The Political Philosophy of John Cotton Part 2 -- By: Stanley D. Starr

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 108:430 (Apr 1951)
Article: The Political Philosophy of John Cotton Part 2
Author: Stanley D. Starr


The Political Philosophy of John Cotton
Part 2

Stanley D. Starr

(Continued from the January-March Number, 1951)

{Editor’s note: Footnotes in the original printed edition were numbered 16–38, but in this electronic edition are numbered 1–23 respectively.}

With these thoughts in mind, then, we can begin an exploration of John Cotton’s political philosophy expecting to find a theistic system, thoroughly Calvinistic, tending toward an aristocracy, not so much of a social order as a moral and ethical order, and one in which church and state will exercise an interlocking authority.

We begin with the contract theory which for so many philosophers provided the basis for organized society and government. Cotton undoubtedly believed in some form of contract, for he said that it is evident “by the light of nature, that all civill Relations are founded in Covenant.” He could see no other way whereby a people “free from natural and compulsory engagements, can be united or combined together into one visible body, to stand by mutuall Relation, fellowmembers of the same body, but onely by mutuall Covenant.” It is difficult to determine whether or not Cotton conformed to John Locke’s dual contract theory whereby a first compact bound individuals into a society and a second compact ordained a government over that society. Cotton himself described three earthly covenants. The first two were friendship and marriage and apparently had little relation to his political philosophy. But the third was a covenant “between Prince and People” and “is usually in all well governed Common-wealths, unless the King come in by way of Conquest and Tyranny, but in well settled Common-wealths, there is a Covenant and oath between Prince and People.”

One interpreter of Cotton says that apparently God supplies his subjects with the ability to consent.1

Just how the contract operates is posed by Cotton himself in a question and answer dialogue: “If it be objected: How can the brethren of the church invest an Elder with rule over them, if they had not power of rule in themselves to communicate to him? Answ. They invest him with rule partly by chusing him to the office which God hath invested with rule, partly by professing their own subjection to him in the Lord.”2 Thus God set up the office and its accompanying authority, and also apparently gave to the people the right to choose a man to fill the office and exercise the authority.

Cotton’s theory of contract was accompanied by a corresponding sanction of revolution agai...

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