About That Richard Baxter Quote: Part III

I stated at the outset of this series that an examination of Richard Baxter’s thought in context would not simplify the issue at hand but rather complicate it. This final part of the series will attempt to leverage what has been covered so far to analyze the John MacArthur’s and GCC’s situation and decision to defy the orders of the California government.

We have now covered a sufficient amount of Baxter’s thought, primarily drawn from his Christian Directory, to attempt to tackle the matter of John MacArthur and GCC’s protest of California public health orders. Before doing so, however, we must once again acknowledge the chronological and contextual divide between ourselves and Baxter. That is, we must appreciate, as others have not, that Baxter cannot easily and cleanly be trotted out in service of contemporary positions.

In twenty-first century America, as in most western democracies save, perhaps, members of the Visegrád Group, church and state do not relate as they did in Baxter’s day nor do they conform to his ideal commonwealth. At least in our own country, a spirit of growing antagonism at worst, and indifference at best, characterizes the relationship. Doubtless, this was not the vision of most of the men of the founding era. But even had we not so exaggerate the establishment clause and not incorporated modern establishment clause jurisprudence into the states, we would still only be in possession of a kinder relationship, a government more sympathetic to some amorphous form of ecumenical Christianity— which would accept many of the heresies which Baxter would have charged the magistrate to punish severely.

All that to say, the political assumptions of today and those of the mid-to-late seventeenth century are worlds apart. Baxter’s aspirations for a unified, national church, thwarted even then, would obviously be all the more untenable now.[1] Baxter would have also recoiled from both our national political polity and MacArthur’s church polity. Doubtless, if today’s civil unrest and church-state conflicts were presented to him, he would have been horrified but also said something to the effect of, “What did you expect?” To him, the propensity for disorder inherent in democratic regimes would have made present strife totally predictable. The further a people drifts from a mixed polity the more unstable it becomes. What is more, the nonchalant attitude of the American politics (on both sides) vis a vis the spiritual health of the nation bolsters the Baxterian prediction. (All of this, however, does not render Baxter’s advice useless, as I will attempt to demonstrate more directly below.)

In Baxter’s mind, regardless of how the civil authority conceives of its relationship to the church, it is, in fact, dutybound to protect true religion in its realm, as a matter of principle as well as self-interest. The founders of our own country recognized this to some extent. As the preeminent producer of virtue, Christian churches were to be favored over all other similarly situated associations since virtuous citizenry was indispensable to good government. As Joseph Story wrote, “the promulgation of the great doctrines of religion… [can] never be a matter of indifference to any well-ordered community.” It was in the government’s interest, then, to foster these institutions, even in an ecumenical nation, which did not rule out more centralized establishments on a state level. Hence, per Story, a republic required “the Christian religion, as the great basis, on which it must rest for its support and permanence.” Indeed, the common law itself had Christianity as its foundation.[2]

Returning to Baxter, the duty owed by the magistrate to the church is both direct and particular and indirect and unparticular. Stated differently, in Baxter’s political theory, the magistrate was bound to protect the church, her health and doctrine, as such, but was also interested in doing so because of the intricacy of church and commonwealth. The body could not long last apart from the soul, nor the will without the judgments of the intellect. In the seventeenth century context, trust was expected to exist between the two powers, cooperation unto their shared ultimate ends; mutual concern and support, and interdependence was assumed.

In Baxter’s view, the connection between the civil and church authorities must be complimentary and characterized by mutual respect.[3] They are coordinate powers, both ordained of God to support one another unto his glory. Like the hypostatic union they are united but unmixed, not constituting a third kind but each maintaining their own inherent dignity, competence, and jurisdiction. The positive duty of the magistrate to preserve the church corresponds to a negative duty to regulate it. The health of the commonwealth depends on the purity of its churches.[4]

Notice that in the Christian Directory, Baxter moves from the character of the good ruler and duties of his rule to the obedience of the people. Both are independent expectations for each class (ruler and subject), but they are expected to compliment and mutually reinforce one another. They are microcosms of the church-state relationship of mutual support and partnership.[5]

Men like Baxter and John Winthrop afforded great legislative latitude to the magistrate, but they also imposed upon him a most weighty duty. Magistrates had to, as Winthrop put it, “square all their proceedings by the rule of God’s word, for the advancement of the gospell and the weale publick.” Further, “In their Administrations, they are to holde forthe the wisdome and mercye of God, as well as his Justice,” because “They are to be accountable to him for their miscarriages in the waye and order of this kingdome.”[6]

The check on magisterial power was three-fold, as mentioned briefly in Part II. Winthrop himself listed the church, the magisterial oath, and the common good as constituting this three-fold limitation which more or less corresponds to Baxter’s similar limitations.

“The magistrates are members of the churches here, and, by that covenant, are regulated to direct all their ways by the rule of the gospel, and if they faile in anythinge, they are subject to the churches correction. 2dly. As they are freemen, they are regulated by oath, to direct their aymes to the welfare of this civill body. 3dly. As they are magistrates, they are sworne to doe right to all, and regulated by their relation to the people, to seek their wellfare in all things.”[7]

It is significant that the first limitation is that of the rule of the Gospel and the church’s correction.[8] Elsewhere, Winthrop said that the guide for magistrate conduct was the “Rule which is the Worde of God, and such conclusions and deductions, as are, or shallbe, regularly drawne from thence.” (John Davenport concurred.[9]) Winthrop is here referring to Biblically based determinations within the hierarchy of law. But it is the magistrate being governed by said determinations, not making them. The magistrate is guided by divine law, and conclusions drawn from good and necessary consequence, as the standard by which he makes his own determinations. Who, then, makes those first governing determinations? The elders of the church, that is, those best positioned to expound God’s law with which human law must agree. As Charles Bourgeaud recounted,

“By law the civil government [in New England] was distinct from the ecclesiastical, but in fact it was strictly subordinate to it. Owing to their moral influence, the pastors and elders formed a sort of Council of Ephors; no important decision was arrived at without their consent.”[10]

Though questions of original jurisdiction often dictated an issue at the outset to be that of church or state (General Court or synod), the unity and correspondence between the two powers meant, in practice, that few things were decided by the temporal authority without the input of the spiritual authority— for all of society was ordered toward the preservation of true worship and the propagation of the Gospel. What is more, given that the magistrate’s determinations required agreement with higher law in order to be valid, it behooved the magistrate to make sure at the start that his understanding of the higher law was accurate. Classically speaking, law (or jurisprudence) is a subordinated science in that it receives its first principles from outside itself (i.e. theology and philosophy) which it then puts into practice unto the good which is also identified by sources outside of itself.[11]Though the magistrates of New England were by all accounts learned and orthodox, the nature of law itself and the duty imposed on the magistrates regularly required consultation of the ministers.

The two powers, temporal and spiritual, were united but uncorrupted in their union. And because man’s spiritual end takes precedence over his temporal one, the civil magistrate was expected to— as seventeenth century Puritans never tired of saying— be a nursing father to the church. As Isaiah 49:23 puts it, “they shall worship thee with their faces toward the earth, and lick up the dust of thy feet .”[12] The prime duty of the state is to support the true church and to foster public piety.[13]

When it came to a question of priority, the Puritans on both sides of the Atlantic never hesitated to elevate the soul of the commonwealth, the immortal power in the body-soul union which animates the body as its form. Per Herbert Osgood in his magisterial study of seventeenth century New England,

“According to this system an organic connection existed between church and state. It was the duty of the church to create a perfect Christian society, and of the state to furnish the necessary external conditions. Though the sphere of the church was far higher and the issues toward which it labored were loftier and more permanent than those of the state, they could not be reached without the assistance of the civil power.”[14]

Civil magistrates, declared Thomas Cartwright, “must remember to subject themselves unto the Church, to submit their sceptres [sic], to throw down their crowns before the Church, yea, as the prophet teacheth, to lick the dust off the feet of the Church.”[15]

Commenting on church-state dynamics in New England— which Baxter believed represented his ideal commonwealth[16]— David D. Hall writes, “Acting on the assumption that church and state should ‘help and strengthen [each] other,’ the ministers intervened deliberately in affairs of state. All other channels of influence were insignificant compared to their direct consultations with the government.”[17] This give-and-take is only possible in a commonwealth wherein the state recognizes and values the authority and priority of its co-power, its “twin,” to invoke Cartwright again. The duty derived from Isaiah 49:23 “did not entitle magistrates to intervene at will in church affairs; there was a line they must not cross, the line between lawful intervention and unjust usurpation.”[18]

The mark of a good, pious magistrate— the subject of nearly every New England election sermon for nearly 200 years— was the willingness to submit to this advice. Most importantly, the magistrate must publicly recognize and affirm the supremacy of Christ over all earthly powers. In this sense, Baxter and Cotton referred to their ideal commonwealths as a “theocracy”— though not in the sense of having a priestly caste at the helm, a point commonly misunderstood by modern historians.

Of course, on the other hand, “since religion is the basis of public morality, the state needs the support of the church, for from the teachings of the latter comes the moral health without which successful government is possible.” A duty is owed by the church to the state. But again, within the Puritan view of society as an organic whole, this duty is a corresponds and is mutually dependent with the duty of the magistrate to the church. Psalm 11:3 was frequently invoked in both political treatises and election sermons throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by Puritan preachers to illustrate this very point: “If the foundations be destroyed, what can the righteous do?” Noah Hobbart’s 1750 election sermon took Psalm 11:3 as its central text.

Concerning Contrast

The dynamic between church and state today in this country could not present more of a contrast to Baxter’s seventeenth century expectations. The relationship is almost totally asymmetrical. The state no longer, if it ever did, looks to the church for moral guidance in its laws as it cultivates public morality.

The recent COVID-19 religious liberty cases (South Bay and Calvary Chapel) demonstrate the inequity of the determinations of state governors across the country (see below), but more importantly they show how far our magistrates have abandoned their posts. They care little for the true common good because they cannot even define it. They fail to recognize the priority (or existence) of man’s transcendent end and, therefore, it is no surprise that their policies violate it. And this because they have cut themselves off from the moral authority of the church which possess the theological knowledge to which law must be subordinated. Church, to many of our magistrates, is not important at all— even as a purely private activity. A cursory survey of much of our nation’s legal precedent dealing with religious cases will reveal that the state conceives of the church as little more than a social club, like the YMCA— at this juncture, we could only dream of being considered as important as those social clubsmarching mask-less and socially un-distanced in America’s largest cities right now. It is irrelevant and often a bit of a nuisance, like GCC. The lion’s share of our magistrates does not recognize them as intricate to the commonweal and certainly not as a coordinate power, a “twin,” therein. And they certainly will never admit that the church is a perfect society in its own right and without which the state cannot flourish.

The result of this unnatural antagonism is the erosion of trust and cooperation between the two powers. It has been well documented that Governor Newsom never bothered to consult any faith community in California before imposing his orders on them. It is no wonder that, having eroded the friendliness between church and state, our public morality can be described as nothing less than abysmal at best, non-existent at worst. What Baxter would say to the fact that casinos and bars are given more consideration than the church by present public policy can only be imagined. It is also no wonder that the absence of corresponding duties, the onus previously being squarely on the magistrate to honor the church and protect true religion, has, year after year, produced an embarrassing array of political candidates to choose from for the nation’s highest office. Again, what Baxter would think of our current political landscape is difficult to predict, but it would not be positive.

Our magistrates, by and large, have cut off the body from the soul, something that occurs only in death. That this has happened does not foreshadow something to come; it exhibits what is already true. The soul flies from the body only once the composite person has been slain. Examined through a Baxterian lens, our commonwealth is beyond sick, it is a decaying corpse. Viewed in the most charitable light, it is one in which the body and soul are unnaturally at war with themselves. In such a scenario, true tranquility and stability will remain elusive, even if in God’s gracious providence we are granted extended moments of respite.

Duty and Determinations

But let us assume arguendo the endurance of the magistrate’s duty, even in the present, to the church which corresponds to his authority in determining matters of circumstances and accidents. This for the sake of analysis from a Baxterian perspective. Recall what was delineated in parts I and II.

The duty of the magistrate to the church, as well as the nature of his own authority, dictates the way in which the magistrate will govern the circumstantials of the church. And herein lies the limits of the magistrate’s authority.

Determinations cannot violate the natural law, which necessarily implies proportionality and equity. The hierarchy of law must be preserved within a human law determination, else it becomes illegitimate.

The pure positivism proliferated even by so much so-called conservative legal theory over the past several decades has no real room for this sort of requirement. Rather, a sort of first-in-time will to power governs. Justice Gorsuch acted as representative of this school in the recent Bostock v. Clayton County decision when he erroneously claimed, “Only the written word is the law.” This is a Hobbesian, amoral jurisprudence from which Baxter would have recoiled. Baxter, like all Christians self-consciously standing in the western tradition prior to the late 19th century, recognized that a commonwealth cannot be governed by the mere fiat of the magistrate. His orders must submit to their place within the hierarchy of law in order to latch onto the legitimacy and authority of law.

Determinations must display prudence and must be ordered to the common good of the people under the legislator’s care.

Along the same lines, the magistrate must make determinations that do not violate the end of the object in view nor, in this case, violate his own duty to protect said object.

As mentioned above, determinations must also be informed by higher sciences, especially the queen of sciences, viz., theology, in order for it to judge rightly and morally in the circumstantials as well as the end to which the object to which law is applied should be ordered. This is why some moral authority must inform state policy as to both what is moral and what is conducive to the common good.[19]

Finally, determinations must not violate the contractual stipulations between the governor and the governed: the fundamental law and the oath of office. There is no question that our constitution serves as the contractual stipulations between the government and its subjects in this country. Joseph Story, to invoke him again, makes this clear in his commentary on the constitution.

MacArthur and the Magistrate

Each of these requirements of lawful determinations will be considered briefly in turn as they relate to the MacArthur and GCC case.

Natural Law

First, it should be asked whether California’s public health policy as applied to churches violates the natural law. The answer is arguably in the affirmative.

At the end of Part II, the components of proportionality and equity (epikeia) intricate to the natural law were mentioned briefly, but the terse treatment of the subject should not be read to imply its marginalization. Rather, proportionality and equity, the two going hand-in-hand, are key to our analysis here.

Since no human legislator is omnipresent or omnicompetent, human law (as mentioned in Part I) can (intentionally or otherwise) lead to evil and, therefore, injustice insofar as it cannot foresee all circumstances. Human law is required to be equitable as a reflection of the natural law, thereby preserving the hierarchy of law.

In the case that human law proves inequitable, it loses its obligatory force so long as the circumstances which have caused it to be inequitable remain. In such a case, the positive law may be justly set aside. Equity, then, is what Aquinas described as a “kind of higher rule of human actions.”[20] Normatively, it is exercised by the one with authority to promulgate human law. But in the rare instance that any delay in revoking an inequitable law would risk danger to those subject thereto, private citizens may exercise equity, given that it is a perennial virtue and the first principle of justice.[21]

Additionally, human law must be formed proportionality to the appropriate end of the object to which it is applied. In other words, human law must be “useful to man” which is to say, it must be conducive to the common good.[22] As has been stated before in this series, the common good necessarily includes man’s spiritual well-being.

Put simply, the question then becomes one of whether the policy in view serves the common good and is fairly applied. This is the measure of true justice. John Davenport, mentioned already here, declared justice, giving each man his due, the first qualification of rulers.

“Justice,” said Neils Hemmingsen (drawing on Cicero), “is a habit of mind bestowing on each his own, whilse preserving the common welfare.” Justice has constituent parts in Hemmingsen’s formulation. The preeminent “subject part” is true religion, for it includes care and reverence for the divine from which all truth, law, and justice flows. “When this has been taken away, as Cicero also says, trustworthiness, too, as well as the fellowship of the human race and justice, the most excellent virtue, are of necessity destroyed.”[23] Justice, like the natural law which is its standard of action, entails equity and equity entails trust.

In agreement with Hemmingsen, Davenport said that for a ruler to be just he must have his will “sanctified and inclined by the Spirit of God, to perform to men whatsoever is due to them according to the Rules of the Word,” and “Rule in the fear of God,” which is a “sanctifying gift of Grace, wrought by the Holy Ghost.”[24] That is, he will have true religion. He will thereby be capable of the science of judging which the Roman jurist Ulpian is quoted in Justinian’s Digest defining as “an awareness of divine and human affairs, the science of what is just and what is unjust.” The awareness of divine affairs (theology) and human affairs (philosophy)— one leading to virtue and the other to prudence and equity— is a prerequisite to judging and policymaking.

In the case of GCC and the California policy they are protesting, justice could not be said to characterize said policy. First, it is clear that the policy is not proportional. It is ill-fitted to the ends of the object in view and not conducive to the common good. This fact evidences a lack of understanding of divine and human affairs on the part of the lawgiver. He has proven himself incapable of understanding and assessing the true and right ends of his subjects and specifically the church that is under his care. He has, therefore, promulgated a law that effectively violates the end of the church and the good of his subjects.

The lack of care for these matters by the California officials, especially those in Los Angeles County, is apparent from their vindictive treatment of GCC. Most notably, local authorities revoked a long-term lease on a parking lot that GCC had held for decades. It is hard to view this as anything other than retribution. The lack of care, which is to say duty of the magistrate, is further proved by the order in the lack of alternatives for churches under said order.


GCC being legally disallowed form meeting indoors, several alternatives have been put forward by various commentators, none of which are truly viable from a Baxterian perspective.

Obviously, the state of California still permits MacArthur and company to meet outdoors. MacArthur’s church can, of course, meet outside per Governor Newsom’s gracious forbearance. This too may prove untenable and inconvenient depending on how one looks at it. On the one hand, GCC may have the resources to conduct church services sufficiently outside. Other small churches would not (especially those in wildfire territory). I also hear that the summer sun in MacArthur’s neck of the woods can be unforgiving. This seems not to bother Newsom. What about the threat of heat stroke? I digress.

On the other hand, Baxter denies that the church, by the determinations of the magistrate, can be relegated to the wilderness, just as they cannot be banned from the city (Question CX). In MacArthur’s context, one could argue that being shoved outdoors, being kicked out of their own building, is analogous to being exiled to the wilderness. Must GCC be forced to meet in the middle of the Mohave desert before this principle would apply? If so, Baxter prescribes total disobedience, covertly or otherwise.

Another option on the table is the J.D. Greear option which splits a large church into over 2000 churches. Again, per Question CXof the Directory, Baxter would reject this approach because each church cannot possibly be supplied its pastor.

A final alternative is the remote option. Christians looking for their weekly fix are free to recordings online. Is this really any different? So state authorities must wonder. Though I wonder back whether people cannot satisfy their gambling craving online, watch the latest pedophilic drivel from Netflix online, or shop online. Again, I digress. Elsewhere I have tried to make sense of the reason why online worship is an inadequate substitute, indeed, no substitute at all. There is something intuitive about this fact that others like Carl Trueman, Sohrab Ahmari, and Rod Dreher— each coming from a different ecclesiastical tradition and viewpoint—have also acknowledged. Online worship is simply not sustainable on any level. I think we shall find, if ever the pandemic subsides, that incalculable spiritual damage has been done to our churches. In any case, Baxter would have recoiled from this suggestion. If thousands of churches without a pastor do not constitute a true church how could thousands upon thousands of pastor-less home churches, without the means of grace, do any better?

Splitting the church up into micro-churches would have been a no-go for Baxter. So too would have been fleeing the city. Online worship would have been unimaginable to him for more reasons than just the technological gap between he and us. The only debatable option, from a Baxterian perspective, is that of meeting outdoors. Again, those churches who cannot afford to do such a thing are out of luck, I suppose. It should recall the days when Baptists in this country were not allowed to possess church buildings and were forced to meet in the fields, rain or shine. Of course, GCC does not even have a spare parking lot to meet in at this point, thanks to L.A. County—another petty move by California authorities that further reveals their fundamental antipathy toward the things of Christ.

The conclusion here is that the determinations in play, whilst only pertaining to the circumstantials, have nevertheless violated the proper end of the church.

Ends and Equity

The absence of viable alternatives further exposes the ineptitude of magistrates like Governor Newsom in things divine and human, and therefore ineptitude in executing justice. Stemming inevitably from that is the violation of the end of the object to which the magistrate’s determinations are applied. Irreparable damage is being done to churches by their being barred from meeting for months on end. By extension, the public morality is suffering. This is, per Baxter, a violation of the magistrate’s duty on two fronts.

In addition to the disproportionality of the policy, its inequity is open and notorious. This much has been analogously acknowledged by the dissenters in the Calvary Chapel case. Even prior to the reversal of the reopening process by Governor Newsom earlier this summer, churches were disfavored, being allowed but a fraction of the attendance capacity that was afforded other entities.

In a 9Marks podcast by Jonathan Leeman and Mark Dever commenting on GCC’s situation, Dever recalled how the government, during WWII, ordered churches to not meet in the evenings so as to protect them from potential bomb raids. Far from a justification of California’s treatment of churches, this is a comparison of apples and oranges. In the case of WWII era orders, the care of the church was clearly in view. But the real difference was in the equity of the order’s application. Presumably, all entities meeting at nighttime were banned from doing so. In the case of California’s COVID-19 policy, as well as in other states like Nevada, no such fairness is present. What is more, the state governments do not seem at all bothered by this demonstrable fact. Rather, as Justice Alito noted in his Calvary Chapel dissent, state governors not only permit mask-less, un-socially distanced protests to run rampant across their territories, they celebrate them. Sadly, in many places today, the cause of “equity” and social “justice” are elevated above the cause of the church, to the detriment of actual equity and justice.

We can also add at this point that California’s policy increasingly lacks prudence, which, as a classical virtue, Hemmingsen made a part of the natural law.[25] It is unwise to treat citizens inequitably, which is to say unjustly. The actions of state governors from Oregon and California to New York and Washington D.C. have done nothing over the past six months but erode their own credibility and, therefore, authority. One would think that even a pragmatic magistrate would recognize this and act accordingly.[26] But to lack prudence is to lack virtue and to lack virtue is to lack the fortitude necessary to lead (even according to Machiavellian self-interest).

While we are in the prudence department, it must be said that we are not living in the midst of something like the outbreak of bubonic plague in London in 1665, which Baxter experienced. The latest numbers on COVID-19 suggest that the average person has greater than a 90% chance of not dying from the virus. By contrast, during the 18 months that the plague ravished London, there was greater than a 30% chance that a person would die of the infection within two weeks of contracting it. Some estimates say that over a quarter of the city’s population perished. This is what Baxter had in mind when he justified the magistrate in (equitable) church closures. That is not our situation. Prudence dictates magistrates take stock of this. The legislative leeway given to magistrates by Baxter and Winthrop was predicated on the existence of a threat. As the seriousness of the threat erodes so too does the necessity of restrictive orders. The credibility of the present threat, to the extent that it merits such restrictive orders as exist in states like California, is beginning to be doubted. Even

By the way, in the medieval and early modern period, the threat of plague was near constant, and this does not account for every other kind of run-of-the-mill disease that routinely made its rounds. Were Governor Newsom lord mayor of London in the seventeenth century one suspects that he would have simply shut down the city for the duration of his term. Catholics like Douglas Farrow and R. R. Reno have been critical of restrictions on the Mass since the beginning but, six months on, others are now coming around to their position. Differences in sacramentology notwithstanding, as a rule, Protestants should also be skeptical of policies that effectively make the reception of the means of grace impossible.

Contractual Stipulations

Lastly, in a scenario like GCC finds itself in, the policy in question must be considered in relation to the contractual stipulations (fundamental law and the magistrate’s oath). If the magistrate violates these (the two going hand-in-hand) then we are in typical Calvinist resistance theory territory. Human law loses its obligatory nature if it violates the natural law. The same goes for violation of the contextual basis of civil authority in a given society and the compact or covenant between the ruler and the ruled— in our case, the constitution. Far from a modern, Lockean or Rousseauian invention, this standard for governance stretches back to the medieval theorists like Nicholas of Cues. In a common law system—though ours is better described as a modified common law jurisdiction— custom, insofar as it is congruent with the natural law, also carries the authority of the fundamental law.[27]

The importance of this contractual requirement is evident in the Acts 22:22-30 example cited by Baxter. Though GCC does not have authority to prescribe a reading of the constitution for the nation, it does have the right to call the matter into question via both civil resistance and litigation. The dissenters of Calvary Chapel lend some constitutional credibility to this move for which GCC may yet find legal validation.

Concluding Remarks

Whilst GCC’s actions do not serve as a universal dictate— thankfully, churches in states like Ohio and Florida are not in the same scenario—the universal insight drawn from our Baxterian examination of the case is that churches, insofar as they are under a similar regime, cannot obey such orders formally. Only material obedience is proper. Resistance is not mandatory, but it may very well be justified, as in the case of GCC. California policy, as it stands, violates the natural law by its inequitable determinations, frustrates the proper ends of the object to which said determinations are applied, and arguably represent a violation of the fundamental contractual stipulations of our government, though that has yet to be properly litigated— a fact GCC may yet remedy.

Now for some necessary caveats.

First, Baxter was not the only Puritan and Puritanism was not monolithic in its political thought. Certainly, men like Henry Vane, John Milton, and John Lilburne, all of whom occupied the radical left wing, so to speak, of Puritanism— Milton may have even be Socinian-adjacent to borrow another modern term— but were nevertheless within its orbit. What Baxter stands for is the conservative wing (especially by the end of his century) that still held to many pre-modern political assumptions.

Second, GCC could have been more tactful and measured in its protest. As a pragmatic matter, I am somewhat sympathetic to Peter Hitchens’ take on mandatory mask use, but it would behoove GCC to submit to the masking and social distancing requirements on Sunday’s even as they protest the order against indoor congregation. Refusal to comply with those minimally invasive and generally applicable (i.e. equitable) requirements smacks of obstinance rather than principled, humble disobedience and I fear it will bode ill for their litigation.

I also echo Littlejohn in his denunciation of the Anabaptist political outlook which completely prevents the magistrate from having any purview over religious matters. The weight of the western Christian tradition, Baxter included, stands against this view. As stated in Part I, the aim of this series has not been direct or totally refutation of the arguments presented by Littlejohn and others. Rather it is an attempt to complicate the debate, in the best way possible. An additional problem with GCC’s initial announcement is that it leaves no room for material disobedience. As said above, formal obedience is impossible with COVID-19 related orders vis a vis church services at this point, but material obedience is permitted as to the conscience and prudence of local elders.

Hopefully, this admittedly lengthy assessment of Baxter’s political thought— oriented to a relatively mild thesis— and attempt at its application will be helpful to pastors and congregants currently navigating these trying times. Perhaps the key takeaways are that 1) Christians have a treasure trove of relevant wisdom from the past just waiting to be minded, and 2) the times are never as unprecedented as we think.


[1] Walter B. T. Douglas, “Richard Baxter and the Healing of a Nation,” Andrews University Seminary Studies, 30(2) (Summer 1992), pp. 99-113; George R. Abernathy, Jr., “Richard Baxter and the Cromwellian Church,” Huntington Library Quarterly, 24(3) (May, 1961), pp. 215-231.

[2] See also Crean and Fimister, Integralism, p. 140.

“The implication of the Common Law system is that societies are natural entities with properties independent of the will of man, and that the ruler reigns by the grace of God, the author of nature, but is also correspondingly limited by divine and natural Law. Government being natural rather than conventional, the temporal polity is a juridical person in natural law with [the] same sort of obligations towards God and towards His revealed will as the individual man. Indeed, the juridical personhood in natural law of temporal society, with the corresponding obligation of public worship in the manner God has appointed, means that the existence of a divine, revealed law is implied by the very structure of the Common Law system.”

And see Herbert W. Titus, “God’s Revelation: Foundation for the Common Law,” Regent University Law Review, 4(1) (Spring, 1994), pp. 1-37.

[3] Walter B. T. Douglas, “Politics and Theology in the Thought of Richard Baxter, Part II,” Andrews University Seminary Studies (1977-78), available at https://digitalcommons.andrews.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1732&context=auss.

[4] Holy Commonwealth, Thesis 231.

[5] Alan Simpson, Puritanism in Old and New England (University of Chicago Press, 1955), p. 18 (describing it as a “partnership…for the enforcement of Puritan orthodoxy.”); c.f. Richard J. Hoskins, “The Original Separation of Church and State in America,” Journal of Law and Religion, 2(2) (Nov., 1984), pp. 221-239, 224 (helpfully qualifying Simpson: “a partnership is not a merger.”).

[6] Stanley Gray, “The Political Thought of John Winthrop,” The New England Quarterly, 3(4) (Oct., 1930), pp. 681-705, p. 693 (quoting Winthrop).

[7] Gray, “John Winthrop,” p. 694.

[8] Gray, “John Winthrop,” p. 700 (noting that both Presbyterians and Separatists, from Thomas Cartwright to Robert Browne, agreed that “even the highest magistrates were subject to church censure…”).

[9] “[A]s to the qualifications of Rulers over other men, it is God’s Ordinance, that they be just, ruling in the fear of the Lord… The Rule is, not man’s corrupt Reasons and Affections, but the Scripture.” Davenport, A Sermon Preach’d at The Election of the Governour… (1669), p. 5.

[10] Bourgeaud, The Rise of Modern Democracy (London, 1894), p. 148.

[11] See Rafael de Arizaga, “Jurisprudence as a Subaltern Science,” Ius & Iusitium (Sept. 7, 2020), https://iusetiustitium.com/jurisprudence-as-a-subaltern-science/#:~:text=Jurisprudence%20is%2C%20first%2C%20subaltern%20to,%E2%80%9Cnatural%20law.%E2%80%9D%20St..

[12] See e.g. Thomas Cobbet, The Civil Magistrates’ Power in Matters of Religion modestly Debated… (London, 1653), p. 67. See also John Jewel’s Apologie of the Church of England (London, 1562) (citing Isa. 49:23).

[13] Schlatter, Richard Baxter, p. 25.

[14] Herbert L. Osgood, The American Colonies in the Seventeenth Century, vol. I (Peter Smith, 1957), p. 202.

[15] David D. Hall, The Faithful Shepherd: A History of the New England Ministry in the Seventeenth Century (The University of North Carolina Press, 1972), p. 123 (quoting Cartwright).

[16] A 1631 law even applied a religious/church membership test to citizenship; in 1646, all manner of heresies was outlawed upon pain of banishment. Osgood, American Colonies, p. 212-216.

[17] David D. Hall, The Faithful Shepherd: A History of the New England Ministry in the Seventeenth Century (The University of North Carolina Press, 1972), p. 130; see also Ibid., p. 131 (noting that the basis of “the ministers’ insistence on a privileged relationship with the civil magistrate” was Isaiah 49:23).

[18] Hall, Faithful Shepherd, p. 124.

[19] As I have argued lately, drawing off of Thomas Pink, integralism is a descriptive paradigm that reveals how all societies necessarily work. Timon Cline, “Integralism as Default,” Conciliar Post (Aug. 28, 2020), https://conciliarpost.com/culture/integralism-as-default/.

[20] ST, 2a 2a 51, 4.

[21] ST, 1a 2ae 97, 4.

[22] ST, II-I, Q. 95, a. 3.

[23] Hemmingsen, On The Law of Nature, pp. 111-113.

[24] A Sermon Preach’d at The Election of the Governour, at Boston in New-England May 19th 1669, p. 7.

[25] Hemmingsen, Law of Nature, p. 106 (its three parts, per Cicero, being memory, understanding, and foresight).

[26] “It is the duty of foresight to ponder and form a judgment about future things from things past and present, and to fortify the mind in advance with early planning, before a person arrives at the reality of the future.” Hemmingsen, Law of Nature, p. 109

[27] See also R.H. Helmholz, “The Law of Nature and the Early History of Unenumerated Rights in the United States,” University of Pennsylvania Journal of Constitutional Law, 9(2) (Jan., 2007), pp. 401-421.