Puritan Godly Discipline in Comparative Perspective: Legal Pluralism and the Sources of 'Intensity'

American Historical Review, Vol. 113, pp. 975-1002, 2008

28 Pages Posted: 27 Oct 2008

See all articles by Richard J. Ross

Richard J. Ross

University of Illinois College of Law; University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign - Department of History

Date Written: October 24, 2008


Early Massachusetts (c1630-1660) is famous for the intensity of its drive for moral righteousness and a more fully Christianized society. This essay explores the reasons for this intensity by situating the colony in two frameworks seldom brought together: first, the comparative exploration of post-Reformation campaigns for godly discipline and confession building; and second, the comparative investigation of legal pluralism among New World settlements. A study of early Massachusetts allows consideration in a colonial context of the suggestion, raised by European historians, that there was an inverse relationship between the effectiveness of godly discipline and a polity's degree of social complexity and legal pluralism. Contemporary presbyterian critics of Massachusetts discipline provide a way into the problem. They viewed the New England Way as deficient in the sorts of mechanisms for coordinating among congregations and between the civil and ecclesiastical realms available in Reformed polities such as Calvin's Geneva and early seventeenth-century lowland Scotland, places of special significance in debates between presbyterians and congregationalists. These critics predicted that schism, oscillations between enthusiasm and lethargy, and inconsistent standards of judgment and administration among clashing churches and civil authorities would together undermine Massachusetts discipline. Part of the reason why they were wrong was that Massachusetts displayed low levels of social complexity (relative to European Reformed polities) and a modest degree of legal pluralism (by the standards of other New World settlements). Treating early Massachusetts as a case study within the context of scholarship on post-Reformation godly discipline and New World legal pluralism suggests alterations to these two flourishing literatures and offers ways to connect them. The colony's experiences challenge the trajectory of change assumed by scholars of New World legal pluralism. The historiography on European confession building provides new ways of perceiving family resemblances among settlements in different empires that were pursuing parallel programs of intense godly discipline and Christian education. Evidence from the New World could contribute to debates among scholars of the post-Reformation European confessional age by demonstrating, in a number of colonial settings, how civil and clerical leaders committed to the pursuit of godly discipline benefited from modest levels of legal pluralism.

Keywords: legal history; colonial history; empire; imperialism; law and religion; confessionalization; legal pluralism; comparative

Suggested Citation

Ross, Richard J., Puritan Godly Discipline in Comparative Perspective: Legal Pluralism and the Sources of 'Intensity' (October 24, 2008). American Historical Review, Vol. 113, pp. 975-1002, 2008. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1289427

Richard J. Ross (Contact Author)

University of Illinois College of Law ( email )

504 E. Pennsylvania Avenue
Champaign, IL 61820
United States
217-244-7890 (Phone)

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign - Department of History

United States

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