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Puritan Political Theory: Covenants, Lesser Magistrates, and American Liberty

By Roger Schultz
October 01, 2004

Can the roots of the American Revolution be found in the writings of Puritan theologians?

Puritanism was a reform-minded Calvinistic movement in the British Isles in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Some historians dislike the term, arguing that it is too broad and the movement too difficult to define. It is clear, however, that a vigorous Reformed movement emerged during the era of Elizabeth I (1588–1603) and had an enormous impact on England, Scotland, Ireland, and America.

The Puritans were best known for emphasizing pure, scripturally regulated worship, Biblical church government, and the freedom of the church from royal domination. The Puritans also emphasized Biblical principles of government, which directly influenced the growth of liberty in England and America in the 17th century.

Puritan Commitments

Puritan civil theory emphasized the authority of Scripture. In contrast to Roman Catholic theorists (who stressed canon law, tradition, and papal decree), Anglicans (who increasingly stressed natural law as a source of authority), and later Enlightenment authors (who stressed human reason), the Puritans looked to Scripture as the starting point for understanding government. As Gregg Singer notes in A Theological Interpretation of American History, “The idea that the state was beyond the reach of the claims of the Bible was … abhorrent to the Puritan, [for] in the Scriptures they found the origin, the form, the functions and the power of the state and human government.”1

Puritans also stressed divine sovereignty and sphere sovereignty. A sovereign God ordained all earthly authority. God also established different spheres of authority (state, church, family), and each institution had legitimate authority within its sphere. While the state was entrusted by God with the power of the sword, for the ends of lawful defense and the administration of justice, the state had no right to intrude on the affairs of the church or family.2

Puritan theory, then, carefully proscribed the power of the state. Puritans opposed theories of divine right absolutism that flourished in the 17###sup/sup### century, insisting that royal power was not absolute. Following Deuteronomy 1:13, Puritans argued that people should select their own leaders, an idea that led to convictions about the consent of the governed.

They further argued that lesser magistrates, ordained by God in their roles, might even oppose a king if a monarch became a tyrant. And by stressing the importance of covenants, which were binding for both the people and the king, Puritan theorists laid the foundation of modern constitutionalism.

Architects of Puritan Civil Theory

John Knox (1505–1572), the great Scottish reformer, saw tyranny firsthand. He was a bodyguard for the Scottish martyr George Wishart and a refugee during the Marian persecution. Deeply influenced by Calvin, Knox strove to bring reformation to Scotland and applied the Word of God to both church and state. Knox emphasized the continuing applicability of the Old Testament, the importance of covenants, and the duty of lesser magistrates to resist tyrants.

In The Emergence of Liberty in the Modern World, Douglas Kelly argues that three key Scottish concepts influenced Western political thought: “the concept of church as a body equal in legal right and standing with the civil state; the implicit ‘covenantal’ idea of the direct rights of the people to hold political authorities responsible to carry out their functions under limitations prescribed by transcendent law; and the general elevation of the common citizens through democratizing structures emulating Presbyterian polity.” Or as Richard Greaves puts it, “Ultimately Knox’s theory of active resistance [to tyrants] contributed to the ideological tradition that culminated in the American Revolution.”3

The new Stuart monarchs of the early 17###sup/sup### century alarmed the Puritans. When James I (1603–1625) assumed the English throne, the Puritans were hopeful: he had been king in Scotland, a Presbyterian country. Puritans sought religious reforms in the Millenary Petition, signed by nearly a thousand ministers, and at the Hampton Roads Conference (1604). James contemptuously dismissed them, saying, “No bishop, no king.”

The king understood the structural similarity between episcopacy and monarchy, and that movements toward Presbyterianism would likely lead to republicanism. A Scottish presbytery “agreeth as well with the monarchy as God with the devil,” James observed. “Now Jack, and Tom, and Will, and Dick shall meet and at their pleasure censure me and my council. I will make them conform, or else I will harry them out of the land, or else do worse, hang them — that is all.”4

Charles I (1625–1649) was even more aggressive in fighting Reformed Christians. During his reign, Puritans fled to America to avoid persecution by Archbishop Laud. The Scots rose in revolt after the imposition of bishops and the Book of Common Prayer. Parliament finally stood against Charles I, leading to a civil war and ultimately the execution of the king. In 1649, Parliament gave Charles I a severance package he couldn’t ignore! (Americans long remembered the lessons of Stuart tyranny and legitimate resistance. Jonathan Mayhew’s Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission, a famous sermon showing occasions for lawful resistance, was published in 1750 — just after the centennial of the execution of Charles I. In one of his greatest speeches, Patrick Henry reminded his audience what happened to tyrants: “Tarquin and Caesar each had his Brutus, Charles the First his Cromwell, George the Third … may profit by their example! If this be treason, make the most of it.”5)

The great Puritan political theorist during the English Civil War was Samuel Rutherford, author of Lex Rex (1644). A successor to Knox, Rutherford articulated a mature Reformed view of authority, Christian liberty, and resistance. He “denied that a limitless sovereignty belonged to the king, and contended that the Crown is bestowed by the voluntary consent of the people, who are at liberty to resist a tyrant.” After the Stuart restoration in 1661, Lex Rex was ordered burned, and Rutherford was summoned to answer a charge of treason. Terminally ill, Rutherford answered, “I have got summons already before a Superior Judge and Judicatory, and I behove to answer to my first summons, and ere your day come, I will be where few kings and great folks come.”6

Rutherford clearly influenced patriots in the American War for Independence. The most influential pamphlet of the period was Common Sense by Thomas Paine. Though an infidel, Paine quoted scripture and appeared quite orthodox, appealing to his largely Christian audience. “Monarchy is ranked in scripture as one of the sins of the Jews,” Paine argued, quoting extensively from Judges 6 and 1 Samuel 8. “These portions of scripture are direct and positive. They admit of no equivocal construction. That the Almighty hath here entered his protest against monarchical government is true, or the scripture is false.”

Paine then gives a stirring call: “But where, say some, is the king of America? I’ll tell you, Friend, he reigns above …. [L]et a day be solemnly set apart for proclaiming the charter; let it be brought forth placed on the divine law, the Word of God; let a crown be placed thereon, by which the world may know, that so far as we approve of monarchy, that in America the law is king.”7

In 1783, in an election sermon entitled “Defensive Arms Vindicated,” Stephen Case looked back on the American Revolution. He only has a little to add, he says, because the real champions of American freedom were Samuel Rutherford (author of Lex Rex), Sir James Stewart (a Covenanter, and author of Naphtali and Jus Populi Vindicatum), and George Buchanan (author of The Rights of the Crown in Scotland, 1579). Although familiar with other writers, Case contends that America’s case for justifiable resistance arose from these old Puritans.

Richard Flinn once wrote, “Most Calvinists in our day tend to be conservative in their political principles and economic outlook. But they have no theology to underpin their conservatism. They have either a world and life view that is nebulously connected to the Scriptures, or one which is encrusted with meaningless slogans. The result is that doctrines of either the Left or the humanistic Right are poured into Calvinistic political theology.”8 Flinn was right. Most Reformed Christians are ignorant of their rich Puritan and Presbyterian heritage and lack a comprehensive political worldview.

One of Francis Schaeffer’s last speaking engagements was at Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia. Fighting cancer and very weak, Schaeffer gave a powerful message about the lordship of King Jesus and the Christian duty to fight tyranny, and received an overwhelmingly positive response from the Baptist audience. It is time for the spiritual descendents of Knox and Rutherford to show a similar passion for King Jesus and His government.


1. C. Gregg Singer, A Theological Interpretation of American History (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1963), 13.

2. Abraham Kuyper notes that “the Calvinist maintains the sovereignty of God, as the source of all authority among men (and) Calvinism protests against State-omnipotence, against the horrible conception that no right exists above and beyond existing law.” See Lectures on Calvinism (1898; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981), 90, 98.

3. Douglas Kelly, The Emergence of Liberty in the Modern World (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1992), 52; Richard Greaves, Theology and Revolution in the Scottish Reformation (Grand Rapids: Christian University Press, 1980), 224. Both are excellent studies, Kelly’s book is a must-read for those who want to understand the Reformed impact on political theory.

4. Alexander Mitchell, The Westminster Assembly: Its History and Standards (1883), 70.

5. Patrick Henry, Patrick Henry: Life, Correspondence, and Speeches, ed. William Wirt (Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle, 1993), I: 86.

6. Dictionary of Scottish Church History and Theology, 735.

7. Thomas Paine, Common Sense, in The Selected Works of Thomas Paine, ed. Howard Fast (New York: Modern Library, 1946) 12, 14, 30.

8. Richard Flinn, “Samuel Rutherford and Puritan Political Theory,” The Journal of Christian Reconstruction V:2 (Winter, 1978–79), 49.


Topics: American History, Puritanism, Government, Justice, Reformed Thought

Roger Schultz

Dr. Roger Schultz is Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Liberty University.  He previously served as Chair of the History Department at Liberty and has taught at Virginia Intermont College, the University of Arkansas, and Oak Hills Christian College. He is a member of the Phi Beta Kappa Society.  He holds degrees from Bemidji State University (B.A.), Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (M.A.), and the University of Arkansas (Ph.D.)

His specialty is American religious history.  His essays and reviews have appeared in numerous publications and have been translated into Hungarian and Spanish.  Dr. Schultz frequently preaches in local churches and speaks at academic and Christian conferences.  The Schultzes have nine children.


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