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Godly Republicanism: Puritans, Pilgrims, and a City on a Hill
Godly Republicanism: Puritans, Pilgrims, and a City on a Hill
Michael P. Winship
Harvard University Press, 2012
350 pp., $52.50

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Mark Noll


American Christian Politics

Round 1.

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Congregational Puritans sought churches organized by covenants among members, ministers elected by congregations and responsible strictly to those congregations, and (in New England) church membership on the basis of a testimony of God's saving grace. The goal was to insulate biblically formed congregations from the corrupting abuses of power.

Determined congregational Puritans dominated New England. Winship says they practiced "separation-without-separating" because they claimed to be only reformers of the national church and because they allowed fellowship with godly Puritans who remained in the parishes of the Church of England.

Militant congregational Puritans were those like in the Salem church who refused to offer the Lord's Supper or baptism to anyone who maintained fellowship with anyone in the Anglican churches.

Moderate separatists were "separating congregationalists" like the great theologian William Ames and also the settlers at Plymouth. They removed themselves completely from the Church of England but still enjoyed fellowship with the Puritans who shared their general theology, especially with the determined congregational Puritans. For example, the governors of Plymouth (William Bradford) and Massachusetts (John Winthrop) maintained cooperative fellowship with each other in New England's early days.

Radical separates wanted to break with Anglicanism as completely as possible. The most radical of all was Roger Williams, the sweet-tempered thorn in the side of the Massachusetts establishment. He denounced "Christendom" by name as an anti-biblical system, attacked all ties between church and state, and refused any fellowship (even to pray, even with his wife) with anyone who did not both separate from the Church of England and separate from those who did not completely separate from Anglicanism.

This elaborate scheme of distinctions allows Winship to make his final judgments about what the American Puritans did. It also opens a path to speculate on how the revival of scholarship focused on the Christianity of Puritanism might be a sign of hope for our own day.

Winship leaves two carry-away conclusions. First, the early generations of New England deserve great respect. They were deeply committed to the authority of Scripture. They sensed correctly the corrupting potential of unchecked authority in state or church. They made great sacrifices—especially taking on the immense difficulties of immigration to an unknown land—in order to follow their Christian principles. They greatly feared the ever present threat of their own sinfulness. Most of all, their actions were always in their own minds altruistic. Puritans could be harshly repressive to those who resisted their regime, but the Puritan vision of the Kingdom of God on earth was the great thing to be protected, not personal power or wealth or status.

The hope for Christian politics today is that those who advance into the public arena as "godly republicans" might be as serious, as repentant, as principled, as biblically informed, and—above all—as altruistic as the Puritans.

Winship's second concluding point is that, despite the Puritans' herculean labors and the luster of their ideals, they failed. In Massachusetts, the perfect reform of church and state was in place by the mid-1630s. John Cotton defined it as "authority in magistrates, liberty in people, purity in the church." It was nothing less, as several other early Puritans proclaimed, than a "new heaven and earth," or in Winship's summary, "an unprecedented recovery of New Testament Christianity."

Yet even in the moment of triumph, things started to crumble. Roger Williams challenged the biblical basis for the Christendom assumptions of the entire New England Way. The clear-eyed Bible-reader Anne Hutchinson charged that the "works" required to build a Puritan social ordered violated the crucial doctrine of "free grace" that grounded all of Puritan theology. In the 1640s, concern began to grow about the increasing numbers of rising adults who, though living upright lives, could not or would not make a profession of saving grace. That problem, which threatened the entire system, became the subject of intense divisiveness for more than a century. In the 1650s, the violent potential of the system broke out when Massachusetts executed four Quakers for returning to the colony after they had been banished. And then in the 1680s, when the dynamics of power shifted in England and Massachusetts lost its charter, which again made voting a function of property, the colony meekly gave up the crucial mechanism that had grounded their entire system.

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