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The Puritan Idea of the Covenant

Period: 1600-1860

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A central element in Puritan social and theological life was the notion of the covenant. All social relationships--between God and man, ministers and congregations, magistrates and members of their community, and men and their families--were envisioned in terms of a covenant or contract which rested on consent and mutual responsibilities.

For example, seventeenth-century New England churches were formed by a voluntary agreement among the members, who elected their own ministers. Similarly, the governments in Plymouth Colony (before it merged with Massachusetts) and in New Haven Colony (before it merged with Connecticut) were based on covenants. In each seventeenth-century New England colony, government itself rested on consent. Governors and legislative assemblies were elected, usually annually, by the freemen of the colony. In contrast, England appointed Virginia's governor, while in Maryland, the governor was appointed by the Calvert family, which owned the colony. Even marriage itself was regarded as a covenant. Connecticut granted nearly a thousand divorces between 1670 and 1799.

In this famous essay written aboard the Arabella during his passage to New England in 1630, John Winthrop (1606-1676) proclaims that the Puritan had made a covenant with God to establish a truly Christian community, in which the wealthy were to show charity and avoid exploiting their neighbors while the poor were to work diligently. If they abided by this covenant, God would make them an example with the world--a "city upon a hill." But if they broke the covenant, the entire community would feel God's wrath.

In his stress on the importance of a stable community and reciprocal obligations between rich and poor, Winthrop was implicitly criticizing disruptive social and economic changes that were rapidly transforming English society. As a result of the enclosure of traditional common lands, which were increasingly used to raise sheep, many rural laborers were thrown off the land, producing a vast floating population. As many as half of all village residents left their community each decade. In his call for tightly-knit communities and families, Winthrop was striving to recreate a social ideal that was breaking down in England itself.

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