Church and State in New England
For God and the Church!

With the great Puritan body in England, and with the great mass of the English nation, whatever their religious opinions, the colonists of Plymouth, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Haven held in common one foremost theory of civil government. Pausing for a brief consideration of this fundamental and far-reaching theory, which created so many difficulties in the infant commonwealths, and which confronts us again and again as we follow their later history, we find that the Pilgrim Separatist of Plymouth, the strict Puritan of Massachusetts, the voter in the theocratic commonwealth of New Haven, and the holder of the liberal franchise in Connecticut, all clung to the proposition that the State's first duty was the maintenance and support of religion. Thereby they meant enforced taxation for the support of its predominant type, conformity to its mode of worship, and in the last analysis supervision or control of the Church by the State or by the General Court of each colony. As a corollary to this proposition, the duty of the churches was to define the creed, to set forth the church polity, and to determine the bounds of morality within the state. Two of the colonies held the corollary to be so important that it almost changed places with the proposition when Massachusetts and New Haven became rigid theocracies.[a]

With respect to taxation in the four colonies the statement should be modified, inasmuch as the support of religion was at first voluntary in all four: in Plymouth until 1657, in Massachusetts from 1630 to 1638, in Connecticut before 1640; yet both New Haven and Connecticut accepted the suggestion made by the Commissioners of the United Colonies on September 5, 1644, "that each man should be required to set down what he would voluntarily give for the support of the gospel, and that any man who refused should be rated according to his possessions and compelled to pay" the sum so levied. Since in religious affairs strict conformity was required by the three Puritan colonies, and since the liberty accorded to the few early dissenters in Plymouth was not such as to modify her prevailing polity or worship, these first few years of voluntary assessment do not nullify the dominant truth of the preceding statement.

In the intimate relation of Church and State, the people of these four New England colonies regarded the magistrates as "Nursing Fathers" of the Church, [2l] who were to take "special note and care of every Church and provide and assign allotments of land for the maintenance of each of them." [22] The State, accepting the same view of caretaker, carried its supervision still farther and devised a system for the maintenance of the ministry in accordance with sundry laws made to insure the people's support, respect, and obedience. The churches reciprocated. First of all, they provided their members with the approved and accepted essentials of religious life, and they further exercised a rigorous supervision over the moral welfare of the whole community. Secondly, they aided the State through the influence of their ministers, who, on all important occasions, were expected to meet with the magistrates to consult and advise upon affairs whether spiritual or temporal. But the framers of governments were not satisfied with these measures that aimed to present a strongly established church, capable of extending a fine moral, ethical, and religious influence over the colonists, and also to enforce upon the wayward, the careless, or the indifferent among them its support and their obedience. If these measures provided for the ordinary welfare of the community and for the usual relations b between the ministers and their people, there were still possibilities of factional strife to guard against, and such warfare in that age might or might not confine itself within the limits of theological controversy or within the lines of church organization. Consequently, the better to preserve the churches from schism or corrupting innovations and the commonwealth from discord, the supreme control of the churches was lodged in the General Court of each colony. It could, whenever necessary to secure harmony, whether ecclesiastical or civil, legislate with reference to all or any of the churches within its jurisdiction. Examples of such legislation occur frequently in the religious history of the colonies, especially of Massachusetts and Connecticut. Such interdependence of the spiritual and temporal power practically amounted to a union of Church and State. Indeed, in Massachusetts and New Haven, to be a voter, a man must first be a member of a church of approved standing.[b] In more liberal Plymouth and Connecticut, the franchise, at first, was made to depend only upon conduct, though it was early found necessary to add a property qualification in order to cut off undesirable voters.[23] In the Connecticut colony, it was expressly enacted that church censure should not debar from civil privilege. When advocating this amount of separation between church and civil power, Thomas Hooker was not moved by any such religious principle as influenced the Separatists of Plymouth. On the contrary, it was his political foresight which made him urge upon the colonists a more representative government[c] than would be obtainable from a franchise based upon church-membership where, as in the colonial churches, admission to such membership was conditioned upon exacting tests. The great Connecticut leader was far in advance of the statesmen of his time, for they held that the religion of a prince or government must be the religion of the people; that every subject must be by birthright a member of the national church, to leave which was both heretical and disloyal and should be punished by political and civil disabilities. This union of Church and State was the theory of the age, -- a principle of statecraft throughout all of Europe as well as in England. Naturally it emigrated to New England to be a foundation of civil government and a fortress for that type of nonconformity which the colonists chose to transplant and make predominant. The type, as we have seen, was Congregationalism, and the Congregational church became the established church in each of the four colonies.

This theory of Church and State was the cause at bottom of all the early theological dissensions which disturbed the peace and threatened the colony of Massachusetts. Moreover, their settlement offers the most striking contrast between the fundamental theory of Congregationalism and the theory of a union between Church and State. With the power of supervision over the Church lodged in the General Court, whatever the theory of Congregationalism as to the independence of the individual churches, in practice the civil authority disciplined them and their members, and early invaded ecclesiastical territory. In Salem, Endicott took it upon himself to expel Ralph Smith for holding extreme Separatist principles, and shipped the Browns back to England for persisting in the use of the Book of Common Prayer. He considered both parties equally dangerous to the welfare of the community, because, according to the new standard of church-life, both were censurable. Endicott held that to tolerate any measure of diversity in religious practices was to cultivate the ferment of civil disorder. Considering the bitterness, narrowness, intensity, and also the irritating conviction that every one else was heretical and anti-Christian, with which men of that age clung to their religious differences, Endicott had some reason for holding this opinion. The Boston authorities believed in no less drastic measures to maintain the civil peace and consequent good name of the colony. John Davenport of New Haven voiced the Massachusetts sentiment as well as his own in: "Civil government is for the common welfare of all, as well in the Church as without; which will then be most certainly effected, when Public Trust and Power of these matters is committed to such men as are most approved according to God; and these are Church-members."[24] Consequently, the Massachusetts law of 1631 [25] forbade any but church members to become freemen of the colony, and to these only was intrusted any share in its government. A similar law was later formulated for the New Haven colony. John Cotton echoed the further sentiment of a New England community when, writing of the relations between the churches and the magistrates, he defined the church as "subject to the Magistrate in the matters concerning the civil peace, of which there are four sorts:" (1) with reference to men's goods, lives, liberty, and lands; (2) with establishment of religion in doctrine, worship, and government according to the Word of God, as also the reformation of corruption in any of these; (3) with certain public spiritual administrations which may help forward the public good, as fasts and synods; (4) and finally the church must be subject to the magistrates in patient suffering of unjust persecution, since for her to take up the sword in her own defense would only increase the disturbance of the public peace. [26] As a result of such public sentiment, churches were not to be organized without the approval of the magistrates, nor were any "persons being members of any church ... gathered without the approbation of the magistrates and the greater part of said churches" (churches of the colony) to be admitted to the freedom of the commonwealth. [27] This law, or its equivalent, with reference to church organization was found upon the statute books of all four colonies.

In a pioneer community and a primitive commonwealth, developing slowly in accord with the new democratic principles underlying both its church and secular life, the "maintenance of the peace and welfare of the churches,"[28] which was intrusted to the care of the General Court, was frequently equivalent to maintaining the civil peace and prosperity of the colony. Endicott's deportation of the Browns and the report of the exclusiveness and exacting tests of membership in the colonial churches had early led the members of the Massachusetts Bay Company, resident in England, to fear that the emigrants had departed from their original intent and purpose. And the colonists began to feel that they were in danger of falling under the displeasure of their king and of their Puritan friends at home. Consequently, there entered into the settling of all later religious differences in the colony the determination to avoid appeals to the home country, and also to avoid any report of disturbance or dissatisfaction that might be prejudicial to her independence, general policy, or commercial prosperity. The recognition of such danger made many persons satisfied to submit to government by an exclusive class, comprising in Massachusetts one tenth of the people and in the New Haven colony one ninth. These alone had any voice in making the laws. In submitting to their dictation, the large majority of the people had to submit to a "government that left no incident, circumstance, or experience of the life of an individual, personal, domestic, social, or civil, still less anything that concerned religion, free from the direct or indirect interposition of public authority." [29] Such inquisitorial supervision was due to the close alliance of Church and State within the narrow limits of a theocracy. In more liberal Plymouth and Connecticut, the "watch and ward" over one's fellows, which the early colonial church insisted upon, was extended only over church members, and even over them was less rigorous, less intrusive. Something of the development of the great authority of the State over the churches and of its attitude and theirs towards synods may be gleaned from the earliest pages of Massachusetts ecclesiastical history. The starting-point of precedent for the elders of the church to be regarded as advisors only and the General Court as authoritative seems to have been in a matter of taxation, when, in February, 1632, the General Court assessed the church in Watertown. The elders advised resistance; the Court compelled payment. In the following July, the Boston church inquired of the churches of Plymouth, Salem, Dorchester, and Watertown, whether a ruling elder could at the same time hold office as a civil magistrate. A correspondence ensued and the answer returned was that he could not. Thereupon, Mr. Nowell resigned his eldership in the Boston church. [30] Winthrop mentions eight[d] important occasions between 1632 and 1635 when the elders, which term included pastors, teachers, and ruling elders, were summoned by the General Court of Massachusetts to give advice upon temporal affairs. In March of 1635-36 the Court "entreated them (the elders) together with the brethren of every church within the jurisdiction, to consult and advise of one uniforme order of discipline in the churches agreable to Scriptures, and then to consider how far the magistrates are bound to interpose for the preservation of that uniformity and peace of the churches." [31] The desire of the Court grew in part out of the influx of new colonists, who did not like the strict church discipline, and in part out of the tangle of Church and State during the Roger Williams controversy. The Court had disciplined Williams as one, who, having no rights in the corporation, had no ground for complaint at the hostile reception of his teachings. These the authorities regarded as harmful to their government and dangerous to religion. His too warm adherents in the Salem church were, however, rightful members of the community, and they had been punished for upholding one whom the General Court, advised by the elders of the churches, had seen fit to censure. Punished thus, ostensibly, for contempt of the magistrates by the refusal to them of the land they claimed as theirs on Marblehead Neck, and feeling that the independence of their church life and their rightful choice in the selection of their pastor had really been infringed, the Salem church sent letters to the elders of all the other churches of the Bay, asking that the magistrates and deputies be admonished for their decision as a "heinous sin." The Court came out victorious, by refusing at its next general session to seat the Salem deputies "until they should give satisfaction by letter" for holding dangerous opinions and for writing "letters of defamation," and by proceeding to banish Roger Williams. Before the session of the Court, the elders of the Massachusetts churches, jointly and individually, labored with the Salem people and brought the majority to a conviction of their error in supporting Roger Williams. [e]

The platform of church discipline which the Court advised in 1635-36 was not forthcoming, and the matter was allowed to rest.[f] In 1637, with the consent of the General Court, a synod of elders and lay delegates from all the New England churches was called to harmonize the discordant factions created by the heated Antinomian controversy. During the synod, the magistrates were present all the time as hearers, and even as speakers, but not as members. The dangerous schism was ended more by the Court's banishment of Wheelwright and Mrs. Hutchinson, together with their more prominent followers, than by the work of the synod. However, Governor Winthrop was so delighted with the conferences of the synod that, in his enthusiasm, he suggested that it would be fit "to have the like meeting once a year, or at least the next year, to settle what yet remained to be agreed, or if but to nourish love."[32] But his suggestion was voted down, for the Synod of 1637 was considered by some to be "a perilous deflection from the theory of Congregationalism."[33] Even the fortnightly meeting of ministers who resided near each other, and which it had become a custom to call for friendly conference, was looked at askance by those[g] who feared in it the germ of some authoritative body that should come to exercise control over the individual churches. When this custom was endorsed and permitted in the "Body of Liberties," in 1641, the assurance that these meetings "were only by way of Brotherly conference and consultation" was felt to be necessary to appease the opposition. When, two and four years later, Anabaptist converts and a flood of Presbyterian literature called for measures of repression, and the Court summoned councils to consult upon a course of action, it was most careful in each case to reassert the doctrine of the complete independence of the individual church. Synods, from the purely Congregational standpoint, were to be called only upon the initiative of the churches, and were authoritative bodies, composed of both ministerial and lay delegates from such churches, and their duty was to confer and advise upon matters of general interest or upon special problems. In cases where their decisions were unheeded, they could enforce their displeasure at the contumacious church only by cutting it off from fellowship. Consequently, though there was some opposition to the Court's calling of synods and a resultant general restlessness, there was none when the Court confined its supervision and commands to individually schismatic churches or to unruly members. The time had not yet come for the recognition of what this double system of church government -- government by its members, supervision by the Court -- foreboded. The colonists did not see that within it was the embryo of an authoritative body exercising some of the powers of the Presbyterian General Assembly. The supervising body might be composed of laymen acting in their capacity as members of the General Court, but the powers they exercised were none the less akin to the very ones that Congregationalism had declared to be heretical and anti-Christian. Moreover, the tendency was toward an increase of this authoritative power every time it was exercised and each time that the colonists submitted to its dictation.

Of the two colonies founded after Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Haven, the latter preserved the complete independence of her original church until the admission of the shore towns[h] to her jurisdiction, when she instituted that friendly oversight of the churches which had begun to prevail elsewhere. Thereafter her General Court kept a rigorous oversight over the purity of her churches and the conduct of their members. The General Court of Connecticut early compelled a recognition of its authority[i] over the religious life of the people and its right of special legislation.[j] For example, in 1643, the Court demanded of the Wethersfield church a list of the grievances which disturbed it. In the next year, when Matthew Allyn petitioned for an order to the Hartford church, commanding the reconsideration of its sentence of excommunication against him, the Court "adjudged his plea an accusation upon the church" which he was bound to prove. These incidents from early colonial history in some measure illustrate the practical working of the theory of Church and State. The conviction that the State should support one form of religion, and only one, was ever present to the colonial mind. If confirmation of its worth were needed, one had only to glance at the turmoil of the Rhode Island colony experimenting with religious liberty and a complete separation of Church and State. Like all pioneers and reformers, she had gathered elements hard to control, and would-be citizens neither peaceable nor reasonable in their interpretation of the new range of freedom. Watching Rhode Island, the Congregational men of New England hugged more tightly the conviction that their method was best, and that any variation from it would work havoc. It was this theory and this conviction, ever present in their minds, that underlay all ecclesiastical laws, all special legislation with reference to churches, to their members, or to public fasts and thanksgivings. This deep-rooted conviction created hatred toward and fear of all schismatical doctrines, enmity toward all dissenting sects, and opposition to any tolerance of them.


[a] "The one prime, all essential, and sufficient qualiiy of a theocracy ... adopted as the form of an earthly government, was that the civil power should be guided in its exercise by religion and religious ordinances." -- G. E. Ellis, Puritan Age in Massachusetts, p.188.

[b] "Noe man shal be admitted to the freedome of this body politicke, but such as are members of some of the churches within the lymitts of the same." -- Mass. Col. Rec. i, 87, under date of May 28, 1631.

"Church members onely shall be free burgesses and they onely shall chuse magistrates and officers among themselves to haue the power of transacting in all publique and ciuill affayres of this plantatio." -- New Haven Col. Rec. i, 15; also ii, 115, 116.

The governments of Massachusetts and New Haven "never absolutely merged church and state." The franchise depended on church-membership, but the voter, exercising his right in directing the affairs of the colony, was speaking, "not as the church but as the civil Court of Legislation and adjudication." -- W. Walker, History of the Congregational Churches, p.123.

Yet it was due to this merging and this dependence that on October 25, 1639, there were only sixteen free burgesses or voters out of one hundred and forty-four planters in the New Haven Colony. -- See N. H. Col. Rec. i, 20.

"Theoretically Church and State (in Connecticut) were separated: practically they were so interwoven that separation would have meant the severance of soul and body." -- C. M. Andrews, Three River Towns of Conn. p.22.

[c] To John Cotton's "democracy, I do not conceive that ever God did ordain, as a fit government for church or commonwealth," and to Gov. Winthrop's objections to committing matters to the judgment of the body of the people because "safety lies in the councils of the best part which is always the least, and of the best part, the wiser is always the lesser," Hooker replied that "in all matters which concern the common good, a general council, chosen by all, to transact the business which concerns all, I conceive under favor, most suitable to rule and most safe for the relief of the whole." -- Hutchinson, Hist. of Mass. i, App. iii.

[d] (1) To adjust a difference between Governor Winthrop and Deputy Dudley in 1632; (2) about building a fort at Nantasket, February, 1632; (3) in regard to the settlement of the Rev. John Cotton, September, 1633; (4) in consultation concerning Roger Williams's denial of the patent, January, 1634; (5) concerning rights of trade at Kennebec, July, 1634; (6) in regard to the fort on Castle Island, August, 1634; (7) concerning the rumor in 1635 of the coming of a Governor-General; and (8) in the case of Mr. Nowell. -- Winthrop, i, pp.89, 99, 112, 122, 136-137, 159-181.

[e] Roger Williams was the real author of the letters which the Salem church was required to disclaim.

[f] Upon a further suggestion from the General Court, John Cotton prepared a catechism entitled, Milk for Babes.

[g] Governor Winthrop replied to Dr. Skelton's objections that "no church or person could have authority over another church." -- See H. M. Dexter, Ecclesiastical Councils of New England, p.31; Winthrop, i. p.139.

[h] Guilford, Branford, Milford, Stamford, on the mainland, and Southold, on Long Island.

[i] The General Court was head of the churches. "It was more than Pope, or Pope and College of Cardinals, for it exercised all authority, civil and ecclesiastical. In matters of discipline, faith, and practice there was no appeal from its decisions. Except the right to be protected in their orthodoxy the churches had no privileges which the Court did not confer, or could not take away." -- Bronson's Early Gov't. in Conn. p. 347, in
N. H. Hist. Soc. Papers, vol. iii.

[j] On August 18, 1658, the court refused, upon complaint of the Wethersfield church, to remove Mr. Russell. In March, 1661, after duly considering the matter, the court allowed Mr. Stow to sever his connection with the church of Middletown. It concerned itself with the strife in the Windsor church over an assistant pastor from 1667 to 1680. It allowed the settlement of Woodbury in 1672 because of dissatisfaction with the Stratford church. It permitted Stratford to divide in 1669. These are but a few instances both of the authority of the General Court over individual churches and of that discord which, finding its strongest expression in the troubles of the Hartford church, not only rent the churches of Connecticut from 1650 to 1670, but "insinuated itself into all the affairs of the society, towns, and the whole community." Another illustration of the court's oversight of the purity of religion was its investigation in 1670 into the "soundness of the minister at Rye." For these and hosts of similar examples see index Conn. Col. Rec. vols. i, ii, iii, and iv.

chapter ii the transplanting of
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