the counsel for Ruggles argued on the basis of “free toleration to all religions and all kinds of worship” in America. Chief Justice of the New York Supreme Court, James Kent, took exception (echoing the convictions of previous generations). To him, Ruggles’ arrest was perfectly justified and squarely within the realm of police power to regulate morals, safety, and health afforded to the states.

Though the Constitution has discarded religious establishments, it does not forbid judicial cognizance of those offences against religion and morality which have no reference to any such establishment, or to any particular form of government, but are punishable because they strike at the root of moral obligation, and weaken the security of the social ties. We stand equally in need, now as formerly, of all that moral discipline, and of those principles of virtue, which help to bind society together. The people of this state, in common with the people of this country, profess the general doctrines of Christianity, as the rule of their faith and practice; and to scandalize the author of these doctrines is not only, in a religious point of view, extremely impious, but, even in respect to the obligations due to society, is a gross violation of decency and good order.

Later, at the 1821 Constitutional Convention, Kent was questioned about his then decade-old opinion. He responded that blasphemy was an “offence against public decency,” no different from “wantonly going naked” in public. Hence,

It was not because Christianity was established by law, but because Christianity was in fact the religion of this country, the rule of our faith and practice, and the basis of the public morals. Such blasphemy was an outrage upon public decorum, and if sanctioned by our tribunals would shock the moral sense of the country, and degrade our character as a Christian people.

This may strike many readers as archaic, but we would do well to consider the principled logic and insight before summarily dismissing it. (Other early jurists of our republic maintained similar sentiments.) Surely, we can see that, at minimum, there is a glaring element of truth here: a country must be predicated on some religion (at least in a loose sense); its people must be allied to some morality; and this religion and concomitant morality will, inevitably, be enforced by the governing authorities—natural law still impresses this impulse upon them, even when it is disordered or misdirected. The public peace depends on it, as does the integrity of the magistrate’s office. The only real questions are, Which religion? Whose morality? The Ruggles case also reminds us that we are not so far removed from the likes of Walley and 17th century New England as we are usually made (or expected) to feel.

Timon Cline is a graduate of Rutgers Law School, Westminster Theological Seminary, and Wright State University. His writing has appeared at Areo MagazineThe American Spectator, and National Review, and he writes regularly on law, theology, and politics at Conciliar Post.

  • Timon Cline