Limitation of Government Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

“It is therefore most wholesome for magistrates and officers in church and commonwealth never to affect more liberty and authority than will do them good, and the people good: for whatever transcendent power is given will certainly overrun those that give it and those that receive it.”

Summary Overview

“Limitation of Government” is part of a series of sermons by Puritan leader John Cotton. In this installment, Cotton warns leaders not to overstep their authority over others. Cotton argues that a political leader must stay within the bounds charged to him or her by the people and God. Failure to do so will cause great harm to the people and the political system representing them. Cotton urged both the leaders and followers of his theocratic Puritan system to avoid placing too much power in the hands of government, lest it undo the way of life of those subjected to it.

Defining Moment

One of Cotton’s many sermons, “Limitation of Government” echoed the Puritan view that government was established for the purposes of preventing a society from falling into the abyss of anarchy and depravity. However, Cotton modified this view by adding commentary on the extent of a government’s oversight.

Cotton, like his fellow Puritans, adhered to the social compact, an agreement among Congregational Puritans and their leaders that government should be established in a new society where such order was not to be found, such as the New England colonies upon the Puritans’ arrival. However, Cotton and his fellow Puritans came across the Atlantic to escape excessive use of power against them by the English government.

Cotton’s fundamental teaching was that the New England colonies would benefit from the establishment of a “civil religion.” His theocratic principles held that the new government should be developed based on the guidance of the Puritan church. The church was already governed by a moral compass. On this set of principles, Cotton argued, an efficient and representative government of New England could be established.

Cotton’s views stemmed largely from his experience in England during the early seventeenth century, as well as events that transpired shortly after Cotton’s arrival in the New England colonies. While in England, Cotton and the Puritans were a repressed people, held at bay by the reign of King Charles I. Cotton and his followers believed that the king’s slowly crumbling realm, which was marked by internal and civil conflict during its final years, was a sign that Jesus Christ would soon return to judge humanity. Cotton and his followers escaped, therefore, not only to avoid further persecution by the English government, but to escape judgment during the apocalypse as well.

In 1649, Charles I was captured and executed by his rivals, including Puritan military leader Oliver Cromwell. Cotton and the Congregational Puritans in the colonies pushed for the monarch’s execution. In fact, Cotton would communicate with Cromwell on the subject. Cotton believed that the death of Charles I would hasten the return of Christ, who would in turn establish a system of governance in the power vacuum left by the execution.

Cotton’s argument for the establishment of a theocracy represented the first attempt by leaders in the New England colonies to develop a government based on the tenets of Christianity. Cotton argued that only those leaders who were part of the Congregational church could be expected to develop and maintain a successful system of Puritan government, one that was of enormous benefit to the people of the New England colonies.

Author Biography

Cotton was the leader of the Congregational Puritans in New England during the first half of the seventeenth century. He was born in Derbyshire, England, in 1585. At the age of thirteen, Cotton entered Trinity College in Cambridge to study Hebrew. He then enrolled at Emmanuel College in Cambridge, where he stayed for nearly a decade, first as a student and then as a professor and dean. Emmanuel was known as an incubator of sorts for the Puritan faith, and Cotton excelled in this religious institution. In 1612, he completed his degree and was chosen to be the vicar of St. Botolph’s Church in Boston, Lincolnshire.

Cotton remained at St. Botolph’s until 1632. During this time, he was seen as an innovator, altering the church liturgy to reflect a congregational point of view and system of worship, which believed in forming churches through voluntary covenants by members and abolishing certain Anglican practices. His charismatic approach to these significant changes generated no backlash from local Anglican leaders. Still, Cotton, like his fellow Puritan leaders, was under increased scrutiny by Anglican officials in London. He was formally charged with nonconformism and, in light of his pending prosecution, went into hiding in 1633. One of his contemporaries, Massachusetts Bay governor John Winthrop, had left for the New World in 1632. One year later, Cotton did the same, embarking for Boston to join Winthrop’s new colony of Massachusetts.

Upon his arrival, Cotton assumed the role of teacher with the First Church of Boston. In this capacity, he continued to stress the Congregationalist view of Puritanism. During his tenure, however, one of Cotton’s parishioners, Anne Hutchinson, began to preach the concept of antinomianism, a concept in which faith alone is seen as the key to salvation rather than any adherence to moral law. Hutchinson’s increased preaching on this topic ran counter to Cotton and the Church of England’s perspective, threatening to draw Cotton into the antinomian controversy in 1636. Ultimately, however, Cotton was able to distance himself from Hutchinson and her followers, forcing them into exile in what is now Rhode Island in 1638.

Cotton would continue his preaching on the merits of the Congregationalist government, whereby each church manages its own governance and political affairs. Cotton took strong exception to Roger Williams’s separation from the Puritan Church to found his own colony in what is now Rhode Island, arguing that, although church and state should be separate, the government should remain the protector of First Church. Cotton wrote a large number of sermons, religious tracts, and books on his faith and viewpoints. Cotton died in 1652, but his legacy continued; a volume of his sermons focusing on the apocalypse was released three years after his death. Among the documents contained in this collection was a sermon stressing that societies should place limits on their rulings. The sermon would be known as “Limitation of Government.”

Document Analysis

“Limitation of Government” speaks to the notion that government was created to prevent the onset of anarchy and sinful behavior. Cotton argued that government is therefore a necessity as well as an institution that was not to be entered into lightly. Cotton advocated for a theocratic form of government —rooted in the tenets of the Puritan Church—and in light of this theocratic concept, he stressed that the work performed by magistrates should be conducted with the church in mind. Furthermore, Cotton argued that leaders representing the Congregational and Puritan way of life should be mindful not to overstep their respective authority; both out of fear that they will become corrupt and out of concern that the people’s way of life would become endangered.

During the early seventeenth century, Cotton and others within the New England colonies believed that the church could not be controlled by the state. Rather, the state and the church should be governed separately. Cotton himself coined the term “congregational” as it pertains to a body politic. He argued that the power to govern the parishioners of a given church should be afforded to the congregation alone. Male church members would be allowed to elect selectmen to run the community’s day-to-day operations. However, the community would hold town meetings periodically, wherein propositions for new laws and rules would be approved by the entire community.

Cotton began this sermon by reminding his parishioners of the dangers of power. Specifically, he stated that an individual who is afforded more power than he or she deserves is likely to abuse it. Mortal men must not be given any more power than they deserve by the will of God, he commented. The primary risk is that the person who takes on an excess of power is not just likely to take full advantage of it. He or she will inevitably use it to the detriment of the rest of society.

“Limitation of Government” was, like Cotton himself, reflective of a combination of conservative values and revolutionary notions. The sermon called upon the congregation to adhere to the principles of Puritan tradition, to be mindful of and strictly adherent to God’s teachings and rules as interpreted directly from the Hebrew Bible (which Cotton believed to be the final word of God). Although he called upon the congregation to embrace this form of religious practice, he also introduced a new ideal that he invited the people to adopt: the creation of a Puritan political commonwealth. This political body, which observers considered Utopian, would not be built on the unfair assertion of power that drove Cotton and the Puritans from England. Rather, it would embrace Christian tradition and pay strict reverence to one true power: the word of God.

The central element behind this risk is that, according to Puritan traditions, every person must demonstrate and strictly adhere to a set of moral teachings, most of which came through direct interpretation of the Bible. Cotton’s brand of conservative Puritanism, which was heavily influenced by Calvinism in Europe, stressed the shortcomings of human nature. Free will, therefore, was seen as extremely dangerous, particularly when applied to government. Cotton and other conservative Puritans, instead of embracing the ideas of individuality and choice, looked to the teachings of the church and the Bible to guide their lifestyles. Cotton’s ideals, as well as those of Winthrop and other Puritan leaders in the New England colonies, were those of an oligarchic theocracy; a government formed under religious principles and administered by a small number of magistrates with thorough knowledge of the Bible’s teachings.

There were three principles, or “covenants,” that guided Cotton’s commentary as well as the New England Puritan congregations. The first of these was the covenant of works, in which God promised Adam and his descendants immortality if they followed his moral law. Adam, in the biblical book of Genesis, broke God’s law, but God made another agreement, the covenant of grace with Abraham, stating that God would punish the sinner but reward those with an active faith. The third covenant, the covenant of redemption, held that Jesus Christ became humanity’s representative when God looked to punish humanity under the covenant of grace.

The members of the church’s congregations should, according to the ideals proffered by Cotton, rule themselves by testifying to one another that they adhere to these covenants. This form of spiritual government, therefore, contained a series of checks and balances to ensure that no one individual within the congregation demonstrated an excess of authority or power. Meanwhile, a group of church officers would be organized, a pastor who would preach to the congregation, a teacher to oversee the application of church doctrine, a council of elders to manage the enforcement of “spiritual rule,” and a deacon to manage the everyday activities of the church and administer to the poor.

From Cotton’s perspective (based on these covenants), all of humanity was subject to God’s law alone. Cotton and others were strongly in favor of the establishment of a civil government in the Massachusetts Bay. His views on this subject were evident in some of his other writings and sermons. For example, in a letter to an English nobleman in 1636, Cotton spoke of his perceived need for English government oversight over the civil states of the New England colonies. He added that the English government played an important role in the nonreligious matters of Massachusetts, a role that would aid the church in its management of religious affairs and carrying out God’s laws.

Cotton’s point of view was therefore not one of opposition to civil government. In fact, Cotton, like his contemporary Puritan émigrés from England, was focused heavily on the establishment of government and order, particularly in light of the very early development of the New England colonies. Shortly before Cotton, Winthrop, and other Puritan religious and political leaders departed for New England, they were embroiled in the tumult that had for decades fractionalized England. The monarchy of Charles I was pitted against Parliament. The Puritans were caught in the middle of the fight as the king and Parliament argued over religious practices. In the end, the Puritans were persecuted by both sides for their religious tenets. It was not until after Cotton and the Puritans left for New England that government order and a semblance of democracy was established in England.

Thus, Cotton shared his contemporaries’ views that the New England colonies were in need of their own political leadership and government that would protect the interests of the Puritans. After all, Cotton believed that authority, when properly established and applied to the polity, fostered and maintained order and civility. Authority in turn fostered the people’s honesty and cooperation with the government. A well-organized and strong theocratic government, Cotton believed, was important.

However, like Protestant reformer John Calvin a century before him, Cotton had a cynical view of people. He believed that human nature by itself was untrustworthy and highly corruptible. The establishment of a government that served a broader constituency than the church’s congregation would, in Cotton’s view, inevitably lead to moral decay. Hence, Cotton remained committed strictly to a theocratic concept that embraced only Puritan values.

“Limitation of Government” speaks directly to the corruptibility of men who live outside of the rule of God. “No man would think what desperate deceit and wickedness there is in the hearts of men,” he warned in the sermon. This inherent corruption is particularly evident when individuals are afforded the power of leadership. Those who afforded great power to such individuals would in turn be subjected to the rule of these “independent” leaders.

Cotton advocated the establishment of leaders who demonstrated strong commitment to the precepts of Puritan ideals. A leader who lives strictly under such precepts would be performing the laws of God on behalf of his or her people. However, a leader who is afforded any other “liberty” outside of the word of God would give in to his or her corruptible nature and use it, negatively affecting his or her constituents. It was important for leaders to pursue full knowledge of God’s laws and the church’s traditions rather than any other avenue of authority or leadership.

In this sermon, John Cotton spoke of liberty and freedom. Like Cotton, Roger Williams (who later founded the city of Providence in the Rhode Island colony) and other Puritan colonists left England largely to pursue religious freedom. However, Williams would establish a more liberal system that, in Cotton’s eyes, allowed residents to explore new interpretations of faith and religion. Cotton believed that Williams was therefore allowing leaders to move beyond the limits placed upon them and all Puritans by God. Cotton’s point was that freedom in the Congregational church meant the freedom to follow God’s word according to Puritan tradition alone.

Within his discussion of the corruptibility of mankind, Cotton briefly touches upon the implications of the power afforded to leaders and governments. He describes the idea of placing the pope in the highest seat of power and the manners by which this power may be used. By possessing the power over “kings and princes,” the pope could potentially remove one subject and replace another. He could have the power to make, approve and disapprove any laws. Any law he created or otherwise approved, Cotton argues, would become canon (the official law of the Catholic Church). If given power beyond the framework of God’s will, the Pope could potentially create a law that would be detrimental to the salvation of those who followed him.

Cotton’s sermon did not speak ill of government or its officials, outside of the fact that, as humans, they could easily be corrupted. Rather, Cotton and his Congregationalist followers believed in the rule of law. The Massachusetts Bay Colony demonstrated an appreciation for the English rule of law, choosing to stay closely connected to the Crown. However, Cotton believed it was important that leadership come from the church, rather than through a general form of government. He argued that magistrates and officers should be imbued with the traditions and moral compass of the Puritan faith.

Then again, Cotton warned, any leader, regardless of his or her religious connectivity, is subject to human failing of political corruptibility. Even the most established leaders within the theocratic government, he argued, must stay strictly within the frameworks of both their respective offices and the church’s rules. Magistrates and officers, Cotton argues, should be careful not to assume more authority than they absolutely need during the discourse of their duties. Unless bound by the restraints of God’s law, Cotton states, leaders may be tempted to give in to their corruptible nature.

The weakness of human nature led Cotton to advise that all power on earth be limited. This statement included members of the church. Cotton clearly connected the overuse of power to the negative implications for society. If a leader was afforded too great a power to speak, for example, he or she will speak in “great blasphemies.” Furthermore, Cotton preached, if a leader’s power was not immediately called into question by the people upon the first abuse thereof, that leader would inevitably continue to abuse it. “A prince himself cannot tell where he will confine himself,” Cotton warned. Without confinement, that leader will continually and increasingly cause damage to both his or her honor and the people he or she serves.

Cotton continued his sermon by advising both magistrates and church officers that they must be familiar with the boundaries placed upon the power given to them by those they serve. He stated that these officials must carefully study the limits of their power, keeping in mind the fact that such authority comes from God above all else. If they understand the framework in which they are expected to operate, Cotton argued, these leaders will serve a common good. On the other hand, if they disregard those boundaries and/or infringe upon areas beyond those limits, they will lead their followers away from grace.

Cotton used the metaphor of the sea to underscore his point. Magistrates, officers, and even monarchs should be satisfied with the power God has given them, just as the sea rests naturally where God has commanded it to do so. The sea needs only walls of sand to hold it back if it is given only the limits God has set. So, too, leaders of government need only small check s on their power if they are allowed all the powers God has decided are right for a leader of a government. However, if the sea is restricted too much by any kind of wall, it will destroy the wall to regain its place. If a leader is restricted too much in his or her power, he or she will rise up against such restrictions and take back his or her rightful power, and then some.

“Limitation of Government” does not necessarily center solely on leaders. Indeed, Cotton’s arguments about limiting power were intended to be relevant to all of humanity. In fact, Cotton stated that what held true for magistrates, officers, and monarchs should also hold true for the leaders of the family. He called for “due bounds” set on the power and authority of husbands and wives. A wife must understand and acknowledge the power and authority afforded to her husband, Cotton stated. Similarly, a husband must come to accept the limits of his own power, providing due honor and respect to his wife as he maintains his status as the leader of the household. In turn, Cotton stated, the husband and wife must pay honor and respect to the ultimate authority, God, without seeking additional strength and power within their household.

Cotton’s assessment on the limits of power moved even beyond the household. Men, he argued, must be willing to provide latitude regarding those with whom they interact. This degree of liberty must be the same amount of flexibility that God provides to all of humanity. Men, according to Cotton, should not be afforded any more liberty in overseeing others than God provides. If they abuse the power that is afforded to them, their spirits will become corrupt and easily broken, easily accessed by the devil.

Furthermore, Cotton’s sermon on the government’s limitations included a requirement of the people who were subject to the church’s spiritual rule. He stressed that the congregation should be mindful of the power that they place in the church’s officers. He argued that parishioners should only afford to their leaders the authority that they would have them use. According to the sermon, any additional power or authority given to officials would serve no good to them or the parishioners.

Like their elected leaders, therefore, the congregation should be mindful of the amount of power God would deem appropriate. Additionally, Cotton warned parishioners that they too must be aware of their own corruptibility. Human nature, he stated, is fundamentally flawed and easily corrupted. If a person encounters a liberty that exceeds that which he or she understands, that individual will likely become easily corrupted. Avoidance of the corruptive elements of excessive power was, in the view of Cotton, the responsibility of both the leaders of a community and those they serve.

Essential Themes

Almost paradoxically, Cotton was seen as both a conservative and a revolutionary. Although he chose to be exiled from England, he nevertheless retained an allegiance to the Crown upon his arrival in Boston. His conservative views on the rule of God differed from other Puritan leaders in Plymouth and what is now Rhode Island. In those colonies, Cotton believed, officials embraced far too many notions of liberty rather than the limits of liberty as prescribed by God’s law.

“Limitation of Government” injected into the development of government in the colonies the notion that liberty was not limitless. Cotton argued that any government must maintain a moral center based on the divine word of God. Magistrates and officials could continue to operate as leaders of the people as long as they strictly adhered to the principles of the three covenants and the scriptural teachings of the Bible.

Cotton’s sermon had two implications for history. First, it spoke directly to the disorder that took place in England in the earliest years of the seventeenth century. Charles I (alongside the Church of England) stood at odds with the Parliament in a power struggle that would last several decades. Caught in the middle were the Puritans, whose religious freedom would become a major point of contention between the king and Parliament. Hence, upon his arrival in the New England colonies, Cotton called for the establishment of a representative government that was based on Puritan values. This sermon addressed Cotton’s belief that the English government had become too powerful.

The second implication was the empowerment of the colonies in the years leading up to colonial discontent with the English government. Cotton’s warnings for leaders to use only the power afforded to them by God seemed to resonate a generation later. In fact, Cotton’s grandson, Cotton Mather, would see and comment on an overuse of power by the colony’s governor, Edmund Andros. Mather would work with others to successfully oust and imprison Andros, who had impinged upon the Puritan way of life in Massachusetts and instituted a wide range of repressive restrictions on local government.

Cotton’s establishment of the Puritan Congregational church and the tight restrictions he placed upon the leaders of that church helped create a strong government in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Although the colonies of Rhode Island and Connecticut would become strong in time, the Massachusetts Bay Colony, with a tight government forged by Cotton and Winthrop, remained the dominant English colony in the Northeast both in terms of size and regional influence.

  • Campbell, Donna M. “Puritanism in New England.” Literary Movements. Dept. of English, Washington State University, 21 Mar. 2010. Web. 29 May 2012.
  • Cotton, John. “Discourse about Civil Government in a New Plantation Whose Design is Religion.” 1658. Shropshire, Engl.: Quinta. 2011. Print.
  • Ward & Trent, et al. “The Puritan Divines, 1620–1720.” The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes., 2000. Web. 29 May 2012.
Additional Reading
  • Bremer, Frances J. First Founders: American Puritans and Puritanism in an Atlantic World. Durham, NH: U of New Hampshire P, 2012. Print.
  • Caldwell, Wilber W. Cynicism and the Evolution of the American Dream. Dulles: Potomac, 2007. Print.
  • Carden, Allen. Puritan Christianity in America: Religion and Life in Seventeenth- Century Massachusetts. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1990. Print.
  • Morgan, Edmund S. Puritan Political Ideas: 1558–1794. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2003. Print.
  • Weir, David A. Early New England: A Covenanted Society. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005. Print.

Categories: History