Thursday, September 10, 2009

Godly Commonwealth

During the Interregnum (1649-1660), England was governed as a Commonwealth, that is, as a republic rather than a monarchy. It was a heady time for Puritans, even those who opposed the personal rule of Oliver Cromwell 'the Usurper.' They envisioned, prayed for and worked towards a godly, theocratic government, rather than the arbitrary, despotic government that the Stuart kings had personified. This was true even of those Puritans -- and there were many -- who opposed the regicide of Charles I and desired the return of the covenanted Charles II.

It is worth taking note of two particular Puritan treatises advocating theocratic government, which have much in common: Richard Baxter's A Holy Commonwealth and John Eliot's The Christian Commonwealth. Both were published in 1659 (although Eliot's treatise was actually written, it is believed, in the 1640s), and both were later retracted by the authors for pragmatic reasons (Eliot retracted his work in 1662, and Baxter in 1670, to please the royalist authorities and remove a "stumbling-block" of offense for those who perceived seditious tendencies in their works). Both books were born from a "common impulse" to see society governed under the headship of King Jesus. William Lamont writes in his introduction to the 1994 edition of Baxter's Holy Commonwealth (pp. xvi, xxvii) that:

[Baxter] knew all about New England from, among others, John Eliot, the missionary who was converting the native Indians to Christianity. The excited correspondence of the two men -- for there were parallels in the problems posed by American heathens and Kidderminster reprobates -- throughout the 1650s would result in two near-identical titles, published in the same year of 1659: Baxter's Holy Commonwealth and Eliot's Christian Commonwealth.

In 1659, Richard Baxter -- who although he had supported Parliament in the 1640s in its military resistance to King Charles I, had never quite fully supported Oliver Cromwell -- was enthusiastic in his support of Richard Cromwell, whom he viewed as magistrate with great potential and lacking in his father's regicidal and tyrannical baggage (Lamont describes A Holy Commonwealth as a 'love poem to Richard Cromwell').

A Holy Commonwealth
was written in a turbulent, euphoric time when Baxter saw great things ahead. It contains 380 theses designed to 1) justify Baxter's support for Parliament in the 1640s, 2) lay out the groundwork for Biblical magistracy, include the proper theocratic relationship between church and state, 3) respond to James Harrington's views on the utopian republic as described in The Commonwealth of Oceana (1656), and 4) provide a Biblical and historical rationale for the obedience of subjects to lawful magistrates and their resistance to tyrants. As a result of the fast-changing political scenario in England, a series of Meditations was included by Baxter at the end of the work when it was published which reflect the dismay he felt at the direction the nation had taken in the short time between when he wrote the work and when it was ready for the press. The 1994 edition includes his 1670 recantation of (parts of) the work as well. The reasons for his retraction are complex having to do with the political baggage it brought to the Protectorate as well as to him personally during the Restoration, rather than the substance of his arguments. When reading it today, it helps to remember the context of its initial writing, the subsequent Meditations, its later retraction and its place in Baxter's political writings overall. It is a curious and valuable work for these reasons.

George R. Abernathy, Jr., wrote, "The English Presbyterians and the Stuart Restoration, 1648-1663," in Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 55, Part 2 (1965), p. 25:

A single quotation from the Holy Commonwealth is sufficient to indicate Baxter's basic position:

If the whole Family, with whom the People were in Covenant be extirpated, or become uncapable, the People may forme the Government as they please, (so they contradict not the Law of God:) not by Authority, but by Contract with the next chosen Government; nor as Subjects, but as Free men, the Government being dissolved.80

80 Ibid., p. 451 [this is Thesis 375, which appears on p. 208 of the 1994 edition]; italics added.

Meanwhile, John Eliot wrote The Christian Commonwealth: or, The Civil Policy of the Rising Kingdom of Jesus Christ from New England in the 1640s as encouraging reports came in from the mother country that godly magistracy was coming into its own. The manuscript was shared with friends in England, but sat around for over a decade before someone took occasion to send it to the printer. Although the timing may have seemed auspicious just then, those fast-changing events in England proved otherwise. After the Restoration, Massachusetts authorities, eager to curry favor from the Crown, banned the book and required Eliot to provide a written retraction and apology. Like Baxter, it appears that he did so to avoid giving offense rather than because he actually repudiates the principles contained within. This book, which advocates the Headship of Christ over England and all the nations, including the political sphere, and the institution of theocratic civil government modeled after Exodus 18, is said to be "the first book of political theory written by an American and also the first book to be banned by an American government."

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