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Why the Puritans Favored Limited Government (Why the U.S. Has Three Branches of Government)

July 21, 2017

The Fall of Man by Titian, 1550

The early Puritans in Massachusetts and Connecticut, like many Christians, believed what the Bible said about human nature as fallible which, in turn, affected their views about civil law and government.  According to Genesis 1-3, human beings are created by God and made in His image and likeness.  At the same time, they are sinful due to the fall of the first man and woman, Adam and Eve, in the Garden of Eden.  This fallen condition afflicts the whole human race.  In Romans 5:12, the Apostle Paul says that “through one man [Adam] sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned.”  Mankind’s expression of God on earth is therefore tainted and imperfect, as human history and experience confirms.

The Puritans recognized that because human beings have a tendency for sin and corruption, society requires civil government to maintain law and order.  Men are made to be free—and indeed are naturally free—but cannot have unlimited civil freedom to do evil in society.  God ordained civil government, they believed, to restrain evil, protect man’s true rights and freedoms, maintain peace and order in society, and preserve mankind.  The Puritans shared the views of early reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin who cited Romans 13:1-5 in which Paul says, “The authorities that exist are appointed by God.  …  He is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil.”

Because fallen human beings administer the government, the Puritans believed that civil authorities also needed restraints and limits on their ruling power.  Indeed, the Puritans opposed unlimited or absolute power of any kind—whether of kings, governors, aristocrats, lawmakers, judges, courts, priests, states, or churches.  Puritan Rev. John Cotton cited Jeremiah 3:5 on the issue in which God says to His people, “Behold, you have spoken and done evil things, as you were able.”  The Puritans, therefore, set up limited governments in their colonies in America with constitutions of law, consent of the governed, elections of moral representatives, and two-housed (bicameral) governing assemblies.  Later, the American Founders would set up a three-branched federal government for the new nation, based on the theory of French philosopher Montesquieu, to limit governing powers.

Contributed by AHEF and Angela E. Kamrath.

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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.  The Principle of Popular Sovereignty
2.  Who were the Pilgrims?  Why did they come to America?
3.  Why the Pilgrims Identified with the 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.  How the American Puritans Were Like the Bible’s Israelites
11.  Why the Puritans in America Favored Rule of Law
12.  Why the Puritans Elected Representatives to Govern in their American Colonies
13.  Why Puritan Thomas Hooker Favored Democracy Over Aristocracy
14.  Challenges in the Early Puritan Colonies:  The Dilemma of Religious Laws & Religious Dissent

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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:  

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 the whole unit, sign up as an AHEF member (no cost) to access the member resources page on americanheritage.org.

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Published by: The Founding

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