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  • Print publication year: 2008
  • Online publication date: February 2015

5 - How to govern a city on a hill: Covenant liberty in Puritan New England


[M]en shall say of succeeding plantations: the Lord make it like that of New England: for we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.

John Winthrop (1630)

In his 1765 Dissertation on the Canon and the Feudal Law, John Adams, the great Massachusetts lawyer and eventual American President, defended the “sensible” New England Puritans against those “many modern gentlemen” of his day who dismissed them as bigoted, narrow, “enthusiastical, superstitious and republican.” Such “ridicule” and “ribaldry” of the Puritans are “grossly injurious and false,” Adams retorted. Far from being narrow bigots, the Puritans were for Adams “illustrious patriots,” since, in his view, they were the first “to establish a government of the church more consistent with the scriptures, and a government of the state more agreeable to the dignity of human nature than any other seen in Europe: and to transmit such a government down to their posterity.”

What impressed Adams most was that the New England Puritans had created a comprehensive system of ordered liberty and orderly pluralism within church, state, and society. While the Puritans drew from a range of Calvinist teachings, the centerpiece of their system was the idea of covenant, which they cast in both theological and sociological terms. For the Puritans, the idea of covenant described not only the relationships between persons and God, but also the multiple relationships among persons in church, state, and society.