Fulfillment of Divine Will and Establishment of Civil Society: The Functions of the Puritan Covenant
G. Stolyarov II
Note from the Author: This essay was originally written in 2006 and published on Associated Content (subsequently, Yahoo! Voices) in 2007, where it received over 600 page views. To preserve a record of my writings following the shutdown of Yahoo! Voices in 2014, I have given this article a permanent presence on this page. This essay should be read as an exposition, not an endorsement, of the Puritans' views.
The Puritans of the Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies saw the covenant as a mutual agreement under the watchful eye of God to fulfill God's will in establishing a civil society that would serve as a model of virtue for the rest of the world. This society would restrict man's natural liberty, but grant him the civil and moral liberty to follow the ways of God. The covenant implied an expectation of the colonists' obedience to authority and necessitated strict punishments for sin.
The Puritan covenant was not a mere temporal agreement among the colonists. Rather, the Puritans saw it as an agreement with God for the actualization of God's plans; the Puritans hoped that God would, in return, bless their society with order, peace, and prosperity. God was at the forefront of the Plymouth Puritans' considerations; the Mayflower Compact declares the founding of Plymouth "for the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith and the Honour of our King and Country" (3). For the Puritans, the covenant reaffirmed their obligations to God and their divinely-ordained obligations to their country and to one another.
The Puritans saw their devotion to God as primary to their loyalty to king and country, since any society they might be loyal to was made possible by a covenant with God. John Winthrop, Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, asserted that all societies-whether they generally recognize it or not-have a covenant with God. England, too, was founded on the basis of such a covenant. However, in Winthrop's judgment, the English society was no longer blessed in the eyes of God because it had defaulted on its obligations: to carry out God's will and to punish acts hostile to God. According to Winthrop, England was awash in sin; the country's perils followed not so much from the sin itself as from the authorities' refusal to punish it sufficiently. The covenant asserted the Puritans' desire to start over in forming a godly society devoid of the spiritual corruptions of English life.
The covenant represented the Puritans' desire to achieve a radical rejection of the vice-ridden ways of England and create a model moral community. Winthrop wished the Massachusetts Bay colony to become a "city on a hill" (A Model of Christian Charity, 14)-an example of godliness to the rest of the world. By observing Winthrop's model community, other societies might assume more virtuous ways as well. Winthrop wanted Massachusetts Bay to become such a bastion of morality, order, and prosperity that "men shall say of succeeding plantations, 'may the Lord make it like that of New England" (A Model of Christian Charity, 14). While the spiritual rewards of fulfilling the covenant were great, the punishment for defaulting on it would be dire; the Puritans, if they failed, would be smearing the name of God before the rest of the world. As Winthrop warned his fellow colonists, "if we shall deal falsely with out God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God, and all professors for God's sake" (A Model of Christian Charity, 14). God would become angry at the colonists for increasing others' ill opinion of Him; He would thus cease to bless the colony.
For the Puritans, advancing the glory of God implied forming an orderly society, a "civil Body Politick" (Mayflower Compact, 3) operating under a set of just laws in accord with Scripture. The covenant enabled the creation of a government to oversee the formation of such a society. According to Winthrop, only government could grant the colonists civil or federal liberty-liberty that restricted men's "natural" freedom to behave as beasts and enabled them to live moral lives in pursuit of God's will (Speech to the General Court, 16). A society founded on the principle of civil liberty was no anarchic free-for-all; by rigid restrictions against immoral conduct, it directed its members to pursue a godly path. Puritans saw obedience to authority as a means of securing this liberty and fulfilling the covenant.
In Winthrop's view, the colonists had delegated the governing authority to him through the covenant. Winthrop reminded them of this when accused of abusing his power: "We account him a good servant, who breaks not his covenant. The covenant between you and us is the oath you have taken of us, which is to this purpose, that we shall govern you and judge your causes by the rules of God's laws and our own, according to our best skill" (Speech to the General Court, 16). Obedience to authority was expected even when the colonists thought that the officials issued and implemented improper policies-so long as the officials were genuinely faithful to the good of the colony. Winthrop asserted that the covenant did not oblige him to be perfect in government; deficiencies in his skill were tolerable if he genuinely sought to fulfill God's ordinance to govern the colony (Speech to the General Court, 16). Because government officials were flawed, like all men, they might fail while trying their best-and yet remain faithful to the covenant.
A Puritan society guided by the covenant was expected to firmly punish all sins against God. All of the Puritan Capital Laws were directly derived from Scripture-drawing especially on the Law of Moses in the Pentateuch (Reader, 18). Thus, they fulfilled the covenantal injunction to follow the laws ordained by God. The first three of the Puritan Capital Laws mandated the death penalty for non-Christians, witches, and blasphemers-all thought to oppose the ways of God. Undermining the stability of the society through murder (laws 4-6), theft (law 10), false witness (law 11), and insurrection (law 12) was also punished by death. The Puritans saw the family as an especially crucial institution for instilling virtue and social stability. Attempts to undermine the family through bestiality (law 7), homosexuality (law 8), adultery (law 9), disobedience of parents (laws 13-14), and rape (law 15) were met with capital punishment (Puritan Capital Laws, 18-20). The Puritans were determined not to default on their duty to punish sinners; they reacted against the permissive English society whose laxity led it to neglect its covenantal obligations.
The Puritans used the covenant to reaffirm what they considered the central purpose of all societies: obedience to God's will. To implement this divine will, the covenant created a civil government with strict laws against sin and a strong expectation of obedience to authority. The New England Puritans sought to show the rest of the world that human institutions-while imperfect-can effectively do God's bidding in creating a just, moral, and prosperous society.
Gennady Stolyarov II (G. Stolyarov II) is an actuary, science-fiction novelist, independent philosophical essayist, poet, amateur mathematician, composer, and Editor-in-Chief of The Rational Argumentator, a magazine championing the principles of reason, rights, and progress.
In December 2013, Mr. Stolyarov published Death is Wrong, an ambitious children’s book on life extension illustrated by his wife Wendy. Death is Wrong can be found on Amazon in paperback and Kindle formats.
Mr. Stolyarov has contributed articles to the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (IEET), The Wave Chronicle, Le Quebecois Libre, Brighter Brains Institute, Immortal Life, Enter Stage Right, Rebirth of Reason, The Liberal Institute, and the Ludwig von Mises Institute.
In an effort to assist the spread of rational ideas,
Mr. Stolyarov published his articles on Associated Content (subsequently
the Yahoo! Contributor Network and Yahoo! Voices) from 2007 until
Yahoo! closed this venue in 2014. Mr. Stolyarov held the highest Clout
Level (10) possible on the Yahoo! Contributor Network and was one of its
Page View Millionaires, with over 3,175,000 views. Mr. Stolyarov’s
selected writings from that era have been preserved on this page.
Mr. Stolyarov holds the professional insurance designations of Associate of the Society of Actuaries (ASA), Associate of the Casualty Actuarial Society (ACAS), Member of the American Academy of Actuaries (MAAA), Chartered Property Casualty Underwriter (CPCU), Associate in Reinsurance (ARe), Associate in Regulation and Compliance (ARC), Associate in Personal Insurance (API), Associate in Insurance Services (AIS), Accredited Insurance Examiner (AIE), and Associate in Insurance Accounting and Finance (AIAF).
Mr. Stolyarov has written a science fiction novel, Eden against the Colossus, a philosophical treatise, A Rational Cosmology, a play, Implied Consent, and a free self-help treatise, The Best Self-Help is Free. You can watch his YouTube Videos.Mr. Stolyarov can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.Statement of Policy.
Learn about Mr. Stolyarov's novel, Eden against the Colossus, here.