The New Secular Puritan Covenant

Thanksgiving brings back memories for Americans of the Pilgrims and Puritans, carrying out their “errand into the wilderness” to build a “city on a hill,” surviving that first bleak Massachusetts winter of 1620-21. As a kid, I remember that cutting out Puritan hats from black construction paper and taping them to the school windows was a standard November activity.

The historian Perry Miller once wrote that American history basically keeps coming back to the Puritans, either as an extension of or reaction to their thinking. Recently, those Puritan roots struck me as apparent amidst a very contemporary controversy.

Christ Church of Alexandria, Virginia, is an Episcopalian parish. George Washington was its parishioner and vestryman; Robert E. Lee also worshipped there. Those facts were, until recently, memorialized in two plaques on the chancel wall.

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Like Confederate statues that disappear in the night, the Washington and Lee plaques were removed because, as Rector Noelle York-Simmons explained, they “may create an obstacle to our identity as a welcoming church and an impediment to our growth and to full community with our neighbors.”

I will admit to a certain impatience with the ahistorical virtue signaler whom, from a distance of over two centuries, finds he cannot pray beneath the same roof as the slaveholding, wooden-toothed Father of his Country.

(I will also acknowledge a certain Schadenfreude, because George Washington appears to be the first person on the planet to discover a way to get Anglicanism to be ever so “unwelcoming.” I guess you have to be dead for at least 217 years for the Anglican Church to judge you. Who knows? The next step might even be to recognize that its royal founder was a six-time sexual harasser.)

But then it struck me. Although the place calls itself Christ Episcopal Church, its current parishioners (at least those unwilling to share a church publicly with Washington’s ghost) are really … Puritans. Secularized Puritans maybe, but Puritans nonetheless.

As their name implies, the Puritans were preoccupied with ecclesiastical purity. That “purity” involved not just stripping away the adiaphora, the “smells and bells” the Church of England held over from “Romanism.” No, they deemed themselves a community of the saved.

But how do you know if you are saved? You need a conversion experience. A conversion experience was the price of admission to full church membership.

In the early days of colonial settlement, zeal may have been abundant but, as time passed, fervor waned. The Puritans now faced a problem: little Puritans often lacked that “conversion experience” their theology deemed necessary to full church membership. They eventually resolved the dilemma with the so-called “half way covenant,” by which children were baptized and could be associated with the church but were barred from full membership until they could testify to their own conversion experience.

At least Puritan half way covenants, quarter way covenants, big-toe-in-the-narthex covenants, all kept the less-than-fully-initiated in some relationship with the church. Today’s secular Puritans are much more demanding than their Massachusetts forbearers.

The real Puritans hoped that by hearing God’s Word, their children would be moved to proclaim their experience of conversion and partake fully of the covenant. Today’s secular Puritans, in an ahistorical approach to moral development, impose modern mores on former times to demand a conversion account from those who cannot give it—because they are dead and dumb—and so excommunicate them posthumously from society (and even certain Episcopal parishes).

Now, like today’s secular Puritans, the real ones did not want to distinguish between their morality and society’s. Today’s secular Puritans might insist they want to protect “everybody’s right to choose” one’s moral views, but the truth is they expect all of us—and certainly social institutions—to institutionalize their morality of ethical relativism, especially in matters sexual. The old Puritans splintered among themselves, giving us three states: Thomas Hooker decided Massachusetts was too liberal a place and so headed for Hartford while others still in search of a New Jerusalem on earth settled for a New Haven on the Sound instead, and all of them decided to dump the religious refuse in “Rogue’s” Island. Today’s new Puritans—not happy that they have created religiously naked public squares—now want to denude actual public squares from any historical references that fail to meet their modern mores. Margaret Atwood et al. rail against theocracy, but it is today’s intolerant, secular Puritans that want to erect a strictly confessional state.

Now, Catholics recognize that the church is a gathering of sinners, working out their salvation “in fear and trembling.” A good Catholic pastor would tell those uncomfortable with praying under the same roof Washington did that, since both you and George are sinners, get used to it and get over it. Say a prayer for George who, having passed from this life, needs it. Then get thee to a confessional to disgorge your own pharisaical pride.

But today’s secular Puritan is not about sinfulness (okay, not his, maybe yours) but rather about virtue signaling (cf. Matt. 6:1-6). Washington and Lee cannot be summoned to engage in some kind of quasi-Maoist self-criticism, so they need to be shunned with Andy Weaver Amish severity. Today’s sinners can be pardoned if they engage in adequate public self-flagellation and send a check to Planned Parenthood. Then, feeling appropriately shriven, they can demand their historical inferiors be blotted out, their names “stricken from every book and tablet, stricken from all pylons and obelisks, stricken from every monument …. Let [their names] … be unspoken and unheard, erased from the memory of men for all time.”

Sethi couldn’t have put it better.

Puritan theology put great stock in covenants and, of course, the moral underpinnings of those covenants were more plausible if established by an omniscient God. But the ostensible religiosity of the Protestant Reformation quickly brought in its wake the growing secularism of the Enlightenment, and so the divine covenant as the basis of society was quickly replaced by humanly devised social contracts (Hobbesian, Lockean, Rousseauan, et al), large and small. The consequence, of course, is that today’s secular Puritan wants to build a divinely covenanted society on the basis of humanly inspired social contracts, ideally corroborated by numbers. If the old Puritan considered his membership in the covenant verified by his assets (Max Weber’s thesis), today’s new Puritan (obsessed with logical positivism) prove the truth of his secular covenant by social science data. But he is nevertheless convinced, with the certainty of a Cotton Mather, that the city he wants to build on a hill has the highest possible warrant.

Theology matters, even in the case of those who would erect a strict non-religion test to enter the public square. Paradoxically, today’s seculars, with their new secular covenant theology, would lead us to say—paraphrasing Milton Friedman—that “we’re all Puritans now.”

Editor’s note: Pictured above is “Desembarco de los puritanos en América painted by Antonio Gisbert in 1883.


  • John M. Grondelski

    John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is a former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are his own.

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