Published online by Cambridge University Press: 24 June 2019
John Winthrop, the most important founder of Puritan Massachusetts, organized much of his legal and political thought around the concept of covenant. In constitutional terms, this meant that while all authority comes from God it must be grounded in mutual consent to be legitimate. For Congregationalists like Winthrop, this applied to church as well as state, and the decentralized nature of congregational ecclesiology required active political intervention. In matters of the law, Winthrop combined traditional English institutions and procedures with covenantal ideals. He opposed the codification of Massachusetts’ laws, favoring customary or common laws, because he feared that, without discretion on the part of judges, the punishments handed out would lack equity and violate the covenantal ideal of charity. This charitable and communitarian ethos was exemplified in his irenic statesmanship and relatively lenient treatment of dissent among his fellow covenanting Congregationalists.