Friday, November 11, 2011

American Roots of Collegiality (1635-1655)

In opposition to the authoritative civil-religious realities of colonial Massachusetts (1636), collegiality partly found its earliest recorded American expression.  In particular, historians often credit Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, Henry Vane and John Wheelwright for unwittingly giving collegiality its first American form.  The reasoning behind this claim is that these individuals, as antinomians (members of a certain Puritan sect), openly claimed “revelation as superior to the ministry of the word;” and, thereby, simultaneously invoked a religious path towards self-government, and spoke heresy against the oppressive authority of Governor John Winthrop and the Boston Church.1
However, since they reserved these inner “truths” for those elected by God only, all scholars familiar with the basic principles of collegiality agree that they cannot be accurately considered collegialists.2 Nevertheless, they widely recognize that the faith in an inner-light or conscience, which supersede position-based authority, places the antinomians closer to a pattern of anti-authoritarianism that is central to collegiality. 
In this respect, the antinomians also held the courage to directly challenge such authority, another important collegiality characteristic.  For example, along with agitation amongst her fellow settlers, Mrs. Hutchinson helped organize the Aquiday colony (now Rhoda Island), which “would not wear any arms and denied all magistracy among Christians.”3 When the Aquiday colony and its resistance to the ministry and emphasis on the supremacy of conscience are taken together, these recorded observations serve as plausible support for the claim that these antinomians functioned as somewhat the first documented colonial-American collegiality.
Correspondingly, this religious-antiauthoritarian-rebellious starting place is very important to the original development of collegiality within the overall American political culture.  A fuller manifestation of such growth rests in the year 1655 with the Society of Friends (better known as “the Quakers”).  In the Quaker faith, unlike that of the antinomians’, each believer follows the vision of his or her own “inner-light,” and, thus, do not just reserve it for those few elected by God.  More importantly, in the Quaker doctrine:
No man, by virtue of any power or principality he hath in government of this world, hath power over the conscience of men…because the conscience of man is the seat and throne of God in him, of which God is the alone proper and infallible judge.4

This justification by an inner-faith alone implies that the transfer of the ability to decide religious matters for one’s self must become more decentralized among the members of the Society of Friends; and, thereby, distinguishes them from other, relatively more authoritative and centralized patterns of worship.  When this commitment to decentralization occludes any interference by any government entity, then the Quakers (much like the Aquiday colonialists before them) also reject any person among them empowerment to sit in judgment and exercise judicial authority over matters of religion. 
With this doctrine, many political historians suggest that this Protestant-style emphasis on the jurisdiction of individual conscience, moral purity, and natural law became part of the conceptual basis for collegiality within American political culture.  For example, according to David DeLeon, an Associate Professor of History at the University of Iowa, these very same concepts laid down the partial mental framework whereby, “individual conscience might perceive a higher law than that of civil government,” and disobedience to unjust legislation as a moral duty.5 Thus, when religious groups, like the antinomians and the Quakers, insist that inasmuch as possible power over religious matters stay with those who must bear its effects, then they embody the main thrust of collegiality.


1.                  John C. Hildt, William Dodge Gray, and Harold Underwood Faulkner, Native American  Anarchism: A Study of Left-Wing American Individualism (New York: AMS Press, 1932), 13-34; and Corinne Jacker, The Black Flag of Anarchy: Antistatism in The United States (New York: Charles Schribner’s Sons, 1968), 17-26; and James D. Forman, Anarchism: Political Innocence or Social Violence? (New York: Dell Publishing, 1975), 89-90.
2.                   Hildt et al., 18; and Jacker, 19.
3.                   Hildt et al., 23, 32-33 Governor Winthrop’s Journal entry cited: “At Aquiday, also, Mrs Hutchinson exercised publicly, and she and her party (some three or four families) would have no magistracy.”; and Jacker, 19-20.
4.                  Robert Barclay, An Apology for the True Christian Divinity ed. 4th (Glasgow, 1886), 35.
5.                  David DeLeon, The American as Anarchist: Reflections on Indigenous Radicalism (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1978), 19-20; and Jacker., 26; and Hildt et al., 45.

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