Fed up with a British system of civil law in which people were subjected to the arbitrary and tyrannical dictates of many unelected officials, John Cotton began his abstract for a system of laws in New England with a requirement drawn from Mosaic political doctrine: “ALL magistrates are to be chosen. Deut. 1:13, 17, 15.” This was actually part of the glory of Mosaic law, as it was a God-ordained system superior to that of men. Popular election of judges was seen as one mark of that superiority. As Calvin said, preaching on this passage, God “meant to have them to bee in better and more excellent state, than any of their neighbors, who had kings and Princes.”1
Unfortunately, this view was forgotten, if not suppressed, by modernity, and “enlightened” scholars could only seem to find the concept of popular election within the sources of their own inbred scholarly communities. Suddenly, “democracy” was a product of humanistic advances, and could only be thought of as a humanistic advance, while memories of Puritanism were papered over with memes of scarlet letters, strictures, and the stocks.
The worst part about it is that Christians, too, began to believe this utter nonsense by default. They have been trained to think of God’s Laws as harsh and unworkable, while anything resembling freedom and popular consent must stem from the advances of humanism. As we shall see, this is not only wrong, but the saddest hurt in all of it is that so many Christians prefer to embrace the humanistic narrative and system rather that the system once laid out by men like John Cotton under the lead of elected leaders derived from Deuteronomy.
“Democratic . . . not theocratic”
In conjunction with a recent and ridiculous conspiracy theory about American Vision and Theonomy, we heard arguments that the theonomic teachings of early American Puritans—such as Nathaniel Appleton, James Dana, and Samuel Langdon—were the view of a “tiny minority” and were “roundly rejected.”
Exhibited in these arguments was the fact that the first stateside system of laws of Connecticut, the Fundamental Orders, was “predicated by a stirring sermon by Thomas Hooker” who “demanded from his Scriptural perspective a highly valued democratic – and not theocratic – rendering of authority vested in the civil magistrate under the will of a common people. . . .”
Again it is argued that “The sermon virtually establishing the first legal system of Connecticut and preached by Hooker was a championing of democratic principles” with which “founder of theonomy, RJ Rushdoony would violently disagree.”
While this presentation of Hooker may sound impressive to some, there is hardly a germ of truth in any of it. As it is, these claims stand as nothing more than examples of 1) how Christians ought not to do history, and 2) the alliance with humanism to which anti-Theonomy so often drives them. In this article, we will examine the first of these problems.
The truth about Hooker’s sermon
Thomas Hooker did indeed preach a sermon in 1638 before—although a whopping six months before—the adoption of the Fundamental Orders, and that sermon did, apparently, make reference to popular election of rulers. That much is true. But pretty much everything else in the argument is interpolation. Worse, it is a highly uncritical interpolation derived from liberal humanist spin.
The writer in question bases his claims on an article by ConnecticutHistory.org which argues,
“The foundation of authority is laid firstly in the free consent of people.” That principle lies at the heart of the representative system by which the United States has governed itself for more than two centuries.
But when the Reverend Thomas Hooker declared those words in a sermon in Hartford on May 31, 1638, they were a radical concept.
This website is run by the Connecticut Humanities Council which is funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Its particular spin in this article, although not equally awful in every aspect, rests on outdated and myopic Enlightenment scholarship, and this view has encountered serious problems. These problems have not been related by either the website itself or the Christian blogger repeating it.
The actual sermon
First, we have no actual record that Thomas Hooker “declared these words.” We have no written text of this sermon. The sole record we have of it is a few shorthand notes taken by one member of the congregation who heard it. While we can make good guesses about what Hooker preached about based on these notes, any statement being made of what words he actually said are being made without evidence. We have no evidence of any direct quotation of Hooker’s famous sermon anywhere.
The Christian critic who repeated these ideas should have known better. After all, he also linked to a scholarly paper by Michael Besso, “Thomas Hooker and His May 1638 Sermon,” in which the very first page, second sentence, alerts the reader to this problem. The paper then actually relates the sparse remains for the sermon so you can see just what a limited resource we are dealing with. Here they are in their entirety:
2 book 4 sermon by Mr Hooker at Hartford May 31 1638
text Deuteronomy 1 13 choose you wise men and understanding and known among your tribes and I will make them heads over you captains over thousands captains over hundreds 50 10
doctrine that the choice of public magistrates belongs unto the people by Gods own allowance
2 doctrine the privilege of election which belongs to the people it must not be exercised according to their humors but according to the blessed will and law of God
3 doctrine they who have power to appoint officers and magistrates it is in their power also to set the bounds and limits of the power and places unto which they call them
1st 1 1 reason because the foundation of authority is laid 1stly in the free consent of people
2 reason because by a free choice the hearts of the people will be more inclined to the love of the persons and more ready to yield obedience
3 reason because of that duty and engagement of the people
use 3 fold 1 here is matter of thankful acknowledgement in the apprehension of Gods faithfulness towards us and the promotion of those mercies that God doth command and vouchsafe
2 use of reproof to dash the conceits of all those that shall oppose it
3 use of exhortation to persuade us as God hath given us liberty to take it
doctrine that the wants of all creatures in general and of man in particular are great and numberless
last use what course we should take we should take [sic] to supply our great wants
That’s it. Nothing else exists. And keep in mind, these are third party shorthand. While we should acknowledge that these notes do say “the foundation of authority is laid 1stly in the free consent of people,” these are not Hooker’s words and thus should not be attributed as what he “declared.”
The substance of the sermon
We can readily admit, however, that the substance of the thought of popular consent is in these notes, but it is hardly in any context that is 1) “not theocratic,” 2) objectionable to theonomists, or 3) “virtually establishing the first legal system of Connecticut.”
The rest of Besso’s paper goes on to argue the thesis that the sermon was not some radical promotion of democratic principles, but rather nothing more than the standard religious view Reformed theologians had gleaned from Deuteronomy since at least Calvin.
This thesis is evidenced by multiple facts. First, these so-called revolutionary “democratic” principles had been around for a long time in Reformed thought, and were in fact already developing in Connecticut since it was originally founded.2 Second, this refutes the claim that Hooker was anti-theocratic. After all, it is a sermon expounding Deuteronomy 1:13. It is hard to get more “theocratic” in the American Puritan sense than exegeting Moses and urging the people and the government to follow the Mosaic example. And this exegesis was hardly new. As we said, Calvin preached this exact point (see American Vision’s excerpt from Calvin’s sermon on this same passage) as early as 1555—eighty years before Hooker.
Calvin’s point in part had been that in selecting our leaders, we must choose qualified, godly men, and view our right to vote as a gift from God to be exercised as a duty and a responsibility before God. The votes and the men must be held accountable to the law of God. Anyone examining the notes on Hooker’s sermon above will see that same thrust. His sermon was not a plea for democratic elections where none existed—such already existed and were assumed to be a great blessing from God. Instead, the thrust of the message is that these elections are “by Gods allowance” and that “the privilege of election which belongs to the people it must not be exercised according to their humors but according to the blessed will and law of God”—the exact same point Calvin had made. In short, whatever in this can be called “democratic” must nevertheless be subject to the rule and law of God—i.e., theocracy.
So it is clear Hooker was no proto-democrat. And Besso is not alone in this assessment, as his paper and footnotes indicate. The “Hooker the democrat” view had been propounded by one-sided Enlightenment rationalists since the 19th century, but it was derided and smashed by the great American history scholars of later generations. Clinton Rossiter, for example, mocked the grandiose claims made on such scant evidence:
Once upon a time in Hartford, Connecticut, lived a wonderful man named Thomas Hooker. The undisputed facts of this man’s life are so few that many accounts of him seem almost like fairy tales. No one knows what he looked like, yet two splendid statues of him gaze out sternly over the bustling of the insurance peddlers. No one knows where he rests in dust, but a gravestone proclaims his triumphs and talents.3
Rossiter goes on to quote history giant Perry Miller, who in his own article serves a stinging rebuke to the “democratic Hooker” view:
For some time historians have hailed the Fundamental Orders as a divine prototype of the Federal Constitution, and have presented Thomas Hooker to us as a sort of John the Baptist to Thomas Jefferson. Certain writers seem to hear the founder of Connecticut chanting the opening bars of the democratic motif in the American historical symphony, while Winthrop and the Massachusetts rulers, in perfect counterpoint, introduce the oligarchical theme.
He warns us, however: “The true historian, however, will not rest content with the pronouncements of his elders, and the suspicious simplicity of this facile contrast between the two centers of early New England life has long cried for more critical analysis.”4
Such a concern for critical analysis seems not to have occurred to our anti-Theonomy blogger, for he fell right into the “suspicious simplicity of this facile contrast” between Hooker with the alleged “tiny minority” that included John Cotton. The truth is, as Miller notes, they were all of the same party. Cotton and Hooker came over on the same ship.5 Indeed, Hooker’s own congregation once called Cotton to be their minister, though Cotton declined and the position fell to mutual-friend Samuel Stone.6 These men considered each other virtually interchangeable, and there is virtually no evidence that their views on law or mosaic political theory were much dissimilar.
Finally, in this vein, church history giant Sydney Ahlstrom reviewed the fray and rejected the “democratic Hooker” view as “surpassing nonsense.”7 He went on to relate another anecdote from Miller’s work. This comes only after noting the liberal view of Louis Parrington, who wrote:
The leaders of the emigration to the Connecticut valley [he said] were liberals, who believed that everything should be done decently and in order but who were determined that the outcome of such decent ordering should be a free church in a free state; so while Roger Williams was engaged in erecting the democracy of Rhode Island, Thomas Hooker was as busily engaged in erecting the democracy of Hartford.8
Quick to expose the fallacy of such a view, Ahlstrom related that Miller
denied that Hooker was a democratic pioneer, and in a recent introduction to that earlier essay Miller put the matter even more strongly: “. . . my critics . . . blandly assert that the truth lies somewhere in the ‘middle,’ between Parrington and me. On this matter there is no middle. Parrington simply did not know what he was talking about.”9
It appears that our critic did not read any of this scholarly background, and did not even read the one paper he posted (Besso). (Unfortunately, you probably will not get to either, as it will probably be removed soon since it was apparently posted in violation of copyright law.) Not only does the paper mitigate against the “democratic Hooker” view, the scholarly reviews thoroughly eviscerate it and leave us with a picture of Hooker as a very mainstream American Puritan, and a close friend and associate of the very John Cotton to whom he is so often contrasted.
Theonomy and popular election
It should not surprise us that the coup de grace for this uncritical view, then, comes from Cotton. Allegedly held in stark contrast to the “democratic” Hooker, and as a representative of a tiny, rejected minority view, Cotton’s openly theonomic, “theocratic,” proposal for Massachusetts law published in Moses His Judicials opens in Chapter 1, Section 1 with . . . remember? This sentence:
1. ALL magistrates are to be chosen. Deut. 1:13, 17, 15. [My emphasis—JM.]
Same view as Calvin. Same as Hooker’s allegedly “democratic . . . not theocratic” sermon. And, it’s the same as every theonomist would say and has always said.
For example, R.J. Rushdoony would allegedly “violently disagree” with the “democratic” style of Hooker’s sermon, but his comments on the same passage, Deuteronomy 1:9–18, show quite otherwise. He writes,
In. vv. 9–16, the required form of government in church and state is set forth. What God requires is the reverse of the normal or usual form, which is from the top down. Rule by an elite at the top is an ancient pattern as well as a modern one. In Plato’s Republic, it is held to be the only valid form, i.e., rule by philosopher-kings. These men are an unelected elite; they are under no law: their will determines all things. This is, of course, the pattern of Marxism and Fascism, and also of the so-called European Community, which is governed by unelected rulers and whose law is their will.
God’s requirement is government from the bottom up in terms of His law. It begins with the self-government of the Christian man, with the family as a government, the church, the school, a person’s vocation, society and its various voluntary groups and agencies, and, finally, civil government, one government among many.10
The critic attempts to divert attention from this standard Reformed view among theonomists by quoting Rushdoony in opposition that “democracy” which “…came into existence as revivals of paganism and as anti-Christian movements, whatever their ostensible claims otherwise.” Thus Theonomy is allegedly at odds with “democracy.”
The fact that this quotation is edited ought to alert our seasoned readers to the likelihood of the type of tampering of which we’ve seen so many inexcusable examples recently. Indeed, here is yet another selectively edited quotation created to hide an equivocation. The rest of the quotation makes obvious that Rushdoony was not talking about the principle of bottom-up election of leaders for which Hooker, Calvin, Cotton, et al called, but rather pure democracy as a system of statism:
The question of freedom is first of all a question of sovereignty and of responsibility. Who is sovereign, and to whom is man responsible? This source of sovereignty is also the source of freedom. If sovereignty resides in God and is only held ministerially by men, then the basic responsibility of ruler and ruled is to God, who is also the source of freedom. But if sovereignty resides in the state, whether a monarchy or democracy, man has no appeal beyond the law of the state, and no source of ethics apart from it. He is totally responsible to that order and has only those rights which the state chooses to confer upon him. The word comprehend means both “to contain” and “to understand.” That which contains man is also the source of our understanding of man. If man is a creature of the state, then he is to be understood in terms of the state. Aristotle’s man, a social animal, can never transcend his political order. Christian man, however, created in the image of God, cannot be contained in anything short of God’s eternal decree and order, nor understood except in terms of God Himself. Man therefore is not understandable in terms of man but in terms of God. Absolute monarchy and democracy, statism in other words, came into existence as revivals of paganism and as anti-Christian movements, whatever their ostensible claims to the contrary may be.11
The difference is clear. Not only is it clear, but based on what we’ve read from them, we can rest assured Hooker, Cotton, and Calvin himself would have heralded a hardly “Amen!” to Rushdoony’s teaching here.
In fact, we can rest quite assured of that in Hooker’s case. As Besso’s paper points out, a later sermon further qualifies the views so often mistakenly regarded as “radical” and “democratic” in his famous one. And please note, while the famous sermon actually took place over six months before the acceptance of Connecticut’s Fundamental Orders, this one took place just a few weeks prior. Besso writes that, far from being a radical democrat,
Hooker clearly embraced the full authority of the colonial leaders over the populace. This is evident in a sermon he preached on December 26, 1638. The text of that sermon—delivered within a month of the January 1639 adoption of the Fundamental Orders—was Romans 13:5, which concerns the authority of civil leaders. . . . The people owed an oath of fidelity to the magistrates; the magistrates had the duty to punish those who opposed subjection.
The December 1638 sermon establishes that Hooker was in no way a simple advocate for a “people first” political order. Rather, it demonstrates that he appreciated the various aspects of recent political developments. In May and December 1638 Hooker did not rise in the pulpit to provide a guide for the Fundamental Orders. He instead attempted, on both occasions, to bring a Christian perspective to considerations about the political order. By reminding all—magistrates and populace—that issues of politics were subordinate to and guided by God’s word, he could have hoped to preserve and foster a civil society that, in the context of these political developments, made possible the continued commitment to the Puritan religious cause.12
This article covers some of the basic facts regarding the real nature of Thomas Hooker’s 1638 sermon, his relationship to John Cotton, and the comparison of both to the teachings of modern Theonomy. Further questions need to be addressed: why did Massachusetts not adopt Cotton’s abstract of laws? There is a simple answer to this which can be addressed later. Here just need to see hard far spun the secular humanists view has been. That answer will highlight a problem that has beset Christians throughout Christian history, and which lies behind the tyrannies we suffer, as well as the opposition to Theonomy, today. The real question that needs addressed in light of that is this: when it comes to God’s law for civil government, why do some Christians flee to the liberals’ historiography, method, and conclusions so readily and uncritically?
Readers following these interactions can learn a powerful lesson from all of this—and that lesson has nothing to do with repeated blows to the solar plexus for certain vulnerable critics. It is rather that anti-Theonomy in general is a powerful, deluding force: it makes liberals act like conscienceless tyrants, and it makes Christians act like liberals.
We will discuss how that works a little more later this week.
- Quoted in Michael Besso, “Thomas Hooker and His May 1638 Sermon,” Early American Studies (Winter 2012): 210.(↩)
- Besso, “Thomas Hooker and His May 1638 Sermon,” Early American Studies (Winter 2012): 195.(↩)
- Clinton Rossiter, “Thomas Hooker,” The New England Quarterly, 25/4 (Dec. 1952): 459.(↩)
- Perry Gilbert Miller, “Thomas Hooker and the Democracy of Early Connecticut,” The New England Quarterly 4/4 (Oct. 1931): 663–664.(↩)
- Miller, 667.(↩)
- Miller, 675–676.(↩)
- Sydney E. Ahlstrom, “Thomas Hooker: Puritanism and Democratic Citizenship: A Preliminary Inquiry into Some Relationships of Religion and American Civic Responsibility,” Church History 32/4 (Dec. 1963): 416.(↩)
- Ahlstrom, 416.(↩)
- Ahlstrom, 418.(↩)
- R. J. Rushdoony, Deuteronomy, Volume V of Commentaries on the Pentateuch, 8–9.(↩)
- R. J. Rushdoony, This Independent Republic, 14.(↩)
- Besso, 222–223.(↩)