Church And State In New England: Effects Upon American Congregationalism -- By: A. Hastings Ross

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 049:194 (Apr 1892)
Article: Church And State In New England: Effects Upon American Congregationalism
Author: A. Hastings Ross


Church And State In New England: Effects Upon American Congregationalism

Rev. A. Hastings Ross

SINCE the union of church and state in the fourth century, no form of the connection has been more intimate than that set up in New England. Fleeing from the evils of the Anglican establishment, our Puritan fathers, unable to emancipate themselves from the customs of Christendom, made church and state substantially identical. We propose to detail their system, and then show its sad effects on American Congregationalism.

The Massachusetts Bay Colony

Salem was settled in 1628; Boston in 1630. The first General Court met in Boston in the same year. Seven months thereafter, on May 18, 1631, that Court restricted the right to vote in civil affairs to adult male church-members.1 The colonists had come hither with no fixed ecclesiastical principles or usages. They, unlike the Pilgrims, lacked uniformity. Soon confusion began to prevail. They felt the need of rules of ecclesiastical order as greatly as they had felt the necessity of restricting suffrage. Yet the General Court did not presume to enact such rules, but in-

stead it adopted, in 1635, a minute, recognizing the right of the churches to frame and adopt “one uniform order of discipline,” and entreated them to do so.2 In the same minute the civil power asked the ecclesiastical to define the functions of magistrates in enforcing church discipline, which, in 1648, the churches did.3 These two acts of the General Court are significant. The earlier one, expressing the sentiments of past and contemporary Christendom, placed the state within the control of the churches. The later one, a prophecy of the coming separation of church and state and of religious liberty, placed in the control of the churches creed, discipline, and the limitation of state interposition in church matters. This began since Constantine, a new era. If only church-members could vote and hold office, there needed to be some limit put upon the gathering of the excluded into churches, else whoever wished could become freemen simply by organizing themselves into churches. This short way into freedom began to be taken, causing “much trouble and disturbance.” Taught by “sad experience,” the General Court, in 1636, enacted a law defining what should be recognized as duly constituted churches. Such churches must first secure the approbation of the magistrates and the consent of a majority “of the churches in the jurisdiction,” to their formation, or their members could not vote or hold office.

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