Protestant Experience and Continuity of Political Thought in Early America, 1630-1789

Stephen Michael Wolfe, Louisiana State University and Agricultural and Mechanical College


The debate on the continuity of American political thought from the 17th century Puritan settlements to the 18th century American founding assumes a bipolar spectrum, ranging from strong continuity to strong discontinuity. The degree that scholars recognize distinctively Christian, theological, or Protestant ideas operating in the founding era determines where they are placed on the spectrum. The most popular view today is the “amalgam” thesis, which is a moderate view, resulting from decades of debate. Amalgam theorists argue that the founders' political theory relied on a variety of sources, from classical to Protestant. The current debate centers on which tradition is predominant (and in what way) and whether the collection of sources is coherent. In this work, I question the framing of that debate. Protestantism is not just another competing source or tradition among others in the founding era. Rather, it supplied the underlying principles of early American political thought. I argue that throughout the period in question (1630—1789) there was continuity as to immutable, fundamental, and necessary principles of political order, and these were distinctively Protestant principles. The apparent discontinuity in political thought was in the application of those principles. The same principles were applied differently, even in contrary ways, due to Protestant experience and changes in circumstances. There was principled discontinuity, meaning that discontinuity arose from the unfolding (but not the undermining) of Protestant principles over time. I conclude that the American founding was both harmonious with classical Protestantism and represents the culmination of American Protestant experience. To show this, I correct confusions in the scholarly literature on the Reformed tradition (particularly on natural law and natural theology), I challenge the common narrative on 17th century religious persecution in New England, and I demonstrate that the founding generation assumed Protestant principles as the basis for their political discourse and political theory.