Half-Way Covenant Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Half-Way Covenant expanded the pool of those eligible for Puritan baptism to include those infants whose parents had been baptized but were not yet full members of their church. The covenant encouraged increased membership in Puritan churches at a time when non-Puritan immigrants were decreasing the relative majority of strict Calvinists among the New World colonists.

Summary of Event

One of the most compelling questions about the Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony’Puritanism and Commonwealth established in Massachusetts during the seventeenth century concerns the reasons for its decline. Historians have found it difficult to determine not only why the rule of the “Saints” came to an end but also the precise time when the deterioration began. Some have contended that the system of church and state established under the leadership of such men as John Winthrop Winthrop, John and John Cotton Cotton, John was so well constructed that it remained almost unchanged for many years. Others believe that Puritan ideals began to falter from the beginning and that too much stress has been placed on the pervasiveness of a group of attitudes defined as the “Puritan mind.” Some historians argue that church membership declined because rigid Puritan beliefs could not survive when confronted with harsh life on the frontier. Others, however, credit the decline to natural causes: The years between generations were not always sufficient for parents to become full church members before their children were born. [kw]Half-Way Covenant (1662) [kw]Covenant, Half-Way (1662) Religion and theology;1662: Half-Way Covenant[2090] American Colonies;1662: Half-Way Covenant[2090] Half-Way Covenant[HalfWay Covenant] Puritanism Mather, Richard Chauncy, Charles Mather, Increase Woodbridge, John, Jr.

Among the controversial issues that have enlivened the debate over Puritan decline is the so-called Half-Way Covenant of 1662. The most important provision of this document, endorsed by a Massachusetts General Court-sponsored synod of more than eighty ministers and laity meeting in Boston, was that children whose parents had not been admitted to full membership in a Puritan church might nevertheless be eligible for baptism. This created a new class of church membership, because those who had been baptized but had not yet testified were only partial members—they could pass church privileges on to their children but could not participate in Holy Communion or vote on church issues.

The question of membership was one that long had plagued the churches of New England. On the one hand, Puritans believed that no one should be admitted to full communion in the church who had not demonstrated sufficiently a personal experience by which he or she had become convinced that God had elected him or her to salvation. However, if one believed that prospective church members must await a message from God, what part was the church itself to play in recruiting new adherents? This problem became increasingly acute as the proportion of Puritans in New England declined in relation to the growing population of the area. It began to seem, as Jonathon Mitchel wrote, that the churches had been set up “onely that a few old Christians may keep one another warm while they live, and then carry away the Church into the cold grave with them when they dye.”

The Half-Way Covenant did not concern the admission of new members from outside the church but attempted rather to deal with the problems raised by the children and grandchildren of the elect. Because the Puritans believed in infant baptism, they always had permitted full church members to have their children brought under the care of the congregation, although each had to await the conversion experience before being admitted to full membership. It was expected that a significant number of these young people ultimately would experience conversion, but until that time, they were not permitted to take Communion or vote on church business. This arrangement did not provide for the third generation, however, which included the children of those who had been baptized but had not become full church members.

During the early days of the Puritan Commonwealth, the churches did not have to concern themselves about the grandchildren of the elect because there were none. When they did begin to appear, there was no difficulty about those whose parents had been received into full communion with a church. The problem arose with those members of the third generation whose parents had not yet achieved full membership: Were such infants to be baptized or not? No one could say for certain that the parents of these children would not experience a conversion at some later time, because the Puritans did not believe that God necessarily informed the “Saints” of their election at any certain age. Moreover, if these infants were to be denied baptism, would it not then become necessary to expel their parents from the privileged position they had held in a church since childhood?

The answer that the Half-Way Covenant provided to this question may have confirmed a practice that was already developing in New England. The covenant stated that, in cases where children were born to parents who had not yet attained full church membership, the congregation should indeed baptize the new infants. Such persons could not, however, become full members of a church unless they subsequently experienced conversion. Both they and their parents enjoyed a kind of “half-way” membership that enabled the Puritans to maintain their rigid standards for full communion in a church and yet to provide for the possible conversion of new members. Infants baptized into a church obviously were more likely to achieve full membership than those who were excluded from the fold.


The Half-Way Covenant provided the Puritan Commonwealth with one of its most prolonged controversies. Although the Synod of 1662 had strongly endorsed the covenant, it was opposed by a small and determined group of ministers and temporarily rejected by a significant number of congregations. Most of its opponents charged that, despite claims to the contrary, the covenant would open up a church to persons who were not among God’s elect. Richard Mather, Mather, Richard one of those most responsible for the decision of the synod, found his congregation at Dorchester skeptical about the covenant, and his sons, Increase Mather Mather, Increase and Eleazar Mather Mather, Eleazar , were among its most vocal opponents.

Another influential leader of the opposition was Charles Chauncy Chauncy, Charles , who, as president of Harvard College, was among the most respected scholars in the province. Nevertheless, despite such pockets of resistance as that evidenced by the refusal of Boston’s Second Church to accept the covenant until 1693, the Puritan churches in New England gradually came to accept the idea of “half-way” membership. John Woodbridge, Woodbridge, John, Jr. Jr., a minister in Killingworth, Connecticut, took the new covenant a step further and opened membership in his church to anyone. Not until the great religious revivals of the 1730’s swept through the colonies did the covenant again come under serious attack, and by then, the Puritan Commonwealth as such had ceased to exist.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bremer, Francis J. Shaping New Englands: Puritan Clergymen in Seventeenth-Century England and New England. New York: Twayne, 1994. This survey of Puritan history discusses the strong connection between church and state and the role the Half-Way Covenant had in trying to maintain that bond.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Burg, Barry R. Richard Mather. Boston: Twayne, 1982. This biography of the leading proponent of the Half-Way Covenant explains the major religious and political factors leading to membership reform.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gordis, Lisa M. Opening Scripture: Bible Reading and Interpretive Authority in Puritan New England. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003. Maintains that Puritan ministers did not expect to impose their views upon their congregations, but believed interpretive consensus would emerge from reading the Bible. Describes how the Half-Way Covenant was an example of how church leaders negotiated a consensus over conflicting interpretations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Middlekauff, Robert. The Mathers: Three Generations of Puritan Intellectuals, 1596-1728. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971. Traces the Mather family’s central role in the Half-Way Covenant controversy through Richard’s support of the new doctrine and Increase’s initial objection, then later support.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Miller, Perry. From Colony to Province. Vol. 2 in The New England Mind. New York: Macmillan, 1939. Reprint. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1953. Argues that New England Puritanism retained its pristine quality for only one generation and that the Half-Way Covenant clearly reveals the decline of Puritan self-assurance.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morgan, Edmund S. Visible Saints: The History of the Puritan Idea. New York: New York University Press, 1963. Argues that the Half-Way Covenant was not a symptom of decline but rather evidence of the Puritans’ determination to maintain rigid standards of membership.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pope, Robert G. The Half-Way Covenant: Church Membership in Puritan New England. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1969. Detailed discussion of the Half-Way Covenant by a scholar who accepts, in general, that the covenant was a sign of decline within the church.

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Categories: History