Tag Archives: Puritans

Richard Hooker on Law, the Ancient, and the Good

Richard Hooker was a sixteenth-century Anglican churchman whose Of the LawsRIchard Hooker of Ecclesiastical Polity (1594-1597) is both a masterpiece of Anglican theology and a work of extraordinary stylistic elegance and force.  It was written primarily as a defense of the Church of England against the Puritan challenge, but Hooker ranges over many subjects of more general interest related to law, authority, custom, change, and tradition.  Over the last couple of days, on the recommendation of a friend, I’ve been reading fragments of the Laws here and there (you can access the whole thing for free at the link above).  I cannot recommend it more highly.

Here is my favorite passage (so far!) — from Book V, Chapter 7.  It relates closely to some of the things we think about on CLR Forum, from time to time.  Merry Christmas to those of our readers who are celebrating the holiday.

VII. Neither may we in this case lightly esteem what hath been allowed as fit in the judgment of antiquity, and by the long continued practice of the whole Church; from which unnecessarily to swerve, experience hath never as yet found it safe. For wisdom’s sake we reverence them no less that are young, or not much less, than if they were stricken in years. And therefore of such it is rightly said that their ripeness of understanding is “grey hair,” and their virtues “old age.” But because wisdom and youth are seldom joined in one, and the ordinary course of the world is more according to Job’s observation, who giveth men advice to seek “wisdom amongst the ancient, and in the length of days, understanding;” therefore if the comparison do stand between man and man, which shall hearken unto other; sith the aged for the most part are best experienced, least subject to rash and unadvised passions, it hath been ever judged reasonable that their sentence in matter of counsel should be better trusted, and more relied upon than other men’s. The goodness of God having furnished man with two chief instruments both necessary for this life, hands to execute and a mind to devise great things; the one is not profitable longer than the vigour of youth doth strengthen it, nor the other greatly till age and experience have brought it to perfection. In whom therefore time hath not perfected knowledge, such must be contented to follow them in whom it hath. For this cause none is more attentively heard than they whose speeches are as David’s were, “I have been young and now am old,” much I have seen and observed in the world. Sharp and subtile discourses of wit procure many times very great applause, but being laid in the balance with that which the habit of sound experience plainly delivereth, they are overweighed. God may endue men extraordinarily with understanding as it pleaseth him. But let no man presuming thereupon neglect the instructions, or despise the ordinances of his elders, sith He whose gift wisdom is hath said, “Ask thy father and he will shew thee; thine ancients and they shall tell thee.”

[2.]It is therefore the voice both of God and nature, not of learning only, that especially in matters of action and policy, “The sentences and judgments of men experienced, aged and wise, yea though they speak without any proof or demonstration, are no less to be hearkened unto, than as being demonstrations in themselves; because such men’s long observation is as an eye, wherewith they presently and plainly behold those principles which sway over all actions.” Whereby we are taught both the cause wherefore wise men’s judgments should be credited, and the mean how to use their judgments to the increase of our own wisdom. That which sheweth them to be wise, is the gathering of principles out of their own particular experiments. And the framing of our particular experiments according to the rule of their principles shall make us such as they are.

[3.]If therefore even at the first so great account should be made of wise men’s counsels touching things that are publicly done, as time shall add thereunto continuance and approbation of succeeding ages, their credit and authority must needs be greater. They which do nothing but that which men of account did before them, are, although they do amiss, yet the less faulty, because they are not the authors of harm. And doing well, their actions are freed from prejudice of novelty. To the best and wisest , while they live, the world is continually a froward opposite, a curious observer of their defects and imperfections; their virtues it afterwards as much admireth. And for this cause many times that which most deserveth approbation would hardly be able to find favour, if they which propose it were not content to profess themselves therein scholars and followers of the ancient. For the world will not endure to hear that we are wiser than any have been which went before. In which consideration there is cause why we should be slow and unwilling to change, without very urgent necessity, the ancient ordinances, rites, and long approved customs, of our venerable predecessors. The love of things ancient doth argue stayedness, but levity and want of experience maketh apt unto innovations. That which wisdom did first begin, and hath been with good men long continued, challengeth allowance of them that succeed, although it plead for itself nothing. That which is new, if it promise not much, doth fear condemnation before trial; till trial, no man doth acquit or trust it, what good soever it pretend and promise. So that in this kind there are few things known to be good, till such time as they grow to be ancient. The vain pretence of those glorious names, where they could not be with any truth, neither in reason ought to have been so much alleged, hath wrought such a prejudice against them in the minds of the common sort, as if they had utterly no force at all; whereas (especially for these observances which concern our present question) antiquity, custom, and consent in the Church of God, making with that which law doth establish, are themselves most sufficient reasons to uphold the same, unless some notable public inconvenience enforce the contrary. For a small thing in the eye of law is as nothing.

[4.]We are therefore bold to make our second petition this, That in things the fitness whereof is not of itself apparent, nor easy to be made sufficiently manifest unto all, yet the judgment of antiquity concurring with that which is received may induce them to think it not unfit, who are not able to allege any known weighty inconvenience which it hath, or to take any strong exception against it.

Goodman, “Banished: Common Law and the Rhetoric of Social Exclusion in Early New England”

This July, University of Pennsylvania Press published Banished: Common Law and the Rhetoric of Social Exclusion in Early New England by Nan Goodman (University of Colorado). The publisher’s description follows.

 A community is defined not only by inclusion but also by exclusion. Seventeenth-century New England Puritans, themselves exiled from one society, ruthlessly invoked the law of banishment from another: over time, hundreds of people were forcibly excluded from this developing but sparsely settled colony. Nan Goodman suggests that the methods of banishment rivaled—even overpowered—contractual and constitutional methods of inclusion as the means of defining people and place. The law and rhetoric that enacted the exclusion of certain parties, she contends, had the inverse effect of strengthening the connections and collective identity of those that remained.

Banished investigates the practices of social exclusion and its implications through the lens of the period’s common law. For Goodman, common law is a site of negotiation where the concepts of community and territory are more fluid and elastic than has previously been assumed for Puritan society. Her legal history brings fresh insight to well-known as well as more obscure banishment cases, including those of Anne Hutchinson, Roger Williams, Thomas Morton, the Quakers, and the Indians banished to Deer Island during King Philip’s War. Many of these cases were driven less by the religious violations that may have triggered them than by the establishment of rules for membership in a civil society. Law provided a language for the Puritans to know and say who they were—and who they were not.Banished reveals the Puritans’ previously neglected investment in the legal rhetoric that continues to shape our understanding of borders, boundaries, and social exclusion.

The “Nones” in America: An Interactive Map and a Conjecture

CLR Forum reader Robin Charlow sends along a fascinating interactive map (a few years old, now, but still), that shows the distribution of religious affiliations across the United States, including the new, possibly growing category of the “unaffiliated,” also known as the “nones.” The “unaffiliated” seem disproportionately represented  in two corners: the Pacific Northwest and New England (except for Massachusetts, where the percentage, 17%, is close to the national number). Why should that be? Here’s a thought. New England Protestant missionaries like the Whitmans were very influential in the settlement of the Pacific Northwest in the 19th Century. It wouldn’t be surprising if the missionaries created a religious culture that, thousands of miles away, resembled what they had left behind and continued to evolve in a similar way. Is Oregon the westernmost legacy of the Puritans? Could be.

Mazzacano on Puritanism and Godliness in the 17th Century

Peter Mazzacano (Osgoode Hall Law School — York University) has posted, “Puritanism, Godliness, and Political Development in Boston and the General Court (1630-1640).”  The abstract follows.

The goal of this article is to examine the degree to which Puritanism influenced early American political culture. That is, how did Puritan values and practices facilitate the development of an exceptional political culture during the formative years of Massachusetts Bay? Utilizing a case-study method of analysis, this article examines the political developments in the General Court and the town of Boston during the decade 1630 to 1640. The research methods used are primarily the writings of leading Puritans, and concomitant town, church, and colonial records. The main finding is that the Puritans paid little heed to notions of democracy, theocracy, oligarchy, or British political traditions; instead, Puritan institutions and practices were based on the primary Puritan ideal of godliness. However, the formative influence of the godly ideal inadvertently reinforced democratic and republican ideals. The conclusion is that the focus on godliness provides a comprehensive and multiple explanations for the course of political developments in early Massachusetts Bay.

Barry on Roger Williams

From Penguin, a new biography of Roger Williams, Roger Williams and The Creation of the American Soul (2012), by John M. Barry. Barry usefully situates Williams in the legal and political struggles of Jacobean and Caroline England — I did not know, for example, that Williams once served as an apprentice to Sir Edward Coke, the famous Chief Justice of the King’s Bench, and thought of Coke as a surrogate father — and follows him to Massachusetts, from which his fellow Puritans banished him when he denied civil government’s authority to punish offenses against God. Barry discusses the evolution of Williams’s ideas about church and state, including his most famous contribution, the metaphor of the “wall of Separation between the Garden of the Church and the Wildernes of the world.”  The publisher’s description follows.

For four hundred years, Americans have wrestled with and fought over two concepts that define the nature of the nation: the proper relation between church and state and between a free individual and the state. These debates began with the extraordinary thought and struggles of Roger Williams, who had an unparalleled understanding of the conflict between a government that justified itself by “reason of state”-i.e. national security-and its perceived “will of God” and the “ancient rights and liberties” of individuals.

This is a story of power, set against Puritan America and the English Civil War. Williams’s interactions with King James, Francis Bacon, Oliver Cromwell, and his mentor Edward Coke set his course, but his fundamental ideas came to fruition in America, as Williams, though a Puritan, collided with John Winthrop’s vision of his “City upon a Hill.”

Acclaimed historian John M. Barry explores the development of these fundamental ideas through the story of the man who was the first to link religious freedom to individual liberty, and who created in America the first government and society on earth informed by those beliefs. The story is essential to the continuing debate over how we define the role of religion and political power in modern American life.

Winship on the Massachusetts Bay Colony

Michael P. Winship (University of Georgia) has written a book on Puritan government in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Godly Republicanism (Harvard) (forthcoming 2012). The publisher’s description follows:

Puritans did not find a life free from tyranny in the new world—they created it there. Massachusetts emerged a republic as they hammered out a vision of popular participation and limited government in church and state, spurred by Plymouth pilgrims. Godly Republicanism underscores how pathbreaking yet rooted in puritanism’s history the project was.

Michael Winship takes us first to England, where he uncovers the roots of the puritans’ republican ideals in the aspirations and struggles of Elizabethan Presbyterians. Faced with the twin tyrannies of Catholicism and the crown, Presbyterians turned to the ancient New Testament churches for guidance. What they discovered there—whether it existed or not—was a republican structure that suggested better models for governing than monarchy.

The puritans took their ideals to Massachusetts, but they did not forge their godly republic alone. In this book, for the first time, the separatists’ contentious, creative interaction with the puritans is given its due. Winship looks at the emergence of separatism and puritanism from shared origins in Elizabethan England, considers their split, and narrates the story of their reunion in Massachusetts. Out of the encounter between the separatist Plymouth pilgrims and the puritans of Massachusetts Bay arose Massachusetts Congregationalism.