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Cambridge Synod Wrestled with Church-State Relationships

Richard Mather was the principle architect of the Cambridge Platform.

THE GENERAL COURT of Massachusetts invited Congregationalist pastors to a conference in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The summons was phrased as an invitation—because independent-minded churches would have refused to come otherwise. On this day, 1 September 1646, delegates from Massachusetts and some from surrounding colonies met in what became known as the Cambridge Synod. It met three times in three years, interrupted twice by epidemics. 

The Puritans had designed their government around their faith. To vote in civil elections, one had to be a member in good standing of the Congregational church. Although this was an important step toward representative government, it still made for a limited franchise. One person in ten may have had the ability to vote, and upstanding citizens who were Presbyterian, Baptist, or Quaker had no say. Some of these citizens hoped that the synod would expand the right to vote. 

Meanwhile, complaints of Puritan overreach, such as the expulsion of Anne Hutchinson from the colony over theological issues, reached England. There, political leaders began to make inquiries. Since Presbyterians had gained considerable power in the English Parliament, colonial Puritans (Congregationalists)  feared that England might tamper with their church arrangements. 

Richard Mather was the main author of the Cambridge Platform that the synod prepared in 1648 in an attempt to establish a more consistent church practice throughout Massachusetts—and deflect criticism. For the most part, the document upheld the existing Congregational system that gave local congregations the right both to choose and depose their church officers. It did not extend the voting franchise nor did it separate church and state in the modern manner. For example, civil magistrates were obliged to put down anti-religious behavior. Nonetheless, the platform was careful to limit the power of secular officials to impose their will on churches, declaring “Supreme and Lordly power over all the churches upon earth does only belong to Jesus Christ, who is king of the church, and the head thereof.” 

Although some churches balked, Massachusetts Congregationalists adopted the platform at the synod. But it had no teeth and local churches continued to operate as they chose. So the platform gradually fell out of use. In spite of this, it is worth reading today. It gives clearly the Congregationalist understanding of the purpose, function, and organization of a church, and contains many words of wisdom still relevant: “The things which are requisite to be found in all church members, are repentance from sin, and faith in Jesus Christ,” and “Such charity and tenderness is to be used, as the weakest Christian, if sincere, may not be excluded nor discouraged.” 

Notable among those who disagreed with the Cambridge Platform was William Vassall. Because he urged religious tolerance, extension of the voting franchise to Episcopalians and Presbyterians, and defended individuals who read the Anglican Prayer Book, he was labeled a troublemaker. He sailed to England to push a bill for liberty of conscience, but it got nowhere. In the end, Massachusetts did extend the voting privilege in 1664.

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