When Almost All the World Was on a Fire, Part IV

Timon Cline
Monday, September 27th 2021

The aim of John Winthrop and company in coming to Massachusetts was to establish a Christian society, as much in line with New Testament piety as with Old Testament political theory. This project, this errand, is often cast as revolutionary. In some respects, it was, but only insofar as it achieved moderate success. In most ways, “the Puritans were intensely conservative,” according to John Fiske, which is to say, socio-politically conventional. “[N]othing could have been further from their thoughts than to found a colony which should afford a field for new experiments in the art of right living.”

They were no radicals, despite their eschatological hopes. This is evidenced by the fact that they “avoided the error of modern radicals who would remodel the fundamental institutions of property and of the family, and thus disturb the very groundwork of our ethical ideals.” Their life scope was decidedly localist and their aims and convictions only surprising to contemporary minds. And so, to close out this series (see: part I, part II, part III) we will briefly examine three interrelated, but now foreign themes: coercion, localism, and the common good as featured in seventeenth century New England.

Law and Coercion

Contra prevailing assumptions, coercion was employed sparingly in New England, a luxury of a culturally and religiously homogenous society. As George Haskins pointed out, not only did the colonists soften certain legal doctrines surrounding property, marriage, and inheritance inherited from the common law, their most hysteria-inducing laws were mainly pedagogical in effect. For all the focus on the Salem witch trials, compared to the rest of Christendom, 1692 was a blip on the radar. What is historically significant is the slew of public apologies from those involved in the affair that emerged in the subsequent decade. Similarly, relatively few cases of heresy and blasphemy were prosecuted; most of the underlying statutes explicitly limited application of those laws to professing Christians.

Dissenting factions like Quakers, who were not so docile in the seventeenth century as popular narratives imply, were pleaded with by civil authorities to stay clear of the Bay colony so that they would not be subjected to the penalties of the laws against them. In many ways, the laws against heretical sects were intended to function as “No Trespassing” signs more than anything else. Rhode Island would welcome them indiscriminately after all, and the New World provided plenty of space for them to strike out on their own. Only those who insisted on remaining in Massachusetts after banishment were treated harshly. Even in the more serious cases, punishments short of execution were preferred in the hope that conversion would precede cause for further action.

The Puritans considered coercion as prepatory. Coercion of a certain variety did not violate the will of the individual but rather, like all laws, steered him toward virtue and embrace of the spirit and the letter of the law. This sits ill at ease with us moderns, according to whom all forms of coercion are collapsed into a single sense, conveyed as per se negative and violent. Doubtless, anything approximating coercion is a violation of modern sensibilities of autonomy. Richard Baxter—though himself not in New England, yet communicating well the posture of his transatlantic brethren— put it slightly more forcefully in Holy Commonwealth (1659):

Though Magistrates cannot force men to Believe, Love God, and so to be saved, yet they must force them to submit to holy Doctrine, and learn the word of God, and to walk orderly and quietly in that condition, till they are brought to a voluntary personal profession of Christianity, and Subjection to Christ and his holy Ordinance.

The contemporary, evangelical response to Baxter’s line of reasoning is that coercion makes faith illegitimate or lifeless, and more basically, that God’s truth needs no temporal protection. Someone like John Norton would have certainly ceded that Christianity, the church itself, is not dependent on any earthly power for survival and faithful performance of her mission. Nevertheless, according to many in the seventeenth century, questions of social order are ultimately ones of duty and justice, or, as Norton would have it, God’s honor amongst men. Further, in the ordinary course of business for which social order accounts, God works through means.

God can preserve his Truth immediately without any external meanes but his pleasure is ordinarily to doe it mediately. Hence he surrounded the Arke according to divine Institution, with a double sence , both Ecclesiastical and Civil. God can also save man immediately, from evils committed against the second Table, but he ordinarily effects it by the helpe of the magistrate. The injurie done unto the trueth, hurteth man whose welfare depends upon the imbracing of it. It hurts not God, nor the Trueth in itself, but only in the estimation of man.

This theory of coercive laws—or even suggestive laws, as were Sabbath laws in the early American republic—and corresponding punishments being prepatory for sincere Christian belief and practice raises another important question, one that needs careful clarification. I have written elsewhere that New England Puritans were not Theonomists, however much the Theonomists might try to claim camaraderie with them.

Winthrop, for instance, who once chastised Nathaniel Ward for dwelling too long on pagan philosophers in a sermon, nevertheless did not believe that all laws of the commonwealth needed to be verbatim transcriptions of the Old Testament. Neither did Nathaniel Ward, the author of the Body of Liberties (1641), for that matter. Crimes of perjury and treason, for instance, were included in Ward’s list but without scriptural authority cited for their punishment. The regulation of wages, prices, probate, and other practical concerns were simply adjusted common law precedents.

Per Haskins, Massachusetts Bay could never, at any time, have been fairly called a “Bible Commonwealth.” “The notion that the colonists’ ideas of law were the primitive ones of ancient Israel or of a rude frontier is belied by their own statements, particularly in Winthrop’s writings [i.e., treatise on arbitrary government] and in the Epistle prefaced to the Code of 1648.” For Winthrop’s part, he argued that the absence of scripturally prescribed penalties for many crimes was proof that God had entrusted magistrates (“Gods vpon earthe”) with this task. They were to use their “guifts” to apply the law of nature and principles of equity to circumstance. The same went for developing other restrictions, criminal and civil. In practice, the law of New England tracked the common law of their former homeland. Their charter of 1629 required that all colonial laws be agreeable to the laws of England, and, in turn, when the General Court first ordered a drafting of a code of laws in 1635, it instructed that the laws also be agreeable to the word of God. In both cases, agreeableness meant non-violative.

None of this is meant to deny the immense influence of Scripture on every aspect of Puritan socio-political life. It is merely to deny that the character of this influence was theonomic insofar as the central theonomic claim goes. It helps to realize the influence of the Bible on the common law tradition generally. Remember that in the seventeenth century proof texts were still cited from the bench of England’s highest courts, legal treatises waxed eloquent on scriptural principles, and Matthew Hale declared Christianity to be fundamental to the common law (Rex v. Taylor (1676)). It is within this ethos that footnoting Deuteronomy in law codes was totally natural. Indeed, it was the natural law imbedded in, and witnessed by, the precepts of Moses’s “judicials” that transcended political context.

The Common Good

At the outset of this series, one goal stated was that an examination of New England Protestants would ammunition to enter the fray of what is now referred to as the postliberal discussion. I would be remiss if I did not now address more directly the idea of the common good.

As C.C. Pecknold recently reminded us, the common good is not an “aggregate of radically individuated private or personal goods.” The common good is not diminished by individual participation therein. This is not the case with individual goods. Any individual good is reduced by a multiplicity of participation, resulting in an imperfect good, not worth pursuing. An amalgamation of individual goods, therefore, cannot possibly comprise the common good (and yet, it should be noted, the common good does not destroy or deny the existence of individual goods).

What’s more, any coherent theory of the common good must begin (or end) with a conception of the highest, truly common good. Only a society self-consciously oriented to the highest common good, God himself, can rightly be said to be organized for the common good. This the New England colonies endeavored to do, being knitted together as one man for the task, viz., the glory of God. The common good was not merely aspirational for them.

On the most basic level, the common good was pursued by inter-colony compacts; the peace and safety of the people and the longevity and stability of government are, after all, common goods. The Articles of Confederation of the United Colonies of New England (1643), included in their statement of purpose the “mutual safety and welfare” of the colonies, terms reminiscent of our own constitution. Over and over election sermons reminded magistrates that their focus was not self-elevation or personal gain, but the common good, the general welfare, or some other derivative expression of the same idea (e.g., true “public happiness”).

Traveling up the hierarchy of we see the common good also manifested in economics, or rather, domestic life both in the market and home. Mentioned already has been the Puritan allergy to individualism. A Christian society was one that, per Winthrop, followed Paul’s model in Ephesians 4. Each part was to be “so contiguous” with the others “as thereby they do mutually participate with each other, both in strength and infirmity, in pleasure and pain.” The integrated nature of society was not limited to the high-level institutions of church and state; it was also reflected in everyday life, in the town square, at the market, and around the hearth.

The Marian exile and master of St. John’s, Cambridge, Thomas Lever (1521-1577), had long before the American migration preached that,

the merchant by buying and selling, and the craftsman by his occupation, must provide unto the commonwealth the necessary wares and sufficient supplies for all. The landlord, by leasing lands at a moderate price must furnish fields to the tenants, and also homes at low rates of rent. The husbandman must till the soil with proper diligence, and so produce the necessary crops, rents, and provisions for himself and the community at large.

William Perkins (1668-1602) chastised the man who “abuseth his calling” by “seeking wholly his own, and not the common good.” Recall from part I that Winthrop delineated at length in his 1630 sermon, selfless love was the ligament that knit a Christian commonwealth (a Christian communion) together. The passengers of the Arbella were instructed to live for others rather than themselves, not only other individuals as parts of the whole but the whole itself. “The care of the public must oversway [sic] all private respects for it is a true rule that particular estates cannot subsist in the ruin of the public.”

We must be knit together in this work as one man, we must entertain each other in brotherly affection… we must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality… always having before our eyes our commission and community.

And all this so that “the Lord will be our God and delight to dwell among us.” Winthrop’s vision dictated a particular style of familial localism in New England. It is within this system that the common good was understood, with arguably optimal clarity, and pursued.

Localism and Family

“In New England, the social, as well as religious and political, unit was the village… [and] the congregation constituted its soul,” writes Thomas Jefferson Wertenbaker. This localism was inherent in the dominant ecclesiology. Herein lied both its strength and weakness. Again, Wertenbaker:

It is well to bear in mind that Congregationalism, because of its emphasis upon localism, would have been hopelessly weak had the full support of the civil authorities. Since the failure of the Puritans to gain such support in England was one of the major reasons for the migration, it follows as a matter of course that in their new commonwealth they would take measures to tie the government to the church.

“There was a clear distinction at all times between the congregation and the body politic, but this distinction was largely academic so long as the two bodies had an identic personnel.” Which, of course, they did. This was demanded by the organic logic of the commonwealth at the time, as I’ve detailed previously. Only church members were permitted to vote and hold office. For good reason too, preached Joseph Belcher (1699-1723), for “if those who are to govern God’s people have not given up themselves to be governed by God, they are not like to devote themselves to the public good.” And though the Puritans dismissed ecclesiastical courts, the congregation functioned as one since its ruling on, say, the excommunication of a member would effectively ostracize said member from meaningful participation in society.

The result of congregational localism, wherein power was concentrated in the village or town (which took the place of the old-world manor) and close connection between civil and ecclesiastical power reinforced communitarianism. This, in turn, yielded high levels of accountability and community and low levels of privacy and autonomy within what was naturally a highly homogenous locale, suggesting that only an intense level of one (community or autonomy) or the other is achievable. Consider what Wertenbaker describes:

The people of the little community [i.e., the Puritan town] knew each other’s virtues, weaknesses, habits. Every woman in town could tell just how many gowns Goodwife Collisn had in her chest, just how many dishes in her kitchen, how many feather beds she inherited from her father, shook her head when word went around that she had lost her temper when the cow kicked over the milk. And when she became ill it was the neighbors who sat beside her bed or did her chores for her.

We may cherish our “right” to privacy, gifted us by the penumbras of the constitution, but we should at least blush when we read about the epidemic of loneliness, the absence of true friendship in our culture too.

This communitarian tendency in Puritan towns ensured that the polis (more than an amalgam of individuals) on the hill was one dedicated to the common good—especially the highest common good, God himself, but also the family and civic order. The colonial governments sought to do its part to preserve this attitude toward mutual and true flourishing.


To end where we began, the result of what has been hitherto described was a remarkable level of stability and cohesion, unprecedented in its day. The chief lesson of this series is, strangely, one of choice. We must choose whether we want stability, tranquility, and genuine cohesion in society, or whether we will accept the instability, disorder, and estrangement that accompanies liberty-maximalist social conditions—that is, disordered, self-referential “liberty.” If we wish to prioritize choice itself, then we must come to terms with some level of chaos and stop complaining about it.

On the other hand, if the “blessings of liberty” have proven hollow, and if we desire a way out—rather, a way through—then we might try looking in earnest to those who have come closer to societal cohesion and stability than we currently find ourselves able. Real social cohesion requires at least some level of constraints and enforcements—coercion—according to a higher standard; genuine community necessitates accountability and connectivity; and liberty needs limits. People cannot rally around purely personalized goods, only the common good. Likewise, people need something, some transcendent metric by which the common good is measured—according to which all their institutions function—so that all may participate in something other than their psychologized self-indulgence.

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.

Monday, September 27th 2021

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

J. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church