Church and People

No one is likely to be surprised by the news that the clergy had a great deal of power and influence in Massachusetts Bay, which historians have sometimes described as a theocracy. This word (which literally means ‘rule by God’) is typically applied to governments that put power in the hands of high priests, bishops, ayatollahs, and the like. But that definition doesn’t apply to the Massachusetts Bay colony, which explicitly denied clerics the right to hold public office.

Even in the churches, ministers’ power was confined to the domain of the spirit. As we’ve seen, the Puritans who sailed from England considered themselves (unlike the Pilgrims) loyal members of the Church of England, devoted to the cause of reforming that church, hierarchy and all. Anglican practice required that a bishop ordain ministers and appoint them to churches, but the Puritan immigrants brought no bishops with them. (It wouldn’t have been an easy thing to do, since virtually all Anglican bishops considered them heretics and enemies of the church.)
Ordination of a minister at Woburn, 1642
Right from the moment they arrived, the Puritans adopted the Plymouth church’s practice of having each congregation appoint and ordain its own minister. In the ceremony, several congregants performed the ordination through a “laying on of hands.” Other clergy were present, and contributed appropriate prayers, blessings, and even sermons, but the formal act of ordination was that laying on of hands by representatives chosen from among the laypeople who sat in the pews. The defining difference between the Separatists of Plymouth and the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay vanished in the free air of New England, which (Morison considered) was “liberating repressed desires and energies, rendering explicit in America what had been implicit in England…. Free now to do what they had always really wished to do…, non-conformists became separatists in all but name, and Congregationalists in fact.”

The name Congregational refers to the church’s polity, or system of governance, and means that each congregation was responsible for governing itself: for choosing a minister, deciding how to support him, and doing so, as well as managing the business of building and keeping up the church. In an episcopal polity like the Church of England, bishops have these responsibilities; in a presbyterian polity like the Church of Scotland, they belong to a synod of clergymen. (The names come from Greek epískopos and presbýteros, the words from which English bishop and priest are derived.) In the later 17th century, when it may have become confusing to call their church simply “the Church of Christ,” as they did at first, Puritans began to call it Congregational. So did the church at Plymouth—which was finally merged with Massachusetts Bay in 1691. There had been no difference in either doctrine or polity between the two colonies’ churches during their 60 years of coexistence.

Remarking on the apparent limitations that congregationalism placed on the powers of the clergy, Morison asks:
Under such conditions, how can we explain the powerful influence that the clergy exerted over an exacting, unsubmissive race of Bible readers? […] I venture to declare that the secret of the clergy’s power was their character, and the love that they bore to their people and their God. For the clerical function as the puritans conceived it, was not so much priestly as educational; and the secret of all good teaching is love of the pupil and love of the subject.
Archbishop William Laud, 1573–1645
Perhaps William Laud, the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, should also be given some credit for the high quality of the Massachusetts clergy. Those who preached most eloquently and attracted the greatest following were the ones he had taken the greatest pains to silence in England, causing many of them to feel that the only place they could continue to do God’s work was Massachusetts Bay.