IX. Punishing Every Sin and Persecuting “Heretics”


A Publication of Separation of Church and State Law Ministry.



Jerald Finney
Copyright © February 25, 2018


“But this people brought two other principles with them from their native country, in which they did not differ from others; which are, that natural birth, and the doings of men, can bring children into to the Covenant of Grace; and, that it is right to enforce and support their own sentiments about religion with the magistrate’s sword.”[1]  Compulsive uniformity “was planted at a General Court in Boston, May 18, 1631 when it was ordered that no one could be admitted ‘to the freedom of [the] body politic’ who was not a member of a church.”[2] “This test in after times had such influence, that he who ‘did not conform, was deprived of more civil privileges than a nonconformist is deprived of by the test in England.’”[3] Since rulers, however selected, received their authority from God, not from the people, and were accountable to God, not to the people, their business was to enforce the nation’s covenant with God.[4] Ministers were not to seek or hold public office, but were counted on to give the people sound advice and to instruct them about the kind of men who were best fitted to rule.[5] Although only church members had political rights, this was a larger group than had political rights in England.[6]

Two Men of the Puritan faith punished.

Since the Puritans believed that every nation existed by virtue of a covenant with God in which it promised to obey His commands, as a modern legal scholar has pointed out, “They knew, in the most elementary terms, that they must punish every sin committed in Massachusetts. And punish they did, with the eager cooperation of the whole community, who knew that sin unpunished might expose them all the wrath of God.”[7] Sins punished included those in the first four commandments, those dealing strictly with man’s relationship to God, as well as other sins, including those dealing with man’s relationship to man. Thus, the churches were thronged every Sunday with willing and unwilling worshipers—everyone was required to attend.[8] Although the church could not enforce the commandments, the state, which was charged with the colony’s commission, had the final and supreme responsibility for suppressing heresy as well as drunkenness and theft and murder.[9]

The Court continued to put its theology into force by act of law. At the General Assembly held March 3, 1636, it was held (1) that no church would form and meet without informing the magistrates and elders of the majority of the churches of their intentions and gaining their approval and (2) that no one who was a member of a church not approved by the magistrates and the majority of state-churches would be admitted to the freedom of the commonwealth.[10]

Soon thereafter, the Court passed an act that stated that they were entreated to make “a draught of laws agreeable to the Word of God, which may be the fundamentals of this commonwealth, and to present the same to the next General Court,” and that “in the mean time the magistrates and their associates shall proceed in the courts to hear and determine all causes according to the laws now established, and where there is no law, then as near the laws of God as they can.”[11] This act immediately led to the persecution by banishment, disfranchisement and the forbidding of speaking certain things, removal from public office, fines, and the confiscation of arms.[12] Soon to that act was added that anyone convicted of defaming any court, “or the sentence or proceedings of the same, or any of the magistrates or other judges of any such court, would be punished by ‘fine, imprisonment, or disfranchisement of banishment, as the quality and measure of the offence shall deserve.’”[13]

The banishment and the voluntary exile of many dissidents “did not put an end to the unhappy divisions and contentions in [] Massachusetts.”[14]  As a result of animosities and contentions between what were called the Legalists and the Familists or Antinomians, a synod was held, eighty erroneous opinions were presented, debated, and condemned; and a court was held which “banished a few of the chief persons, among those who were aspersed with those errors, and censured several that had been the most active, not it seems, for their holding those opinions, but for their pretended seditious carriage and behavior; and the church at Boston likewise excommunicated at least one of her members, not for those opinions, but for denying they ever held them, and the behavior which these heats occasioned.”[15]

On September 6, 1638, the Assembly at Boston made 2 laws: (1) anyone excommunicated lawfully from a church would, after six months and if not restored, be presented to the Court and there fined, imprisoned, banished or further “as their contempt and obstinacy upon full hearing shall deserve;” and (2) that every inhabitant would be taxed to pay for all common charges as well as for upholding the ordinances of the churches; and, if not so doing, would be compelled thereto by assessment and distress, to be levied by the constable or other officer of the town. The first law was repealed the next fall, but the second remained.[16]

The Puritans continued to pass repressive laws, persecute heretics, require church attendance, etc. This short article will not continue to chronicle the laws the Puritans continued to pass, the continued persecutions, etc. To read more on those matters, click: Appendix to “IX. Punishing Every Sin and Persecuting ‘Heretics’”: Continuing Legislation, Persecutions of “Heretics,” Baptist Churches in Boston, and Other Matters.


Endnotes

[1] Isaac Backus, A History of New England With Particular Reference to the Denomination of Christians called Baptists, Volume 1 (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock Publishers, Previously published by Backus Historical Society, 1871), pp. 34-35.

[2] Ibid., p. 35

[3] Ibid.

[4] Mark Douglas McGarvie, One Nation Under Law: America’s Early National Struggles to Separate Church and State (DeKalb, Illinois: Northern Illinois University Press, 2005), p. 94.

[5] Ibid., pp. 95-96.

[6] Ibid., p. 92.

[7] McGarvie,  p. 71.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., p. 82.

[10] Backus, p. 61.

[11] Ibid., pp. 62-63

[12] Ibid., pp. 64-70.

[13] Ibid., pp. 69-70.

[14] John Callender, The Civil and Religious Affairs of the Colony of Rhode-Island (Providence: Knowles, Vose & Company, 1838), p. 75.

[15] Ibid., pp. 75-76.

[16] Backus, pp. 79-80.

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