Religion in the Thirteen Colonies

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What is meant by the theocracy of the Puritans?

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A theocracy is a form of government in which priests of one religion or another rule in the name of God. Colonial Massachusetts is traditionally regarded as a Puritan theocracy because the men in charge of the colony—and it was only men who were allowed to exercise any political authority there—did so according to their religious beliefs.

In Puritan Massachusetts, as with all theocracies, there was no distinction between the secular and the religious, no separation between church and state. All aspects of civic life in the colony were organized on the basis of the Puritans' rigid Calvinism.

In practice, this meant that the colony was governed by a council of elders, chosen for their superior godliness. Also, the role of minister in Puritan Massachusetts was an important one, which involved so much more than simply attending to the pastoral needs of the flock. Though the minister was selected by his congregation, he was paid—quite handsomely, as it happens—out of town government funds as he was in fact a public official.

All those involved in the administration of government were charged with the promotion of godliness; that indeed was the sole end of government as the Puritans understood it. The Puritans set down stringent laws which determined how people lived their lives; and there were severe punishments for anyone who broke those laws. Puritanical strictness ensured that people could find themselves being punished for a whole range of offenses, ranging from gambling to dancing, from swearing to breaking the sabbath. And if anyone were brave or foolish enough to challenge the theocratic system, the church government would use every coercive means at its disposal to crack down on the merest hint of dissent.

As those in charge of Massachusetts believed themselves to be doing God's work, they concluded that anyone who defied them was guilty of blasphemy, and therefore deserving of the most severe punishments. To challenge the church government was to challenge God himself.

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