A Puritan Critique of Contemporary Christian Nationalist Proposals

John S. Simons
Associate Dean
Trinity Evangelical Divinity School

Various Christian Nationalist proposals have received significant attention over the past few years. Several of these have explicitly or implicitly referenced New England puritanism in support of their argument that governments should implement moral legislation based on the Christian faith. However, the discussion of these proposals has not considered the ways in which the puritan founders of Massachusetts Bay, Connecticut, and New Haven would have critiqued the proposals. Those essays that have drawn parallels to puritan thought have largely done so by referencing a handful of sermons without considering whether the sermons are representative of the broader conversations within early New England.

The issue of whether or not the puritans were Christian nationalists is complicated by the relationships between the various puritan colonies and the English monarchy. Additionally, the colonists were not seeking to form a new nation; rather, they continued to conceive of themselves as English citizens. The issue is also made complicated by the fact that different authors have different definitions regarding what constitutes Christian nationalism.

Many authors do not provide a clear definition of the term, instead choosing to identify the term with a cluster of views that they either affirm or oppose. Stephen Wolfe in his recent book The Case for Christian Nationalism, has defined the term as “a totality of national action, consisting of civil laws and social customs, conducted by a Christian nation as a Christian nation, in order to procure for itself both earthly and heavenly good in Christ.”[1] Wolfe’s defense of Christian Nationalism includes the establishment of Christianity as an official religion through the election of Christian government officials, the passing of explicitly Christian laws, as well as other steps to reinforce “social customs” that are consistent with a Christian national identity.[2] If one were to replace the word “nation” with “commonwealth” in Wolfe’s definition, then it would probably apply fairly well to the puritan founders of New England.

With that starting point, I am going consider several ways in which the puritans would respond to contemporary proposals in support of Christian Nationalism. More specifically, this paper will consider how the puritans of New England might respond to questions regarding the suitability of proposals for a more explicit Christian influence on government, calls for a strong executive power to protect the church and Christian belief, and arguments related to resistance and revolution against non-Christian leadership. The paper will draw on examples and arguments across the different puritan colonies in order to arrive at a broader critique of contemporary proposals.

Many of the recent arguments in support of Christian nationalism seem to presuppose that their proposals are suitable for the United States today. For example, Wolfe includes an epilogue to his recent book that discusses how to apply his defense of Christian nationalism to the contemporary United States.[3] These authors do not pause to ask whether it is theologically or politically appropriate to implement their ideas. This is one area where many Puritans might begin to question their proposals. There were active discussions among Puritans in England and New England regarding whether it was proper for the church to have influence over the magistrates.

For background, it is important to remember that under the English model, the state had authority over the church rather than the other way around. The English reformation began with the Acts of Supremacy, which declared that King Henry VIII was the head of the Church of England. The King (or in the cases of Mary and Elizabeth, the Queen) had the authority to appoint bishops and to exercise significant influence over the teaching of the churches. Puritans had long been concerned about the dangers of royal authority over the church. Thomas Cartwright had argued for Presbyterianism as a better alternative as early as 1573.[4] In fact, distrust of episcopal authority played a significant role in the decision of many puritans to sail west across the Atlantic and found colonies. The separatists in the Plymouth Colony had first removed to the Low Countries in order to have freedom of conscience, and then sailed to New England as they saw the Dutch culture influence their children in ways that made them uncomfortable. Many of the colonists in the Massachusetts Bay Colony agreed with John Winthrop’s assessment that King Charles I and the Church of England would oppose any further reformation and sought to distance themselves from what they perceived as growing corruption within the hierarchy of the Church of England.[5] Finally, the founders of Connecticut and New Haven included those who had fled from the Church authorities in order to avoid trial before church tribunals for their failure to obey the Act of Conformity.

In light of these motivations to form their own colonies it is understandable that the colonists questioned whether it was acceptable to provide the church with greater authority over the civil authorities. Additionally, it also makes sense that their correspondents in England would question whether what they were hearing about governments in these commonwealths were both true and permissible. The best example of this type of argument is a treatise written by John Davenport, which he titled a Discourse about Civil Government in a New Plantation whose Design is Religion.[6] In this work, Davenport responds to a conversation, probably within Massachusetts Bay Colony, whether the “the right and power of choosing civil magistrates belongs to the Church of Christ.”

To frame the context for this question, keep in mind that in England, church membership was not an issue. Under the Church of England, one was considered a member of the parish in which he or she lived; nearly all newborns were baptized, thus all adults were church members. In New England, church membership was not automatic. Instead, one had to be accepted into church membership. In Massachusetts, a man had to be a church member in order to become a freeholder with the right to vote in elections. In Connecticut, by contrast, one could be a freeholder without being a church member. Davenport is responding to debates over this issue in this treatise.

In responding to the question of whether church members have a right to select magistrates, he argues that the question is not well stated because no one would argue that all magistrates in all places should be only selected by Christian churches. Davenport argued that there were limitations on when it was appropriate to form a government that was founded on Christian ideals. Thus, before framing his theological defense for the form of government that he intended to frame for the Colony of New Haven, he first had to consider the suitability of a government framed by Christian beliefs and values.

Davenport, following the typical logic of puritan writers, seeks to create some representative categories and then consider whether or not it would be appropriate for the churches within each category.[7] He considers four categories: first, those countries that are primarily heathen but where Christianity is a tolerated but small minority; second, countries where Christianity is under restraint and persecution; third, countries where Christianity is protected by magistrates, but Christians lack the ability to serve as magistrates; and fourth, countries where “sundry Nations are so mingled,” that though residents live in the same country, there are different regional laws due to the different representations.[8]

Davenport is also careful to distinguish between “a Commonwealth already settled, and a Commonwealth yet to be settled, wherein men are free to choose what form they shall judge best.”[9] Quoting Paul’s epistle to the Romans, Davenport points out the necessity of Christians being “subject to the higher Powers” even when those in authority are heathens who persecute the Church. Davenport argues that there is greater freedom to establish religious influence on government when starting from scratch. In those cases, if all of the citizens, or an overwhelming majority, are in agreement about the ways in which the church might influence the work of civil government, then it would be appropriate to do so. After making a series of distinctions, Davenport was able to conclude that it was appropriate for a group of Christians who were church members and who wanted to start a new commonwealth to establish a government in which the magistrates were elected only by those who were members of the church.[10] There are a lot of qualifications in that sentence. Conveniently enough, this is the type of government that Davenport and his followers sought to establish when they founded the colony of New Haven in 1639.

Davenport’s discourse is particularly relevant to this conversation. Those who support different versions of Christian nationalism often cite this work. They usually want to embrace Davenport’s argument that the ecclesiastical and civil authorities should not be “set in opposition as contraries… but as co-ordinate states in the same place reaching forth help mutually each to other, for the welfare of both.”[11] However, these authors often skip over the qualifications that Davenport provides before he reaches this point. In short, Davenport and other puritans would likely question whether Christians in the United States, as it presently exists, should be subject to the legal authorities, rather than trying to exert authority from the ecclesial sphere to reshape the civil sphere as it may have existed in the past. It is worth adding the qualification here that the America of the past was more complex than is often acknowledged in contemporary political debate and that the puritan commonwealths of early New England did not represent the views of those in other colonies. Thus, those arguing from puritan authors are cherry picking one view from the history of America that supports their argument.

In his epilogue, Wolfe concedes that the United States as a whole is not likely to support the establishment of policies and laws to reinforce an American Christian identity. He goes on to suggest that there are hundreds of counties and several states that have “a majority of conservative Christians.” Even at this level, Wolfe’s argument does not appear to align with the demographic data. According to the Pew Religious Landscape Survey, Tennessee is the only state where a majority of the adult residents identify themselves as “Evangelical Protestants.”[12] There are several states in which a majority of adults identify themselves as “Christian.” However, both of these labels mask the broad diversity within these populations. While Catholics and Evangelicals may agree on some aspects of Christian identity, Evangelicals often disagree among themselves on a large number of issues, as the puritans did. This broad representation would cause puritans in seventeenth-century New England to question the ability to form a government. The puritans did not want to have Baptists or Presbyterians establish churches in their colonies. This does not begin to approach their concerns about Quakers. Additionally, the puritans would not have wanted to share power with Anglicans or Roman Catholics. They would have had difficulty considering these groups as brothers and sisters for the purpose of establishing a common government.

Wolfe and others who advocate for Christians to actively work to shape the government along more explicitly Christian lines often ignore the diversity of religious beliefs present in the United States and the significant challenges that this would pose to reshape the legal system. Indeed, it is noteworthy that the puritans who founded New England’s colonies all migrated away from England, a country where nearly all citizens identified themselves as Christians and yet still had significant disagreements among themselves regarding how to govern.

Seventeenth-century puritans would also have questions about the fact that many Christian nationalists see the realization of their vision flowing through a strong executive presence. Stephen Wolfe describes this aspect of his vision by saying that he “cannot conceive of a true renewal of Christian commonwealths without great men leading their people into it.”[13]  He continues to describe the importance of having a strong “Christian prince,” arguing that his vision will not be fulfilled by “wonks and regulators.” Instead, his vision is for a leader who is both an “executive power” and a “personal eminence in relation to the people.”[14] He describes his proposal as “theocratic Caesarism” that relies on a great man to awaken a Christian people and to lead them for their own good.[15]

In general, the puritans of New England would strongly disagree with this emphasis on a strong executive power. As I mentioned before, the New England puritans left England due to their dissatisfaction with James I and Charles I, both of whom claimed to be Christian princes. The puritans had seen first-hand the dangers of allowing a strong executive power have influence over the church. When Elizabeth I acceded to the throne, many Christians felt that her restoration of Protestant religion had not gone far enough and hoped for further reformation of the Church of England. Hopes that James I would promote ecclesial reforms were quickly dashed. Instead, James I and his successor Charles I presented themselves as Christian princes seeking to support the Christian values of seventeenth-century England. However, to the puritans, they appeared to be arbitrary rulers who promoted Arminian bishops who supported his own power. It was in response to this strong Christian prince, that puritans began to consider migration to North America.

At this point, it is helpful to point out some of the differences between the puritan colonies in New England. Generally speaking, there were four colonies, each of which had slightly different foundations and systems for their governments. The first colony established was the Plymouth Colony that settled in what is now southeastern Massachusetts in 1620. The members of this colony had acquired a patent from the Plymouth Company. There has been a lively debate whether to consider the founders of this colony as puritans or separatists, but the distinctions between these two categories are not as important for this discussion. The Massachusetts Bay Colony was established under a legal charter in 1629. The colonies of Connecticut and New Haven were both established without an English charter when colonists purchased tracts of land from the native tribes south of the Massachusetts Bay colony, along Long Island Sound. These latter two colonies established their own systems of government with Connecticut adopting the Fundamental Orders in 1639. The New Haven Colony established a plantation along the Quinnipiac River later that year. This town merged with several other towns in 1643 and signed the Fundamental Agreement as their legal charter.

As they established civil governments, they intentionally created systems with a weak executive power and stronger representative decision-making. In civil government, this meant a governor who had little authority apart from the general court and the assemblies. In their churches, they opted for congregational governance over either bishops or Presbyterian models that concentrated power among the clergy. In other words, their approach to forming a Christian government was the opposite of having a strong Christian prince.

Under the terms of the Massachusetts Bay Company charter, the government of the company, and of the colony, was vested in the assistants. A dispute on the authority of the assistants arose early in the history of the colony. In 1630, the eight original members of the Massachusetts General Court voted to declare themselves a self-perpetuating body by determining that the assistants—the elected magistrates—could select the colony’s magistrates without a vote of the freeholders. The residents resisted this move and called for the appointment of deputies to represent their interests. The deputies inspected the charter and realized that the assistants had overstepped their authority.  These deputies forced the assistants to return some powers to the General Court, by requiring the approval of both the assistants and the deputies to admit freeholders, to approve taxes, and to distribute colonial lands. The debate over the distribution of power in Massachusetts continued until the adoption of the 1648 legal code.[16] At the height of the controversy, Governor John Winthrop faced charges that he had abused his authority as governor in response to a dispute over the Hingham militia, but was acquitted of wrong-doing.[17] After his acquittal, Winthrop addressed the General Court in what has become known as his “Little Speech on Liberty.” His speech reveals that while Winthrop sought a strong executive power in the colony, not everyone agreed with him. At least some scholars have suggested that the colonists who departed from Massachusetts to form the Connecticut Colony did so in part in response this issue.[18]

Indeed, the Fundamental Orders in Connecticut created significant limits on the authority of the colony’s governor. As in neighboring Massachusetts, the colonists vested the government of their colony in a representative body, not in an executive officer. The governor was to be selected from among the elected magistrates and served primarily as the chairman of the magistrates. The governor, along with the other magistrates and a group of deputies served together to form the General Court of the colony. The magistrates did not have a negative vote on colonial decisions, meaning that the power balance favored the deputies selected to represent the various towns within the colony. Connecticut further limited the power of its governor by preventing governors from serving consecutive terms in office. This limitation existed from the founding of the colony in 1636 until 1660, when the freemen repealed this policy and then proceeded to reelect John Winthrop, Jr. to a second term in office. As an additional measure, the Fundamental Orders provided a provision to allow freeholders to call a meeting of the General Court, a provision which was likely a response to the fact that Charles I was refusing to call Parliament in England and was governing by sole rule.[19] In short, Connecticut did not trust its government to a strong executive leader, but rather chose to limit executive power in favor of a government by the committee of the magistrates and deputies.

Finally, the Fundamental Agreement in New Haven contained similar provisions to prevent tyranny within the colony. The freeholders of New Haven demonstrated a strong trust in Theophilus Eaton, who served as governor of the plantation of New Haven from 1638 until the ratification of the Fundamental Agreement in 1643, and he then continued to serve in that role until his death in 1658. However, the provisions of the agreement were similar to those in Massachusetts and Connecticut, vesting authority in a General Court with limitations on the authority of the governor. The fact that Theophilus Eaton had to be reelected each year demonstrates the fact that he had to maintain the trust of the colonists over time.

In summary, while the governments in puritan New England were not governments by “wonks and regulators,” they clearly and explicitly limited the executive power. The puritans worked to avoid arbitrary rule and tyranny within their colonies. They did not want an eminent “Christian Prince” to awaken the people and lead them. They viewed the prophetic function of preaching and awakening faith as squarely within the duties of the ministers who led the region’s churches.

One area where the puritans would likely have agreed with contemporary proposals for Christian nationalism is in the advisability of laws that reinforce Christian values and beliefs. Both Wolfe and the puritans would value laws that advance the kingdom of God on earth. The nature of such laws is perhaps easier to imagine in the context of puritan culture. The puritans, perhaps, lived in a culture with more shared values and beliefs than exists today. This is particularly true among the first generation of puritan colonists in New England. These colonies did not permit either Presbyterians or Baptists to establish churches within their colonies until they were required to do so after the restoration of the monarchy and the passing of the Acts of Toleration. Likewise, Anglican churches did not exist within the colonies until after Governor Edmund Andros arrived to implement the Dominion of New England. Andros physically took control of church buildings and established congregations for the Church of England.

One area that Wolfe cites as a possible area of legislation is the punishment of blasphemy. However, he does not address how a Christian prince would identify which theological positions warrant protection and which would warrant punishment. While the puritans had significant theological disagreements, they also had broad areas of agreement. Puritan magistrates could depend on their ministers giving them fairly consistent answers regarding which practices would warrant punishment. For example, all of the puritan colonies sought to prohibit Quakers from preaching within their jurisdictions. The same was true of Catholics and Baptists. It is hard to imagine a Christian prince in contemporary American culture seeking to describe the core beliefs of any of these groups as heretical. Thus, Wolfe does not provide any substance on what he means when he says that “Punishing blasphemy would . . . solidify a culture of pious speech.”[20]

The challenge of defining blasphemy brings back the question discussed earlier in this paper regarding whether Puritans would consider the contemporary context of the United States as appropriate for the level of coordinated national action that proponents of Christian nationalism are proposing.

A final issue for discussion is the ways in which Christians might resist a government that does not share their values. Wolfe’s book includes a chapter that argues for the right of violent revolution against tyranny. The puritans had much to say on tyranny. In fact, Wolfe begins his chapter on this topic with reference to Samuel Rutherford, a Scottish Presbyterian minister who argued for the rule of law as a protection against monarchical tyranny against the church. In fact, many puritan arguments against tyranny are focused on abuses committed against the church, right worship, and right doctrine. It is in later periods that these arguments are turned more toward the protection of individual rights rather than to the communal rights of a congregation.

Wolfe begins with a traditional argument regarding the right to revolt against a tyrant whose government is unjust. Part way into his chapter, Wolfe turns a corner. He notes that contemporary evangelicals live in a context of religious freedom and begins to argue in favor of violent revolt against tyranny in the form of the “soft power of liberalism” which seeks to make religion a private matter rather than against a tyrannical ruler. He continues his argument by arguing for the “lesser-magistrate doctrine” as a principle by which a lesser magistrate or authority interposes itself against a tyrannical higher authority. Both the aim of privatizing piety and the intervention of a lesser-magistrate were part of the context in which puritans formed their colonies in New England.

In some respects, Elizabeth’s via media sought to resolve conflict between Protestants and Catholics by allowing for a more private Christian experience. The term “puritan” was applied to those who pushed back against this settlement and argued for more public preaching that emphasized the importance of personal holiness. These are the very values that Wolfe argues should be enforced by a Christian Prince within a Christian nation.

English puritans eventually reacted to English opposition in several ways. First, puritans sought to form little churches within the local church to pursue their own personal piety. After the King and the Archbishop outlawed conventicles, and compelled conformity with the Book of Common Prayer, a group of puritans decided to resist this tyranny by departing England and establishing colonies in New England. The puritan magistrates in New England acted as lesser magistrates providing resistance against the monarchy. Wolfe explicitly condones this form of resistance to the soft power tyranny of modern liberalism.

After further legal challenges, English puritan leaders in Parliament chose to more directly defy King Charles I for his “tyrannical” actions in seeking to expand his ecclesial authority to include the Church of Scotland. During the Second English Civil War, the Parliamentary Army arrested Charles, tried him for treason and executed him under the authority of Parliament. Thus, the puritans in Parliament sought to live out the type of armed revolution that Wolfe endorses as an appropriate response to tyranny. They also sought to establish a Christian commonwealth similar to that which Wolfe proposes.

Wolfe quotes puritan treatises against tyranny, but he doesn’t consider the outcome of the political experiments in England and New England that put into practice the principles for which he is advocating. The Commonwealth in England collapsed after only eleven years. Charles was executed in 1649 and his son Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660. The inability of the Parliament to successfully rule the commonwealth, whether under the Council of State or the Protectorate, highlights the challenges that flow from seeking to form a single “Christian” government to rule a “Christian” nation, when in truth that nation consists of multiple groups of Christians who do not agree on key areas of doctrine and worship. During the Commonwealth, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Baptists, and Congregationalists contended for influence within the government and church. At the same time, Quakers and other emerging religions gained influence among the people and sought to subvert the authority and influence of the prevailing religious groups. To round things out, Catholics continued to fume over their removal from power. By the time that George Monck marched into London with the Scottish army in 1659, many were ready to welcome back the monarchy in order to bring an end to a decade of chaos.

The experiments in New England lasted for much longer than the Commonwealth of England. However, anyone who reads the many jeremiads of the second and third generation of ministers knows that the colonies were constantly fighting against outside influences that sought to undermine godly laws on the one hand, and the sinful human hearts that resulted from the fall of Adam on the other hand. These ministers lamented a decline in piety that was mirrored in waning church membership and baptisms. At the same time, some residents of the colonies pushed back against what they described as the “tyranny” of the ministers and magistrates for laws that seemed to be overly restrictive. Despite their best efforts to pass laws to suppress sinful behavior, protect the church from external and internal threats, and to promote the Christian religion, their work seemed to be a continual game of whack-a-mole. The steady stream of newcomers—who often did not share the puritans’ values or beliefs—created constant pressure on the Puritan experiment. Puritans asked to reflect on Wolfe’s proposal would likely note the higher degree of doctrinal and philosophical alignment within the founding generations of the puritan experiments than exists today. If those more cohesive communities were not able to successfully combat external influences on the spiritual lives of their children, then how might a less cohesive community hope to do better? Wolfe does not contend with the failure of these experiments to combine Christianity and nationalism in a lasting way. Neither does he provide a compelling reason to believe that future experiments might successfully address how a Christian Prince might successfully combat the challenges of worldly influences and sinful hearts.

In conclusion, the early puritan conversation about the suitability of a particular form of government to its context raises the most important questions regarding Christian nationalism. The founders of early New England thought that their small towns, strengthened by covenants amongst their residents, and covenants within their churches were the ideal environment to build a government that was founded on biblical principles. Their experience in England and their reading of scripture led them to oppose strong executive power. They wanted laws to reinforce their beliefs and to oppose blasphemy, but often struggled to reign in their differences even with these laws. Ultimately, they were not able to combat the external influences that undermined their values and beliefs among subsequent generations. Based on their theology and their experiences, New England’s puritans would likely question whether the current proposals would be workable in a pluralistic United States.

 

[1] Stephen Wolfe, The Case for Christian Nationalism (Moscow, Idaho: Canon Press, 2022), 8.

[2] Wolfe, 10.

[3] Wolfe, 433–76.

[4] Michael P. Winship, Hot Protestants: A History of Puritanism in England and America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018), 40–41.

[5] Winthrop wrote that “The land grows weary of its inhabitants” as he began promoting plans to migrate to Massachusetts. Ibid., 79.

[6] John Davenport, A Discourse About Civil Government in a New Plantation Whose Design Is Religion (Cambridge, MA: Samuel Green and Marmaduke Johnson, 1663). On the authorship of this discourse, see Bruce E. Steiner, “Dissension at Quinnipiac: The Authorship and Setting of a Discourse about Civil Government in a New Plantation Whose Design Is Religion,” The New England Quarterly 54, no. 1 (1981): 14–32; Francis J. Bremer, Building a New Jerusalem: John Davenport, a Puritan in Three Worlds (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012), 383 note 26.

[7] Puritans often employed Ramist logic, which sought to subdivide a question into relevant categories to permit a more careful answer.

[8] Davenport, Discourse About Civil Government, 5.

[9] Davenport, 9 (spelling and capitalization modernized).

[10] Davenport, 14.

[11] Davenport, 8. For example, Stephen Wolfe cites Davenport to support the idea that the “civil and ecclesiastical orders are two species of order.” Wolfe, The Case for Christian Nationalism, 112.

[12] Pew Research Center, “2014 US Religious Landscape Survey,” 2014, https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/religious-landscape-study/.

[13] Wolfe, The Case for Christian Nationalism, 278–79.

[14] Wolfe, 278-79.

[15] Wolfe, 278.

[16] David D. Hall, A Reforming People: Puritanism and the Transformation of Public Life in New England (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012), 22–46; George Lee Haskins, Law and Authority in Early Massachusetts: A Study in Tradition and Design (New York: Macmillan, 1960), 28–37; Perry Miller, The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1954), 405–21.

[17] J. S. Maloy, The Colonial American Origins of Modern Democratic Thought (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 135–36.

[18] Maloy, 114–39, 143–46.

[19] Hall, A Reforming People, 39.

[20] Wolfe, The Case for Christian Nationalism, 292.