The Puritans in America Favored the Rule of Law Based on the Bible


Thomas Hooker

The Puritans practiced the “Rule of Law,” the principle that every person is subject to the law, in their early American colonies. They implemented Rule of Law in the colonies of Massachusetts and Connecticut based on the English tradition of the Magna Carta, which asserted Rule of Law, as well as on the principles of justice and equity as found in the moral law of the Bible.

The Biblical Foundation of Rule of Law

Puritan leader Rev. Thomas Hooker supported the need for a constant law based on the Bible. In a letter to fellow Puritan John Winthrop in 1638, he argues for Rule of Law based on Deuteronomy 17:10-11, Acts 5:12-40, and Acts 4:18-20. In Deuteronomy, for example, the Israelites are instructed by Moses to judge cases according to the “sentence of the Law” and not according to their own discretion.

In Deuteronomy 17:10-11, Moses tells the Israelites, 

You shall do according to the sentence which they pronounce upon you in that place which the Lord chooses. And you shall be careful to do according to all that they order you. According to the sentence of the law in which they instruct you, according to the judgment which they tell you, you shall do; you shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left from the sentence which they pronounce upon you. (NKJ) 

The Role of Constitutions in Applying Rule of Law

The Bible-inspired principle of Rule of Law influenced the Puritans to define their community civil laws with constitutions. A constitution is an outline of civil laws agreed upon by those in the community and which are regularly enforced, not arbitrarily applied. This practice was beneficial and necessary because, while the Bible was the Puritans’ primary source of civil law, many civil issues were not literally or directly addressed in the Bible. Such issues were subject to the interpretation or discretion of their governors.

Some colonists like Thomas Hooker feared that too much judicial discretion might lead to violations of justice and civil rights. In response, the Puritans created written codes of laws—constitutions—to prevent arbitrary rule and to articulate and secure their freedoms. Indeed, the practice of Rule of Law naturally led to constitutions in the early American colonies and later in the new nation of the United States.

Conclusion

The Puritans’ unwavering commitment to the Rule of Law, rooted in biblical principles, left an enduring legacy on the legal traditions of early America. Through the practice of Rule of Law and the development of constitutions, the Puritans laid the groundwork for the evolving legal landscape of the United States, contributing to the principles of justice and governance that continue to shape the nation today.


Join The American Heritage Education Foundation

As we reflect on the Puritans’ profound impact on shaping the Rule of Law in early America, we recognize the enduring legacy they left for generations to come. The principles of justice, moral governance, and the commitment to Rule of Law set the stage for the legal foundations of our nation.

To delve deeper into the rich history of America’s legal heritage and its roots in biblical principles, explore the educational resources offered by the American Heritage Education Foundation (AHEF). Discover the profound connections between history, law, and our shared values. Visit AHEF’s website today and embark on a journey to understand the essence of bible-based principles in shaping the American story.

Contact us today to learn more.

Contributed by AHEF and Angela E. Kamrath.


Source for more information:
Kamrath, Angela E.  The Miracle of America:  The Influence of the Bible on the Founding History and Principles of the United States of America for a People of Every Belief.  Second Edition.  Houston, TX:  American Heritage Education Foundation, 2014, 2015.

Related articles/videos:
1.  An Introduction to Popular Sovereignty
2.  Who were the Pilgrims?  Why did they come to America?
3.  Why the Pilgrims Identified with the Ancient Israelites
4.  The Mayflower Compact:  The Pilgrims’ First Self-Governing Act in America
5.  The Pilgrims’ Mayflower Compact as Covenant
6.  The History of Thanksgiving Day in America
7.  The Pilgrims & Private Property:  What the Pilgrims Might Have Thought About Communism & Socialism
8.  Three P’s That Led to Freedom in the West:  Printing Press, Protestant Reformation, & Pilgrims
9.  A City on a Hill:  Why John Winthrop and the Puritans Came to America
10.  The Puritans’ Moral Authority was the Bible
11.  The Puritans in America Identified with the Ancient Israelites and Practiced Covenants
12.  Why the Puritans Favored Limited Government
13.  The Puritans in America Created the First Written Constitution of Law
14.  The Puritans in America Elected Representatives to Govern in their Colonies
15.  Why Puritan Thomas Hooker Favored Democracy Over Aristocracy
16.  Challenges in the Early Puritan Colonies:  The Dilemma of Religious Laws & Religious Dissent


Activity:  Miracle of America High School Teacher Course Guide, Unit 3, Part 2 of 3, Activity 1:  Drawing Essential Understandings / Answering Guiding Questions (Question 1), p. 113, 118.  MS-HS.

Drawing Essential Understandings/Answering Guiding Questions…

Purpose/Objective: Students learn and answer Essential Understandings/Guiding Questions in this part of the unit.

Suggested Reading: Chapter 3 of Miracle of America sourcebook/text.

Essential Understandings & Guiding Questions to consider:

  • The values, beliefs, and experiences of a people often shape and affect the values of their civil society.
    1.  What were the political ideas of John Winthrop and Thomas Hooker?  What basis did they use to ground their civic views and the governing principles of their commonwealth?  Consider the role of government and citizens, popular sovereignty, consent, Rule of Law, covenants, constitutions, limited government, chosen representatives, individual rights, literacy, and Protestant/Puritan work ethic.

Pre-Test/Post-Test:  Writing Warm-up and Wrap-up. At the beginning and close of this part of the unit, students write brief responses to guiding questions in this section.  Students may turn these in and/or share responses in pairs, groups, or whole class.  The writing process should take less than 5 minutes, and sharing can go as long as teacher and class decide.  The Writing Warm-up may serve as a pre-test of students’ current knowledge and understanding.  The Writing Wrap-up may serve as a post-test of students’ learning and understanding of this section’s instruction and content.  In the Writing Wrap-up, students might compare their answers/responses to those they wrote in their Writing Warm-up/pre-test.  How have their answers changed?  What did they learn?  Students might use a comparison chart to write and compare their warm-up and wrap-up responses.

To download this whole unit, sign up as an AHEF member (no cost) to access the “resources” page on americanheritage.org.  To order the printed binder format of the course guide with all the units, go to the AHEF bookstore.

Copyright © American Heritage Education Foundation.  All rights reserved.