Godly Republicanism: Puritans, Pilgrims, and a City on a Hill

By Michael P. Winship

Harvard University Press, 2012, 340pp.

When scholars rediscovered the Puritans in the twentieth century, many of them took cues from the century before. Following the lead of Alexis de Tocqueville, Lyman Beecher, and Rufus Choate, they cast the Puritans as central players in Whig histories of liberty and democracy. Some dissented by casting the Puritan legacy as one of authoritarianism. H. L. Mencken, for example, reflected this contrarian attitude when he famously defined Puritanism as The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” Others dissented by asserting that Anglo-American republicanism traced its lineage from ancient or early modern secular sources and not from early modern English churchmen. Many found that J. G. A. Pocock’s Machiavellian Moment conclusively made this case. Such disagreement has had the salutary effect of encouraging more scholars to reexamine their assumptions about who read what, when, why, and how.

Michael Winship has boldly entered this controversy by titling his study of Puritans and Pilgrims Godly Republicanism. As you can probably figure out from the title, Winship asserts an important heritage for what he calls the “applied sacred political theory” articulated by Puritans and separatists in particular. (More on that distinction in a moment.) Puritans, Winship argues, were motivated by “fear of tyrannical power” as well as “the dread of the corrupting effects of power” and “the fear of one-man rule.” Such fear, Winship argues, motivated them to institutionalize both “the consent of the people” as well as “balanced government” (4‒5). In short, though dissenting English churchmen did not call themselves republicans, and admittedly preferred terms like “commonwealth” or “biblical” in describing their political ideas, they were essentially republicans. So, contra the thesis that only secular republicanism is consequential, Winship is asserting a legacy for “godly republicanism” in the development of political theory. Second, Winship’s title reminds us to distinguish Puritans, a term often used to describe nonseparating dissenting Anglicans, from “Pilgrims,” those Anglicans who ultimately separated from the Church of England and founded Plymouth Colony. And though the distinction between nonseparatists and separatists is dynamic and imprecise for specialists, it is a distinction necessary to sustain Winship’s thesis and to keep generalists from getting lost in the weeds of his argument.

As a contrarian and comprehensive study of separatist ecclesiastical theory, the book is remarkable. His use of transatlantic archives is impressive. His command of the secondary sources is exceptional. (If you think Winship rushes in where angels fear to tread, check his footnotes.) Winship’s primary opponent is Perry Miller, who argued in Orthodoxy in Massachusetts, 1630‒1650 (pub. 1933) that Plymouth’s separatists were ultimately irrelevant for the development of Massachusetts’s civil and ecclesiastical polity. Before Miller, Winship argues, “claiming that Plymouth played a major role in the creation of Massachusetts congregationalism would have been to state the obvious” (158). Winship is therefore in an implicit conversation with historians who followed in Miller’s footsteps and likewise debated importance of the Plymouth colony for the development of the more prominent Massachusetts Bay Colony. Subsequent scholars considering the relationship of Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay include Edmund S. Morgan, Stephen Foster, Darren Staloff, and Dwight Bozeman, for example. Since Miller, most historians argued that separatism was essentially sterile rather than seminal in its political influence. On larger questions of the political nature of Puritanism and separatism more generally, Winship is also engaging (implicitly or explicitly) prominent scholars such as Patrick Collinson, Quentin Skinner, Peter Lake, and Conrad Russell.

Winship constructs a detailed and careful narrative beginning with Elizabethan Puritans, whose plans for reformation of the English church (and therefore the English nation) were largely presbyterial in orientation. That is, they desired rule of the churches by associations of elders rather than hierarchies of bishops. Winship summarizes the political reasoning of the presbyterial scheme when he writes, “Presbyterianism needed to be enacted because it was God’s New Testament mandate, but the reason God mandated it in the first place was that it provided a dynamic vehicle for actively resisting the corrupting effects of power” (22). This Presbyterian prescription for reformation via decentralized power, Winship argues, was not only identical to classical republicanism but was validated by using terms drawn from classical political theory (24). Some reformers argued that England itself was essentially a republic, albeit a monarchical republic. Few reformers accommodated the bishops into presbyterial schemes; most wanted them eliminated entirely. Opponents of the presbyterial plan called it seditious, discerning the implicit (though rarely explicit) threat against both monarchy and civil authority over the church. Reformers countered that rather than subverting the law, they were upholding it. William Bradshaw, for example, asserted that it was bishops who had stolen power from the king (76‒80). Of course, that conclusion was an indictment of the king for failing to defend his rights; it was not a defense of the king. Launching an argument that would last at least two centuries and that would cross the ocean to America, reformers argued that the British constitution and rule of law had to be protected against “popish” elements that would subvert it. (Protestants for two centuries thereafter would still consider “popery” synonymous with lawlessness and arbitrary power.)

As the quest for reform progressed, its more radical elements demanded not only an end of episcopal government but also the right and duty to separate from the Church of England. Beginning with Henry Barrow, dissenting reformers argued that even Presbyterianism was not enough. Elder rule in synods, separatists like Barrow argued, was no better than rule by bishops. Only self-rule by congregations, without oversight by clerical councils or synods, would protect churches from ecclesiastical tyranny. Barrow understood such Christian liberty not as a privilege but as a dreadful responsibility (56). Opponents found it dreadful as well, but in a different way; the separatist argument was obviously pregnant with seditious implication and Barrow was hanged for his trouble. Henry Jacob, another separatist, later argued explicitly for what he called “free, mutual consent” among the “people”—though he was referring only to churches. The political link was implicit. Not only did bishops menace the crown, Jacob argued; they violated the law (83‒84). His manuscript catechism used both secular political ideas as well as the Bible to advance a social contract theory that his opponents reviled. Those who insisted on this kind of self-rule by congregations are often called “independents” or “congregationalists” today, though such labels are often more convenient than precise.

Adherents to congregational self-rule engaged in dizzying hermeneutical debates. For example, what is meant by “the church” in Matthew 18:17? Was the sin of an offending member to be confronted by elders alone or by the entire congregation? Many separatists insisted that it was to be the entire congregation, obviously suggesting that all authority rested with church members at large. Increasingly, the definition of a church (whose ministers must be invested by Christ with power) necessitated voluntary covenanting among examined believers. Examined believers were those who gave evidence of their conversion by some combination of doctrinal orthodoxy and righteous living. Increasingly, examined believers were expected to also renounce the corruption of the Church of England and their association with it. Those living in true faith agonized over their relationship to their former church. Was the converting work of the Holy Spirit present at all in the Church of England? Could one have fellowship with nonseparating churches without spiritual and moral compromise? Could one hear a sermon in a nonseparating church? Receive the sacraments? Winship’s detailed presentation of the varieties of separatism in England, Holland, and America is most impressive (though generalists may find it tedious).

Outright persecution or disappointment with the slow pace of reform under the Stuarts drove separatists from England to the continent or to America. Winship provides an extensive analysis of the ecclesiastical ideas of the Plymouth settlers, but his larger argument is ultimately about Massachusetts Bay. (His main argument begins in chapter six.) Winthrop’s famous “City on a Hill” idea did not suggest settlers confident in their theological-political ideas and prepared to be a transatlantic example; instead, they were fearful of their heavy responsibility before God to get it right (172‒73). Winship argues that the Massachusetts Bay settlers arrived with no clear resolution to thorny dilemmas about either their relationship to the Church of England or church polity in general. Winship demonstrates that the Massachusetts Bay founders did not intend to call ministers with separatist leanings and that this suggests the absence of separatist convictions among them. Rather, they became separatists thanks to political and ecclesiastical ideas of prior settlers in Plymouth (i.e., the “Pilgrims”). This influence of Plymouth separatism on Massachusetts Bay came by way of churches in Salem.

Proving that the Massachusetts Bay colonists did not initially believe in separatist ecclesiology requires some speculation by Winship to prove a negative, but he is convincing. Salem’s congregation denied the sacrament to anyone of Winthrop’s company except those of acceptable separatist congregations in England. Such exclusion demonstrated Salem’s own separatist convictions that a true Christian must repent of association with the Church of England. John Cotton, still in England at this time and not yet convinced of separatism, wrote a letter of protest to defend the true faith of his emigrating parishioners and their right to the sacrament. He accused Salem’s minister, Samuel Skelton, of adhering to ideas “sprung from new-Plimouth-men” (147). Winship argues that Plymouth Colony, “far from being pathetically unimportant, was the exemplar and catalyst for Massachusetts’s congregationalism” (135). Even Cotton’s own eventual turn toward congregationalism, Winship asserts, is owed to Massachusetts (and ultimately Plymouth) rather than to influences from the continent (Holland). Winship concludes that there is good evidence that at least four of the five first churches on the shores of Massachusetts Bay, Plymouth, Salem, Boston/Charlestown, and Watertown were broadly congregationalist (153). All of this was owed to Plymouth, Winship argues; the odds of Massachusetts “hitting upon their particular version of congregationalism are not entirely unlike those of monkeys typing Shakespeare” (158).

What followed in Massachusetts Bay was “godly republicanism.” John Cotton’s 1640 preaching on the book of Revelation (directed against Charles I) provides important insight here. Winship summarizes Cotton’s three political principles as follows: 1) rulers are prone to abuse their power; 2) the people have the right to supervise their rulers; and 3) a Christian government’s relationship to God’s people is the ultimate test of its soundness (184). In Cotton’s proposed (but rejected) law code of 1636 for Massachusetts Bay (Moses His Judicialls), Cotton described the Hebrew polity as a “republic.” The Massachusetts colony’s desire to execute a scheme of self-government was evident even before the migration, however. In a stunning bit of political gamesmanship, the founders of Massachusetts Bay succeeded in obtaining colonial self-rule simply by having physical possession of their own charter. The Bay Company’s government became its local administration and therefore was not beholden to government from England (except insofar as any chartered corporation was subject to law). By the legal terms of the charter, the general court empowered by shareholders (or freemen) admitted new shareholders and implemented new laws. Elections by freemen determined the governor and council of assistants. The franchise (freemanship) was almost immediately extended to nonshareholding settlers, however, to dilute the power of the assistants. Freemanship was extended only to church members, however. Therefore, the polity resembled the church in character and constituency as much as possible. Voting members had been examined for evidence of conversion as members of congregations. Having passed that test of virtue and wisdom, and therefore able to decide ecclesiastical matters, they were qualified to decide political questions as well. Thus, Massachusetts would become a godly polity filled with “honest” men—“honest” being a term used in English political discourse to describe a man sensitive to the threat of tyranny (197). Just as good Christians in Massachusetts were presumed to be sensitive to ecclesiastical tyranny, they were also expected to be sensitive to civil tyranny.

Why was the form of government in Massachusetts so comparatively democratic? As David Hall has argued, only the Levellers imagined a polity more threatening to majesty or executive power, and the Levellers never got to put those ideas into practice. This dilution of the court’s power has been dismissed by modern scholars as a pragmatic gesture responding to popular pressure, but Winship rightly points out that such a bottom-up explanation is pure speculation. There is no surviving evidence of such pressure. Neither does Winship accept the more idealistic interpretation that extending the franchise was the civil equivalent of ecclesiastical covenanting. He instead takes the reasonable route of looking to the general court’s official historian and his explanation provided in the 1670s: making the assistants responsible to an electorate put a check on ambition and the use of power. This was no different than how congregationalism preserved “the liberty of the people” and prevented “entrenching thereon by the power of their rulers.” William Hubbard, the colony’s historian, asserted that such a precaution was built into the 1629 charter of Massachusetts Bay (187‒88). Winship concludes that the colonists were precisely what their opponents suspected of them: they were republicans.

What is more, Massachusetts Bay colonists considered themselves a free state. As early as 1634, the colony was prepared to defend itself against invasion by forces from Great Britain. Word spread to the colony that the Privy Council had ordered them to return their charter. Rumors claimed that soldiers prepared to sail not only to retrieve the charter but also to place the colony under the discipline of the Church of England. The willingness of four thousand colonists to fight a war against the king rested on justifications both novel and familiar to any good Englishman. And though the threat dissipated, notions of independence did not. From 1634 onward, freemen and nonfreemen took oaths of loyalty to the colony and its government with no mention of the king (203).

Alas, the separatist dream of congregational autonomy was soon confronted by the reality of dissent among the dissenters. Rebels such as Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams (heroes to the contemporary historians who cast Puritans as authoritarians) forced the question of just how far autonomy could go. Williams posed a particularly vexing argument, asserting that separatists had not gone far enough from the civil and ecclesiastical corruptions of England. Declensions in piety that came with time and immigration were addressed not simply by individual congregations but by ad hoc clerical councils. The most famous of these councils, the synod of 1662, advised churches to administer baptism to children of members even if they were “half-way” members (baptized only) rather than full members (examined for doctrine and behavior). Such a solution not only threatened the ideal of the “gathered church” of baptized believers, it was proposed by a clerical synod that implicitly threatened congregational autonomy. The entire “republican” experiment eventually lost its charter in 1683. New Haven, the separatist biblical polity founded by John Davenport, had been previously absorbed by Connecticut in 1665. And though the Glorious Revolution would free the colonies from the Andros administration that they hated, it also brought a final end to the godly republic: the franchise could no longer be restricted to church members.

Returning to the argument implicit in Winship’s title, did this “godly republicanism” of the separatist model have influence on subsequent generations? New England’s leaders had high hopes for their legacy, particularly during Cromwell’s republic. Some separatists such as Hugh Peter returned to England from North America and were caught up in the civil wars. (Peter was later executed as a regicide.) All hope for godly republicanism collapsed with the Restoration, however. And if Puritanism did not end with the Restoration, it certainly ended with the Glorious Revolution and its enforcement of religious toleration. Winship attempts to rescue the separatist legacy by closing with a short study of Algernon Sidney. Winship compares Sidney’s work of the 1660s with his more famous Discourses of the 1680s, asserting parallels between Sidney’s more obscure Court Maxims and the historical and apocalyptic rhetoric of separatists. He summarizes the comparison saying “Court Maxims was about why the tiny number of predestinated saints should overthrow tyrants; Discourses was about why everyone else should join in” (243). This, we are to conclude, makes the republicanism of Sidney indebted to the ecclesiastical controversies of the decades preceding him. If Sidney owed something to separatist political arguments, and we owe something to Sidney . . . you get the picture. This is a provocative argument, and it appeared previously in The Journal of British Studies. But it seems tacked on as the concluding chapter of this book. One should not accuse Winship of claiming too much, however. He is circumspect and hedges his claims with statements like “the similarities between Sidney and the Massachusetts founders are as striking as the differences” (245).

Despite such hedging, Winship’s motivation is sound and his argument that serious ecclesiastical and civil republicanism existed in England (and America) long before the English Whigs is powerful. Questions of civil and ecclesiastical polity were intertwined in theory and practice in the transatlantic seventeenth century, if for no other reason than that civil and ecclesiastical authority (and enforcement) often overlapped. Any intelligent political theorist of the age would know that churches were ubiquitous laboratories for political practice. “Republican” ecclesiastical convictions were therefore consequential for the civil polity. Separatists and Puritans proved this in Britain and America, confirming the worst fears of opponents who charged them with undermining the status quo.

When we call these theologians and churchmen “republican,” however, what kind of republicanism are we talking about, exactly? Winship acknowledges that men of the seventeenth century did not look kindly on republicanism of the democratic sort. Many of his subjects would have preferred the term “commonwealth” insofar as “republican” was vexing for those lacking confidence in popular virtue or approval. The earliest reformers, if they were republican at all, believed in a monarchical republic. “Republic” to them meant the rule of law and corresponding accountability of rulers. But it did not take long for Reformed Protestants to move from episcopal government to presbyterial government and finally to congregational government. And if local rule by consent was the best remedy against tyranny in the church, why not also in the state? Winship demonstrates that this was the outcome in Massachusetts. According to the colony’s own history, the motive for a more democratic civil polity was motivated by the same arguments for a democratic church.

But can we expect pious republicanism of the seventeenth century to have much in common with republicanism in the more freethinking and secular eighteenth century? Is this not a bridge too far? It was not a bridge too far for Montesquieu or Voltaire. Montesquieu himself argued in L’Esprit des Lois, 24.5: “the Catholic religion better suits a monarchy and the Protestant religion is better adapted to a republic.” (As if to agree, the Roman Church’s leadership put Montesquieu’s magnum opus on its index of forbidden books.) Perhaps Montesquieu was taking his cue from the previous century; those who persecuted the Huguenots, much like those who persecuted English Puritans and separatists, charged them with republicanism. Voltaire endorsed that charge (though not the accompanying persecution) in his discussion of Huguenots in Le Siècle de Louis XIV of 1751.

So, despite the merits of Pocock and the perils of Whig history (which Winship acknowledges), Godly Republicanism reminds us that we must not “fence off church government from political history” in our own studies of political theory. Early modern Anglo-American political ideas came from a variety of sources—Hebrew, Greek, Roman, Christian, and early modern. It was refined in many kinds of crucibles, including ecclesiastical movements for reform and revival. Rather than mislead ourselves with imaginary dichotomies, we must realize that the historical record remains before us and it has no airtight compartments. We must therefore take Winship’s cue and revisit again the sources of republicanism, broadly considered. Godly Republicanism enables rapprochement among historians trapped in exclusive historiographies and reminds political theorists of the influential world of political texts to be found outside their usual textual canon.


Glenn Moots is Professor of Political Science and Philosophy and Director of the Forum for Citizenship and Enterprise at Northwood University in Midland, Michigan. A much briefer edition of this review was part of a multibook review essay in the Christians in Political Science newsletter.