Search for a New England Way

TO THE PURITANS and to many who came here after them, the American destiny was inseparable from the mission of community-building. For hardly a moment in the history of this civilization would men turn from the perfection of their institutions to the improvement of their doctrine. Like many later generations of Americans, the Puritans were more interested in institutions that functioned than in generalities that glittered.

The phrase “The New England Way” was an earlier version, (not entirely different in spirit though vastly different in content) of the modern notion of an American Way of Life. What the Puritans wanted to “purify” in the English church was not its theology but its policy, not its theory but its practice. New Englanders were outspokenly conformist in matters of doctrine. “Be it so that we are in the utmost parts of the Earth;” explained John Norton, “we have onely changed our Climate, not our mindes.” Again and again when the leaders of American Puritanism met, they proclaimed their orthodoxy.

This was revealed in the very form of their statements. The basic documents of New England Puritanism were not “creeds” but “platforms.” Nearly two centuries before the first American political party produced its “platform” attesting to its greater concern for a program of action than for a frame of thinking, American Puritans had struck off in the same direction. The clearest statement of their religious purposes came out of a meeting of the church elders in Cambridge in 1648. Published under the title, “A Platform of Church Discipline,” it came to be known as “The Cambridge Platform.” The ministers declared:

Our Churches here, as (by the grace of Christ) wee beleive & profess the same Doctrine of the trueth of the Gospell, which generally is received in all the reformed Churches of Christ in Europe: so especially, wee desire not to vary from the doctrine of faith, & truth held forth by the churches of our native country…. wee, who are by nature, English men, doe desire to hold forth the same doctrine of religion (especially in fundamentalls) which wee see & know to be held by the churches of England, according to the truth of the Gospell.

What disturbed the people of New England, according to John Cotton’s preface, was “the unkind, & unbrotherly, & unchristian contentions of our godly brethren, & countrymen, in matters of church-government.” To the improvement of church government, the New England clergy pledged its efforts. The text of the “platform,” the manifesto of New England Congregationalism and its basis for over a half-century, was devoted only to these practical ends.

The orthodoxy of New England churches is a refrain heard again and again in the early synods. “As to matters of Doctrine,” the ministers declared in Boston in 1680, “we agree with other Reformed Churches: Nor was it that, but what concerns Worship and Discipline, that caused our Fathers to come into this wilderness, whiles it was a land not sown, that so they might have liberty to practice accordingly.” A half-century later, in 1726, Cotton Mather insisted that still the doctrine of the Church of England was more universally held and preached in New England than in any nation, that their only “points peculiar” were those of discipline.

The Puritans’ emphasis on way of life was so strong that it made any generalized concept of “the church” seem unreal or even dangerous. They became wary of using the word “church” to refer to those who subscribed to a particular body of doctrine, or even to the building in which the congregation met. New Englanders called their place of worship a “meeting-house.” It was a dangerous figure of speech, Richard Mather once observed, to call that meeting-house a “church.” “There is no just ground from scripture to apply such a trope as church to a house for a public assembly.” For years, therefore, when the men of New England spoke of what they had to offer the world, they referred neither to their “creed” nor their “church,” but to The New England Way.

Among the chief factors which pushed them in this direction were the special character of their theology, in particular the “federal” idea, and their colonial legal situation. The “federal” theology by which New England Puritans lived was an iceberg of doctrine. Beneath the surface was a dense theological mass, much larger and weightier than what projected above. A full exposition of that hidden base would be nothing less than an anatomy of protestantism. The part which became visible and prominent in New England life was the federal church-way, which came to be known as Congregationalism.

The basic fact about Congregationalism was its emphasis on the going relationship among men. Each church was not a part of a hierarchy, nor a branch of a perfected institution, but a kind of club composed of individual Christians searching for a godly way of life. The congregational church was a group of going concerns, not a monolithic establishment. When they used the word at all, Puritans usually spoke of the “churches” rather than the “church” of New England. What held them together was no unified administrative structure, but a common quest, a common way of living.

At the heart of the congregational idea was the unifying notion that a proper Christian church was one adapted to the special circumstances of its place and arising out of the continuing agreement of certain particular Christians. What of the manner of church-worship? asked the opening chapter of the Cambridge Platform. Its answer was simply that worship “be done in such a manner, as all Circumstances considered, is most expedient for edification: so, as if there bee no errour of man concerning their determination, the determining of them is to be accounted as if it were divine.” The size of a congregation was also to be fixed by practical considerations. “The matter of the Church in respect of its quantity ought not to be of greater number then may ordinarily meet together conveniently in one place: nor ordinarily fewer, then may conveniently carry on Church-work.” Each congregation had its own problems, “Vertues of their own, for which others are not praysed: Corruptions of their owne, for which others are not blamed.”

A church was formed, then, not by administrative fiat nor by the random gathering of professing Christians, but by the “covenanting” or agreement of a group of “saints,” that is, Christians who had had a special “converting experience.” The status of minister was not acquired from a seminary or by the laying on of priestly hands. Rather it was a function performed by a godly man in relation to a group of other men. To be a minister at all a man had to be “called” by a group of Christians; when that relation ceased, he was no longer a minister. In the congregational polity, relations among men overshadowed inherited or anointed status: the ways overshadowed the forms.

Not least important in encouraging this point of view was the Puritan use of the Bible. If there was any codification of Puritan beliefs, it was in the Word of God. The Puritans wished to be “guided by one rule, even the Word of the most high.” More perhaps than for any other Christians of their age, the Bible was their guide. Through it, they explained in the Cambridge Platform, every man could find the design of life and the shape of the Truth:

The parts of Government are prescribed in the word, because the Lord Iesus Christ the King and Law-giver of his Church, is no less faithfull in the house of God then was Moses, who from the Lord delivered a form & pattern of Government to the Children of Israel in the old Testament: And the holy Scriptures are now also soe perfect, as they are able to make the man of God perfect & thoroughly furnished unto every good work; and therefore doubtless to the well ordering of the house of God.

But to try to live by the Bible was vastly different from trying to live by the Laws of the Medes and the Persians, by the Athanasian Creed, or even by the Westminster Confession. For the Bible was actually neither a codification nor a credo; it was a narrative. From this simple fact came much of the special character of the Puritan approach to experience. There were, of course, parts of the Bible (like Leviticus and Deuteronomy) which contained an explicit code of laws; the Puritans were attracted to these simply because the commands were so clear. The Ten Commandments were, of course, in the foreground of their thinking, but the Bible as a whole was the law of their life. For answers to their problems they drew as readily on Exodus, Kings, or Romans, as on the less narrative portions of the Bible. Their peculiar circumstances and their flair for the dramatic led them to see special significance in these narrative passages. The basic reality in their life was the analogy with the Children of Israel. They conceived that by going out into the Wilderness, they were reliving the story of Exodus and not merely obeying an explicit command to go into the wilderness. For them the Bible was less a body of legislation than a set of binding precedents.

The result was that these Puritans were preoccupied with the similarities in pairs of situations: the situation described in a Bible story and that in which they found themselves. “Thou shalt not kill” was accepted without discussion. What interested them, and what became the subject of their debate was whether, and how and why, an episode in the Bible was like one in their own lives. The “great and terrible Earthquake” of June 1, 1638 and the one of January 14, 1639 “which happened much about the time the Lordly Prelates were preparing their injunctions for Scotland” reminded Captain Edward Johnson of how “the Lord himselfe … roared from Sion, (as in the dayes of the Prophet Amos).” Almost every page of early New England literature provides an example. “The rule that directeth the choice of supreame governors,” wrote John Cotton, “is of like aequitie and weight in all magistrates, that one of their brethren (not a stranger) should be set over them, Deut. 17.15. and Jethroes counsell to Moses was approved of God, that the judges, and officers to be set over the people, should be men fearing God, Exod. 18.21. and Solomon maketh it the joy of a commonwealth, when the righteous are in authority, and their mourning when the wicked rule, Prov. 29.21. Job 34.30.”

What the Puritans had developed in America then, was a practical common-law orthodoxy. Their heavy reliance on the Bible, and their preoccupation with platforms, programs of action, and schemes of confederation—rather than with religious dogma—fixed the temper of their society, and foreshadowed American political life for centuries to come.

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