Date of Completion

January 1987


Religion, History of|American Studies|History, United States|Political Science, Public Administration




The Puritans ventured to Massachusetts to establish the balanced form of church government which, they believed, was prescribed in the Bible. From the beginning, they succeeded in creating this "mixed" system. Though ministers wielded greater managing power in making decisions within local churches, members also enjoyed the liberties and responsibilities of "mutual watchfulness," doctrinal understanding and oversight, and the right to participate in and consent to all church decisions.^ In contrast to the findings of previous historians, who, relying upon clerical claims, asserted that ministers responded to New World events by seizing power from the laity, this dissertation analyzes church practices drawn from church records and suggests that lay and clerical roles remained largely unchanged during the first generation. The Antinomian controversy, often cited as a turning point in church government, was short-lived and quickly healed; it did not motivate ministers to redraw the balance of church authority. A far more important event was the adoption of the Cambridge Platform, a description of New England church government that the laity came to regard as a constitution guaranteeing their rights.^ Significant changes in lay-clerical relations began with the adoption of the "half-way covenant" in 1662. This innovation in baptism requirements divided ministers and lay people alike. Disenchanted church members began to question their minister's authority in church affairs, motivating clergymen to attempt institutional changes to cope with congregational disorder. Lay people were forced to choose between defending their rights and the Cambridge Platform or deferring to the elders. Given that the elders themselves became increasingly divided over church issues, most members fought to defend their liberties against ministerial "tyranny."^ By the 1730s, church government had become an arena of contention between ministers and lay people, a development exacerbated by the Great Awakening. Ministers responded by turning church government over to the laity and devoting their attention to preaching. By the middle of the eighteenth century, five generations of churchgoers had been steeped in concepts of limitations on human authority and the necessity of preserving God-ordained liberties. Lay participation in church government thus created in Massachusetts a fertile ground for a republican ideology. ^