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

Timon Cline
Friday, January 29th 2021

We are still panting from 2020, and 2021, not even a month old, has been bewildering. Regaining our bearings may prove challenging. Chaos is difficult to parse. At the same time, the upheaval of the past few years offers opportunity for reassessment of, well, nearly everything. Proposals previously dismissed as out of bounds and unworkable are now being entertained.

As they engage in these discussions—the so-called post-liberal conversion in particular—of renewal, rebuilding, and reassessment, Protestants should take stock of their arsenal, as it were, and there is much ammunition available. The Catholic integralists do not have a monopoly on the fun. As we search for the means of meaningful unity and stability we should look to our own tradition and heritage first.

Amongst the Protestant ammunition is New England Puritanism. The last time America was suffering from a crisis of identity and a lapse in purpose, Perry Miller led us to that treasure trove of political wisdom with renewed fervor and seriousness. We would do well to consider it anew in light of contemporary challenges. Of course, as L.P. Hartley said, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” The particulars and customs of that land will not be readily transferable. But there is much to be gained in such an exercise, nevertheless.

Why this foreign country? We should not just take Miller’s word for it. In short, the Puritan achievements speak for themselves and are to be highly regarded. As Miller contended, the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay Colony were the first colonist that were politically self-conscious. They arrived with purpose, with a program and vision for a Christian commonwealth, as we will see. And this vision proved fruitful. T. H. Breen and Stephen Foster have persuasively argued that New England was unique for its time in that it enjoyed and unprecedented level of harmony and stability.

“Thus farre hath the good hand of God favoured our beginnings,” wrote the anonymous author of New Englands First Fruits (1643), a fundraising pamphlet of sorts disseminated in England as a report on the health of the still relatively new colonies. As a demonstration of God’s favor shining upon the inhabitants of Massachusetts Bay over the preceding thirteen years, the tract listed instances of providential provision. Chief amongst these was “peace and freedome from enemies, when almost all the world is on a fire that… [and] we never heard of any sound of Warres to this day.” Mentioned also was “subduing those erroneous opinions… which for a time infested our Churches peace,” as well as “settling and bringing civil matters to such a maturity in a short time.”

Like other such colonial “reports,” First Fruits is, at times, prone to exaggeration and should be read like a travel brochure attempting to entice vacationers. But to the tract’s claim to a unique “peace and freedome” in New England “when almost all the world is on a fire,” not much exaggeration can be attributed. As Breen and Foster put it,

Political chaos seems to rule in the seventeenth century until one comes to the Puritan colonies, especially to Massachusetts Bay under the old charter. Between 1630 and 1684 the Bay Colony avoided significant social and political disorder: no riots, no mobs, no disruptions of the judicial process by gangs of aggrieved plaintiffs… What was exceptional about the Bay Colony was the absence of internal organized violence.

Not without its own challenges, New England Puritanism’s greatest achievement was its social cohesion. Even in the in midst of serious theological and political disagreement, no disorder was generated, the stability of the colony was never compromised.

For any period, this, insofar as it is true, is remarkable, and much to be venerated—enough to be enticed to look deeper at the distinctives of this society that thrived whilst others burned. And if Niall Ferguson is right and we are currently reliving the upheaval of the sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe—a new “general crisis” in the western world—then the cause is more urgent.

Within those early years of the errand into the wilderness are key elements of a stable and generally tranquil regime. As important as it is to identify the causes for our collective angst lately, it is just as essential that we locate the conditions of its opposite—not just momentary reprieve, but real stability.

This exercise requires looking at historical examples of societies that achieved, at least for a time, such stability, identifying their distinctives for our own examination. The goal of such a project is not to replicate a bygone era, nor haggle over the “essence” of America, but to learn of ingredients for harmony and cohesion, and a theologically coherent vision for life together. When almost all the world is on a fire, we might look to those who emerged unsinged.

Medieval Men

At the outset, we must orient ourselves to Puritan assumptions standing back of their political theory. In his most-read work, Errand into the Wilderness(1956), Perry Miller discerned that,

It has often been said that the end of the seventeenth and the beginning of the eighteenth century mark the first real break with the Middle Ages in the history of European thought… it was not until the time of Newton that the modern scientific era began… Certainly if the eighteenth century inaugurated the modern epoch in natural sciences, so also did it in the political and social sciences. For the first time since the fall of the Roman Empire religion could be separated from politics, doctrinal orthodoxy divorced from loyalty to the state, and the citizens of a nation be permitted to worship in diverse churches and to believe different creeds without endangering the public peace.

Yet the Puritans lived “behind these eighteenth-century developments.” To them “the unity of religion and politics was so axiomatic that very few men could even have grasped the idea that church and state could be distinct.” Miller adds, “For the Puritan mind it was not possible to segregate a man’s spiritual life from his communal life.” (Indeed, a segregated life might be the best way to describe the average American existence at this juncture.)

True enough, the Massachusetts Bay Colony was explicitly established for religious reasons. But this was not for atomized religious liberty cum pluralism. To John Winthrop and company, religious reasons included “a due form of Government both civill and ecclesiasticall,” a holistic vision of a covenant-bound society, governed by charity, “knit together in this work as one man”—the clear analogy being Paul’s description of the church in 1 Corinthians 12:12.

This covenantal, charitable communion was not laissez faire, rugged individualism, nor the baptized capitalism anachronistically inserted by Max Weber. The Puritans would have expected a society organized around such principles to, as Miller says, “result in a reign of rapine and horror.” (Perhaps, we are in a position now to confirm that prediction.) Rather,

The theorists of New England thought of society as a unit, bound together by inviolable ties; they thought of it not as an aggregation of individuals but as an organism, functioning for a definite purpose, with all part subordinate to the whole… that the welfare of the whole took precedence over any individual advantage, was the doctrine of the medieval church [and of the Puritans].

Though they stood at the cusp of a new era, the New Englanders remained basically medieval in their political thought—and to some extent, their spirituality—which Otto Gierke aptly summarizes:

Political Thought when it is genuinely medieval starts from the Whole but ascribes an intrinsic value to every Partial Whole down to and including the Individual. [This as a reflection of the] divinely created organization of the Universe as a prototype of the first principles which govern the construction of human communities… all Order consists in the subordination of Plurality to Unity.

These basic assumptions had direct implications for the role of government and its relationship with the church. But first, and generally, as Miller colorfully puts it,

Puritan opinion was at the opposite pole from [Thomas] Jefferson’s feeling that the best government governs as little as possible… Puritans did not think that the state was merely an umpire, standing on the side lines of a contest limited to checking egregious fouls but otherwise allowing men free play according to their abilities and the breaks of the game… The state to them was an active instrument of leadership, discipline, and, wherever necessary, of coercion; it legislated over any or all aspects of human behavior, I not merely regulated misconduct but undertook to inspire and direct all conduct.

No libertarians, Puritans were not apprehensive of state power but sought of properly harness it. Doubtless, this will sound overbearing to many contemporary ears. But it was acceptable (and natural) to Puritans because their fundamental communitarianism was informed by their aspiration of a unified, organic commonwealth and a close, mutually reinforcing connection between church and state. To borrow from Walter Ullmann, the visible Christian communion was “not merely a pneumatic or sacramental or spiritual body, but also an organic, concrete and earthly society.”

It was assumed, as a matter of course, that God had established government for man’s good and that, given its shared authorship with the church, there must be some harmonious relationship between the two. It was also taken for granted that, in some way, the state was charged with protecting the church and true religion. Calvin—unquestionably influential on the Puritans in this regard—himself had told King Francis I in his dedication of the Institutes that “where the glory of God is not made the end of government, it is not a legitimate government but a usurpation…. And he is deceived who expects lasting prosperity in that kingdom which is not ruled by the scepter of God.” This entailed the preservation of the church and true religion. Nathaniel Ward, the author of the 1641 Body of Liberties, advised, “That state which will permit errors in religion, shall admit errors in policy unavoidable.”

How exactly this was to be accomplished, however, depended on the interaction and connection between the two. Here too, the Puritans did not innovate.

Like Two Twinnes

As Norman Fiering has noted, if one desires a window into the Puritan mind of the seventeenth century on matters of political philosophy, law, and ethics, he need look no further than Thomas Aquinas. The influence of the Angelic Doctor on Winthrop, for example, is apparent both in his sermon on the Arbella and his Discourse on Arbitrary Government (1644) which featured as an addendum, in Latin and in the governor’s own hand, a lengthy quote from the Treatise on the Law.

The hierarchy of ends in scholastic theology was not unfamiliar to those Puritans who breathed deep of the scholastic tradition. Aquinas grounded the organization of society in the twofold nature and corresponding twofold ends of man.

Now man’s happiness is twofold… One is proportionate to human nature, a happiness, to whit, which man can obtain by means of his natural principles. The other is a happiness surpassing man’s nature, and which man can obtain by the power of God alone.

Summa, IaIIae Q.62, A.1, c.


Through virtuous living man is further ordained to a higher end, which consists in the enjoyment of God, as we have said above. Consequently, since society must have the same end as the individual man, it is not the ultimate end of an assembled multitude to live virtuously, but through virtuous living to attain the possession of God.

De Regno, I, 15

So then, society must, in some way, mimic the nature and ends of man himself. John Cotton (1585-1652) recognized this in his Discourse About Civil Government (1663), his theory of a Christian Commonwealth. Members of society “are considerable under a twofold respect answerable to the twofold man… the inward & the outward man.” Accordingly,

[T]he onley wise God hath fitted and appointed two sorts of Administrations, Ecclesiastical and Civil. Hence they are capable of a twofold Relation, and of Action and Power sutable [sic] to them both; viz. Civil and Spiritual, and accordingly must be exercised about both in their seasons, without confounding those two different states, or destroying either of them, whilest [sic] what they transact in civil Affairs, is done by virtue of their civil Relation, their Church-state onely fitting them to do it according to God.

Following Franciscus Junius (1545-1602), Cotton prefers to conceive of this distinction as two species of the genus of “Christian Communion.” Therein the ecclesiastical administration is “a Divine Order appointed to Believers for holy communion of holy things,” whereas the “Civil Administrations are [a]n Humane Order appointed by God to men for Civil Fellowship of humane things.”

Both administrations are ordained of God and share common subjects, therefore both,

have the same last End, viz., The Glory of God, yet they differ in their next Ends; for the next End of Civil Order and Administrations, The Preservation of Humane Societies in outward Honour, Justice and Peace: but the next Ends of Church Order and Administrations, are The Conversion, Edification, and Salvation of Souls, Pardon of Sin, Power against Sin, Peace with God. &c.

Both have the “common Welfare” within their “aime and scope,” but the temporal power pursues these primarily in “the things of this life, as Goods,” whereas the spiritual power is primarily exercised in “The things of God, as the Souls and Consciences of men.” The shared source, subjects, and end of the two administrations required substantial but ordered harmony.

The most common illustration of said harmony was that of body and soul—a unified composite. Man qua man is body and soul. “Government is a divine Act,” said Richard Baxter (1615-1691) in his Holy Commonwealth (1659), “which imitateth Nature.” A purely civil, religion-less society would be like a body without the principle of the soul animating it—just an amoral pile of lifeless matter, like many “secular” societies now seem. Baxter, warned that,

It is a dead Commonwealth… that is without the Magistrate: and it a mad Commonwealth… that is without a Church… The body that is not for the soul and subject to it, is not the body of a man, but of a brute. And the Kingdom that subjecteth not corporal felicity to spiritual, and temporal to eternal, and looketh not to that, is but a brutish sensual Kingdom.
Coordinate States

In his letter to Lord Say and Sele (1636), Cotton summarized his theory:

God’s institutions… may be close and compact, and co-ordinate one to another, and yet not confounded. God hath so framed the state of church government and ordinances, that they may be compatible to any common-wealth… But yet when a commonwealth hath liberty to mould his owne frame . . . I conceive the scripture hath given full direction for the right ordering of the same, and that, in such sort as may best maintain the [vigor] of the church. Mr. Hooker doth often quote a saying out of Mr. Cartwright… that no man fashioneth his house to his hangings, but his hangings to his house. It is better that the commonwealth be fashioned to the setting forth of God’s house, which is his church: than to accommodate the church frame to the civill state.

The state, being an institution of God for the common good which entails the protection of true religion and punishment of idolatry, should be fitted to the church which gives it life. This relationship was not pure theory in New England. Thomas Lechford in 1640 described the dynamic to readers back in London: “The Magistrates and Church-leaders, labour for a just and equall correspondence in jurisdictions, not to intrench one on the other.” In The Laws and Liberties of Massachusetts (1647), the introductory epistle stated plainly the relationship between church and state in conformity with Cotton’s ideal:

This hath been no small priviledge, and advantage to us in New-England that our Churches, and civil State have been planted, and growne up (like two twinnes) together like that of Israel in the wilderness by which wee were put in minde (and had opportunitie put into our hands) not only to gather our Churches… but also withall to frame our civil Politie, and lawes according to the rules of his most holy word whereby each do help and strengthen other… and so both prosper the better without such emulation, and contention for priviledges or priority as have proved the misery (if not ruine) of both in some other places.

This plainly echoed Thomas Cartwright (1535-1603) who had first featured the “twinnes” language decades prior. Per Cartwright, “church and state should be two-self-sufficient complete and distinct but related societies.” “[C]o-ordinate States” tasked with jointly promoting “the spiritual good of men and the glory of God.”

In New England, rather than spawning conflict, imbalance, and corruption, this arrangement diminished it. When our country’s church-state relations are usually best described by antagonism, this alone is food sufficient for thought. But there’s more. A subsequent installment will feature more sights and sounds from this foreign land of our forebears, bringing to bear on our own.

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.

Friday, January 29th 2021

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

J. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church