Monday, October 26, 2020

Covenanting in Puritan Salem and Today

Behaving: puritan worship in the time of Elizabeth I, lithograph from The Church of England: 
A History for the People, by H.D.M. Spence-Jones, 1910.
The congregationalism advocated by Robert Browne, which I have discussed elsewhere, was foundational to the Puritan settlers in North America. While those in Plymouth were Separatists, and those in Salem were not, both shared a fundamental identical theology and polity otherwise. When the Salem contingent arrived in Massachusetts in 1629 they had two ordained Church of England clergy with them, but they went through the formality of voting on them in congregationalist fashion for the roles of Pastor and Teacher. Along with this organizing came a very simple covenant.

We Covenant with the Lord and with one another; and do bind ourselves in the presence of God, to walk together in all his ways, according as he is pleased to reveal himself unto us in his Blessed word of truth. (McKanan, 2017)

This was a fairly standard covenant at the time it was written, before controversies arose. For Salem, the revision that created the Enlarged Covenant was necessitated by the tumult following the short-lived ministry of Roger Williams.

Arriving in Boston in 1631, Williams refused to associate himself with the Anglican Puritans and in the following year moved to the separatist Plymouth Colony. In 1633 he was back in Salem after a disagreement with Plymouth in which he insisted that the king’s patent was invalid and that only direct purchase from the Indians gave a just title to the land. 
Invited by the church at Salem to become pastor in 1634, Williams was banished from Massachusetts Bay by the civil authorities for his dangerous views: besides those on land rights, he held that magistrates had no right to interfere in matters of religion(Lotha, Young, Tikkanen, & Rodriguez, 2011)

Being huge fans of conformity, there was no way Roger Williams would have ever been anything other than a bringer of chaos to the colonies of Massachusetts. He did, however, go on to found a colony (Rhode Island) that welcomed religious dissenters, and he also founded the First Baptist Church in America. This congregation exists to this day, and is affiliated with the American Baptist Churches USA

In the aftermath of Roger Williams, the Enlarged Covenant was penned as an expansion on the original. That this was seen in continuity with the original covenant, and not precisely a separate and new covenant, can be seen in how they stated its purpose.

Do therefore solemnly in the presence of the Eternal God, both for our own comforts and those which shall or may be joined unto us, renew that Church Covenant we find this Church bound unto at their first beginning. (McKanan, 2017)

Although McKanan notes that covenants often became more complicated over time so as to demonstrate orthodoxy to the authorities back in England, I don't see that being the case with the Enlarged Covenant. While the 9 points enumerated in the updated covenant refer to God and Jesus, the focus is entirely on the conduct of church members and how the congregation will relate to 'sister Churches.' This is in keeping with the context of the controversy that swirled around Roger Williams.

Among the religious descendants of the Puritans were the Unitarians, now represented by the Unitarian Universalist Association. Within this tradition there continues to be the practice of making covenants, something that I believe I'm seeing more emphasis on in Unitarian Universalism as political and social discourse becomes increasingly polarized (and I dread pondering how much worse it could get). As UUism is a creedless faith, the current covenants cover conduct, which appears to have been the intent of the early covenants. In our times the focus has changed from honoring God and spreading the Gospel to upholding one another and, ideally, committing to dismantle racist systems within our congregations and association. 

There is a sense in which anti-racism, for example, could be considered a doctrine. At the same time, I'm glad that it is a far more practical and meaningful topic than fussing over unseen hypotheticals about a spiritual world. I'm of the opinion that a great deal more thought and care needs to be given to creating and sustaining covenants within UUism, as many congregations and affiliated organizations remain without such a document. The concept of covenant is as old as the congregationalist polity we embrace, but has not been as widely championed among us. Perhaps that gets to the root of some of the many problems we've had over the years. 


Lotha, G., Young, G., Tikkanen, A., & Rodriguez, E. (Eds.). (2011). Roger Williams. Retrieved October 26, 2020, from 

McKanan, D. (2017). A Documentary History of Unitarian Universalism (Vol. 1). Boston, MA: Skinner House Books.