America is still slowly reopening and recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic, lockdowns, and restrictions. Over the past year, our nation’s divisions were amplified. Polarization reared its ugly head, manifesting deep-seated hostilities across and among families, churches, and political parties.
In the wake of such conflict, one wonders: How can we rebuild the public square, restore our civil institutions, and cultivate human flourishing?
Take heart. There is a historical precedent for hope.
In the 1500s and 1600s, the Puritans perceived their situation as analogous to the ancient Israelites in Egypt. Yet, instead of being enslaved by a foreign power, they felt spiritually and politically enslaved by their own government in the British Isles. They wanted to be liberated so they could follow their conscience and realize their vision of community. Seeing themselves as God’s chosen covenantal people, they sought to follow their religious convictions by obeying God above any king or earthly power.
For the church, the Puritans applied the regulative principle of worship, which prevented all non- or extra-biblical actions and doctrines. Thus, as individuals laid claim to liberty of conscience and acted upon those convictions, it inevitably reduced liberty of action for the church and its ministers. The Puritans had no authority of their own, being subject to the word of God. Likewise, the church and its ministers had no authority, except where delineated by scripture.
Eventually, the spirit of the regulative principle extended into the political sphere, because they believed that the Gospel had relevance and authority over every sphere of life. In the Puritan and Protestant mind, no earthly ruler had authority over a person’s conscience. This liberty allowed one to disagree with and disobey one’s rulers, which is why the British monarchs thought freedom of conscience threatened their power. With good reason, some Puritans took this line of thought to its logical conclusion, advocating that citizens obey a higher law and morality if the monarch were to act contrary to the word of God, even in the secular political sphere.
Our view of Puritans and Puritanism is often colored by inaccurate caricatures of wooden, tyrannical, superstitious, witch-burning prudes of colonial New England. But the truth is that the Puritans were instrumental in pioneering many of the rights we enjoy today. Through their fight to practice their religious convictions in opposition to state regulations, they paved the way for religious freedom and tolerance in the English-speaking world. Their insistence on the liberty of conscience was a prerequisite for our modern liberal order.
Additionally, their desire to be free from arbitrary and abusive political power created our cherished democratic-republic political system. In Light for the City, Lester DeKoster states that a Puritan “sense of Bible-induced civic responsibility became the hallmark of the Calvinist Puritanism that brought the democratic way of life to the West.”
Knowing they were God’s covenantal people, they sought first the kingdom of God, believing he would give them all things necessary for life and salvation.
By obeying God and his word, adopting the higher morality therein, the Puritans created societies that fought for justice, liberty, and freedom of religion and conscience. They were not perfect, but being bound to God, they followed him in their pursuit of worshipping him properly. They created free and virtuous societies by following God above kings and earthly statutes, ordinances, and mandates.
Today, as we think about how to rebuild from the COVID-19 pandemic and all of the social ills it revealed, created, and exacerbated, we ought to heed the ethos of the Puritans and their model of cultural renewal. That is, we ought to faithfully worship God and obey him above the commandments of wayward rulers and society.
We must seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness. Knowing God has given all things necessary for godliness and holy living (2 Peter 1:3), one can find true fulfillment in the Lord and live out the kingdom of God on earth. Like the early church and the Puritans, Christians today can commit themselves to teaching orthodoxy and praying, resting assured that God will add to those who are being saved (Acts 2:42-47).
Like them, we need to preach and teach how to apply the Gospel in every area of life. When this is done, enemies become friends, hostility becomes benevolence, and goodwill re-emerges in society. Such a goal entails nothing short of personal and societal reformation. The post-COVID world needs the hope of the Gospel, and the Puritans provide a historical example of how God uses his people to lead cultural renewal and drive societal development.
With this goal and vision for the future, Christians need not be afraid or discouraged. Instead, we can be courageous to obey God – his will and his ways – in the pursuit of a free and virtuous society.