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How to Govern a City on the Hill: The Early Puritan Contribution to American Constitutionalism

John Witte Jr.

Emory University School of Law


Emory Law Journal, Vol. 39, p. 41, 1990

Historians are adopting a more generous view of Puritans; however, the Puritan contribution to American constitutionalism is often abstracted. There is a trend to focus on the 18th century writers and ignored the 17th century writings, focus on constitutional ideas and ignored constitutional institutions and legal structure, and divorce Puritan constitutional ideas from their explicit theological foundation. The idea of covenant, in particular, was a hugely important theological and social doctrine for the Puritans.

The Puritans believed mankind had various covenants with God. Social covenants were based in the natural law, and one must voluntarily swear allegiance to the social covenant and live under the discipline of the community. Ecclesiastical covenants were covenants that called the church to preach the Gospel, administer the sacraments, and care for the poor and needy. Political covenants showed that God vested in the state temporal power of the sword. Thus, the state reflected and represented God’s majesty and authority.

Church and state were therefore separate covenantal associations that had distinct callings and responsibilities. This was a very basic separation; the two covenants were not to be confounded, but they were still close and compact institutions that influenced one another. Due to the human nature of sin, Puritans also had strict limitations on the power of officials to prevent them from aiming for self-gain and self-indulgence. Puritans believed that officials should have as godly a character as possible, with a limited tenure in a limited government to prevent abuses. This doctrine led to a quasi-federalist form of government, with developed legal codes and strict statutes that laid out magistrate controls. Thus, the Puritan theology naturally led to a democratic form of government.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 24

Keywords: Puritan, American, constitution, covenant, separation of church and state

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Date posted: June 3, 2011  

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Witte, John, How to Govern a City on the Hill: The Early Puritan Contribution to American Constitutionalism (1990). Emory Law Journal, Vol. 39, p. 41, 1990. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1851134

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John Witte Jr. (Contact Author)
Emory University School of Law ( email )
1301 Clifton Road
Atlanta, GA 30322
United States
404-727-6980 (Phone)
404-712-8605 (Fax)
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