VIII. Organizing the Church State “Theocracy” in Massachusetts Colony


A Publication of Separation of Church and State Law Ministry.



Jerald Finney
Copyright © February 25, 2018


The Puritans, unlike the Separatists, although continuing to acknowledge canonical authority, desired to purify the church from within. Puritans were enlisted by the Massachusetts Bay Company, a trading corporation with powers of ownership and government over a specified area. The leaders of this company devised a plan to effectively remove the colony of Massachusetts from control of the Crown.[1] Their purpose was to become a self-governing commonwealth able to enforce the laws of God and win divine favor—a citadel of God’s chosen people, a spearhead of world Protestantism, a government of Christ.[2] They believed this was a common goal which all must seek together, with church and state working side by side.[3]  They believed that the pure church they intended to establish in New England would someday, somehow, rescue its English parent from the mire of corruption.[4]

In 1629 the trading company in Massachusetts was transformed into a commonwealth.[5] According to the Puritan theology of these early Massachusetts settlers, after the people joined in covenant with God, agreeing to be bound by his laws, they had to establish a government to see those laws enforced, for they did not have enough virtue to carry out their agreement without the compulsive force of government.[6]

  • “[They] soon discovered themselves as fond of uniformity, and as loath to allow liberty of conscience to such as differed from themselves, as those from whose power they had fled. Notwithstanding all their sufferings and complaints in England, they seemed incapable of mutual forbearance; perhaps they were afraid of provoking the higher powers at home, if they countenanced other sects; and perhaps those who differed from them took the more freedom, in venting and pressing their peculiar opinions, from the safety and protection they expected, under a charter that had granted liberty of conscience.
  • “In reality, the true grounds of liberty of conscience were not then known, or embraced by any sect or party of Christians; all parties seemed to think that as they only were in the possession of the truth, so they alone had a right to restrain, and crush all other opinions, which they respectively called error and heresy, where they were the most numerous and powerful; and in other places they pleaded a title to liberty and freedom of their consciences. And yet, at the same time, all would disclaim persecution for conscience sake, which has something in it so unjust and absurd, so cruel and impious, that all men are ashamed of the least imputation of it. A pretence of public peace, the preservation of the Church of Christ from infection, and the obstinacy of the heretics, are always made use of, to excuse and justify that, which stripped of all disguises, and called by its true name, the light of nature, and the laws of Christ Jesus condemn and forbid, in the most plain and solemn manner….”[7]
Church and Town Administration Were One

After arriving in Massachusetts, they quickly formed churches. Mainly under the leadership of the Reverend John Cotton, they arranged ecclesiastical and state matters. “Whatever he delivered in the pulpit was soon put into an order of court, if of a civil, or set up as a practice in the church, if of an ecclesiastical concernment.”[8] The established Congregational church differed from other churches in four main points:

  1. “The visible church was to consist of those who made an open profession of faith, and did not ‘scandalize their profession by an unchristian conversation.’
  2. “A particular visible church should preferably explicitly covenant to walk together in their Christian communion, according to the rules of the gospel.
  3. “Any particular church ought not to be larger in number than needed to meet in one place for the enjoyment of all the same numerical ordinances and celebrating of divine worship, nor fewer than may conveniently carry on church work.
  4. “Each particular church was subject to no other jurisdiction.[9]

By 1635, the General Court regulated the affairs of the local churches and passed on the qualifications of preachers and elders, since:

“[t]he civil authority … hath the power and liberty to see the peace, ordinances, and rules of Christ observed in every Church, according to His word…. It is the duty of the Christian magistrate to take care that the people be fed with wholesome and sound doctrine.”[10]


Endnotes

[1] 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. 46

[2] Ibid., pp. 46-47, 48.

[3] Ibid., p. 132.

[4] Ibid., p. 51.

[5] Ibid., pp. 84-100.

[6] Ibid., p. 93.

[7] John Callender, The Civil and Religious Affairs of the Colony of Rhode-Island (Providence: Knowles, Vose & Company, 1838), pp. 69-70.

[8] Backus, p. 33.

[9] Ibid., pp. 33-34.

[10] Leo Pfeffer, Church, State, and Freedom (Boston: The Beacon Press, 1953), p. 66.

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