Engines Of Liberty: Covenanted Self-Government

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Posted: Jun 09, 2021 9:24 AM
Engines Of Liberty: Covenanted Self-Government

Source: AP Photo/Stephan Savoia

Given the state of American education today, it is increasingly necessary to restate the obvious: that a civilization is only as strong as the ground it stands upon. Its foundations must be tested and renewed continuously. Cornel West, a Harvard public philosopher, and Jeremy Tate recently criticized the removal of classics – the Western canon – from the curriculum as “a sign that we, as a culture, have embraced from the youngest age utilitarian education at the expense of soul-forming education.” To end this “spiritual catastrophe” they call for a challenging curriculum that, while grounded in tradition, lifts every voice.

Early in his career the historian Samuel Eliot Morison confessed his own change of sympathy toward the Puritans and the spiritual beliefs that energized them:

These ideals, real and imaginary, of early Massachusetts, were attacked by historians of Massachusetts long before “debunking” became an accepted biographical mode; for it is always easier to condemn an alien way of life than to understand it. My attitude toward seventeenth-century puritanism has passed through scorn and boredom to a warm interest and respect. The ways of the puritans are not my ways, and their faith is not my faith; nevertheless they appear to me a courageous, humane, brave, and significant people.

When Morison wrote these words, Americans were in many respects still an essentially Puritan people, even though this confessional tradition had largely vanished from public life. Much of the responsibility for this disappearance must rest with the descendants of English Calvinists – Puritans by inheritance if not by confession – who loosened the ties that bound civil life to religion and established what some touted as the first modern secular state. The sentimentalization of the past we detect in so many nineteenth century literary themes may well have masked a conscious disavowal of the Puritan tradition. The transvaluation of religious imagery in Transcendentalist literature and romantic nationalism may even represent a type of cultural patricide.

Consequently, today’s Americans are separated from the founding era by a far greater divide than the mere passage of time.  If we wish to understand what institutional relationships are presupposed by the American constitutional tradition – between church and state, for example, or between religion and education – we must first understand their role in early American society and especially in what Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. called “the life of the law.”

A careful examination of the record shows that, historically, American political and religious liberty can neither be divorced from each other nor be understood apart from the struggle between church and state that wracked early modern Europe. 

The American constitutional tradition of liberty and self-government is rooted in the biblical concept of the covenant. Sixteenth century Reformers used biblical and historical models to carefully develop the idea of covenanted self-government into a pillar of the ecclesiastical and political order, thus giving rise to covenant or federal theology and the idea of political federalism.

During the following two centuries these ideas were implemented by Dutch Calvinists, French Huguenots, English Puritans, and several groups of English dissenters who took refuge in America. It is owing to the unique position and inventiveness of the American Pilgrims and Puritans that these ideas were put to the test and forged into a new kind of constitutionalism.

Religious dissent figures most prominently among the motives that led successive companies of colonists to emigrate from England to America. The Pilgrims who settled Plymouth Plantation in 1620 belonged to a congregation of Separatists who had pulled out of the Church of England around the turn of the century, withstood persecution at home, moved to Leyden where they suffered considerable hardships for twelve years, and then joined with a company of settlers bound for northern Virginia. Their ship, the Mayflower, reached Cape Cod in November of 1620, far north of any existing jurisdiction. Upon landing and finding themselves outside the prescribed territorial boundaries, the Pilgrims and other settlers, known as the Strangers, covenanted among themselves to form a civil body politic. Opening with the words, “In ye name of God, Amen,” the Mayflower Compact established a constitutional pattern that was to be frequently repeated up through the Constitution of 1787.

Nearly a decade after the Mayflower landed, a much larger group of settlers and their leaders – “nonseparating congregationalists” who were members of the Church of England – left England during the persecutions under Bishop William Laud. After sailing to the New World with the vision of establishing a community of “visible saints,” these Puritans established a colony at Massachusetts Bay. From there, numerous new congregations and colonies were to radiate throughout New England.

What the Pilgrims and the Puritans had in common was a conviction that family, church, and civil polity must be governed covenantally according to biblical standards. Each individual and every relationship, in their view, must be answerable to God and governed according to His Word. Each individual and community is part of a web of relationships, a hierarchy of authority and responsibility, that should emulate the divine order revealed in Scripture. The ancient idea of the covenant had been undergoing a revival since mediæval times, especially during the conciliar movement and the Protestant Reformation. The centrality of the covenant relationship between God and man – a covenant involving both promises and duties – was given considerable attention by theologians and political reformers, notably Heinrich Bullinger, Philippe Duplessis-Mornay, and Johannes Althusius.

It is upon a foundation of cooperation between church and state that the Pilgrims and Puritans established the earliest successful independent English settlements in America. Despite their differences, both adhered to a federal theology that placed a strong emphasis upon the continuity of the Old and New Testaments, local self-governing congregations, and covenanted church membership. The American tradition of written constitutions is an outgrowth of the covenanted church polity with its emphasis on the rule of law. It depended for its success on a consensus of faith – a community of the faithful who could articulate their faith and apply it in every field of endeavor. Soon after they crossed the Atlantic, and in some cases before, English dissenters began by establishing church, town, and colonial covenants and constitutions. 

Behind the principle of the covenant lay the idea that the people – freemen and strangers alike – must agree under oath to abide by the laws and submit to the authority of elected magistrates who were ordained of God. Thus the colony or plantation was understood to be a community of faith and its success demanded a vigilant and educated electorate. At first, the magistrates claimed wide discretionary latitude, due in part to their obligation to rule with reference to biblical standards of justice, which often lacked specific penalties for infractions. But by 1635, Gov. John Winthrop and the General Court began taking steps toward a codification of law in order to answer criticism that they were being self-serving and also to head off possible outside interference.