Early New England: A Covenanted Society

By Stoever, William K. B. | The Catholic Historical Review, January 2006 | Go to article overview

Early New England: A Covenanted Society


Stoever, William K. B., The Catholic Historical Review


Early New England: A Covenanted Society. By David A. Weir. [Emory University Studies in Law and Religion.] (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. 2005. Pp. xviii, 460. $34.00 paperback.)

This monograph undertakes to document Alan Simpson's characterization (1955) of Puritan New England as "a covenanted community." Weir examines colonial charters and patents, town compacts, and church covenants, from 1620 to 1708. This examination (five chapters, plus a list of towns, churches, and praying places, typology of documents, and bibliographical essay) is the book's core. Weir aims to discover what colonial Americans intended about the relation of "church and civil order," and to "articulate the covenantal commitments" that they made for both. He assimilates the documents to the Old Testament and Reformed Protestant "covenant idea," as an explicit transaction establishing a relation with God. He has to qualify, for the town compacts are untheological and "mundane"; but even the military alliance of 1643 is pressed into this covenant mold. Weir's "fundamental premise" is that these documents are a "template" "for the development of the British Colonial world of North America [and] the early national period of United States history."

Weir finds that the charters invoke divine providence, extending Christ's church, converting natives, and expressing a common European religio-political conception. The town compacts are ad hoc, informal, practical; later, as acts of colonial governments, they become formal and stereotyped. The church covenants are uniform in content and intent, ceremonious in institution, theologically unexplicit. Some added confessional statements after 1689, as congregational organization and legal toleration allowed variation and dissent. Church and state were "separate," each having distinct functions (except New Haven); and godly magistrates were to uphold God's order as articulated in churches (except Rhode Island). The general pattern was one "of unity and diversity." Treatment of particular documents varies in detail, depth, and perceptiveness. …

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