The readings on early American history lead one to the conclusion that people in those times had a distinct set of views on authority and power, different from the ones we hold today. They had placed great value on the power of the magistrates and other bodies and vested them with broad rights to impose order on society. This power was not supposed to be rooted in democracy, and preservation of social inequality was tolerated and even supported. What was not tolerated was the departure from laws established by the Church as dissenters were prosecuted and banished.
John Winthrop in A Model of Christian Charity insists that existence of the poor and the wicked is God’s intent. At all times, he claims, “some must be rich, some poor, some high and eminent in power and dignity; others mean and in submission” (Winthrop). This pattern not only repeats the distinction that exists in the rest of the world: it also gives God possibility to bestow his graces on the unhappy and restrain the wicked.
Unevenness is also supported by Wadsworth who advocates a disproportionate relationship in marriage that accords more power to the husband. Although he proposes that “husband’s government ought to be gentle and easy,” he still insists on the husband’s predominance and unquestionably gives him the leading role, expressly stating that his inadequacy is not the reason to disobey him (Wadsworth).
Whatever the husband’s limitations might be, he is still “the head of the woman,” and as such, commands power in the family (Wadsworth). This inherent authority given to men parallels the jurisdiction that is stated to be given to the rich and powerful and maintained by God.
Power was believed to preserve the status quo, for example, maintain the supremacy of the dominant faith. Cotton insisted on the election of men into power structures that had an adequate connection with the church and were its members. The carnal men, “non-church members,” should only be granted lower authority in comparison to those belonging to the church. Church and authority became intertwined in one whole. It is also manifested in Anne Hutchinson’s trial where she is blamed for establishing her private assembly that violated the will of the general assembly. It is said to be prohibited that “any should have authority to set up any other exercises besides what authority hath already set up” (Excerpt from the Trial of Anne Hutchinson). In this way, the Church blends with the state and then commands all its members what religious beliefs they should hold and what assemblies attend.
This power struggle by the Puritans is illustrated with guidelines on the prosecution of Quakers in Massachusetts in the 1677 Proclamation. The obligation to follow a particular religion was so strict that people were to “be prosecuted or complained of for absenting themselves from the public allowed worship of God on the Lord’s day” if they could find a valid excuse for such absence (“Massachusetts’ Attitudes Towards Quakers”). The direct authority to track down and prosecute Quakers lay with constables that represented the general population with their Draconian practices.
The Quakers themselves in their complaint to the King insist that they have suffered not for “transgression of any just or righteous law, either about the worship of God or the civil government of England, but simply and barely for our consciences to God”. Therefore, they do not view the laws set by the Puritan community as essential or binding to them.
The readings analyzed above leave the reader with a better understanding of power struggle that goes on in society, today perhaps in a more disguised form. Those how have accumulated power in their hands will strive to preserve it finding different justifications for why they should keep it.
Patriarchy, or the dominance of men, was explained by the eternal destination of men to rule the family and other spheres. To suppress diversity of religious views, it was considered necessary to imprison and banish outsiders that tried to practice a different religion. The merger of the Church and the state is also an attempt to preserve the power of the Church, or perhaps even the former elite that derived its power from belonging to both institutions.
In contemporary debates, it may be useful to study patterns of thinking which people in authority use to justify the accumulation of power in their hands. Exploration of these arguments is helpful where people try to express approval for unevenness in society or smaller units like family. It is hardly useful to invoke God or other institutions for justification of social inequality or dominance of one faith or the same group of people over time.
Cotton, John. “Democracy as Detrimental to Church and State.”
“Excerpt from the Trial of Anne Hutchinson.”
“Massachusetts’ Attitudes Towards Quakers.”
Wadsworth, Benjamin. “The Duties of Husbands and Wives.”
Winthrop, John. “A Model of Christian Charity.”
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