Theocracy in New England

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THEOCRACY IN NEW ENGLAND. This term was applied to the political regimes established in the Massachusetts Bay and New Haven colonies. These colonies were not theocracies in the traditional sense—that is, clergy did not establish or run their political systems. In both colonies, there was a clear separation of church and state. In Massachusetts, for instance, clergy were forbidden to hold public office, and both colonies maintained separate systems of political and religious leadership. But it was also the case that these political and religious systems were mutually reinforcing, and that early leaders hoped that every institution of their societies—the family, the church, and the magistracy—would function in concert to maintain a pious society based on Calvinist theology and religious practice. For this reason some have applied the term "theocracy" to seventeenth-century New England.

Colonial leaders deliberately intended to create a Bible Commonwealth, a society in which the fundamental law would be the revealed Word of God, and God would be regarded as the supreme legislator. Thus, John Winthrop announced the program before the settlement, "For the worke wee haue in hand, it is by a mutuall consent …to seeke out a place of Cohabitation and Consorteshipp under a due forme of Government both ciuill and ecclesiastical"; the "due forme" was that enacted in the Bible. John Cotton later argued that the New England colonies, having a clear field before them, were duty bound to erect a "Theocracy … as the best forme of government in the commonwealth, as well as in the Church." Consequently, the political theory assumed that the colonies were based on the Bible and that all specific laws would show biblical warrant.

The governments of the two colonies were founded on the theory that God had ordained all society as a check on depraved human impulses and, therefore, that all politics should ideally fulfill God's will. Hence, Winthrop explained in 1645, that after people entered a body politic, they gained the freedom to do only that "which is good, just and honest"—in other words, only that which God demands. The purpose of the state was to enforce God's will, and to ensure that every member of society would observe God's laws.


Foster, Stephen. The Long Argument: English Puritanism and the Shaping of New England Culture, 1570–1700. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.

Gildrie, Richard P. The Profane, the Civil, and the Godly: The Reformation of Manners in Orthodox New England, 1679–1749. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994.

Miller, Perry. The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century. New York: Macmillan, 1939.

Noll, Mark A. A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1992.

PerryMiller/s. b.

See alsoCambridge Agreement ; Massachusetts Bay Colony ; New England Way ; New Haven Colony .