John Cotton, Letter to Lord Say and Sele (1636).


[
Lord Say and Seal (one man) was an English nobleman sympathetic to the Puritans and even contemplated moving to New England. He became disturbed when he had heard that Massachusetts denied the right to be a magistrate (political office) unless one was a church member. Rev. John Cotton's reply outlined the Puritan views on citizenship, and the role of the church and ministers in civil and political society.]

 

Right Honourable,

... I am very apt to believe, what Mr. Perkins hath, in one of his prefatory pages to his golden chaine, that the word, and scriptures of God do contain a short upoluposis, or platforme, not onely of theology, but also of other sacred sciences, (as he calleth them) attendants, and handmaids thereunto, which he maketh ethicks, eoconomicks, politicks, church-government, prophecy, academy. It is very suitable to God's all-sufficient wisdome, and to the fulnes and perfection of Holy Scriptures, not only to prescribe perfect rules for the right ordering of a private man's soule to everlasting blessednes with himselfe, but also for the right ordering of a man's family, yea, of the commonwealth too, so far as both of them are subordinate to spiritual ends, and yet avoide both the churches' usurpation upon civill jurisdictions, . . . and the commonwealth's invasion upon ecclesiasticall administrations, in ordine to civill peace, and conformity to the civill state. God's institutions (such as the government of church and of commonwealth be) may be close and compact, and co-ordinate one to another, and yet not confounded. God hath so framed the state of church government and ordinances, that they may be compatible to any common-wealth, though never so much disordered in his frame. But yet when a commonwealth hath liberty to mould his owne frame . . . I conceive the scripture hath given full direction for the right ordering of the same, and that, in such sort as may best maintain the [vigor] of the church. Mr. Hooker doth often quote a saying out of Mr. Cartwright (though I have not read it in him) that no man fashioneth his house to his hangings, but his hangings to his house. It is better that the commonwealth be fashioned to the setting forth of God's house, which is his church: than to accommodate the church frame to the civill state. Democracy, I do not conceive that ever God did ordain as a fit government either for church or commonwealth. If the people be governors, who shall be governed? As for monarchy, and aristocracy, they are both of them clearely approved, and directed in scripture, yet so as referreth the sovereignty to himselfe, and setteth up Theocracy in both, as the best form of government in the commonwealth, as well as in the church.

The law, which your Lordship instanceth in (that none shall be chosen to magistracy among us but a church member) was made and enacted before I came into the country; but I have hitherto wanted sufficient light to plead against it. 1st. The rule that directeth the choice of supreame governors, is of like equity and weight in all magistrates, that one of their brethren (not a stranger) should be set over them, Deut. 17. 15. and Jethro's counsell to Moses was approved of God, that the judges, and officers to be set over the people, should be men fearing God, Exod. 18. 21. and Solomon maketh it the joy of a commonwealth, when the righteous are in authority, and their mourning when the wicked rule, Prov. 29. 21. Job 34:30. Your Lordship's feare, that this will bring in papal excommunication, is just, and pious: but let your Lordship be pleased againe to consider whether the consequence be necessary. . . . nonmembership may be a just cause of non-admission to the place of magistracy. A godly woman, being to make choice of an husband, may justly refuse a man that is either cast out of church fellowship, or is not yet received into it, but yet, when she is once given to him, she may not reject him then, for such defect. Mr. Humfrey was chosen for an assistant (as I heare) before the colony came over hither: and, though he be not as yet joined into church fellowship (by reason of the unsetlednes of the congregation where he liveth) yet the commonwealth do still continue his magistracy to him, as knowing he waiteth for oppertunity of enioying church fellowship shortly.

When your Lordship doubteth, that this course will draw all things under the determination of the church, . . . (seeing the church is to determine who shall be members, and none but a member may have to do in the government of a commonwealth) be pleased (I pray you) to conceive, that magistrates are neither chosen to office in the church, nor do governe by directions from the church, but by civill lawes, and those enacted in generall courts, and executed in courts of iustice, by the governors and assistants. In all which, the church (as the church) hath nothing to do: onely, it prepareth fit instruments both to rule, and to choose rulers, which is no ambition in the church, nor dishonor to the commonwealth, the apostle, on the contrary, thought it a great dishonor and reproach to the church of Christ, if it were not able to yield able judges to heare and determine all causes amongst their brethren, I Cor. 6. 1 to 5 which place alone seemeth to me fully to decide this question: for it plainely holdeth forth this argument: It is a shame to the church to want able judges of civill matters (as v. 5.) and an audacious act in any church member voluntarily to go for judgment, otherwhere than before the saints (as v. 1.) then it will be no arrogance nor folly in church members, nor prejudice to the commonwealth, if voluntarily they never choose any civill judges, but from amongst the saints, such as church members are called to be. But the former is cleare: and how then can the latter be avoyded. . . . What pity and grief were it, that the observance of the will of Christ should hinder good things from us!

. . . Nor neede your Lordship feare (which yet I speake with submission to your Lordships better judgment) that this course will lay such a foundation, as nothing but a mere democracy can be built upon it. . . . where a people choose their owne governors; yet the government is not a democracy, if it be administered, not by the people, but by the governors, whether one (for then it is a monarchy, though elective) or by many, for then (as you know) it is aristocracy. In which respect it is, that church government is justly denyed . . . to be democratical, though the people choose their owne officers and rulers.

Nor neede we feare, that this course will, in time, cast the commonwealth into distractions, and popular confusions. For (under correction) these three things do not undermine, but do mutually and strongly maintain one another (even those three which we principally aim at) authority in magistrates, liberty in people, purity in the church. Purity, preserved in the church, will preserve well ordered liberty in the people, and both of them establish well-balanced authority in the magistrates. God is the author of all these three, and neither is himselfe the God of confusion, nor are his ways the ways of confusion, but of peace....

Now the Lord Jesus Christ (the prince of peace) keepe and bless your Lordship, and dispose of all your times and talents to his best advantage: and let the covenant of his grace and peace rest upon your honourable family and posterity throughout all generations.

Thus, humbly craving pardon for my boldnesse and length, I take leave and rest,

Your Honours to serve in Christ Jesus, J. C. [John Cotton]


Source: Thomas Hutchinson, History of the Massachusetts Bay Colony (Boston, 1764), vol. 1, appendix 3. *Some spelling has been modernized.

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