An Abstract of the Laws of New England,

as They Are Now Established.

printed in London in 1641.


A Word to the Wise...

As you read through Cotton's, An Abstract of the Laws of New England, some things may seem strange to your ears. But be careful, or you might find yourself judging God instead of being judged by Him. Consider -- if these laws are harsh now, then they must have been harsh then. (in the Old Covenant) We do not want to fall into the prideful position of thinking that we are more loving than God. "The LORD is good to all: and his tender mercies are over all his works." (Ps 145:9) _ Ed Walsh

Eze 18:25 Yet ye say, The way of the Lord is not equal. Hear now, O house of Israel; Is not my way equal? are not your ways unequal?

[This model] far surpasseth all the municipal laws and statutes of any of the Gentile nations and corporations under the cope of Heaven. Wherefore I thought it not unmeet to publish it to the view of all, for the common good. . . . Judge equally and impartially, whether there be any laws in any state in the world, so just and equal as these be. Which, were they duly attended unto, would undoubtedly preserve inviolable the liberty of the subject against all tyrannical and usurping powers. . . .

This Abstract may serve for this use principally (which I conceive was the main scope of that good man, who was the author of it) to show the complete sufficiency of the word of God alone, to direct his people in judgment of all causes, both civil and criminal.... But the truth is, both they and we, and other the Gentile nations, are loth to be persuaded to . . . lay aside our old earthly forms of governments, to submit to the government of Christ. Nor shall we Gentiles be willing I fear, to take up his yoke which is easy, and burthen light, until he bath broken us under the hard and heavy yokes of men, and thereby weaned us from all our old forms and customs. . . .

So that there will be a necessity, that the little stone, cut out of the mountain without hands should crush and break these obstacles ere the way can be prepared for erecting his kingdom, wherein dwells righteousness. -- And verily great will be the benefit of this kingdom of Christ, when it shall be submitted unto by the nations . . . [Ps. 95: 10; Isa. 66:12]. All burdens and tyrannical exactions will be removed; God will make their officers peace, and their exactors righteousness, Isa. 60:17.

The Contents
Chap. I Of magistrates
Chap. II Of the free burgesses and free inhabitants
Chap. III. Of the protection and provision of the country
Chap. IV. Of the right of inheritance
Chap. V. Of commerce
Chap. VI. Of trespasses
Chap. VII. Of crimes, of such as deserve capital punishment, or cutting off from a man's people, whether by death or banishment.
Chap. VIII. Of other crimes less heinous, such as are to be punished with some corporal punishment or fine
Chap. IX. Of the trial of causes, whether civil or criminal, and the execution of sentence
Chap. X. Of the causes criminal, between our people and foreign nations

Capital Crimes in the Massachussetts Body of Liberties (1641)
Capital Crimes in the Massachusetts


Of Magistrates.

1. ALL magistrates are to be chosen. Deut. 1:13, 17, 15.

2. The governor hath power, with the assistants, to govern the whole country, according to the laws established, hereafter mentioned: he hath power of himself, and in his absence the deputy-governor, to moderate all public actions of the Commonwealth, as

3. The power of the governor, with the rest of the counsellors, is

4. The power of the governor, sitting with the counsellors and assistants, is to hear and determine all causes whether civil or criminal, which are brought before him through the whole Commonwealth: yet reserving liberty of appeal from him to the general court. Ex. 18:22. Deut. 1:16, 18.

5. Every town is to have judges within themselves, whose power shall be once in the month, or in three months at the farthest, to hear and determine both civil causes and pleas of less value, and crimes also, which are not capital: yet reserving liberty of appeal to the court of governor and assistants. [Deut. 1:16, 181.

6. For the better expedition and execution of justice, and of all affairs incident unto every court; every court shall have certain officers, as a secretary to enrol all the acts of the court; and besides ministers of justice, to attach and fetch, and set persons before the magistrates; and also to execute the sentence of the court upon offenders: and for the same end it shall be lawful for the governor or any one or two of the counsellors, or assistants, or judges, to give warrants to an officer, to fetch any delinquent before them, and to examine the cause, and if he be found culpable of that crime, to take order by surety or safe custody for his appearance at the court. Deut. 16:18. [Deut. 1:16, 181. Jer. 36:10, 12. 1 Sam. 20:24, 25. Acts 5:26, 27.

And further for the same end, and to prevent the offenders lying long in prison, it shall be lawful for the governor, with one of the council, or any two of the assistants or judges, to see execution done upon any offenders for any crime that is not capital, according to the laws established: yet reserving a liberty of appeal from them to the court, and from an inferior court to a higher court.


Of the free Burgesses and free Inhabitants.

1. FIRST, all the free burgesses, excepting such as were admitted men before the establishment of churches in the country, shall be received and admitted out of the members of some or others of the churches in the country, such churches as are gathered or hereafter shall be gathered with the consent of other churches already established in the country, and such members as are admitted by their own church unto the Lord's table.

2. These free burgesses shall have power to choose in their own towns, fit and able men out of themselves, to be the ordinary judges of inferior causes, in their own town; and, against the approach of the general court, to choose two or three, as their deputies and committees, to join with the governor and assistants of the whole country, to make up and constitute the general court.

3. This general court shall have power,

4. All the householders of every town shall be accounted as the free inhabitants of the country, and accordingly shall enjoy freedom of commerce, and inheritance of such lands as the general court or the several towns wherein they dwell, shall allot unto them, after they have taken an oath, or given other security to be true and faithful to the state, and subject to the good and wholesome laws established in the country by the general court.


Of the Protection and Provision of the Country.

1. FIRST, a law to be made (if it be not made already) for the training of all men in the country, fit to bear arms, into the exercise of military discipline and withal another law to be made for the maintenance of military officers and forts.

2. Because fishing is the chief staple commodity of the country, therefore all due encouragement to be given unto such hands as shall set forwards the trade of fishing: and for that end a law to be made, that whosoever shall apply themselves to set forward the trade of fishing, as fishermen, mariners, and shipwrights, shall be allowed, man for man, or some or other of the labourers of the country, to plant and reap for them, in the season of the year, at the public charge of the commonwealth, for the space of seven years next ensuing; and such labourers to be appointed and paid by the treasurer of the commonwealth.

3. Because no commonwealth can maintain either their authority at home, or their honor and power abroad, without a sufficient treasury: a law therefore to be made for the electing and furnishing of the treasury of the commonwealth, which is to be supplied and furnished,

4. A treasurer to be chosen by the free burgesses, out of the assistants, who shall receive and keep the treasury, and make disbursements out of it, according to the direction of the general court, or of the governor or counsellors, whereof they are to give an account to the general court. It shall pertain also to the office of the treasurer, to survey and oversee all the munitions of the country, as cannons, culverins1, muskets, powder, match, bullets, &c. and to give account thereof to the governor and council.

5. A treasury also, or magazine, or storehouse, to be erected, and furnished in every town, [as Deut. 14:28.] distinct from the treasury of the church, that provision of corn, and other necessaries, may be laid up at the best band, for the relief of such poor as are not members of the church: and that out of it such officers may be maintained, as captains and such like, who do any public service for the town. But chiefly, this treasury will be requisite for the preserving of the livelihood of each town within itself. That in case the inheritance of the lands that belong to any town come to be alienated from the townsmen, which may unavoidably fall out; yet a supply may be bad and made to the livelihood of the town, by a reasonable rent charge upon such alienations, laid by the common consent of the landowners and townsmen, and to be paid into the treasury of the town. This treasury to be supplied,

A town treasurer to be appointed for the oversight and ordering of this, chosen out of the free burgesses of the same town, who is so to dispose of things under his charge, according to the direction of the judges of the town, and to give account, at the town's court, to the judges and free burgesses of the town, or to some selected by them.

1. 1) An early, crudely made musket. 2) A long heavy cannon used in the 16th and 17th centuries.
2 To punish by a fine imposed arbitrarily at the discretion of the court.


Of the right of Inheritance.

1. FIRST, forasmuch as the right of disposals of the inheritance of all lands in the country lyeth in the general court, whatsoever lands are given and assigned by the general court, to any town or person, shall belong and remain as right of inheritance to such towns and their successors, and to such persons and to their heirs and assigns forever, as their propriety.

2. Whatsoever lands, belonging to any town, shall be given and assigned by the town, or by such officers therein as they shall appoint, unto any person, the same shall belong and remain unto such person and his heirs and assigns, as his proper right forever.

3. And in dividing of lands to several persons in each town, as regard is to be bad, partly to the number of persons in a family-to the more, as signing the greater allotment, to the fewer, less-and partly by the number of beasts by which a man is fit to occupy the land assigned to him, and subdue it; eminent respect, in this case, may be given to men of eminent quality and descent, in assigning unto them more large and honorable accommodations, in regard of their great disbursements to public charges.

4. Forasmuch as all civil affairs are to be administered and ordered, so as may best conduce to the upholding and setting foward of the worship of God in church fellowship; it is therefore ordered, that wheresoever the lands of any man's inheritance shall fall, yet no man shall set his dwellinghouse above the distance of half a mile, or a mile at the farthest, from the meeting of the congregation, where the church doth usually assemble for the worship of God.

5. Inheritances are to descend naturally to the next of kin, according to the law of nature, delivered by God.

6. Observe, if a man have more sons than one, then a double portion to be assigned and bequeathed to the eldest son, according to the law of nature; unless his own demerit do deprive him of the dignity of his birthright.

7. The will of a testator is to be approved or disallowed by the court of governor and assistants, or by the court of judges in each town: yet not to be disallowed by the court of governors, unless it appears either to be counterfeit, or unequal, either against the law of God, or against the due right of the legators3.

8. As God in old time, in the commonwealth of Israel, forbade the alienation of lands from one tribe to another; so to prevent the like inconvenience in the alienation of lands from one town to another, it were requisite to be ordered:

3 One that makes a will; a testator.


Of Commerce.

1. FIRST, it shall be lawful for the governor, with one or more of the council, to appoint a reasonable rate of prices upon all such commodities as are, out of the ships, to be bought and sold in the country.

2. In trucking or trading with the Indians, no man shall give them, for any commodity of theirs, silver or gold, or any weapons of war, either guns or gunpowder, nor swords, nor any other munition, which might come to be used against ourselves.

3. To the intent that all oppression in buying and selling may be avoided, it shall be lawful for the judges in every town, with the consent of the free burgesses, to appoint certain selectmen, to set reasonable rates upon all commodities, and proportionably to limit the wages of workmen and labourers; and the rates agreed upon by them, and ratified by the judges, to bind all the inhabitants of the town. The like course to be taken by the governor and assistants for the rating of prizes throughout the country, and all to be confirmed, if need be, by the general court.

4. Just weights and balances to be kept between buyers and sellers, and for default thereof, the profit so wickedly and corruptly gotten, with as much more added thereto, is to be forfeited to the public treasury of the commonwealth.

5. If any borrow ought of his neighbour upon a pledge, the lender shall not make choice of what pledge he will have, nor take such a pledge as is of daily necessary use unto the debtor, or if he does take it, he shall restore it again the same day.

6. No increase to be taken of a poor brother or neighbour, for any thing lent unto him.

7. If borrowed goods be lost or hurt in the owner's absence, the borrower is to make them good; but in the owner's presence, wherein he seeth his goods no otherwise used than with his consent, the borrower shall not make them good; if they were hired, the hire to be paid and no more.


Of Trespasses.

1. IF a man's swine, or any other beast, or a fire kindled, break out into another man's field or corn, he shall make full restitution, both of the damage made by them, and of the loss of time which others have bad in carrying such swine or beasts unto the owners, or unto the fold. But if a man puts his beasts or swine into another's field, restitution is to be made of the best of his own, though it were much better than that which were destroyed or hurt.

2. If a man kill another man's beast, or dig and open a pit, and leave it uncovered, and a beast fall into it; he that killed the beast and the owner of the pit, shall make restitution.

3. If one man's beast kills the beast of another, the owner of the beast shall make restitution.

4. If a man's ox, or other beast, gore or bite, and kill a man or woman, whether child or riper age, the beast shall be killed, and no benefit of the dead beast reserved to the owner. But if the ox, or beast, were wont to push or bite in time past, and the owner hath been told of it, and hath not kept him in, then both the ox, or beast, shall be forfeited and killed, and the owner also put to death, or fined to pay what the judges and persons damnified shall lay upon him.

5. If a man deliver goods to his neighbour to keep, and they be said to be lost or stolen from him, the keeper of the goods shall be put to his oath touching his own innocency; which if he take, and no evidence appear to the contrary, be shall be quit: but if he be found false or unfaithful, he shall pay double unto his neighbour. But if a man take hire for goods committed to him, and they be stolen, the keeper shall make restitution. But if the beast so kept for hire, die or be hurt, or be driven away, no man seeing it, then oath shall be taken of the keeper, that it was without his default, and it shall be accepted. But if the beast be torn in pieces, and a piece be brought for a witness, it excuseth the keeper.


Of Crimes. And first, of such as deserve capital punishment, or cutting off from a man's people, whether by death or banishment.

1. FIRST, blasphemy, which is a cursing of God by atheism, or the like, to be punished with death.

2. Idolatry to be punished with death.

3. Witchcraft, which is fellowship by covenant with a familiar spirit, to be punished with death.

4. Consulters with witches not to be tolerated, but either to be cut off by death or banishment.

5. Heresy, which is the maintenance of some wicked errors, overthrowing the foundation of the christian religion; which obstinacy, if it be joined with endeavour to seduce others thereunto, to be punished with death; because such an heretick, no less than an idolater, seeketh to thrust the souls of men from the Lord their God.

6. To worship God in a molten or graven image, to be punished with death.

7. Such members of the church, as do wilfully reject to walk, after due admonition and conviction, in the churches' establishment, and their christian admonition and censures, shall be cut off by banishment.

8. Whosoever shall revile the religion and worship of God, and the government of the church, as it is now established, to be cut off by banishment. [I] Cor. 5:5.

9. Wilful perjury, whether before the judgment seat or in private conference, to be punished with death.

10. Rash perjury, whether in public or in private, to be punished with banishment. Just is it, that such a man's name should be cut off from his people who profanes so grosly the name of God before his people.

11. Profaning of the Lord's day, in a careless and scornful neglect or contempt thereof, to be punished with death.

12. To put in practice the betraying of the country, or any principal fort therein, to the hand of any foreign state, Spanish, French, Dutch, or the like, contrary to the allegiance we owe and profess to our dread sovereign, lord king Charles, his heirs and successors, whilst he is pleased to protect us as his loyal subjects, to be punished with death. Num. 12:14, 15.

13. Unreverend and dishonorable carriage to magistrates, to be punished with banishment for a time, till they acknowledge their fault and profess reformation.

14. Reviling of the magistrates in highest rank amongst us, to wit, of the governors and council, to be punished with death. I Kings 2:8, 9, & 46.

15. Rebellion, sedition, or insurrection, by taking up arms against the present government established in the country, to be punished with death.

16. Rebellious children, whether they continue in riot or drunkenness, after due correction from their parents, or whether they curse or smite their parents, to be put to death. Ex. 21:15, 17. Lev. 20:9.

17. Murder, which is a wilful man-slaughter, not in a man's just defence, nor casually committed, but out of hatred or cruelty, to be punished with death. Ex. 21:12, 13. Num. 35:16, 17, 18, to 33. Gen. 9:6.

18. Adultery, which is the defiling of the marriage-bed, to be punished with death. Defiling of a woman espoused, is a kind of adultery, and punishable, by death, of both parties; but if a woman be forced, then by the death of the man only. Lev. 20:10. Deut. 22:22 to 27.

19. Incest, which is the defiling of any near of kin, within the degrees prohibited in Leviticus, to be punished with death.

20. Unnatural filthiness to be punished with death, whether sodomy, which is a carnal fellowship of man with man, or woman with woman, or buggery4, which is a carnal fellowship of man or woman with beasts or fowls.

21. Pollution of a woman known to be in her flowers5, to be put to death. Lev. 20:18,19.

22. Whoredom of a maiden in her father's house, kept secret till after her marriage with another, to be punished with death. Deut. 22:20, 21.

23. Man-stealing to be punished with death. Ex. 21:16.

24. False-witness bearing to be punished with death.

4 April 2, 1674 Benjamin Gourd of Roxbury (being about 17 years of age) was executed for committing Bestiality with a Mare, which was first knocked in the head under the Gallows in his sight. N.B. He committed that filthines at noon day in an open yard. He after confessed that he had lived in that sin a year. The causes he alledged were, idlenes, not obeying parents, &c. [from The Diary of Samuel Sewall]
5 Menstrual discharges.


Of other Crimes less heinous, such as are to be punished with some corporal punishment or fine.

1. FIRST, rash and profane swearing and cursing to be punished,

2. Drunkenness, as transforming God's image into a beast, is to be punished with the punishment of beasts: a whip for the horse, and a rod for the fool's back.

3. Forcing of a maid, or a rape, is not to be punished with death by God's law, but,

4. Fornication to be punished,

5. Maiming or wounding of a freeman, whether free burgess, or free inhabitant, to be punished with a fine; to pay,

6. If any man steal a beast, if it be found in his hand he shall make restitution two for one; if it be killed and sold, restitution is to be made of five oxen for one; if the thief be not able to make restitution, then he is to be sold by the magistrate for a slave, till by his labour he may make restitution. Ex. 22:1, 4.

7. If a thief be found breaking a house by night, if he be slain, his smiter is guiltless; but in the day time, the thief is to make full restitution as before; or if he be not able, then to be sold as before. Ex. 22:2.

8. Slanders are to be punished,


Of the trial of causes, whether civil or criminal, and the execution of sentence.

1. IN the trial of all causes, no judgment shall pass but either upon confession of the party, or upon the testimony of two witnesses.

2. Trial by judges shall not be denied, where either the delinquent requireth it in causes criminal, or the plaintiff or defendant in civil causes, partly to prevent suspicion of partiality of any magistrates in the court.

3. The jurors are not to be chosen by any magistrates, or officers, but by the free burgesses of each town, as can give best light to the causes depending in court, and who are least obnoxious to suspicion of partiality; and the jurors then chosen, to be nominated to the court, and to attend the service of the court.

4. The sentence of judgment given upon criminal causes and persons, shall be executed in the presence of the magistrates, or some of them at least.

5. No freeman, whether free burgess or free inhabitant, to be imprisoned, but either upon conviction, or at least probable suspicion, or some crime, formerly mentioned; and the cause of his imprisonment, be declared and tried at the next court following, at the furthest.

6. Stripes are not to be inflicted, but when the crimes of the offender are accompanied with childish or brutish folly, or with lewd filthiness, or with stubborn insolency, or with brutish cruelty, or with idle vagrancy; but when stripes are due, not above forty are to be inflicted.


Of causes criminal, between our people and foreign nations.

1. IN case any of our people should do wrong to any other nation, upon complaint made to the governor, or some other of the council or assistants, the fact is diligently to be inquired into, and being found to be true, restitution is to be made of the goods of offenders, as the case shall require, according to the quality of the crime.

2. In case the people of another nation have done any important wrong to any of ours, right is first to be demanded of the governor of that people, and justice upon the malefactors, which if it be granted and performed, then no breach of peace to follow. Deut. 20:10, 11. 2 Sam. 20: 18,19.

3. If right and justice be denied, and it will not stand with the honour of God and safety of our nation that the wrong be passed over, then war is to be undertaken and denounced.

4. Some minister is to be sent forth to go along with the army, for their instruction and encouragement. Deut. 20:2, 3, 4.

5. Men betrothed and not married, or newly married, or such as have newly built or planted, and not received the fruits of their labour, and such as are faint-hearted men, are not to be pressed or forced against their wills to go forth to wars. Deut. 20:5, 6, 7, 8: & 24:5.

6. Captains are to be chosen by the officers.

7. All wickedness is to be removed out of the camp by severe discipline. Deut. 23:9, 14.

8. And in war men of a corrupt and false religion are not to be accepted, much less sought for. 2 Chron. 25:7, 8.

9. Women, especially such as have not lain by man, little children, and cattle, are to be spared and reserved for spoil. Deut. 20:14.

10. Fruit trees, whilst they may be of use for meat to our own soldiers, are not to be cut down and destroyed, and consequently no corn. Deut. 20: 19,20.

11. The spoils got by war are to be divided into two parts, between the soldier and the commonwealth that sent them forth. Num. 31:27.

12. A tribute from both is to be levied to the Lord, and given to the treasury of the church; a fiftieth part out of the commonwealth's, part, and a five hundredth part out of the soldiers' part. Num. 31:28, 29, & 47.

13. If all the soldiers return again in peace, not one lacking, it is acceptable to the Lord if they offer, over and above the former tribute, a voluntary oblation unto the treasury of the church for a memorial of the redemption of their lives by the special providence and salvation of the Lord of Hosts.

Isaiah 33:22
The Lord is our Judge,
The Lord is our Law-giver,
The Lord is our King:He will save us. 

Capital Crimes in the Massachusetts

Body of Liberties ( 1641 )6


If any man after legal conviction shall have or worship any other god, but the Lord God, he shall be put to death.

   Deut. 13:6, 10 Deut. 17:2, 6 Ex. 22:20 


If any man or woman be a witch (that is, has or consults with a familiar spirit), they shall be put to death.

   Ex. 22:18; Lev. 20:27; Deut. 18:10 


If any man shall blaspheme the name of God the Father, Son, or Holy Ghost, with direct, express, presumptuous, or high handed blasphemy, or shall curse God in the like manner, he shall be put to death.

   Lev. 25:15,16


If any person commits any willful murder, which is manslaughter, committed upon premeditated malice, hatred, or cruelty, not in a man's necessary and just defense, nor by mere casualty against his will, he shall be put to death.

   Ex. 21:12; Num. 35:13; 14,30,31


If any person slays another suddenly in his anger or cruelty of passion, he shall be put to death.

   Num. 25 [351: 20,21; Lev. 24:17


If any person shall slay another through guile, either by poisoning or other such devilish practice, he shall be put to death.

   Ex. 21:14


If any man or woman shall lie with any beast or brute creature by carnal copulation, they shall surely be put to death. And the beast shall be slain and buried, and not eaten.

   Lev. 20:15, 16


If any man lies with mankind as he lies with a woman, both of them have committed abomination, they both shall surely be put to death.

   Lev. 20:13


If any person commits adultery with a married or espoused wife, the adulterer and adulteress shall surely be put to death.

   Lev. 20:19, and 18, 20 Deut. 22:23, 24


If any person steals a man or mankind, he shall surely be put to death.

   Ex. 21:16


If any man rises up by false witness, wittingly and of purpose to take away any man's life, he shall be put to death.

   Deut. 19:16, 18,19


6 Spelling modernized. Scripture references appear in the original charter. The complete document is reproduced in Edmund S. Morgan, ed., Puritan Political Ideas (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1965), pp. 178-203. "Capital Laws" were listed in section 94 of the Body of Liberties. This document served as Massachusetts' first legal code. It was written by the Rev. Nathaniel Ward, pastor of Ipswich, who had received ten years of training and practice in the law in London. The Body of Liberties was thoroughly discussed in the towns and General Court (colony legislature) before it was ratified.

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