White Horse Inn Modern Reformation

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

Published Monday, May 31, 2021 By Timon Cline

Recounted in part 2 was the close, coordinate relationship between the “Two Twinnes” of church and state in seventeenth century Massachusetts. “In the Cambridge Platform [1648] the clergy claimed the support of the civil power as fully as ever the Jewish priesthood did,” wrote Herbert Osgood.

Per the Platform,

“The power and authority of magistrates is not for the restraining of churches, or any other good works, but for helping in and furthering thereof; and therefore the consent and countenance of magistrates when it may be had, is not to be slighted, or lightly esteemed; but on the contrary; it is part of that honour due to Christian magistrates to desire and crave their consent and approbation therein: which being obtained, the churches may then proceed in their way with much more encouragement, and comfort.”

The state was to provide the material conditions in which the higher mission of the church could flourish. But civil authorities were also charged with promoting not only peace and order but righteousness and worship in society via both their own example and supporting the church. Again, the Platform:

“It is the duty of the magistrate, to take care of matters of religion, and to improve his civil authority for the observing of the duties commanded in the first, as well as for observing of the duties commanded in the second table. They are called Gods. The end of the magistrate’s office, is not only the quiet and peaceable life of the subject, in matters of righteousness and honesty, but also in matters of godliness, yea of all godliness.”

This entailed the punishment of idolatry, blasphemy, heresy, and etc. It is important to realize that only outward conduct, not “erroneous opinions not vented,” were restrained. Nevertheless, by contemporary standards, of course, this duty manifested in the extreme. The denial of the immortality of the soul and resurrection of the body, for example, could be punished by banishment. There was plenty of land in the New World, after all.

Adjudging v. Administering

A word about jurisdiction is required here, lest the role of the temporal power be misunderstood. This is best understood via comments from John Norton (1605-1663), who, all agreed at the time, was the most accomplished Latinist in the Congregationalist camp and the most learned defender of her polity. First, “The same subject, whether personal or social, is incapable of wielding both [temporal and spiritual] swords.” That is to say, the magistrate cannot be head of the church and vice a versa.  

Second, disagreements purely ecclesiastical in nature were the province of the church. But this is not to imply that the magistrate has no role in this context. “The churches therefore call upon the magistrate in church cases not to announce doctrine or execute discipline but to confirm by civil sanction doctrine already announced by council or discipline already adopted by the church.” The magistrate could judge church cases ex officio, “an act of adjudication involving church matters,” but could not usurp church power by parsing doctrine, et cetera as such. Norton distinguished between “adjudging” and “administering.” The magistrate could do the latter but not the former. The civil power has a duty to recognize the preeminence of Christ and “pure religion, for concerning himself with it,” and promoting it civilly, but he was not to “participate directly” in church affairs in an Erastian fashion. This was because, as Norton put it, the church is a perfect society, capable of achieving its own ends. The church qua church does not require a civil authority, though the commonwealth does, and therein the two powers must be “reciprocally cooperative with the other.”

In very rare circumstances, when the “church is incorrigibly corrupt,” the Christian magistrate is “responsible for watching over the cause of religion according to the word of God, even against the will of the organized church; but this he does not as a judge of the church but as a defender of the faith.” This should be done in accordance with the doctrine promulgated by the church prior to her demise, should be exercised in a limited fashion with the aim of restoring the church via church means (i.e., synod; not pure civil fiat), and requires the magistrate all along to take a keen interest in the doctrine and affairs of the church. In the same way, Norton says (citing Franciscus Junius (1545-1602)) that if magistrates refuse to cooperate with the church, the church may take action against them until they renew their duty. Neither of these scenarios came to pass in New England, of course. In many ways, the theory of mutual reinforcement and accountability, according to proper jurisdiction, made sure of it. “Civil polity sanctions the cause of the church by establishing human laws and inflicting civil penalties: church polity aids the cause of the state by publishing divine law and inflicting spiritual penalties,” said Norton. Both powers had real, coercive power to some extent, bolstered by the complimentary power of the other.

As has been alluded to before, harsh as these conditions may sound to autonomous, atomized moderns, there was a purpose behind it. Based on what was then-conventional wisdom (even if it would now be cast as outdated), the protection of true religion and the true church was of paramount importance. There was a method, and reason, to the madness. And the results speak for themselves, viz., what has been mentioned often in his series, social cohesion, stability, and peace. Indeed, the Cambridge Platform instructs the magistrate to exercise “coercive power” against unjustified schism, that is, the fracturing of communion.

As a general matter, the Puritans of New England shunned schism and separatism, at least officially. The legal fiction of William Ames (1576-1633)—the greatest New Englander to have never set foot in the colonies, instructing from a distance in Holland long after his death—was adopted by the Bay leaders: they had never actually separated from the English church. Rather, they had applied some geographic separation, some breathing room, to workshop polity. New England was a laboratory. Upon perfecting the model, the city on the hill would shine back to the old country and the New England way would triumph by sheer force of conviction. That was the plan anyway. Perry Miller rightly described the Puritan colonies as a flank attack on Old England. This aspect of the errand was decidedly unsuccessful.

Their example never captured enough hearts and minds across the Atlantic. The Restoration of 1660 was the death knell of that side of the operation. But considered in themselves, Massachusetts Bay and its sisters were wildly successful. This, in part, because of the emphasis placed on unity not only of but also in church and state.

Unity in Purity

The health of church communion fed into the health of communion writ large. True unity was of necessity in the wilderness, but true unity could be predicated only on a certain measure of purity. On this point, contemporary readers should perk up. If the Zwickau prophets never ceased in crying “Spirit!” then the schwärmer of our day never tire of calls for “Unity!” But these cries are often hollow, with no referential (doctrinal) basis upon which they are constructed, nor clear ends for its achievement.

Not so with the Puritans. As Richard Baxter (1615-1691), a New England admirer from across the pond, wrote, “The Unity also of the Church is very needful to the safety and peace of the Commonwealth, that Parties be not hatched and animated against each other, who will be disturbing the Common peace to promote their [own] ends” (Thes. 237). “Purity, preserved in the church, will preserve well-ordered liberty in the people,” said John Cotton (1585-1652) to Lord Saye and Sele. Vigilance in preserving purity in doctrine, worship, and conversation was essential to the health of the commonwealth. To some extent, homogenous belief (in the main) was key to social cohesion.

A qualification is needed here, however. Contrary to the popular narrative—whence it came is difficult to determine—there was a relatively high level of religious diversity in seventeenth century New England. The limited toleration mentioned in part 2 did not imply nor demand persecution in the true sense. But neither did it imply equal appreciation, so to speak. Massachusetts boasted an unapologetic establishment, as did nearly all the nations in the world.

The religious liberty narrative of early America only holds water in Roger Williams’ Rhode Island. When a congregation of Anabaptists from Charlestown printed an indictment of the Bay government for persecuting consciences by negating the public participation of those outside the established church, the clergy were forced to correct the record. The Anabaptists chastised the establishment for forsaking its allegedly religious liberty roots. Was this not a colony for nonconformity? Was the religious liberty not what the Arbella traversed the Atlantic for? Samuel Willard, longtime minister in Boston, disabused the Anabaptists (and all listening) of this revisionist history.

“I perceive they are mistaken in the design of our first Planters, whose business was not Toleration; but were professed Enemies of it, and could leave the World professing they died no Libertines. Their business was to settle, and (as much as in them lay) secure Religion to Posterity, according to that way which they believed was of God.”

This was not a violation of dissenting consciences. As Baxter put it, “He that will be an infidel, must have liberty of conscience to damn himself.” Consciences are free in fact, but public propagation of error, matters of “tongue and practice,” is a different matter. Man can damn himself “But if he have liberty to infect and seduce others, the Magistrate shall answer for it.” Naturally, the purity of the commonwealth—intricate to stability—takes precedence over individual freedom to openly subvert it. Unity cannot be achieved otherwise.

This conception of limited toleration is, in truth, the only viable model for any society. Indeed, we see this truth demonstrated today. In theory, (pluralistic) religious liberty has never been more legally protected. Nevertheless, one orthodoxy prevails over all others as the moral basis for public policy. Protections for dissenting opinions amount to little more than license for private bigotry, limitedly tolerated, but with no purchase in public life. Dissent is allowed, so long as said dissent does not strike at the root and structure, the very basis, and presumptions, of the society itself. One can wax eloquent, even radically, about the method of pursuing absolute personal autonomy, but one cannot question the virtue of autonomy itself. The same goes for toleration, liberalism, and the whole host of basic dogmas that make modern liberal democracies tick. It was the same for the Puritans.

Notorious propagation of heresy is no more tolerated today than it was in seventeenth century Boston. It’s just that the standard for heterodoxy has changed. Arguably, Samuel Willard’s Boston was a bit more pleasant for the Anabaptists of Charlestown than it is for dissenters today. The covenantal community was to reflect the character of Christ in its love of, and patience with, its citizens—even the partial or non-communicants.

In most cases, those saints who admitted their inability to ascent to the prevailing consensus were patiently counseled and subtly challenged by the weekly persistence of the orthodoxy’s proclamation from the pulpit. The Cambridge Platform advises patience and care from both spiritual and temporal authorities toward those who possessed tender consciences. Richard Sibbes’ (1577-1635) The Bruised Reed was read by (likely all) New England ministers. They were desirous of shepherding weak belief, not crushing it.  Even if these persuasive measures failed, coercive ones only became necessary when a dissenter himself became coercive of others. Indeed, there is good evidence that many townships tolerated Baptists and Quakers, even known witches, though, of course, members of these groups could not contribute to public life. 

In general, though the Antinomian Crisis looms large in Massachusetts history, incidents of necessitated coercion were rare. Even the famed wayward child laws, which Rhode Island had too, were rarely given cause for enforcement. (And even those who get rather hysterical over such “archaic” methods must admit the irregularity of their actual use.) The persuasive measures proved generally efficacious, at least amongst the visible saints. The covenantal bonds of church and society, which were repeated from the pulpit at every available opportunity, reinforced a disposition receptive to persuasion.


The lesson is this: civil order requires a choice of moral (i.e., doctrinal) foundation, and this, in turn, requires, and will inevitably produce, enforcement. In New England, true religion and the true church, as designated by the community, required protection, the material conditions necessary for it to flourish. At times this meant stamping out loud and notorious detractors—a grim necessity that was never celebrated and often justified on grounds of civil stability (i.e., religious controversy creates unrest). Usually, it simply entailed support. Exclusive support to be sure, but that is not the same as persecution of outliers. Viewed from the right angle, this same dynamic pervades our society today, even as we ceaselessly denounce the “intolerance” of generations past and celebrate our alleged triumph over them. Ironically, the fostering of a religiously homogenous society with a state-supported church produced more tranquility than the pluralist project has; the best solution to the conflict of the European continent may have been found too quickly such that it was prematurely discarded before its value was truly assessed.

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

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