Choose wise, understanding, and knowledgeable men from among your tribes, and I will make them heads over you.
Thomas Hooker was born in Leicestershire, England, in 1586. He studied theology at Cambridge and became one of the most powerful and popular preachers in England. But he encountered pressure from the government due to his Puritan views and fled, first to Holland and then, by disguising himself for protection, to America as part of the great Puritan migration.
In 1633, he became the pastor of a small church near the present site of Cambridge, Massachusetts. His pulpit skills were extraordinary, and he has been called “perhaps the greatest of the seventeenth-century American preachers.”
Hooker believed in extending the right to vote to more people, and that put him at odds with some of his fellow Puritan leaders. In 1636, Hooker, his wife, his congregation of about a hundred, plus 160 cattle, left Cambridge and Boston, migrating south to establish the city of Hartford.
Here on May 31, 1638, Hooker preached a midweek sermon from Deuteronomy 1:13, which has been called “among the most important sermons in colonial New England.” Hooker was drawn to this verse because it’s where Moses recounted how he developed a political structure that effectively oversaw the new nation of Israel. As Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt and into the wilderness, he was overwhelmed with his responsibility. But he told the Israelites to choose wise, understanding leaders for themselves from among their tribes, and the people did so. The resulting organization provided relief to Moses and accountable leaders for the people. To Hooker, it was a pattern for how nations should be governed.
A manuscript of Hooker’s sermon doesn’t exist, but one listener, Henry Wolcott Jr., took notes in shorthand, recording thirteen short paragraphs giving Hooker’s key points, one of which is:
The choice of public magistrates belongs unto the people by God’s own allowance. . . . The privilege of election, which belongs to the people, therefore must not be exercised according to their humours, but according to the blessed will and law of God. . . . They who have power to appoint officers and magistrates, it is in their power, also, to set the bounds and limitations. . . . The foundation of authority is laid, firstly, in the free consent of the people.
Hooker’s concept of democracy was considered radical in a world dominated by monarchs and emperors. Many historians believe the ideas he expressed set the stage for Connecticut to adopt a new constitution the following January, which is known as the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut. This is considered the first written constitution to embody a democratic tone, and it became the model for constitutions in other colonies. Ultimately, it paved the way for the Constitution of the United States. That’s why Connecticut is known to this day as the Constitution State.
The Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, inspired by the ideas of Deuteronomy 1:13 as preached by Thomas Hooker, said in its opening preamble,
Forasmuch as it hath pleased the Almighty God by the wise disposition of His Divine Providence so to order and dispose of things that we, the inhabitants and residents of Windsor, Hartford and Wethersfield, are now cohabiting and dwelling in and upon the river of Connecticut and the lands thereunto adjoining, and well knowing where a people are gathered together the Word of God requires that to maintain the peace and union of such a people there should be an orderly and decent government established according to God, to order and dispose of the affrays of the people at all seasons as occasion shall require; do therefore associate and connive ourselves to be as one public state or commonwealth, and do, for ourselves and our successors . . . enter into combination and confederation together, to maintain and preserve the liberty and purity of the gospel of our Lord Jesus which we now profess.