The Concept of Property in Puritan New England, 1630-1720 -- By: Gary North

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 35:1 (Fall 1972)
Article: The Concept of Property in Puritan New England, 1630-1720
Author: Gary North

The Concept of Property in Puritan New England, 1630-1720

Gary North

[Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, Riverside, 1972.]

An Abstract

In 1630, John Winthrop became the governor of a one year old colony in a wilderness, the Massachusetts Bay Company. Less than a century later Boston was to produce young Ben Franklin. How was it possible that a fledgling Puritan commonwealth, built along the lines of a small medieval town, could become a flourishing trading center in England’s Atlantic empire within a century? New England had once operated in terms of such medieval economic concepts as the “just price,” involving politically imposed price and wage controls, the communal administration of much of the town common lands, public monopolies set up to enforce quality standards and to reduce price competition, and the establishment of sumptuary laws that made it illegal for the “meaner sort” to dress as well as their social superiors. By the end of the seventeenth century almost all of these controls were removed, the Puritan religious leaders were no longer monopolists of political influence in the colonies, and a nascent capitalism was appearing out of the ruins of the quasi-medieval economic structure of the defunct Holy Commonwealth. How had it happened?

The economic interpretation of history throws only limited light on the question. It was not simply that merchants made a lot of money and had a stake in abandoning restraints on their greed. The colony was still overwhelmingly rural. Farmers wanted to control their own land, and so the common lands were steadily broken up and distributed to heads of rural households. Ministers like Increase Mather could cry out against the lust for land as a sign of a fallen people, but ministers fought just as hard as a farmer when their share of the redistributed commons was threatened. The clergy

had no answers to the new forces of the market; there were no specifically Christian or biblical recommendations forthcoming from clerical councils. There were too many aspects of Puritan practical divinity that spoke of God’s blessings and Christian stewardship for the old theocracy to reject, a priori, the developments in the economy.

Max Weber focused on certain themes in his theory of the relationship between Protestantism and the advent of modern, rationalized production (“capitalism”): predestination, one’s calling, the creation of formal legal structures that established legal predictability, the attitude toward a personal accounting. All of these were indeed present in New England Puritanism. But Puritan theology was a complex tapestry. Pastors warned again and again against the fa...

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