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John Cotton, Protestant Integralist

What follows is, so far as I can tell, the basic tenets of Catholic integralism— a topic of heated debate lately— or what is sometime called “Gelasian dyarchy,” a reference to Pope Saint Gelasius’ letter to Emperor Anastasius in the late fifth-century which espoused the dualistic principle of church and state, (i.e. “duo sunt”).

1) There are two powers that rule humanity: a temporal power (the state) and a spiritual power (the Church). Since man’s temporal end is properly subordinated to his eternal end, the state must be subordinated to the Church. The world in all its aspects is to take shape only under the direct or indirect action of the Church.

2) The two administrations, civil and ecclesiastical, each possess independent integrity but are limited by the extent of their competency. Each administration is ordained by God unto distinct immediate ends but the same final end, viz. his glory. As much as the spiritual power, but in a different fashion, the temporal power should direct man to this end. The liberal separation of religion and politics is therefore improper and ultimately unworkable.

3) “Catholicism provides the only satisfactory basis for the ordering of society.”1 

4) Because ethical values determine social conduct and it is within the sole competency that the Catholic Church sets the standard for morality, the state has a duty to protect the interests of the Church.

5) Public life is an extension of interior life, society is not merely a loose conglomeration of individuals and individual spheres, but an organic, interdependent whole. “This means that Christian politics is free to regard family and school, play and work, art and communication, the order of social relationships and the civil order, as integral parts of a whole: as integral and therefore mutually dependent aspects of civilization.”2 

6) The above notwithstanding, a theocracy is not necessitated. The Church acts in a diaconal or ministerial role toward the state, informing its moral conscience, and the state sits in a posture of deference in this regard. Though the state acknowledges the moral authority of the Church, it does not cede its power of civil governance to the Church, neither does it attempt to encroach on the internal affairs (e.g. doctrine and discipline) of the ecclesiastical administration. A confessional state is preferable to a theocracy. “[W]hile the state remains the sovereign potestas over civil questions, the Church is now the sole potestas over religion, with a sovereign jurisdiction based on baptism to legislate for religion and to enforce that law through punishments.”3 

In an oft-cited article, “Catholic Fundamentalism or Catholic Integralism?” Christopher van der Krogt explains that since the Second Vatican Counsel (1962-1965) there have been numerous integralist movements. We are now experiencing what is perhaps another resurgence of the integralist mood, though this time without an official organization like the Priestly Society of Saint Pius X behind it.

The integralist arguments are situated inside of the broader Catholic reassessment of liberalism. (For the sake of convenience, Sohrab Ahmari’s “Against David French-ism,” and the subsequent Ahmari-French debate at Catholic University, will serve as the origin of this reassessment). Catholics drawing attention both to the internal and allegedly inevitable problems of liberalism baked into the system, as it were, and to the adverse societal results thereof include so-called common good conservatives like Patrick Deneen (author of Why Liberalism Failed) and Ahmari, both of whom have distanced themselves from the integralist label.

Yet, at least in the case of Ahmari, common good conservatives share the opinion of the integralists that politics better understood as warfare between two competing worldviews— diametrically opposed in their vision of the common good and moral assumptions— rather than friendly competition within a neutral public square framed by neutral institutions. Both the common gooders and the integralists generally embrace the “antiliberal” pejorative foisted upon them by the classical liberals and the liberal Rawlsians. Both factions of the debate have rejected the fusionist settlement within the conservatism of the Cold War era. 

Big name self-professed integralists include Adrian Vermuele—who ignited the hair of nearly every conservative in the country a couple of weeks ago with his denunciation of originalism in The Atlantic (see John Ehrett’s response here, and Vermeule’s humorous reply to critics here)— and Gladden Pappin (editor of American Affairs). Edmund Waldstein, O.Cist. (founder of integralism’s online headquarters, The Josias) has certainly established himself as the unofficial voice of the party. The emergence of these two factions are not unrelated to the new surge of another cohort, the national conservatism, unofficially led by Yoram Hazony and joined by Rod Dreher. The latter has taken an interest in the integralist dialogue though he, as an Orthodox Christian, has not inserted himself directly therein.

The multifaceted, somewhat convoluted, nature of the discussion notwithstanding, two things are evident on the surface: 1) conservative is undergoing a philosophical transformation; 2) the present debate regarding the integralist question is, at the moment, solely an intramural Catholic one. Responses from Protestants (evangelical or otherwise) have been disinterested (e.g. It’s a fantasy!), dismissive (e.g. It’s unreasonable!), horrified (e.g. Its Catholic sharia!). Admittedly, the controversy stemming from Fr. Romanus Cessario’s First Things piece on the Mortara case did little to allay the worst fears of the horrified party.

But as Michael Hanby skillfully articulated in First Things, the disinterested observer (Protestant or Catholic) misses the point, whilst people like Dreher (and, per usual, Notre Dame’s Gerard Bradely) are closer to the mark, or at least appropriately sympathetic. And, it should be added, many proponents of the integralist and common good argument(s) perform the same error. “The point of persisting in this seemingly quixotic form of thought,” writes Hanby,

is not the practical goal of establishing this city on modern shores, but the speculative goal of establishing this city within the soul. The point, in other words, is to remember, or perhaps to discover as if for the first time, that the cave prison of the modern world is not the only world or even the truth of this present world.

To an extent, Waldstein, who has admitted that “There is no country on earth today where an integralist program is likely to have any immediate success,” recognizes this. For some integralists like Vermeule, the solution is Leo XIII’s ralliement: infiltration and transformation (or integration) from within.

But the mistake of the dismissive Protestant is two-fold. Not only do they fail to grasp the utility (to use a word that suits the liberal political mind) of the contemporary integralist project but they are also neglectful of their own history. There does not seem to be so recent a source for Protestants in this regard as the late 19th and early 20th centuries (or modern day Poland) as is the case for Catholics. Neither must (or can) Protestants reach back to the late Medieval period for integralist arguments. American Protestants need not look back across the Atlantic for guidance or with envy (as they so often are wont to do). Rather, they can find examples of the integralist persuasion within their ranks on their own shores, in the first founders of the colonies no less, which are worth pondering before they adopt a dismissive posture. 

The New England Patriarch

John Cotton (1585-1652) is a prime example of the integralist impulse within the Puritan mind. Far from conspicuous outlier, Cotton’s thought represents the general consensus of both the clergymen and the magistrates in colonial Massachusetts and Connecticut, one which more or less (with obvious shifts in accentuation and emphasis) endured for over a century, as attested to, inter alia, by the annual election sermons from Connecticut, Plymouth, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts Bay. That being said it must also be added that the understanding of the purpose, nature, and character of government (and rulers) upheld by the New Englanders was not unique but rather shared by peoples of both England’s throughout the period (especially those in the Puritan faction). 

As a matter of fact, Puritan political thought was far more medieval than is typically acknowledged, but they were also conventional. That is to say, per Perry Miller, it was not until the dawn of the eighteenth century that the “modern epoch in natural sciences” was inaugurated, and along with it, a fundamental shift in socio-political theory. Only then could religion and politics be conceptually separated such that “doctrinal orthodoxy [was] divorced from loyalty to the state,” religion acquired more experiential accents, and church membership and creedal commitment were privatized. The outbreak of the First Great Awakening and the emergence of evangelicalism necessarily preceded the demise of the confessional state theory, as well as the late-eighteenth century political revolutions. Prior thereto, the unity of religion and politics was axiomatic; the segregation of spiritual and communal unthinkable. 

A brief examination of Cotton’s Discourse About Civil Government in a New Plantation Whose Design is Religion (1663) will illuminate the fundamentally integralist impulse within the seventeenth century New England mind. Doubtless, Cotton’s theory of government will not jive with many American Protestants today, especially evangelicals who are hostile to the prerequisite of a confessional state, viz., confessionalism. But following Hanby, the point of this exercise is not to enact a Christian commonwealth according to Cotton’s specifications, but rather to challenge our modern conceptions by way of our own tradition and thereby sharpen our thinking so that we do not swallow whole secular assumptions about the nature of society and government (if, indeed, they are secular) uncritically. Most importantly, reviewing older theory of church-state relations will equip Protestants to engage their Catholic friends more charitably and better informed.  

Occasion for the Discourse

The occasion for the treatise was a dispute between Cotton and his close friend, John Davenport (1597-1670). Cotton held that the limitation of the franchise to “free burgesses” that were members of the church was necessary to a holy commonwealth and right pursuit of the common good. In short, church members (presumably sanctified in their reason and affections) are more fit to elect godly rulers. It is clear from Davenport’s own writings that, on a personal level, he took Cotton’s instruction to heart. The latter was evidently a fairly persuasive person, having converted both Davenport and Thomas Goodwin (1600-1680) to Independency and John Preston (1587-1628) to take the cloth. The impetus for the treatise is not of great concern to us here. It is Cotton’s outline of the most desirable form of government which he describes along the way that is more interesting.

Preliminary Distinctions

Cotton describes the Church as a “Spiritual Political Body, consisting of divers Members Male and Female, Bond and Free.” In turn, the members of this spiritual political body “are considered under a twofold respect answerable to the twofold man…the inward & the outward man. Whereunto the onley [sic] wise God hath fitted and appointed two sort of Administrations, Ecclesiastical and Civil”; a twofold administration to correspond to the twofold nature of man.

Hence they are capable of a twofold Relation, and of Action and Power suitable to them both; viz. Civil and Spiritual, and accordingly must be exercised about both in their seasons, without confounding those two different states, or destroying either of them, whilst what they transact in civil Affairs, is done by virtue of their civil Relation, their Church-state onely [sic] fitting them to do it according to God.

Following Franciscus Junius (1545-1602), Cotton prefers to conceive of this distinction as two species of the genus of “Christian Communion.” Therein the ecclesiastical administration is “a Divine Order appointed to Believers for holy communion of holy things,” whereas the “Civil Administrations are [a]n Humane Order appointed by God to men for Civil Fellowship of humane things.”

Common Authorship and End

In either case, God is “the Efficient and Author of them both,” and God’s glory is the last end of both. However, their “next Ends” (or “nearest ends” as Richard Baxter called them) are not shared. The preservation of human societies is the “next” end of the civil order. By contrast, the “next” end of the ecclesiastical order is “The Conversion, Edification, and Salvation of Souls, Pardon of Sin, Power against sin, Peace with God, &c.”

This difference in secondary ends necessitates a difference in objects. In the first instance, both administrations in “their aime [sic] and scope” coalesce around a single object held in common, viz., “the common Welfare.” Yet the civil power is primarily concerned with the things of this life (the life of the outward man), whereas the church power is exercised over the things of God (the life of the inward man). The competencies of the two administrations are immediately distinct though ultimately directed toward the same end. This distinction accounts for the difference in laws, officers, and power (“whereby to reduce men to Order, according to their different Object and Ends.”).

Common Subjects

Obviously, man is subject to both administrations. The two administrations both claim power over man according to two aspects of man, that of nature and grace. By nature, man is a “reasonable and Sociable Creature, capable of Civil Order,” and is therefore subject to a civil power. By grace, man is “called out of the world to fellowship with Jesus Christ, and with his People, [and this] is the onely [sic] Subject of Church-power.” Accordingly, members of the church are subject to the civil power just as any man, because grace does not abrogate nature but rather perfects it. But members of the church are also, according to the inward man, subject to the spiritual order and administrations.

Hence the two administrations share much in common according to their subject and final end but differ in their order and power. But the two, being of the same genus, are not separate spheres, not two cities, but rather two administrations of the same sphere, two powers of the same city working in tandem with power over the same subjects unto the same ends. What’s more, they share a common authorship.

The Harmony of Coordinate States

All the aforementioned distinctions notwithstanding, the commonalities between the two administrations necessitates that the two be kept in harmony. To illustrate the nature and dynamics of this harmony or concurrence of the several administrations, Cotton returns to Junius. The latter expressed the harmony with the metaphor of soul and body—which though of different nature and generation cannot be separated without striping apart the composite creature of man— in the same way as Leo XIII later did in his Immortale Dei encyclical (a key text for Catholic integralists). This analogy of the harmony of the twofold nature of society with the same in nature of man was commonplace in the seventeenth century. Richard Baxter (1615-1691), for example, in A Holy Commonwealth (which has much in common with Cotton’s Discourse), exclaimed, “The body that is not for the soul and subject to it, is not the body of a man, but of a brute. And the Kingdom that subjecteth not corporal felicity to spiritual, and temporal to eternal, and looketh not to that, is but a brutish sensual Kingdom.” (To be sensual in this context is to be subjected to the drive of the lower, animal appetites in contrast to being controlled by the proper function of man’s unique, higher faculties).

Cotton then quotes an exhortation from Junius directly:

What I pray may be expected in future times, if the best Church, and the best Common-wealth grew up together? Oh blessed people, among whom each Administration shall conspire with one mouth, and one minde [sic], to conjoin and advance the Communion of Saints with the Civil Society! One of these Administrations will not detract from the other, but each will confirm the other if it stand, and stay it if it be falling, and raise it up if it be fall[en] down.

The two administrations are to work in tandem and harmony and must not be confounded lest their integrity suffer. Cotton is clear that Erastianism is improper. The magistrate is not to take control of the church. On the flipside, church officers are not to be inordinately distracted by secular entanglements. They are to exercise a diaconal role toward the state. The second extreme, besides Erastianism, Cotton warns against is setting the two administrations in opposition to one another “as contraries.” The two should rather be

[A]s coordinate States in the same place reaching forth help mutually each to other, for the welfare of both, according to God. So that both Officers and Members of Churches be subject, in respect of the outward man, to the Civil Power… An that the Civil Magistrates and Officers, in regard of the inward man subject themselves Spiritually to the power of Christ in Church-Ordinances, and by their Civil Power preserve the same in outward Peace and Purity [emphasis added].

For support on this point, Cotton appeals to Gregory Nazianzen (329-390) and quotes Ambrose (340-397) as saying, “A good Magistrate is within the Church, not above it.” And again, he invokes Junius to assert that the Christian magistrate is duty bound to embrace fellowship with the church and to protect and defend her laws “and the means sanctified by [God] to nourish the inward man.”

Thus far we can see that Cotton’s vision of the two administrations is one of harmony as “coordinate States” wherein the civil power is charged with protecting and upholding the integrity of the ecclesiastical power without unduly encroaching upon her competency (i.e. the inward man) and means of maintaining order. The good magistrate embraces the church and defends her laws and authority over men. And finally, the civil authority is to submit to the Church in all spiritual, moral, and doctrinal matters. Yet, the ecclesiastical power is not to supplant the civil one. Its relationship to the state is diaconal and that of the consultant (“in all hard cases, and in matters of Religion”).


Cotton argues that a Christian commonwealth or a “Theocratie” (Baxter would say “Theocratical”), where Christ is given his “due preheminence [sic],” is the best form of government for a Christian communion (the genus), when its members are given the opportunity, to choose (see below). As a matter of principle, “all Governments in the world should serve to Christs ends, for the welfare of the Church whereof he is the Head.” The state power is to serve, though not be commingled with, the church. Governments are to acknowledge and exalt the headship of Christ over the church and all things and ensure that all serve the common good which is derived from His laws mediated through the teachings of the church.

For support, Cotton cites Isaiah 49:23—a verse that would be invoked ad nauseum throughout the century for the same purpose—wherein “it is promised to the Church, that Kings and Queens shall be their nursing-fathers and nursing-mothers, and therefore it is added, they shall worship with their faces to the earth, and lick up the dust of they feet; which is a proverbial expression of their voluntary humbling of themselves to Christ in his Ordinances.” In short, “Civil Administrations should serve to holy ends.”

Clearly, Cotton intends for the state to serve a spiritual end, not merely a natural one, though the spiritual end be subservient to that possessed by the church. 

The Proposition… may be confirmed from the end of all Civil Government… which is the publick and common Good, whether Natural, as in the preservation of Life and Safety; or Moral, as Justice and Honesty in Humane Societies; or Civil, as Peace, Liberty of Commerce; or Spiritual as to protect the Church in Spiritual, though outward, Order and Administrations in peace & purity. 

The dreaded charge of theocracy is often hurled at Catholic integralists, but as stated above, theocracy is neither necessary to their formula nor advocated by them. The nirvana usually articulated is an “integral and democratic Catholicism, one that has resisted the anti-culture of postmodernism and neoliberal cosmopolitanism.”

At first blush, it would seem that theocracy would fairly characterize Cotton’s scheme, not least because he explicitly uses the term. But a clarification is in order. Though Cotton calls this formulation a “theocratie” he is not truly describing a theocracy.4 He is decidedly not advocating for a state with a clergy caste at the helm, nor that the legal code should be composed of Bible quotations. As the work of George L. Haskins has proven, a theocracy could never at any point accurately characterize the New England Puritan colonies.5 There was from the get-go separation of powers and separation of church and state, though not a stark one, as well as a progressive expansion of the franchise, and hence significant representative government. Contra the critics, integralism is not antithetical to democracy, albeit Cotton (and Baxter) abhorred pure (or “mere”) democracy; and neither is the limitation of the franchise advocated by Cotton necessitated, though fealty to established confessional standards is essential.  

Neither was it a religious oligarchy, but rather the “mixt” form of government which, drawing on Calvin, all the Puritans desired, almost to a man, and especially the Congregationalists (who painted their polity as embodying the Aristotelian ideal). A “Bible commonwealth” would also not be an appropriate descriptor given that though all colonial laws were to be agreeable to sacred writ, the legal codes drawn up in the 1630s and 1640s owed more to imported English common law than any other source. In fact, in some instances, the New Englanders liberalized, for lack of a better term, the precedent that had immigrated with them, as the 1641 Body of Liberties shows. In happy harmony the church-state relationship of Cotton delineated above existed with popular sovereignty and social covenant-making as the basis of all orderly societies and legitimate government; “that all power that is on earth be limited,” was preached by Cotton often. Fundamental law and the terms of the covenant were, it was believed, the best means of ensuring this limitation of power, which is not to imply a libertarian conception of such. Miller rightly noted that

Puritans did not think that the state was merely an umpire, standing on the side lines of a contest, limited to checking egregious fouls but otherwise allowing men free play according to their abilities and the breaks of the game. They would have expected laissez faire to result in a reign of rapine and horror.6

To them, the state, though limited by fundamental law and the terms of the constituting covenant, played an active role regulating life unto the common good. 

What John Cotton outlined in his Discourse was an integralist regime— a confessional state wherein the church and civil power were partners— built upon a mixed, republican form of government that mirrored the author’s ecclesiological convictions. Indeed, the entire premise of the treatise was the question of which colonists would properly constitute free burgesses with power to elect magistrates to the General Court, for which (per a law predating Cotton’s writing) clergymen could not sit.  

Reality Check

The contemporary response to Cotton is predictable because it will likely be the same that Catholic integralists have received, viz., “What are Christian to do if they don’t live in an integrated society like Poland or, in this case, Puritan New England or Calvin’s Geneva?”

Cotton provides a practical answer to this question. For those Christians in “a Commonw-wealth already setled [sic],” wherein men are not free to choose their form of government as a genus of their Christian communion, must subject themselves to the civil authorities and just laws in accordance with Paul’s advice in Romans 13. Cotton draws an analogy to the command for servants to submit to their masters (1 Pet. 2:18) and wives to unbelieving husbands (1 Pet. 3:1-6). 

But just as Paul permits servants to pursue their freedom (1 Cor. 7:21), a Christian communion, given the chance, should elect to establish a society according to the measures above seemed patently obvious to Cotton. “Popish Countreys” and Muslim nations alike were careful to only elect to office those who embraced the faith and sought to publicly uphold it. Given the historic prevalence of the practice, it was surely a principle of jus gentium. Why, then, should a Protestant Christian communion supplied with the requisite freedom to do so not enact such a commonwealth? 


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Timon Cline

Timon Cline

Timon Cline is a graduate of Wright State University, Rutgers Law School, Westminster Theological Seminary. He also writes at Modern Reformation and works as an attorney in Philadelphia where he lives with his wife, Rachel.

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