Godly Republicanism

Article by   February 2014
WinshipGodlyRepublicanism93.jpgMichael P. Winship. Godly Republicanism: Puritans, Pilgrims, and a City on a Hill. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013, 339 pp. $45.00/£32.00

Michael Winship's Godly Republicanism offers an engaging, meticulously-researched tale of the religious zealots whose conscientious scruples helped give birth to a new political tradition, and eventually a new nation. With a detective's dedication and eye for detail, Winship traces the radical puritan tradition from its beginnings in Elizabethan England, through its further radicalization in the Netherlands during the reign of James, and on across the storm-tossed North Atlantic to the New World of Plymouth Plantation and the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  Merely to keep track of the various parties of passionately-held religious opinion in this movement that was so prone to division is no small feat: Winship invites us to attend, with as much care as these anxious and scrupulous emigrants did, to the differences between Presbyterian puritans, moderate Congregationalist puritans, militant non-separating Congregationalists, moderate separatists, and radical separatists.  (For a good summary of these different categories, see Mark Noll's illuminating review--although he takes some liberties by formalizing the classification beyond what is actually in Winship's book). Although this may make for a bit of tedium at times, it bears fruit in a very illuminating analysis of just what these first New England settlers thought they were up to, and how their disparate aims coalesced into a coherent religious and political vision in 1630's Massachusetts.

Winship's main theses--that the early settlement at Plymouth Plantation was crucial for the formation of the American colonies' religious and political vision, and that these two, puritan opposition to religious tyranny and to political tyranny, were deeply bound together--may seem unsurprising and unoriginal to your average non-specialist reader. But they are in fact quite controversial among historians of the period, and much of Winship's book is thus taken up with a lot of inside ball that may go over most readers' heads. So it may be helpful to flesh out some of the controversial claims at stake. There are at least three, and to my mind, Winship is quite right on two of them, though I have some qualms about the third.

First, Winship explains that, for all the Pilgrims' prominence within popular culture, most historians have followed the great mid 20th-century scholar of New England puritanism, Perry Miller, in claiming that the Plymouth colony was "pathetically unimportant," with little real influence on the development of John Winthrop's Massachusetts Bay Colony (established 1628-30). As a corollary, most have also claimed (again following Miller) that the separatist tradition represented by Plymouth had very little influence on the development of New England religious life, which instead drew its inspiration chiefly from more mainstream Congregationalist puritanism. Although I have no specialist knowledge of early New England, Winship's painstaking collation of evidence to the contrary appears quite compelling, re-establishing Plymouth Plantation, and the more radical separatist tradition it represented, as central players in the formation of Puritan New England.

Second, Winship argues for a close relationship of religious and political concerns in this period: the concern for a godly religious life, untainted by the corruptions of anti-Christ, spilled over into the development of a godly republicanism. In short, he argues that the Massachusetts colonists fulfilled impulses that had been latent in the puritan movement from the beginning, by erecting "precisely what English monarchs from Elizabeth to Charles I suspected that puritans always wanted, a republican government" (p.194). Indeed, in his last two chapters, he takes on historians of political thought like J.G.A. Pocock in arguing that this puritan "godly republican" impulse was dominant even in thought of many of those seen to be the fathers of a more secular strain of early modern republicanism, like Algernon Sidney. Again, this basic line of argument may seem unsurprising to many non-specialist readers, particularly in America, who may be accustomed to popular narratives tying together puritanism, republicanism and liberty in church and state.  However, such narratives have been largely out of fashion in the academy for at least fifty years--both for good reasons, as scholars have taken more seriously the claims of many puritans to be politically conservative, and for bad reasons, as scholars like Pocock and Quentin Skinner have imagined that religious commitments and political ideas are thoroughly separate domains. It is certainly high time for a re-reassessment, and Winship's work is very helpful on this score.

Third, and related to the previous point, Winship's book represents something of a full frontal assault on the interpretive school known as "revisionism," particularly in its first few chapters.  "Revisionism," so-called for its attempt to revise the old standard narrative that saw puritanism as a seditious movement that eventually led to revolution and the English Civil War, arose in the 1970s and 1980s following the groundbreaking work of Nicholas Tyacke and Patrick Collinson, and put puritanism squarely in the mainstream of English religious life in the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras. Revisionists argued that scholars had been overly preoccupied with the radical writings of the more radical wing of the puritan movement, and had thus failed to see how many puritans successfully made peace with the status quo, particularly during the comparatively benign reign of James, and even found their way to central positions of ecclesiastical power (i.e., it would not be unreasonable to label Archbishop of Canterbury George Abbot as a Puritan).  While there were subversive tendencies within puritanism that found expression in some fringe figures, the movement as such was not necessarily subversive, and the strife of the 1640's was precipitated by Laud's tyranny and innovations, not "godly republicanism."  

Winship clearly thinks that revisionism may have been a useful corrective, but it has run its course, and it is high time to re-emphasize the more radical wing of puritanism. To be sure, it may have largely remained a marginal underground fringe within England, though Winship clearly thinks that even in the halcyon days of James's reign, puritans were hardly so comfortably assimilated as some revisionists have suggested. However, by its export to the New World (from which it subsequently radiated influence back to England in the fateful 1630's and 1640's), argues Winship, the more radical wing of puritanism attained a historical significance far disproportionate to its size.  

I am sympathetic to Winship's anti-revisionism here, as I do think that the fashion for emphasizing the most moderate and mainstream puritans has resulted in a tendency to gloss over the deep radicalism and political implications of the movement. My concern is perhaps more with the myopic lens that Winship adopts for his treatment of this period. Winship announces his intention to read radical puritanism from the inside, coming to grips with their own self-perception. He admits that "the main actors in Godly Republicanism, radical puritans and separatists, occupied a narrow band on the religious spectrum of early modern England. Actors elsewhere along that spectrum . . . are seen mostly from the perspective of this particular group" (p.11). This methodological asceticism enables Winship to illuminate the internal contours of the movement more clearly than most scholars have, but it can also give non-expert readers a very skewed perception of the period. The remarkable achievements of conforming puritans in this period, and the possibilities it held for renewal of the Church of England from within, are basically neglected, and presented as doomed to failure (since this is how radical separatists saw them).  Worse still, the whole of Stuart Anglicanism is seen through the jaundiced eye of the radical puritans as a cesspool of anti-Christ, rather than the extraordinary blossoming of Protestant Christendom that it in many ways was during the reign of James. To be sure, Winship does not really himself affirm that it was the monolithic mass of popery and tyranny that the radicals perceived them to be, but given that even such a church historian as Mark Noll (see the review linked above) seems to have been misled on the basis of Winship's book into saying, "Stuart Anglicans were the monarchs, James I and Charles I, and their bishops who opposed Calvinism, promoted Arminian theology, and moved toward Catholicism in their rituals," perhaps Winship should have done more to offer a more objective assessment.  

Before closing, though, I want to leave behind these historiographical battlegrounds and suggest some larger implications of Winship's study for contemporary American Protestants. Many of us (perhaps particularly among the Reformed) have long been accustomed to proudly claiming the radical puritans as our theological and political ancestors, champions of freedom in both church and state, men who laid the first foundations of our cherished American republic. Winship's narrative helps ensure that we may continue to claim them as having left a deep mark on the American psyche and political system. But his microscopic attention to the petty feuds, pharisaical scrupulosity, and fevered apocalypticism of the radical puritan mind may cause us to wonder just how much we may want to claim them. Even the most moderate figures within the spectrum that Winship surveys, Elizabethan Presbyterians like Cartwright, espoused an ecclesiology that lay on the fringes of the Reformed tradition, whereas the founders of the Massachusetts colonies seem to have moved beyond it entirely. Winship's study appears to vindicate the early worries of Elizabethan churchmen that puritanism was tending toward Anabaptism, Donatism, and an unstable dialectic of legalism and libertinism. What all this means is that the various attempts of Reformed historical theologians to posit some Fall within American Protestantism--the Second Great Awakening, or the First, or the Halfway Covenant, depending on whom you ask--that took it from the Reformational mainstream into an individualistic sectarianism, are doomed; at least in its influential New England form, Protestantism was already sub-Reformational sectarianism at the outset.  

Likewise, while these radical puritans certainly did bequeath certain conceptions of political liberty to their American descendants, it appears that this legacy includes many of the more unsavory tendencies of American political culture.  For all its virtues, theirs was the rugged, militant, "my way or the highway" kind of liberty which does little to foster co-existence.  Moreover, it proceeded less from a sober evaluation of the dangers of excessive power, and more from a reflexive paranoia of authorities, and a propensity to attribute all the evils of the age to them, sharpened by millenarian hopes that, such abuses abolished, they could establish something close to Christ's kingdom on earth. The legacy of these tendencies and this over-realized eschatology can still be seen today in America's Christian Right. Winship's Godly Republicanism thus inadvertently provides a valuable mirror for today's "godly Republicans" to hold up to themselves, and will hopefully invite us to a critical engagement with our puritan ancestors, lauding their courage and dedication to conscience, while rejecting their legacy of libertine legalism

Brad Littlejohn holds a Ph.D from the University of Edinburgh and is the Managing Editor, Political Theology Today, the General Editor, The Mercersburg Theology Study Series and can be found writing regularly at www.swordandploughshare.com

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