Theocracy in the American Colonies: Definition, History & Examples

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  • 0:00 Definition of Theocracy
  • 1:54 Theocracy in the New World
  • 3:27 End of Theocracy in…
  • 4:30 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David White
Through this lesson, you will learn the characteristics that define a theocracy; explore its role in the settlement of Plymouth Colony, Massachusetts; and come to understand how it worked in colonial life.

Definition of Theocratic Political Systems

Imagine that you've just moved to a country that you know nothing about, and you are immediately told by the government that you cannot spend time with the elderly because it is forbidden by the Bible and punishable by death. In fact, not only does your new country base this one law on the Bible, but they actually base all of their laws on the Bible because, after speaking with God, the King has declared that it must be this way. You may not have known it at the time, but you have just moved to a country that is ruled by a theocracy.

A theocracy is a type of political system in which the ruling government is comprised of clergy who are believed to be in direct communication with a deity and who operate a legal system based on religious teachings. In the present, there are no examples of sovereign governments that feature these two defining characteristics of theocratic rule. There are, however, present day groups that operate their communities as a theocracy. For example, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints can be considered a small-scale theocracy because they are led by a leader ('the Prophet') who is believed to be in direct communication with a deity, and their internal social structure is dictated by the teachings of a religious text (the Book of Mormon).

Given the complexity of political systems, it is easy to get confused about what qualifies as a theocracy. But since the theocracy is no longer used to govern, when you hear someone refer to a modern nation as being theocratic, it is more likely that they mean ecclesiocratic. An ecclesiocracy is a political system in which religious figures, such as a Bishop, assume positions of political power but are not believed to be in direct communication with a god or gods.

These two systems are easy to confuse because they look very similar, but they are indeed two different forms of governance. Iran, for example, may appear to be theocratic because their legal system is influenced by Islamic teachings, but their lack of a leader who is in direct communication with Allah makes them an ecclesiocracy.

Theocracy in the New World

In the past, theocratic governments could be found in many parts of the world, including China, Egypt, and Greece. But, though it may come as a surprise to some, theocracy was also the form of governmental rule in the early American settlement of Plymouth Colony.

As the first non-commercial British settlement in North America, Plymouth Colony operated a social and political structure detailed in the 1629 Charter of Massachusetts Bay - a document on which much of the nation's democratic ideals are based. This charter officially outlined the democratic election process and powers granted to elected officials and made clear that any laws established to govern must not contradict British law.

Those elected to lead the first government at Plymouth Colony were men of strong Puritanical faith who ruled their newly formed settlement through a blend of religious law (as dictated by their Bible) and British law. Successors of these political offices included religious leaders who upheld God's law in the colony, with the shared belief that their successes and hardships were both the result of God's varying degree of acceptance of their actions and behaviors.

It may seem contradictory, but though the leaders of Plymouth Colony were publicly elected officials, they also operated a kind of theocratic government. The establishment of a governmental body that ruled by religious laws, coupled with a belief that real-world outcomes were the direct result of divine intervention (a kind of communication) indicate that the political and legal systems of Plymouth Colony can indeed be interpreted as a kind of theocracy, rather than the democracy that it is known as today.

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