Early New England: A Covenanted Society

By Beck, Peter | Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, September 2007 | Go to article overview

Early New England: A Covenanted Society


Beck, Peter, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society


Early New England: A Covenanted Society. By David A. Weir. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005, xviii + 460 pp., $34.00 paper.

That the early colonies in New England were founded upon covenantal relationships is well known. How those covenants worked at the most basic level in regards to the colonies, cities, and churches, however, remains hidden in untold obscure organizational documents-documents such as the more famous Mayflower Compact, but much less accessible to the average reader. That is, until now. David Weir's excellent Early New England: A Covenanted Society sheds much needed light on the foundational documents of colonial America, revealing the commonalities and the originality of these trailblazing sociopolitical pioneers and laying the groundwork for a generation of future studies.

"The seed of this volume appeared in 1992 as a [doctoral] dissertation devoted to the process of church formation in early New England" (p. ix). Weir earned the doctor of philosophy from Princeton University and another from the University of St. Andrews. His first book, The Origins of the Federal Theology in Sixteenth-Century Reformation Thought (Oxford University Press, 1990), was highly acclaimed. David Weir presently serves as professor of history at Nyack College, New York.

After researching countless colonial, town, and church covenants, Weir came to the conclusion that "the content of the early New England church and civil covenants reflected a counterpoint of unity and diversity" (pp. 3-4). The unity he finds in the concept of covenanting, a concept driven by the Puritan understanding of the OT and the old England roots of the founders. The diversity, he argues, manifests itself in the covenanters' willingness to adopt old forms and create new ones in response to the individual situations of the various colonies, towns, and church gatherings. To prove his thesis, Weir handles the various covenants, secular and sacred, at length according to their kind and historical context in chapters singularly dedicated to each genre.

Before addressing the foundational covenants of early New England (those related to the founding of the various colonies themselves), Weir dedicates a helpful, opening chapter to the European background, surveying the basic presuppositions that informed the earliest settlers. Doing so, he makes his first argument for unity. "Most early New Englanders," he notes, "thought like the Europeans that they were" (p. 15). He further argues that all of the early settlements except Rhode Island adopted the church/state relationship patterns of their homeland. Tracing the rise of the dissenting movements of England in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, as well as their Calvinistic theological commitments, Weir sets the socio-political stage for their final removal to the New World to establish what in their minds was the ideal that was abandoned mid-stream in the English Reformation. They came, he writes, "to establish a new England" (p. 23).

Moving from context to application, Weir next surveys the colonial charters of the original settlements from the Virginia Charter (1606) to the reestablishment of the Massachusetts Bay charter (1691). He rightfully contends that these documents reveal unity and diversity, through both the English character of their content and the changing nature of the geopolitical situation, as they move from reformation to civil war to intolerance to the final victory of religious tolerance, each colony seemingly setting its own course according to the religious vision of its founders and not that of the homeland. The Virginia charter, for instance, assumes a common theological framework, a framework left unstated in the document. That approach would not last, however. By the time that Gorges Grant is given by Charles I, the religious situation had changed in England to such an extent that the new colony to be established in modern-day Maine would be legally and religiously Anglican. …

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