The Halfway Covenant: Definition & Overview

Instructor: Jason McCollom
In the 1660s, first-generation Puritan leaders in New England attempted to address declining piety with the Halfway Covenant. Learn about the Halfway Covenant and test yourself with a quiz.

The Background to the Halfway Covenant

Schoolchildren everywhere have heard the 'When I was your age' speech by their parents or other adults. 'When I was your age,' they proclaim, 'I had to walk to school in the snow, and it was uphill both ways!' In every generation, many older folks meet the changes and new ideas of the younger with skepticism and even anxiety or fear.

This was the precise situation among the Puritans in mid-17th-century New England. The first-generation church members believed the younger group were insufficiently adhering to the dictates of the church, and this meant they could not become official church members. Older leaders therefore created the Halfway Covenant as a compromise to allow less than pious younger people become members of the church.

A Puritan woman

The older, first-generation Puritans were not imagining the changes in New England life. Towns were growing and spreading westward. New people were moving to the area, and often they did not adhere to the strict religious morals expected by the Puritans. In addition, commerce and materialism had gripped large segments of the population. Puritan ministers found their social stature diminished, and they no longer defined New England life as they had during the founding generation.

The Problem of the Younger Generation and the Halfway Covenant

In this context, the younger, second-generation Puritans were less interested in the strict religious practices of their parents. Unlike the founders of the colony, the second generation had not experienced the trials of being a persecuted minority in England, nor did they face the challenges of settling in a new land, creating a new society, and founding a new church. The younger group were also drawn to the materialism and commerce of the growing cities, and, essentially, were not as pious as their parents.

Many of these younger people had trouble achieving a true conversion experience, which was a prerequisite for church membership. Despite this, they did not seek to abandon the Puritan church completely. They still wanted their children baptized as part of God's community. However, they simply did not, in the eyes of the first generation, demonstrate the necessary religious commitment needed to sustain the Puritan way of life. So, most of the second generation grew up, got married, and, though not official church members themselves, requested their children be baptized.

Ah, but here was the big problem: in the Puritan church, only the converted (full church members) and their children could be baptized. By the 1660s, this problem was becoming worse and could no longer be ignored.

So, in 1662, a group of ministers in Boston came up with a compromise known as the Halfway Covenant. The Halfway Covenant would allow the third-generation Puritans (the grandchildren of the founders of the colony) to be baptized. To make this happen, the second-generation parents (who had never had a personal conversion to Christ) were allowed 'halfway' membership in the church. With this partial membership, they could bring their children before the church, then 'own the covenant' (which meant they agreed to follow church rules), and, finally, have their children baptized.

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