Faith & Freedom

Benjamin Hart

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Thomas Hooker Tries Democracy

Winthrop envisioned for his "City on a Hill" a tightly knit, unified community centered around Boston. But almost immediately upon arrival, the colonists began to disperse along the hills and rivers of New England. One of the most important migrations from the mother colony was led by the great Thomas Hooker to Hartford, Connecticut. Hooker was the most famous of all the English preachers to make the journey to New England. He was a learned scholar, widely published, and his preaching had electrified the English countryside, winning converts by the thousands. As Perry Miller recounts in his book, Errand Into the Wilderness, Samuel Collins, an agent of Archbishop Laud, warned in 1629 that Hooker had become too powerful, and threatened to undermine the established church: "I . . . have seen the people idolizing many new ministers and lecturers; but this man surpasses them all for learning. . . [and] gains more and far greater followers than all before him." Hooker was forced into exile. He traveled first to Holland and then, following the example of the Mayflower Pilgrims, made the holy pilgrimage to Massachusetts Bay. But even after his departure from England, Collins acknowledged that Hooker's "genius" still "haunts all the pulpits."

Hooker and Winthrop were good friends, which is why Winthrop was so bitterly disappointed when Hooker petitioned the General Court to allow his congregation to move to Connecticut. Winthrop argued that Hooker was breaking the covenant by leaving the colony. Moreover, said Winthrop, it was unwise for Christians to so divide themselves, leaving themselves open to attack from the Indians and perhaps even the British Navy:"The departure of Mr. Hooker would not only draw many from us, but also divert many friends who would come to us." But Winthrop apparently lost the argument, at least as far as Hooker's people were concerned. Whether Hooker got permission from the Massachusetts General Court to leave is not clear. In his May 1636 journal entry, Winthrop notes, without elaboration, that "Mr. Hooker, Pastor of the Church at Newtown, and most of his congregation, went to Connecticut."

As Perry Miller points out, Hooker was more radical in his Protestant beliefs than Winthrop. Though he was not himself an avowed Separatist, he had many Separatist followers. Hooker's views on the congregational polity were essentially democratic, and are explained in his great work, A Survey of the Summe of Church Discipline. We have only fragments of his Survey, as the bulk of the manuscript was lost in a trip across the Atlantic on the way to England for publication. It was intended as a manifesto, explaining Hooker's views on a congregational polity. His hope was to persuade the Church of England to organize itself along congregational instead of episcopal lines, and also to explain to English Church officials what he was doing in New England, which in essence was to demonstrate how he believed a truly Christian society ought to operate. The English Church, predictably, condemned as heretical Hooker's apologetics on behalf of "liberty of conscience.

Thomas Hooker is considered by many to have played the role of John the Baptist for Thomas Jefferson in the sense that he laid the foundation for American republican democracy. Again, though, Hooker's primary concern was not politics, but the establishment of assemblies of worship resembling the churches found in the Book of Acts. Indeed, this was the consistent pattern behind the settlement of New England, with each colony attempting to create a more pristine Christian society, and each founder, usually a minister, trying to "out-Protestantize" everyone else. Hooker, for example, apparently felt that Winthrop's efforts in Massachusetts Bay had fallen short of the mark. According to Cotton Mather, "The very spirit of his [Hooker's] ministry lay in the points of the most practical religion, and the grand concern of a sinner's preparation for, and implantation in, and salvation by, the glorious Lord Jesus Christ."

By May 1637, the inhabitants of Connecticut were holding their own General Court. Hooker, unlike Bradford and Winthrop, did not keep a journal. So the facts of his Hartford ministry are fragmentary, derived from letters and notes taken by those who heard him. His most famous sermon, delivered before the Connecticut General Court on May 31, 1638, inspired the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, which was the first written constitution in America, and very much resembles our own Federal Constitution. Direct quotes are impossible to reconstruct exactly, as they exist in a barely decipherable journal, written by 28-year-old Henry Wolcott. But the essence of Hooker's Election Day sermon was as follows:

  1. The choice of public magistrates belongs unto the people by God's own allowance.
  2. The election must be conducted by the people, but votes should not be cast "in accord with their humors, but according to the will and law of God."
  3. Those who "have the power to appoint officers and magistrates also have the power to set bounds and limitations on their power" so that "the foundation of authority is laid in the free consent of the people," because "by a free choice the hearts of the people will be more inclined to the love of the persons chosen, and more ready to yieldobedience."

On January 14, 1639, the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut were adopted. The deliberations of the assembly have perished, but, as Marion Starkey points out in her book, The Congregational Way, the principles are a mirror of the mind of Thomas Hooker. The Fundamental Orders included many provisions essential to free and open government. Each town was to have proportional representation, and each was to send its elected representatives to the government in Hartford. In the event that the governor failed to call a meeting of the General Court, or attempted to govern contrary to established laws, the freemen were entitled to "meet together and choose to themselves a moderator," after which they "may proceed to do any act of power which any other general court may do." This was an important affirmation that the power of government resided with the people, not the magistrates. Always stressed was the voluntary nature of the covenant the people were entering into, that the purpose of government was to serve, not rule, the people, and that to do this the administration of government must be regular and orderly, not arbitrary: "The Word of God requires that to maintain the peace and union of such people there should be an orderly and decent government established according to God, in order to dispose of the affairs of the people."

The Fundamental Orders of Connecticut was the most advanced government charter the world had ever seen in terms of guaranteeing individual rights. But while certainly the effect of the charter was to ensure the establishment of free and democratic government, its primary purpose in the minds of the people of Connecticut was to establish a commonwealth according to God's laws and to create an environment conducive to spreading the Gospel: We "therefore associate and conjoin ourselves to be as one public state or commonwealth; and to do for ourselves and our successors and such as shall be adjoined to us at any time hereafter, enter into a combination and confederation together, to maintain and preserve the liberty and purity of the Gospel of our Lord Jesus which we now profess, as also the discipline of the churches, which according to the truth of the said Gospel is now practiced amongst us; as also in our civil aifairs to be guided and governed according to such laws..."

The Fundamental Orders of Connecticut represented the first known time when a working government was framed com pletely independently, without a charter or some other concession from a previously existing regime, but by the people themselves. It provided for regular elections, while setting strict limits on the power of those elected. In Massachusetts, the franchise was limited to proven church members, "visible saints." In Connecticut, however, voters merely had to be inhabitants of "honest conversation," according to Perry Miller, though they could not be Quakers, Jews, or Atheists. Elected officials had to be property owners, believers in the Trinity, and of good behavior. And the governor had to be a member in good standing of an approved congregation. Today, these requirements would seem severe, but in the 17th century such an easygoing regime was unprecedented.

Hooker criticized other New England congregations for being too quick to censure and excommunicate. His impulse was always to lower standards for church membership, believing it was far better to let in a few "hypocrites" than mistakenly to exclude true Christians. "He that will estrange his affection, because of the difference of apprehension in things difficult, he must be a stranger to himself one time or other," wrote Hooker in the preface to his Survey. "If men would be tender and careful to keep off offensive expressions, they might keep some distance in opinion in some things without hazard to truth or love." Hooker thought church discipline should be as uncoercive as possible. During his entire ministry only one person was excommunicated.

All this, however, does not mean that Hooker was a theological liberal; far from it. Hooker believed with Paul the Apostle that Scripture was absolutely inerrant - "All Scripture is inspired by God . . . "(2 Tim. 3:16)-and that for every act of church government a specific chapter and verse must be cited. No church officer was to act according to his own discretion, but had to point to a biblical mandate. This approach lent itself to the creation of constitutional government. For God is not a capricious ruler, but spells out in clear terms the laws His people are to follow and the conditions for eternal life. By reading the Bible, one can know exactly where one stands with regard to salvation, or damnation.

Though Hooker was a democrat who believed fervently in protecting the people's right to be wrong, he was not anything approaching a moral relativist. Not only did he believe there was a definite right and wrong, he also believed there was one, and only one, way to Heaven. In a long sermon on the prodigal son, Hooker described man without Christ as damned and undeserving of mercy. "If the Lord may damn him, He may, and if He will save him, He may." Moreover, good works could not save man from his fiery fate, because every good work would be canceled out by a hundred sins: "You cleave to these poor beggarly duties and (alas) you will perish for hunger." "The Devil slides into the heart unexpected and unseen because he comes under a color of duties exactly performed . . . Salvation comes from faith in Christ, or as John 14:6 says: "Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me."' But, as Hooker put it, Christ came "not to call the righteous, that is men who look loftily in regard to what they do Christ came to call and save the poor broken-hearted sinners."

Hooker was convinced, however, that more sinners would be saved in a forgiving society than under the more regimented Massachusetts Bay, and certainly more than in England under the watchful eye of Archbishop Laud, where outward appearance (rather than genuine conversion) determined whether one was an Anglican in good standing.

Though God Himself is infinitely humane, as illustrated in the Gospel when Jesus forgives Mary Magdalene and heals the sick, Hooker warned that "mercy will never save you unless it rules you too." This idea became the underlying principle of Connecticut's government. It also established a tradition of American generosity and mercy unparalleled in history. German soldiers at the end of World War II, for example, threw their rifles down and eagerly surrendered to the American side rather than risk capture by the Russians. And after defeating them in war, America rebuilt Japan and West Germany's industrial base at enormous expense. No other people have been as magnanimous toward its enemies as has the American people, though we have often paid dearly for what most of the world would consider hopeless naivete. Mercy, forgiveness, and almost limitless charity are distinctly American characteristics that can be traced to the heart of Puritan society in 17th-century New England.

The Puritan respect for the importance of the individual soul - which included the non-Christian soul - was essential for the development of American constitutional democracy. Jesus taught that with God not one sparrow is forgotten, which is a major difference between Christianity and the pantheistic religions of the East, such as Hinduism, in which nature is god. In pantheistic religions, all of nature is part of one unified living organism, in contrast to the Christian view in which every individual is sacred and distinct, and is, therefore, to be treated with utmost reverence. This was especially true of Puritanism, the focus of which was the conversion experience, and the personal relationship to Christ. For the Puritan, the soul was the stage on which the spiritual drama occurred, and where, in the end, he was saved or damned depending on the decision he made to accept or reject Christ's offer of salvation. The decision for Christ marked a crucial turning point, and was the beginning of a transformation of the individual. Some, indeed Christ Himself, called this transforming experience being "born again." It was the first step on a radically new journey. Thus, we can see why Thomas Hooker thought "liberty of conscience" so critical to the biblical commonwealth. Salvation was a matter between the individual and God, not the individual and the state. One did not move one inch closer to Heaven when forced to pray.

The role of the state, in Hooker's mind, was to permit God's grace to easily penetrate the individual heart, to create social conditions in which all Christians could be priests; and this brings up another point of vital importance. These Protestants did not want to eliminate the priesthood, as is commonly suggested; they wanted to expand the franchise to include all believers. The Protestant believes he has direct access to God through Scripture and prayer, and that the Holy Spirit will steer him clear from serious error. As John's Gospel states: "When He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth" (John 16:13). It is everyone's duty, thought Hooker, to preach and baptize. Moreover, if all believers could be priests, then all people could also be rulers. If the spiritual franchise could be expanded, then so could the political franchise.

The existence of Hooker's colony, its ability to attract settlers, and its constitutional protection of individual liberties put pressure on Massachusetts Bay to adopt a more formal constitution of its own. Winthrop, of course, wanted regular elections. But once elected, he thought it was up to the magistrates to make decisions according to their own interpretation of the Bible. Hooker, however, took issue with Winthrop, thinking it gave the Bay government too much discretion. Hooker recognized that many civil matters were not explicitly covered in Scripture, which meant that laws had to be carefully crafted after much deliberation and by following Scriptural principles: "That in the matter which is referred to the judge, the sentence should lie in his breast, or be left to his discretion, according to which he should go, I am afraid it is a course which wants for both safety and warrant," said Hooker. "I must confess, I look at it as a way which leads directly to tyranny, and so to confusion, and must plainly profess, it was my liberty, I should choose neither to live nor leave my posterity under such a government."

The voters of Massachusetts agreed with Hooker, that the colony needed to codify a formal body of law, provide for due process, and delineate specific penalties for particular offenses. As John Cotton put it, "If you tether a beast at night, he knows the length of the tether by morning." At first Winthrop resisted the movement to further restrict the government on the grounds that magistrates ought to have flexibility to deal with situations as they came up. But in the end he gave in, acknowledging in a journal entry in 1639 that "the people . .. desired a body of laws, and thought their condition very unsafe while so much power rested in the discretion of magistrates."

The Massachusetts "Body of Liberties," drawn up by Nathaniel Ward of Ipswich, was passed in 1641. It included 98 specific propositions, the purpose of which were to protect what they considered to be the sanctity of life, liberty, property, and reputation - foreshadowing the Bill of Rights. This historic charter declared it a violation of common law to impose taxation without representation; said that no one shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law; and guaranteed the right of the accused to be tried by a jury of one's peers. The "Body of Liberties" also forbade cruel and unusual punish-ment, the mistreatment of animals, and the beating of one's wife, "unless it be in his own defense upon her assault"! In 1644, the Bay adopted the secret ballot, with Indian corn representing aye votes and beans signifying the nayes.

The immense contribution the Puritans of New England made to the world's understanding of how to write a constitution cannot be overstated. When one studies the precise nature of the laws crafted by these early assemblies, and considers the sophisticated level of political discourse, one cringes in shame to witness the sheer ignorance displayed in congressional debates today. We hear many references to lofty phrases like "inalienable rights" and "general welfare" by our demagogic politicians who have little demonstrated understanding of what these terms mean.

The Puritans of colonial America had an understanding of freedom that was far in advance of our own. They saw, for example, that the spirit of freedom and the spirit of Christianity reinforced each other. But they also understood that religious and civil authority operated in separate spheres. They had started to recognize, before any other nation, that the Holy Spirit did not need His power enhanced by government officials; that to have the government engaged in the regulation of matters religious was more often than not to put hypocrites in charge of the moral health of the people, and thus actually undermined the cause of Christianity. Winthrop and Hooker consistently pointed out that Jesus is perfectly content with the power He already wields. He did not ride into Jerusalem with an army, He came on a donkey. His authority rests in His Spirit convicting men's hearts, not in His wish to see people burned at the stake for disputing an ecclesiastical pronouncement. Though it is true that much New England law came directly from the Old and New Testaments,1 the tendency of the Puritans was to erect a wall of separation between the responsibilities of church and state, to paraphrase Jefferson. They saw the roles of magistrates and clergy as distinct, which is why ministers in Puritan New England were prohibited from holding a civil office.

But the Puritans also believed that liberty would not survive unless it was firmly grounded in a healthy fear of God and a spirit of Christian charity. For if a man is not restrained by fear for his soul, what is to prevent him from pursuing his own interests at the expense of everyone else? A large chasm exists between what is lawful and what is ethical. And while the policeman and the courts can punish people for committing egregious offenses against society, only religion can regulate the more subtle area of morals. Government's highest responsibility is to safeguard liberty, while salvation is the supreme aim of the individual. Moreover, for a people to remain free, they must vigilantly attend to matters concerning their character and souls. The citizen must pursue with diligence not just his own interests, but the interests of his neighbor.

John Winthrop, as much as any, embodied this ideal. He was charitable beyond reasonable expectation, and frequently sacrificed his own welfare for the good of the community. When the Massachusetts treasury was out of funds, he donated the proceeds from the sale of his Groton Manor to pay public expenses. When he saw others in need, he gave them money, food, and shelter from his own resources. His generosity toward others was unsurpassed, yet he was so frugal and austere concerning his own comforts that his friends often called his attention to Paul's admonition to Timothy, who apparently had a similar disposition: "No longer drink water," says Paul, "but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach . . . " (1 Tim. 5:23). John Winthrop was a superior man of impeccable character. William Hubbard, an early historian of Massachusetts Bay, provided us an appropriate summary of Winthrop's life: He "had done good in Israel, having spent not only his whole estate. . . but his bodily strength and life in the service of the country." Winthrop saw clearly that as self-sacrifice was an essential Christian trait, so self-sacrifice was also vital to the preservation of liberty and independence.

What we see emerging in early New England, almost un- noticed, was an utterly new political culture. Alexis de Tocqueville saw this clearly, and compares the conditions of Europe with those of New England in 1650: "Everywhere on the Continent at the beginning of the 17th century absolute monarchies stood triumphantly on the ruins of the feudal or oligarchic freedom of the Middle Ages. Amid the brilliance of the literary achievements of Europe, then, the conception of rights was perhaps never more completely misunderstood at any other time; liberty had never been less in men's minds. And just at that time these very principles, unknown to or scorned by the nations of Europe, were proclaimed in the wilderness of the New World, where they were to become the watchwords of a great people."

* * *

The Puritans knew that conditions of political and economic well-being depended on an educated population. The American belief that every citizen must have a certain amount of education, and a certain degree of literacy and mathematical competency, is a Puritan legacy. In Europe, education, especially advanced education, was limited to the extreme upper crust of society. The lower classes, it was thought, were unfit to be put through schools. Education in Europe was to be reserved for the ruling class. Oxford and Cambridge were England's only two universities.

In the Puritan mind literacy was important not only to ensure a reasonably informed electorate, essential for the survival of democratic government; but it also played an important role in the individual's walk with the Lord. The Puritans stressed the individuals personal relationship with Jesus. To read the Bible or follow the logic of a sermon requires a certain familiarity with basic concepts. That a religious movement, which shunned philosophy, was strictly fundamentalist, and believed completely in the inerrancy of Scripture, produced the most educated nation of people the world had ever seen is one of the remarkable paradoxes, and lessons, of history.

The building of schools was one of the first orders of business when Winthrop and his followers arrived in Massachusetts. Puritan dissidents from Cambridge and Oxford provided excel-lent teachers. By 1640, there were 113 men with university educations living in New England, and 71 in Massachusetts. This was a much larger concentration of educated men than could be found in England, or anywhere else. The Puritans thought it vi-tally important that every congregation have a learned pastor who could inspire, point out doctrinal errors, and defeat the forces of darkness. The Massachusetts School Act of 1647 stated:"It being the chief project of that old deluder Satan to keep men from knowledge of the Scriptures, as in former times keeping them in an unknown tongue, so that in these latter times, by persuading them from the use of tongues, so that at least, the true sense and meaning of the original might be clouded with false glosses of saint seeming deceivers; and that learning may not be buried in the grave of our forefathers, in church and commonwealth, the Lord assisting our endeavors."

Harvard was founded in 1636, after newly arrived John Harvard donated 777 pounds and a library of 400 volumes for the purpose of training Puritan ministers. King Charles had effectively purged the Puritans from the English universities. Hence the need to establish a second Cambridge. "The main end of the scholar's life and studies," said the Harvard Rules and Precepts, "is to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternal life. Therefore, to lay Christ in the bottom is the only foundation of all sound knowledge and harmony." In addition to reading the Scriptures, history, literature, and theology, Harvard students were expected to achieve proficiency in mathematics and the sciences: calculus, geometry, astronomy. Knowledge in every area, for the Puritan, far from undermining his religious faith, served to magnify God's glory and always shed new light on the maguificence of His creation. Scholarship and scientific inquiry aided the Harvard student in searching out the Holy Spirit.

The founding of Harvard was yet another Puritan chal- lenge to royal authority. In England, the king had monopolistic power over the granting of degrees, as Oxford and Cambridge were arms of the government and private alternatives were illegal. Harvard had no royal charter, and hence no authority in King Charles' mind to award college diplomas. But the Puritans in the Bay did not recognize the King's education monopoly, and Harvard granted its first degree in 1642. The fact that Harvard continued to award college diplomas despite official protests from England was, in effect, an affirmation of New England's independence from Crown rule. Harvard's existence was a perpetual source of irritation to royal authorities, particularly since more than half of its graduates during the 17th century became ministers of a dissident faith.

The construction of a printing press in 1639 in Harvard Yard allowed the proliferation of publications, mostly sermons, Psalm books, and almanacs. This material was viewed as subversive by officials in England, as it clearly did not conform to the Book of Common Prayer. Obvious from the start was the Puritan penchant for rebellion against British rule, and particularly against impositions from the English Church. But King Charles could do little about transgressions in New England, as he had his hands more than occupied with the increasingly powerful Puritan movement at home. As a result, New England operated for the most part as an independent nation, and continued to evolve into a new and distinctive society, consciously and defiantly creating itseff.

New England's reputation as a center of American learning is a legacy of the Puritan stress on diffusing knowledge as broadly as possible. Yale was established in 1701, also for the purpose of training Congregational clergy, in response to the emergence at Harvard2 of what some thought to be erroneous Arminian theology (that opposed strict Calvinist predestination, but favored election and salvation by grace).3 The two universities found themselves in competition with each other for students and introduced for the first time market forces to higher learning. The effect was to encourage very low tuition. It is more profitable for an institution to educate many at less cost per student than to admit only the few who could afford an expensive education. Hence, college tuition in the colonies was about one-tenth what it cost to educate someone at Oxford or Cambridge. At Dartmouth, established by another Congregational minister to bring the Gospel to the Indians, it was common for students to work their way through college. The result of this uniquely American approach to education was to spread, rather than deepen, knowledge. And while the quality of education was less than what, say, an earl or duke might receive from Oxford, it brought the possibility of higher education to the general population-in contrast to England and the Old World, where the opportunity for schooling of even the most elementary soft was non-existent for the great majority of people.

In the Puritan view, the purpose of education was not to groom the children of a ruling aristocracy in order to set them apart from the general population, but to supply the communities with knowledgeable ministers, doctors, teachers, lawyers, businessmen, and civic leaders. Education in New England was not to be a special privilege limited to a few, but a vehicle to elevate everyone in the community. The proliferation of schools and the availability of instruction made it impossible for a powerful aristocracy to establish itself in New England. It should be obvious why this development, Puritan in origin, was so essential to the emergence of democracy in America. As Tocqueville observed, "In America it is religion which leads to enlightenment and the observance of divine laws which leads men to liberty." Government by the people requires an educated people, which helps explain why democratic experiments in the Third World in recent years have mostly failed.

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Published by the Christian Defense Fund.
© Copyright 1997 by the Christian Defense Fund. All rights reserved.

© Copyright 1988, Benjamin Hart