Covenants

A covenant is a formal agreement, symbolizing a bargained-for promise that is binding for both parties. While the dominant twenty-first century use of the word covenant may refer to agreements that deal with the exchange of goods and services or the sale of land, in colonial America, it was often used to refer to religious promises between two or more individuals. In the example of Puritan settlers in Massachusetts, we may see that the underlying principles of religious covenants were applied to civil, political, and familial relationships. In 1628, Puritans seeking religious freedom and economic prospects set sail from England, landing in Plymouth, which had been settled first by the Pilgrims, a separate group of Puritans, in 1620. The following year, the merchants involved in this endeavor received a royal charter as the Massachusetts Bay Colony. John Winthrop, the most prominent member of this venture, organized the initial segment of what was later to be known as the Great Migration of Puritans who no longer believed that they could practice their religion freely in England. In 1630, more than 1,000 Puritan men and women immigrated to Massachusetts, the majority settling in the Boston area. By 1643, Boston had become the largest town in the English-speaking colonies, with a population of nearly 20,000. The establishment of many New England communities was the result of collective written agreements, the most famous of which was part of the Plymouth Mayflower Compact. The idea of such compacts, while previously conceptualized by political philosophers, had never come to fruition before the New England Puritans. To the colonists, the civil covenants embodied their desire to live in small communities where cohesion and participation were integral to daily life. Central to the Puritans’ beliefs was the idea that they were in a special relationship with God. They believed that God had entered into a covenant with them and that they were chosen for a special mission in the New World. As John Winthrop had explained, Thus stands the cause between God and us: we are entered into Covenant. The settlements that were established in the colony were to reflect this special position, acting as an example to the rest of the world, a city upon a hill. By living up to this ideal, the community would retain God’s favor, experiencing peace, prosperity, harmony, and happiness. If, however, individuals failed to live up to their special commission, they would surely experience the wrath of God. In turn, the Puritans promised one another that they would live together in harmony, working toward communal goals. A leading Puritan clergyman, John Witte, Jr., made the following observation in 1624: We are by nature covenant creatures bound together by covenants innumerable and together bound by covenant to our God. Such is our human condition. Such is this earthly life. Such is God’s creation. Blest be the ties that bind us. These innumerable covenants included at least four between individuals: a national covenant, a political covenant, an ecclesiastical covenant, and a family covenant. The key to the success of covenant relationships was that they be entered into willingly. Puritans believed that meaningful obedience to civil and scriptural law was the result of voluntary submission, not coercion. The most prominent covenant was the civil covenant. Through this covenant, individuals were obligated to preserve godly beliefs and values, both adopting and advocating godly morals and mores. Individuals were expected to live in the service of God, neighbor, and community. Embracing this ideal of a civil covenant, the leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony transformed the nature of the original charter to reflect a community based on mutual consent. Even the manner by which land was granted in Massachusetts reflected their communal ideals. Unlike the Southern colonies of Virginia and Maryland, where headrights were granted to individual applicants who settled their lands at a distance from one another, in Massachusetts groups of men collectively applied to the General Court for land grants. The men who received such grants were responsible for determining how it would be distributed. They began by surveying the land and plotting the area where houses and churches would be established. Only then would families be given individual parcels, which were scattered outside the town center for farming. The political covenant was tripartite: God, individuals, and political or civil leaders. Within this paradigm, political leaders were to lead by example, encouraging citizens to live up to their obligations under the national covenant. The Puritans believed that, under the political covenant, political leaders and the people were responsible for the other’s obligations before God and man. When individuals failed to live up to their responsibilities, it was the duty of the leaders to impart discipline, discipline that might ultimately result in banishment or death if the delinquent individual failed to amend his or her behavior. If the civil leaders failed to perform their duties under the political covenant, the people were responsible for protesting the behavior. If the leaders were unwilling to appropriately discharge their duties, the people could unseat them from office. Early in the 1630s, Winthrop and other local leaders, exercising their political responsibility, began to issue edicts in an attempt to improve the colonial government. True to their Puritan beliefs, these official orders had moral overtones, demonstrating the interrelationship between church and state. Church attendance was mandatory for all colonists, regardless of church membership. Immoral conduct such as blasphemy, gambling, drunkenness, lascivious entertainment, and sexual misconduct was to be severely punished. Premarital sex, as evidenced by a child being born to a couple less than nine months after their wedding, would result in pecuniary fines and public humiliation. Those convicted of having sexual relations with members of the same gender might be hanged. In addition, commercial restrictions were enforced to ensure the just price of goods and prevent individual profiteering. Most people favored such laws and were willing to abide by them. Congregationalist Puritans also embraced ecclesiastical covenants. It was believed by these Puritan groups that biblical scriptures required every national community to establish and maintain institutional churches. The social structure of Puritan churches required congregation members to meet together to grant formal consent to new church policies. The ecclesiastical covenant also required congregational members to undertake certain spiritual and moral obligations, vowing before God and one another that they would do so. These obligations included preaching the Gospel, administering the sacraments, and caring for those members of the community who were sick or destitute. The church was also responsible for educating political leaders in the Word of God, admonishing or removing those who were not abiding by these guidelines. The final type of contract was the family or marital contract. A marital contract might be entered into willingly by a man and a woman, but, ultimately, it was the creation and commandments of God that instituted the arrangement. God created humans to be social creatures, seeking the companionship of others. He commanded mankind to be fruitful and multiply (Genesis 1:28), designing men’s and women’s bodies with the physical capability to do so. When entering into a marriage under the provisions of the church, husband and wife affirmed their fidelity to one another and pledged to abide by the laws that God had established for marital relations. If they satisfied the terms of this covenant, God, in turn, would see that the family prospered. If a husband or wife failed to keep their vows, God would set his wrath upon the entire family. Married couples played an important role in the community, as they were to nurture and inculcate their children with love for God and respect for the authority of the church and the law. The covenant principles upheld by Puritan communities were also based upon the idea that man, having free will, was able to choose how he would act. Once selecting that course, however, he was obligated to perform that act, regardless of the potential outcome. Thus, an individual was free to enter into contracts with others within the community, but once doing so, he was bound to fulfill the bargained-for responsibility that accompanied that contract. The Puritans’ belief in the absolute obligation to stand by one’s word was based on three premises. First, the act of breaking a promise was perceived as being a sin. Secondly, failing to fulfill one’s obligations, and thereby defeating the other party’s expectations, was to demonstrate a lack of respect and love for that individual. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the Puritans believed that social cohesion and harmony were dependent upon each member of the community adhering to the covenants that he or she entered into voluntarily. Without this stability, society would effectively break the original covenant that it had with God. As a consequence, the community would lose God’s favor, and social deterioration would be the inevitable result. Joann M. Ross See also: Massachusetts Bay Colony; Puritanism. Bibliography Black’s Law Dictionary, ed. Bryan A. Garner. 7th ed. St. Paul: West Group, 1999. Brack, Oscar Theodore, and Hugh Talmage Lefler. Colonial America. 2nd ed. New York: Macmillan Company, 1968. Breen, Timothy H., and Stephen Foster. “The Puritans’ Greatest Achievement: A Study of Social Cohesion in Seventeenth-Century Massachusetts.” Journal of American History 60:1 (1973): 5 22. Gillon, Steven M., and Cathy D. Matson. The American Experiment: A History of the United States. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002. Middleton, Richard. Colonial America: A History, 1565 1776. 3rd ed. Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 2002. Norton, Mary Beth, David M. Katzman, David B. Blight, Howard P. Chudacoff, Thomas G. Paterson, William M. Tuttle, Jr., and Paul D. Escott, eds. A People and a Nation: A History of the United States. 6th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001. Witte, John Jr. “Blest Be the Ties That Bind: Covenant and Community in Puritan Thought.” Emory Law Journal 36 (1987): 579 601. Prayer for Right Covenants (midnight prayer call) The Queen Life Blog – What Is Covenant Theology? Learn More about Ancient Near East Covenants}

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