Boston Courthouse Clerk Recovers 300-year-old Court Minutes
BOSTON, Massachusetts – A Suffolk County courthouse worker made an astonishing find on a July day in 1996. While cleaning out a file cabinet, Supreme Judicial Court clerk Richard Rouse stumbled on one-of-a-kind hand written manuscripts. The two leather bound volumes contain proceedings detailing Puritan prosecutions of witches, adulterers, and slaves. The decayed, fraying records provide students of the Puritan theocracy an astonishing look at Massachusetts’ civil law proceedings spanning the years 1673 to 1695.
One of the volumes was first discovered in 1901 and the proceedings were hand copied for use by historians and scholars. No one knows how the volume was lost again, but the second volume, which details dozens of more cases, is of more interest because state archivists believe that it is the first time that it has ever been discovered. These court proceedings of civil trials from the years 1673 to 1695 were unavailable for study until now.
Modern theonomists, those who study biblical law’s application to modern society, are interested in Puritan New England as an example of a working theonomic government. Theonomists would like to find in Puritan America a model of liberty under the law of God applied to the civil and religious spheres. The Massachusetts Puritans saw themselves as a theocracy: literally, “a government under God.” The language describing the proceedings is brimming with biblical allusions. However, the judgments often stray from strict applications of biblical law, nor is there frequent reference to Scripture as the basis for the judgments rendered.
The following are samples of cases, including witchcraft and adultery, found in the Record of the Court of Assistants, Colony of the Massachusetts Bay, 1673 to 1692, which were published in the Boston Herald on July 9, 1996.1 These cases have never before been available for study. The 17th century spelling of words and punctuation, which was not yet standardized, has been preserved in order to maintain absolute accuracy of transcription from the handwritten manuscripts.
Elisabeth Johnson wickedly, feloniously and maliciously a covenant with the Devill did make by which diabolical covenant she gave herself both soule and body to the Devill and signed the Devill’s book and by him was baptized and under him renounced her Christian baptism and God and Christ and owned the Devill to be her God and promised to serve and obey him forever, by which wicked covenant thee the said Elisabeth Johnson is become a detestable witch. [Note: This charge was later dropped. Johnson and others accused of witchcraft were acquitted.]
Ruth Reed being Committed to prison & brought to the barr to Answer for that having binn about fowe yeares in England absent from hir husband and bringing wth hir a child of About two yeares old affirming that she received it at Brandford in England that August in Lyndon who changing his name to John Rogers & hirselfe by the name of Robekah Rogers as she also Affirmed betweene whom seuerall letters wickedly (as if man & wife had passed between them which are on file, and that John Rogers told hir the childs name was John Rogers and most impudently there parts imposing the sajd child on hir husband Wm Read The Court sentenct the sajd Ruth Reed that named hirself Rebeckah Rogers if found in this Colony two month after this date that shee stands in the markett place on a stoole for one hower wth a paper on hir breast wth y inscription THUS I STAND FOR MY ADVLTEROUS AND WHORISH CARRIAGE and that on a lecture day nex after the lecture and then be seuerely whipt wth thirty stripes.
Samuel Guile of Hauerill being Committed to Prison in order to his tryall for Committing a Rape was presented & Indicted by the Grand Jury was brought from the prison to the barr where holding vp his hand was Indicted by the name of Samuel Guile for not having the fear of God before his eyes & being Instigated by the divill did on or about the 25th day of December last in the woods violently & forcibly seize on & Comitt a rape on the body of Mary Ash the wife of John Ash of Amesbury Contrary to the peace of our Soueraigne Lord the King his Croune & dignity of the lawes of God & of this jurisdiction = to which he pleaded not Guilty and put himself on God & the Country = After the indictment & euidences were Read Comitted to the jury & are on file with the Reccords of this Court the Jury brought in yir verdict they found the prisone at the barr Guilty & he accordingly had a sentenc pronounct ag him yow Sam Guile are to Goe from hence to y place from whence yo came & thence to y place of execution & there be hang till yow be dead wch was accordingly donn 16 October 1675. = Six pounds eighteen shillings allowed for y Tresurer to pay newberry men as witnesses out of the state of sajd Guile in his power as also out of the estate to pay unto Mary Ash fiue pounds.
Amy Wellen the indictment being found ag hir by the Grand jury was brought to y barr Refusing to object ag any of y jury trialls holding vp hir hand at y barr was Indicted by y name of Amy Wellen wife to Richard Wellen for not having the feare of god before hir eyes did sometime(s) the last spring being whin a twelve moneth being instigated by the divill comitt Adultery wth Glandfeild of black point in the house of willjam Buttyn of black point Contary to y peace of our Soueraigne Lord his Croune & dignity the lawes of God & of this jurisdiction to wch Indictment she pleaded not guilty & put hirself on tryall by God & the Country After y Indictment & euidences in the Case produced ag the prisoner at the barr were read Comitted to the jury & are on file wth the Reccords of this Cour The Grand Jury found hir not Guilty = & so she was dismist = The Grand Jury finding the like bill ag Jn Glandfeild of black point he was alike tried for Comitting adultery wth Amy Wellen mutatis mutan(dis) & on hearing of all y ev idences he jury found him not Guilty as above & he was (also) dismist.
Modern theonomists will immediately notice that the Massachusetts Puritan’s approach to civil law was mixed. It remains for some ambitious student or historian to cull from the complete trial proceedings the genuine cases of theonomy and to compile a critique of when and how they missed the mark. For the sake of brevity here, I simply conclude that although the Puritans aimed at a theocratic and theonomic ideal, they did not achieve it. An honest historical view must take note of their failure as well as their success.
Theocracy of Ancient Israel: Pattern for Colonial New England
Theonomy is a term for the belief that the moral law of God is to be applied as a standard of righteousness for governing individuals and society. The term comes from the Greek for “God’s law” and is the concept that all of the moral laws (those excluding the non-ceremonial and dietary laws) given to Moses and recorded in the Pentateuch are binding on people of all nations forever. Theonomy posits God’s law as the only just standard for regulations in every human institution: family, church, and state.
Theocracy is the term for a nation ruled by God and God’s law. Theocracy does not imply rule of the state by the church. The proper term here would be an ecclesiocracy. Although the church and the state are separate spheres of government, both are to be ruled by God’s law.
Detractors of theonomy and theocracy like to argue that the civil law and its sanctions were limited to Old Covenant Israel because there was no separation of church and state in Israel’s theocracy. Even a casual survey of the law of Moses disproves this conjecture. The Old Covenant commands that “alien and sojourners” in Israel, even those who were uncircumcised heathen, were bound to the civil law (Lev. 24:22).
Yet these foreigners were not required to keep most of the ceremonial aspects of the Mosaic law (Ex. 12:43,44,48; 9:33; Deut. 14:21). Only the circumcised were allowed to participate in the Passover, the old covenant communion meal. The two “marks of the covenant” separated members of the “church” from members of the “state.” There was also a separation between the priests of the ceremonial law, the Levites, and the magistrates of the civil law, the elders and judges (Lev. 14:35; 27:11; Deut. 1:16; 16:18; 19:12; 21:2; 25:1).
In the New Covenant, the primary purpose of the church is to minister God’s grace in the world. Christ’s commission to the church was to preach salvation to the nations (Matt. 28:18-20). The Apostles were given the keys of the kingdom and the sword of the Spirit, the Word of God, in order to carry out the Great Commission. The state is to be a minister of justice (Rom. 13:1-7). It alone is given the sword of power to execute vengeance on those who would violate the law of God as expressed in the laws of the civil sphere. The church is never to control civil government, but may instruct state proceedings with biblical counsel (Deut. 17:8-13). The church is also expected to train godly men for civil leadership.
The problem, of course, with the colonial Massachusetts “theocracy” was that it was not a true theocracy with separation of powers, but an ecclesiocracy. Cotton Mather wrote: “Yet, after all…in this world a Church-State was impossible, whereinto there enters nothing which defiles.”
On the other hand, it was this experiment with self-government which finally led to the emancipation of the colonies from the tyranny of the British crown in later years. In all fairness to the Massachusetts Puritans, we must realize that they came to the New World at a time when the Protestant Reformation was still very much in progress in England. A unifying and comprehensive church confession describing the relationship between church and state had not been adopted. Connecticut, Plymouth, and Rhode Island experimented with alternate forms of theocracy.
According to 19th century Harvard historian John Fiske: “The spirit in which the Hebrew prophet rebuked and humbled an idolatrous king was a spirit they could comprehend. Such a spirit was sure to manifest itself in cramping measures and in ugly acts of persecution; but it is none the less the fortunate alliance of that fervid religious enthusiasm with the Englishman’s love of self government that our modern freedom owes its existence.” 2
Modern theonomists can neither completely defend the rigidity of the Massachusetts Bay Colony nor completely disparage the attempts towards a godly separation of powers by Roger Williams and the Rhode Island colony. A more honest approach would be to settle on the example of civil liberty found in the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut.
The United States Constitution owes allegiance to Thomas Hooker, more than any other man, for providing a working model of decentralized government, one which had not appeared on the face of the earth since the time of the ancient Hebrews.
The Fundamental Orders of Connecticut was the first biblical covenant in modern times which founded a federal government. The Mayflower Compact was not a constitution, in that it did not define and limit the functions of government. The Magna Charta had the nature of a written constitution because it described the rights of the people, but it did not create a civil government.
This constitution states that Connecticut is submitted to the “Savior and Lord.” There are none of the patronizing references to a “dread sovereign” or a “gracious king” nor the slightest allusion to the authority of British government or any other government over the colony. It presumes Connecticut to be self-governing. It does not describe church membership as a condition for suffrage. In this federation, all powers not granted to the General Court remained in the towns. Each township had equal representation in the General Court. The governor and the council were chosen by a majority vote of the people with almost universal suffrage.
In his sermon to the General Court, May 31, 1638, Hooker said, “The foundation of authority is laid in the free consent of the people…the choice of public magistrates belongs unto the people by God’s own allowance…they who have power to appoint officers and magistrates have the right also to set the bounds and limitations of the power and place unto which they call them.”
John Fiske writes: “It was the first written constitution known to history, that created a government, and it marked the beginnings of the American republic, of which Thomas Hooker deserves more than any other man to be called the father. The government of the United States today is in lineal descent more nearly related to that of Connecticut than to that of any of the other thirteen colonies.” 3
The Hebrew Commonwealth: A Model for Separation of Powers
Christian leaders at the time of the drafting of the U.S. Constitution supported the division of church and state, with no sphere of government impinging upon another sphere. There is a reason why America’s Christian leaders did not seek a return to a government administered by a king.
It was prophesied to the people of Israel by Samuel that this form of government would soon become intrusive (1 Sam. 8). There was to be no monarch but King Jesus. God commanded the model of government instituted by Moses, with tribal elders moderating civil disputes and the Levitical priests enforcing the covenant within the confines of the Tabernacle.
Some have called this model the “Hebrew Commonwealth” and have seen our present constitutional model of government as based on this ideal. In fact, a sermon preached in 1788 had the ratification of the U.S. Constitution in mind: The Republic of the Israelites An Example to the American States by Samuel Langdon. Langdon was prominent in securing the adoption of the Constitution as a delegate to the New Hampshire state convention in 1788.
The New Hampshire Congregationalist minister argues that Deuteronomy 4:5 is a model for our American republic. Thus, in the words of Langdon, we have proof that some representatives who ratified our Constitution were men who believed that: “the Israelites may be considered as a pattern to the world in all ages; …. Let us therefore look over their constitution and laws, enquire into their practice, and observe how their prosperity and fame depended on their strict observance of the divine commands both as to their government and religion.” 4
The Old Covenant basis for the representative congress, the senate, the judicial system, the order of military, the religious and ceremonial observances, the different and weaker forms of government which succeeded that commanded by Moses, and the complete revelation supplied by Jesus Christ, are all expounded on by Langdon and then applied to the newly birthed American Republic. There are comparisons between Moses as Israelite general and Washington as our military leader, the twelve tribes and our thirteen colonies. Soon after this sermon was published the U.S. Constitution was ratified by New Hampshire.
Contribution of the First Great Awakening
Puritanism was carried into our form of civil government through the First Great Awakening by the waking up of the minds of all classes. The Awakening produced a general discussion of the principles of freedom and human rights, the habit of contending for rights with religious zeal, and the preparation of the mind for all questions pertaining to civil government in the American colonies. The very word “constitution” was carried into America’s political discussion by the Puritans. To the Puritan mind, “constitution” is synonymous with “covenant” or “compact.”
We can view the First Great Awakening of 1740 as the impetus for issuing the Declaration of Independence to King George III in 1776. While it would be stretching the truth to say that the Declaration of Independence was a civil covenant, it is obvious that the structure of the document had Puritan covenantalism in mind.
Although it is true that there was a strong deistic influence at the time of the signing of the Declaration, there is no question that there were the residual effects of strong Puritan influence. The American Revolution could not have occurred without the 150-year-old Puritan foundation in America.
Thomas Jefferson, a man described by his contemporaries as “a French infidel in respect to religion,” was indebted to the Puritans for his model of civil government. The evangelical explosion of the Great Awakening in Puritan New England provided the seeds for the first Baptist churches to be planted in Episcopal Virginia, which held to a Calvinistic theology and a congregational form of church government. Jefferson gained his first clear idea of a republican government from seeing the congregationalism of a Baptist church in his vicinity. It was good politics, too, since he strengthened his state party’s stance among the people through an alliance with the Baptists and all friends of religious freedom. 5
The Jeffersonian distinction between church and state is very different from the idea promoted in our day. The very phrase “separation of church and state” is very misleading. It is not a constitutional phrase but it came afterward in the writings of Jefferson. It originated as a Calvinist/Puritan distinction between the spheres of authority of church and civil government.
The church and the state are separate spheres of governmental authority. Separation of church and state does not mean separation of the civil sphere from God and God’s law.
The issue is not whether the church should intrude on the state’s affairs. The church should not. Neither should the state intrude on the church’s affairs. But Jesus Christ intercedes in the affairs of both. Civil government is not secular, it still stands under the moral Law of God. This was the understanding of many American legislators until the 20th century.
1. Maggie Mulvihill, “Bewitching Find Shocks Historians,” The Boston Herald , July 9, 1996, pp.1, 6, 7.
2. John Fiske, The Beginnings of New England or The Puritan Theocracy in its Relations to Civil Law and Religious Liberty , illustrated edition (Houghton, Mifflin and Company, Boston and New York, 1889), p. 274.
3. Ibid , pp. 137, 140.
4. Ellis Sandoz, ed., Political Sermons of the American Founding Era (Liberty Fund, Indianapolis, 1990), p. 946.
5 Joseph Tracy, The Great Awakening (Tappan and Dennet, Boston, 1842),