Vindication of the Government of New-England Churches Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022
Summary Overview

“Vindication of the Government of New-England Churches” is an early example in colonial American history of pro-democracy forces in the face of a more authoritarian form of government. Written by Congregationalist clergyman John Wise, this document argued that the best type of church government is derived from the people who constitute it rather than one based on a central authority. Wise’s arguments stem from the notions of the natural and civil rights of all men. The sermon Wise wrote was part of an ongoing debate among the Puritan churches in Massachusetts Bay Colony in the early eighteenth century.

Defining Moment

During the early seventeenth century, great numbers of Puritan émigrés from England set sail for North America in an effort to establish a society built on their conservative Christian values. To a large degree, the Puritans (who took issue with the Church of England’s authority and who sought a more conservative application of Christian tradition and values) collectively shared the same faith and ideology. For example, the Puritans disagreed with the ruling hierarchies and structures associated with the Roman Catholic Church. However, there were distinctive subgroups within the Puritan faith. Chief among these factions were the Presbyterians and the Congregationalists.

The Congregationalist Pilgrims arrived first in Plymouth, establishing a colony there in 1620. Presbyterian Puritans arrived a short time later in Massachusetts. During the course of the seventeenth century, these two groups grew in size and influence, as Puritanism had become the dominant religious and political force in the region. By the turn of the eighteenth century, a debate developed between the two groups over how a theocratic government based on the Puritan church should take shape.

Presbyterians argued that the church’s authority should be centralized into one governing body. Led by such figures as Increase and Cotton Mather, two of the most respected Puritan leaders in colonial New England, the Presbyterians made the case for a system of centralized religious authority, where the church congregations throughout Massachusetts were interconnected. Congregationalists, on the other hand, believed that church authority should be based in the individual, autonomous congregations in the region. This debate came to be known as the Churches Quarrel.

Clergyman John Wise of the Second Church of Ipswich made the argument against a centralized, council-based form of church government in his 1710 work, “The Churches Quarrel Espoused,” which was reprinted in 1713 and 1715. Wise’s pamphlet successfully generated considerable backlash against Presbyterian efforts to integrate and consolidate the congregations into a hierarchical structure of governance. In 1717, Wise further expounded in the ideas he set forth in this document—”Vindication of the Government of New England Churches” would be seen as one of the first proposals for the protection of basic human rights and a government driven by the people rather than the dictates of political leaders.

Author Biography

John Wise was born the fifth of thirteen children in 1652 in Roxbury, Massachusetts, to Joseph and Mary Thompson Wise. He attended the Roxbury Latin School before enrolling at Harvard College, from which he graduated in 1673. Wise studied theology after his graduation, and shortly thereafter, became a minister of a church in Branford, Connecticut. While there, he briefly served as chaplain to colonial troops who were fighting in King Philip’s War (1675–76), a bloody, brutal conflict between English colonists and a number of American Indian tribes in western Massachusetts and Connecticut.

In 1677, Wise returned to Massachusetts to serve as minster of a church in Hatfield, where he remained until 1678. While serving there, he married Abigail Gardner, with whom he would have seven children. In 1680, the village of Ipswich formed a new parish known as Chebacco and invited Wise to serve as minister. Due to an ongoing dispute over the new parish—which was parceled away from the First Church of Ipswich and would be formally named the Second Church of Ipswich—Wise was not ordained until 1683.

In 1688, Governor Edmund Andros attempted to impose a poll and property tax throughout Massachusetts. However, he did not pass the tax through the Massachusetts General Court, the colony’s chief legislative body. Andros’s law required that each community appoint commissioners to collect the new tax. Wise disagreed with the new law and advised his congregation to refuse to pay the tax. Other towns joined in Ipswich’s act of defiance. Andros was livid at Wise’s actions and had him arrested, jailed for twenty-one days, fined fifty pounds, and suspended from the church. However, the unpopular governor was removed from power during the following year, and Wise was exonerated shortly thereafter.

Wise’s leadership against Andros earned him an appointment as chaplain in the colony’s 1690 campaign in Quebec. There, he further distinguished himself as a strong leader and adviser. In 1692, Wise defended two former members of his congregation in Ipswich, John and Elizabeth Proctor, in the Salem witch trials. Although his clients were found guilty and John Proctor was put to death, Wise’s defense helped hasten the end of the trials.

The Mathers introduced the “Questions and Proposals” in 1705, suggesting that all of the church congregations form an association with authority to issue ministerial policy centralized in a group of standing councils. The proposals were not adopted, but the ideas continued to generate interest. In 1710, however, Wise offered “The Churches Quarrel Espoused,” stressing the need for congregations to make their own decisions regarding church actions and recruitment of ministers. He followed this up in 1717 with “Vindication of the Government of New-England Churches,” continuing to generate support from his own parishioners and controversy from supporters of the Presbyterian camp. He remained the minister at the Chebacco parish until his death in 1725.

Document Analysis

John Wise introduces his “Vindication of the Government of New-England Churches” by outlining the natural being of humankind as relates to government. One of the main resources he utilizes in this endeavor is the seventeenth-century German political philosopher Samuel von Pufendorf, whose ideal political system was one based on natural law. Wise shared this notion, stating that the individual is born in a state of natural being, born free and owing nothing to anyone but God and heaven.

In Wise’s opinion, the government must be appreciative of this fact. He acknowledges the invaluable benefits of government, suggesting that government is the result of divine Providence. However, Wise argues, government should not be a divine institution—rather, it is the product of human rationalization, reason, and humanity, and should not take orders from any sort of “infinite wisdom.” In other words, government, Wise’s view, should be designed within the context of the interests and limits of humanity.

A bottom-up approach to governance

Wise’s point of view coincides with the attitude of Pufendorf, who argued that government is imposed by those who think existing rules and structures are inadequate to meet their needs. Government, in Pufendorf’s view, is a self-help device for the address and rectification of certain emergent needs. It is therefore reactive in nature, designed by humanity’s emerging needs as they arise. This ideal seems to contrast somewhat with the ideals put forth in the Presbyterian “Proposals,” in that this form of government is developed from the ground up (from the individuals to the body politic). The “Proposals” suggest a top-down approach, wherein government is imposed upon the people.

Pufendorf’s ideal of a government reactive to humanity’s natural needs resonated with Wise, who argues in “Vindication” that government is so necessary that no society can exist without it, particularly when that institution is suited to the “temper and inclination of a people.” In this document, Wise cites a “Lord Warrington” in what may be a reference to Scottish judge and statesman Archibald Johnston, Lord Warriston (or Wariston), who took issue with repeated attempts by Charles I to impose the authority of the Church of England upon Scotland. Johnston, like Wise and Pufendorf, advocated a more democratic approach to this system of governance, a position that left him frequently at odds with the sovereign.

Taking inspiration from the examples of these two figures, Wise opposed the concept of a government imposed upon a society in a manner contrary to the interests of its people. Such religious institutions of governance, Wise argues, do not come from the orders of God, as no form of civil government has ever been presented to humankind by God. To be sure, he states, God has provided a wide range of commands and rules as to how humanity should live, and Wise acknowledged that these moral and ethical commands are woven into the laws that are administered and enforced by government. However, government itself, according to Wise, does not come from the word of God, but rather from the interests of humanity as driven by natural law.

The model inspired by Pufendorf and proposed by Wise in this document stood in stark contrast to the ideals of the Presbyterian alliance put forth by Increase and Cotton Mather and others in the Puritan leadership in Boston. Wise’s ideals came after a careful review of the history of the two sides of the church. Some argue that the Presbyterian model (which was offered as a series of “Proposals” by the Mathers and others) centered on the pursuit of political power. After all, the early eighteenth century was marked by a coup of sorts—Puritan leaders from both the Congregational and Presbyterian parties, Wise included, had launched a successful effort to oust Andros from the colonial government. In his absence, the Mathers sought to install a new in government, based on an association of the churches in Massachusetts, centralizing authority in one council. Wise penned “The Churches Quarrel Espoused” as a brief retort, introducing “Vindication” as an expansion on his thoughts.

Principles of natural law

Wise structures this document by first describing the principles of natural law to which humanity is beholden. Each individual, analyzed in an independent state (rather than within the context of a civil or community environment, possesses certain natural traits, according to Wise, which play into the way he or she interacts with others and creates a civil environment. After defining these natural tendencies from an individual basis, Wise next describe how a civil society is then formed. Wise concludes his paper by hypothesizing that an effective government created within this framework is one built around the interests of natural law.

Wise’s notion of an effective civil government is not secular. In fact, God plays a critical role in natural law, simply by empowering humanity with the tools for living in a righteous manner. According to Wise, perhaps humankind’s greatest asset is being both subject to natural law like all animals and yet God’s “favorite animal.” Humanity was created therefore with an ability to directly assimilate God’s word—in fact, Wise says, humanity had God’s word embedded in its very frame; humans were created with an ability to understand what was right, just, and morally and ethically acceptable. The primary argument supporting this notion was the idea that each human has a soul, which Wise suggests is the vehicle by which God’s law flows through people. Because people have souls, Wise said, they have within them a natural knowledge of how to act.

Wise supports his statement with a quotation from the book of Romans: “These having not a law, are a law unto themselves.” In other words, the power to understand what is right, as well as the power to live within the law of God, is within the heart of every person. However, Wise suggests that not everyone is fully aware of the fact that the law rests within. In order to locate this concept, Wise said, one must study the laws of nature—that is, carefully and independently contemplate one’s condition, needs, and natural inclinations. One must further assess how one’s own natural law relates to the broader community, including how it interacts (or conflicts) with the fundamental natural laws contained within another.

One of the most effective ways for this consideration to occur, as Wise discusses, is through interaction with others. If one doubts how one’s actions will affect others, one must simply consider how one would react if the roles were reversed. The resulting frame of thought would reflect the natural law ingrained in that person. Wise suggests three sentiments in which this frame of thought would reflect natural law: a sense of self-love and self-preservation, sociability, and an affection of other people. Each of these sentiments, Wise states, would be merely instinctive, if not for the fact that God has given them significance and made them part of his binding laws.

Because these sentiments are the manifestations of natural law within a person, according to Wise, certain connections may be made. Obeying one’s reasonable instincts in these areas is actually obeying God’s law; likewise, when someone feels at peace or guilty as a result of a decision, those feelings are those to which Wise refers as “sanctions in providence”—rewards or punishments for adherence to or violation of natural law.

Wise further explains that, with the bases of natural law now evident within each person, the foundations of the ideal government are also made clear. For example, the individual feels the need for self-preservation and yet has many wants and desires. The pursuit of these desires leaves an individual exposed to risks to his or her personal safety. In other cases, an individual may simply wish to live life without the interference or assistance of others. Furthermore, there are those men who are malicious or quick to anger, qualities which play into their approach to self-preservation.

With the individual’s desire for self-preservation defined, Wise next comments on the interaction a person has with others in the society. One must be sociable, uniting with others, regulating personal interactions with them, and ensuring that they do not prevent one’s pursuit of one’s interests and rights. This sociability is among the most important aspects of humanity, Wise says, as well as a fundamental element of natural law. When people socialize, Wise argues, they find common ground that fosters a sense of mutual trust between them. Once this trust is established, they may put aside their pursuit of self-interest in order to make the common good the goal of the relationship. A person is therefore able to enter into social relationships wherein another of the natural laws governing humanity comes into light.

From the individual’s self-interest and social abilities comes the third of Wise’s natural laws: a personal desire to work toward the common good of the society. This pursuit leads the individual to enter into a civil state with other people, each with their own pursuits. As these parts cement together, Wise argues, government is formed. Likewise, without these parts, government would fragment and dissolve.

Another strong asset of humanity, according to Wise, is rational nature, upon which is stamped individual liberty. Here, Wise acknowledges people’s occasional missteps into what he calls “moral turpitude,” but says that despite these shortcomings, humans are still physically capable of holding their position at the highest echelon of God’s order of animals. This comment represented a departure of sorts from the view of humanity underscored within the Puritan tradition. The fundamental theology of this brand of Protestantism stressed that every human is basically corrupt and depraved. That Wise would suggest otherwise served as a break from the conservative notions of the Puritan church, which likely based the ideas from the “Proposals” on the idea that humans are thus incapable of governing themselves in a morally upright manner.

Although imperfect, Wise continues, humans are still of very noble character and, as a result, still given charge over what Wise terms the “lower part of the universe.” Along with this responsibility, humans are also bestowed with the gift of liberty under reason.

An important aspect of this rationality, according to Wise, is the fact that humans are created with physical limitations. Human bodies are born susceptible to disease, vulnerable to accidents and, of course, subject to eventual death. All, despite their pretensions, share this fundamental characteristic. This fact fosters equality and, as a result, creates peace and friendship among humankind. However, this fact holds true only when people do not believe that they are greater than others. Those individuals who think they are superior to others, Wise says, do little but displease those around them. Wise argues that no one should presume to deserve more than another.

It would be “the greatest absurdity,” according to Wise, to believe that some persons are naturally endowed with sovereignty over the weak or the ability to force others to act against their collective will. This fact translates into Wise’s arguments regarding government. In his opinion, natural law cannot allow government sovereignty over others unless there is some “humane deed” or agreement established among equal parties. Furthermore, no government may make an individual the governor over others. By natural law, all are created free and equal. As such, no “servitude or subjection” may be imposed under a government that is reflective of natural law, since such a situation would require social inequality to exist.

Wise next moves into a discussion regarding the state of humanity as it relates to both natural and political states. With this approach, Wise states, the more optimal form of government for the accommodation of the subjects of natural law, as described earlier, would be more clearly identified. First, everyone who lives in a natural state must remain free and able to operate within a society. In light of this fact, an individual may sacrifice some freedom in order to live among others freely. This government must allow individuals to pursue their own interests and liberties as provided by natural law. Then again, government should also be respectful of the interests and liberties of others, which means that boundaries and regulations are essential. The latter is particularly relevant when the society is faced with intrusions by its enemies.

While the ideal government Wise describes is one that is framed to suit the interests of free individuals, a critical characteristic of this system is that its civil powers are derived from and focused on the people. The government may have power over people, but the people themselves bequeath this power to it. In this case, power is not sovereign: When the reasons for the establishment of a particular government initiative become extinct, Wise said, the power returns to the people. Likewise, when the desire so exists among the people, they may install any type of government institution or initiative they deem necessary.

If no government exists, Wise says, people will revert to their natural state, each pursuing his or her own interests. Unfortunately, because people are social, a lack of government can lead to anarchy. Wise cites examples from a “country of the Mogul,” presumably in central or eastern Asia. In such situations, the people live under the strong rule of a monarch. When that tyrant is removed from power, the nation devolves into chaos. Those who survive this period embrace any new form of government, even if it is another despot.

Wise’s point is that government is essential. However, that government must be respectful of humanity’s foundation in natural law. Wise’s model provides a simple series of steps whereby this government would be built: first, the individual becomes familiar with the natural laws ingrained within; second, the person develops the capacity to interact socially with others and form a civil society; third, the individual creates and drives a system of governance reflective of this natural law process. If placed within a system of this nature, the community will yield to self-interests where common pursuits demand. However, Wise suggests, if government is not driven by the collective will of the community it represents, it will fail to operate effectively.

Wise concludes by advising his congregation to work together to conceive and produce a new government in Massachusetts. This political system would be reflective of the free and equal citizens whom it would represent. He also reminds his congregation to be mindful of the natural laws that they contained within themselves, which would help them naturally form the body politic they sought and forge the community they looked to establish.

Essential Themes

When Governor Andros was forced out of office in the latter seventeenth century, Puritans from both the Presbyterian and Congregational camps celebrated the ouster. However, Andros’s departure left a power vacuum that the Puritan leadership sought to fill. Presbyterian leaders made the first move in the resulting “Churches Quarrel,” offering their Proposals of 1705 and touching off a debate about not only who would lead but how that leadership would exist.

John Wise’s response, “Vindication of the Government of New England Churches,” has been seen as one of the earliest examples of a proposal for democratic government in America. Wise’s pamphlet, which discusses the basic rights afforded to all, also provided a precursor to such foundational documents as the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution.

Wise divides his commentary into three sections. The first of these was the definition of natural law and how it affects every person. Wise provides a careful examination of the positive characteristics of humans as God’s “favorite animal.” He also draws an illustration of humans as inherently good creatures—a radical departure from the typical Puritan view of humans as flawed and corrupt. Moreover, Wise saw people as inherently free and equal.

Wise next describes the individual in relation to others in the community. Although people tend to be self-serving as individuals, Wise suggests, each would be willing to sacrifice this tendency in order to interact with others. This connectivity is based on the commonalities among people, such as the fact that each human is frail and subject to death.

Once the common ground has been established and the civic organization has been formed, Wise argues, the next step is the formation of government. Unlike the association of interconnected churches—which could be seen as a top-down approach to governance— proposed by the Mathers, along with other Presbyterians, John Wise’s description of the individual, the community, and ultimately, the government that would be put into place in this scheme is more of a bottom-up approach. Wise does not show disdain for strong government, but rather envisions that government as a natural product of the society that it is supposed to represent. No sovereign power was to be greater than the people it served because the society Wise hoped would form would be based on equality and good deeds instead of the consolidation of power.

  • Miller, Perry, and Thomas H. Johnson, eds. The Puritans: A Sourcebook of Their Writings. Mineola: Dover, 2001. Print.
  • Parrington, Vernon Louis. “Stirrings of Liberalism: John Wise, Village Democrat.” Main Currents in American Thought: The Colonial Mind, 1620–1800. Vol. 1. 1927. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1987. Print.
  • “Pufendorf’s Moral and Political Philosophy.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford Department of Philosophy, 2010. Web. 15 Apr. 2012.
  • Trent, William P., and Benjamin W. Wells, eds. “John Wise.” Colonial Prose and Poetry. New York: Crowell, 1903. Print.
Additional Reading
  • Andrews, Charles McLean. The Fathers of New England: A Chronicle of the Puritan Commonwealths. New Haven: Yale UP, 1921. Print.
  • Bremer, Francis J. First Founders: American Puritans and Puritanism in an Atlantic World. Durham: U of New Hampshire P, 2012. Print.
  • Heinsohn, Robert Jennings. “Pilgrims and Puritans in 17th Century New England.” SAIL 1620. Society of Mayflower Descendants in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, 2012. Web. 19 June 2012.
  • Middlekauff, Robert. The Mathers: Three Generations of Puritan Intellectuals, 1596–1728. Berkeley: U of California P, 1999. Print.
  • Miller, Perry. The New England Mind: From Colony to Province. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1983. Print.

Categories: History Content