One of the great questions of our time is how to understand the relationship between the unprecedented developments in religion and the unprecedented developments in social order that have characterized the modern world. One of the older issues within this topic is whether modern “republicanism” (small R) has roots in orthodox forms of Christianity, at least in some important cases, or if it is primarily a product of irreligious and/or unorthodox philosophies.
At Anamnesis, Glenn Moots reviews and responds to an important new work in this debate, Godly Republicanism by Michael Winship. Drawing on Winship, Moots argues that historians have overlooked the religious roots of an important strain of Anglo-American republicanism because it arose in a place and manner that we wouldn’t expect.
The English Puritans first developed theological arguments for republicanism in church, not civil, polity. When considering how to organize the church, the Puritans were keenly aware of the corrupting influence of power. They devised ingenious, essentially “republican” systems of checks and balances, and elaborate justifications for them. These developments were confined to questions of church polity until the Puritans landed in Massachusetts Bay, where they fell under the influence of the politically radical “Pilgrims” who had preceded them there. The new brew of civil and ecclesiastical radicalism that resulted then traveled back across the Atlantic to establish a presence in the mother country, as well as influencing future developments Stateside.
Winship traces the history of the Massachusetts Bay brewing process in some detail. Fascinating tidbit: “Massachusetts Bay colonists considered themselves a free state. As early as 1634, the colony was prepared to defend itself against invasion by forces from Great Britain. . . . The willingness of four thousand colonists to fight a war against the king rested on justifications both novel and familiar to any good Englishman. And though the threat dissipated, notions of independence did not. From 1634 onward, freemen and nonfreemen took oaths of loyalty to the colony and its government with no mention of the king.”
Winship’s . . . argument that serious ecclesiastical and civil republicanism existed in England (and America) long before the English Whigs is powerful. Questions of civil and ecclesiastical polity were intertwined in theory and practice in the transatlantic seventeenth century, if for no other reason than that civil and ecclesiastical authority (and enforcement) often overlapped. Any intelligent political theorist of the age would know that churches were ubiquitous laboratories for political practice. “Republican” ecclesiastical convictions were therefore consequential for the civil polity. Separatists and Puritans proved this in Britain and America, confirming the worst fears of opponents who charged them with undermining the status quo.
As we continue to wrestle with basic questions of who we are in the modern world, Moots’s essay is well worth our attention.