John Wise (1652-1725), American Congregational minister, effectively defended the autonomy of individual congregations. His opinions regarding religious and civil democracy foreshadowed the logic of the Declaration of Independence.
John Wise was born in Roxbury, Mass., in August 1652. He studied in the Roxbury free school and graduated from Harvard in 1673. He then studied theology and preached at Branford, Conn. (serving as chaplain during King Philip's War), and Hatfield, Mass. In 1680 he was called to the Second (Chebacco) Church in lpswich. A dispute with the First Church, from which the body was separating, delayed official organization but Wise was installed in 1683 and remained throughout his life.
Known for his democratic principles, Wise encouraged lpswich citizens to resist Governor Edmund Andros's attempt to raise money by a province tax without legislative authorization. He was tried, convicted, and fined for the remonstrance, and Andros briefly deprived him of his ministerial functions. When Andros was deposed, Wise sued Chief Justice Joseph Dudley in 1689 for refusing his earlier plea for habeas corpus; tradition has it that, though the town had paid his fine and costs, he recovered damages. That year he was a delegate from lpswich to reorganize the Massachusetts colonial legislature.
The General Court appointed Wise chaplain of the unsuccessful 1690 expedition against Quebec, and Wise upon his return wrote a report of the undertaking. He petitioned in 1703 for reversal of the sentence for one of the victims in a witchcraft trial, and he opposed the moves of Increase and Cotton Mather to subordinate Massachusetts churches to associations of clergymen. Wise viewed their proposal as hierarchical and infringing upon the rights of individual congregations. Some years after Increase Mather's advocacy of it in a pamphlet (1705), Wise published a devastating and satirical reply, The Churches' Quarrel Espoused (1710), which reputedly crushed the effort.
Wise's A Vindication of the Government of New-England Churches (1717) reemphasized his position and dealt with the bases of both religious and civil government. His pamphlet A Word of Comfort to a Melancholy Country (1721) advocated paper money for the colony.
Tall and graceful in appearance, and possessing almost legendary physical strength, Wise was an impressive speaker and an earnest, witty, and forceful writer. He married Abigail Gardner, who bore him seven children. He died in lpswich on April 8, 1725.
Wise's 1710 and 1717 pamphlets, reprinted in 1772 for use in the Revolutionary ideological controversy with England, have been adjudged among the finest colonial expositions of democratic principles. An edition of 1860 noted that the Declaration of Independence utilized several passages strikingly similar to those in A Vindication….
Wise's own Narrative of the Quebec expedition is in Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 2d series, vol. 15 (1902). A good account of him is George A. Cook, John Wise: Early American Democrat (1942). Helpful comments are in Vernon L. Parrington, Main Currents in American Thought (3 vols., 1927-1930; 3 vols. in 1, 1930). □
WISE, JOHN (1652–1725), Congregational clergyman and proponent of ecclesiastical liberty in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. A graduate of Harvard College in 1673, Wise by the end of the 1670s had settled in the town of Ipswich as its parish minister, remaining in that capacity and locale until his death. Wise is remembered chiefly for his defense of a pure "congregational" polity, each local church being left free to conduct its own affairs without hindrance or help from "higher" or more numerous clerical authorities. In The Churches Quarrel Espoused (1710) and again in A Vindication of the Government of New-England Churches (1717), Wise ridiculed the notion that pastors were unable to lead their own flocks, perform their proper duties, or steadily "steer in all weather that Blows." It was quite unnecessary, he argued, and indeed potentially dangerous, to resort to councils or synods—to consociations or committees—to "advise" or "assist" the independent congregation. If people cannot direct their own worship, he continued, perhaps they are incapable even of choosing their own spouses. Some may even think that a committee is needed to "direct all Wooers in their Choice for the Marriage Bed; for that there is many a fond Lover who has betrayed the glory of Wedlock by making an unwise and unfortunate Choice; and why not particular Beds be overruled, as well as particular Churches?"
With such wit joined with even more convincing arguments from antiquity, from nature, and from Christian scripture, Wise argued narrowly for the congregational way, but he also argued broadly for local rule and individual liberty. That Wise's plea for ecclesiastical liberty had inescapable implications for civil liberty found explicit recognition in the republication in 1772 of both works noted above. After the Sugar Act (1764), the Stamp Act (1765), the Townshend acts (1767), and the Boston Massacre (1770), New Englanders welcomed the assurance that a natural person is "a Free-Born Subject under the Crown of Heaven, and owing Homage to none but God Himself."
The only modern biography of John Wise is George A. Cook's John Wise: Early American Democrat (New York, 1952, 1966). For a fuller assessment of Wise's significance, see Perry Miller's The New England Mind: From Colony to Province (Cambridge, Mass., 1953).
Edwin S. Gaustad (1987 and 2005)