Half-Way Covenant

As the first generation of Massachusetts Bay settlers began to die off in the mid-17th century, the Congregational churches faced a membership crisis. Full participation had been limited to the “Visible Saints” — those who had made a public affirmation of their faith and had been accepted into membership by a vote of the congregation.

The fires of conviction did not burn as brightly in the hearts of the second- and third-generation Puritans. Fewer of them felt confident to make the necessary public declarations. More women than men did so, which led to an increasing feminization of church membership — also a matter of deep concern in a male-dominated society.

The churches had for a number of years provided a limited form of membership, which allowed people to be baptized, but prevented them from partaking in Communion or voting on church matters. If they could later convince the congregation of their conversion through a public affirmation, then they would be advanced to full membership. In 1662, several congregations met and approved the "Half-Way Covenant," a move designed to liberalize membership rules and bolster the church's position in the community. Henceforth, children of partial members could be baptized and, with evidence of a conversion experience, aspire to full membership.

This compromise was accepted only by some New England congregations. Political forces within the colonies tended to support the relaxation of church membership rules since the right to vote on civil matters was reserved for the Visible Saints. By mid-century, many prominent founding families were being excluded from leadership positions, which spurred them to support changes in standards.

The essential solidarity of the early Puritan communities had fallen away. A split had developed between the fundamentalists, who wanted to maintain religious purity at any cost, and the more liberal thinkers, who believed that a stronger society could be built by including more people.


See: Puritanism and the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

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