Oklahoma's Monument to American Theocracy, Part 3
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Fri May 05, 2006 at 09:23:30 AM EST
In the first part of this series about the Ten Commandments monument on the courthouse lawn in Stigler, Oklahoma I dealt with the questions whether the texts on the monument were religious in nature and whether it endorsed a biblical form of religion.

In the second part of this series I gave an opinion on the questions whether the monument endorses a sectarian interpretation of the Bible and whether it endorses a Christian covenant.

In this part of this series I raise the question whether the monument endorses a Christian theocracy.


The combined effect of engraving both the Mayflower Compact and the Ten Commandments on the same monument is to give a very strong endorsement of a theocratic form of governance.   Comprehending the full strength of that endorsement requires a review of the history of Puritan and Separatist Christianity, of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and of the Baptist struggle for religious liberty in colonial America.

During the sixteenth century several movements sprang up in England hoping to reform the Church of England.  Most called for a return to the simple teachings and practices of the Bible.   The most influential and militant group was the Puritans who were deeply influenced by John Calvin and the reform of the church that he instituted in Geneva, Switzerland.  They were called "Puritans" because they insisted on purity of doctrine and practice in the church.

The Pilgrims were "Separatists."  Most Separatists were discouraged Puritans who had given up any hope of purifying and reforming the Church of England from within.  Instead, they separated themselves from the Church of England and formed independent congregations.   These congregations were formed by a covenant between members.  Early leaders in this movement were Robert Browne, John Greenwood, and Henry Barrowe.  In 1593, English law made it illegal to attend any meetings of these Separatist "conventicles" or covenant congregations.  Greenwood was hanged in 1593.

Covenants are mutual agreements in which the parties accept obligations and receive privileges.  Separatist covenants were patterned after the covenants that the God of the Bible made with his people.  Biblical covenants obligated people to live according to God's law and promised that God would bless them if they did.  One of the central covenants in the Bible was the covenant between God and the children of Israel at Mount Sinai (Exodus 19) that culminated in the giving of the law (Exodus 20) as summarized by the Ten Commandments.  That covenant founded Israel as the people of God.

The historical lineage of the Pilgrims' congregation was a Separatist congregation that was formed in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire around 1606.  John Smyth became its leader.  The congregation grew so rapidly that the large size of the gathering made it dangerous to meet.  The congregation divided.  Smyth continued to lead the congregation that remained at Gainsborough.  Another congregation formed at Scrooby Manor.  John Robinson became that congregation's pastor.   By 1608 both congregations had fled to Holland to escape persecution. Smyth's congregation settled in Amsterdam.  Robinson's congregation settled for a time in Leyden.   From Holland both the history of Separatism and the way that Separatist congregations came to relate to government diverged.  Sometimes the differences were bitter.  Both sides of the division had an influence on American history.

Among Smyth's congregation in Amsterdam was Thomas Helwys.   In 1611, Helwys returned to England and established the congregation that founded the Baptist denomination.  He also launched a movement that advocated separating church and state and demanded religious liberty for all persons.  Shortly after his return, Helwys sent an autographed copy of his book A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity (1610) to the King.  The book may have been the first treatise advocating absolute religious liberty ever published on English soil.  In his own handwriting on the flyleaf of his book, Helwys advised King James I that he was a "mortal man and not God, therefore had no power over the immortal souls of his subjects." Shortly after the King received his book, Helwys was imprisoned until his death. He died around 1616.

[Helwys handwritten flyleaf note to King James has recently been reproduced in Thomas Helwys, A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity, ed. Richard Groves (Macon:  Mercer University Press, 1998), pp. vii.  Inside the book, Helwys argued that, "Men's religion to God is between God and themselves; the king shall not answer for it, neither may the king judge between God and man.  Let them be heretics, Turks, Jews or whatsoever, it appertains not to the earthly power to punish them in the least measure."  p. 53.]

Among Robinson's congregation in Leyden were William Bradford and William Brewster.  In 1620 Bradford and Brewster led some members of the congregation and others to set sail for America on the Mayflower.  These are the "Pilgrims" that signed the Mayflower Compact. They founded Plymouth Plantation and the Congregational Church in America.  These Pilgrims desired religious liberty only for themselves.  They set up what James Ernst described as a "democratic theocracy."  Their government was dominated by their church:

[A highly respected standard reference for American church history summarizes the Mayflower Compact with these words:  "The Mayflower Pilgrims landed at Cape Cod, which was too far north for their Virginia Company patent to be of any value to them. . . . they came to rest in a region for which they had no legal authority.  It was this unanticipated predicament, plus the 'mutinous speeche' of some of the London 'strangers' that prompted the colonists to enter into the so-called Mayflower Compact.  This document was nothing more than a church covenant, such as bound together the Leyden church, put to civic use."  See H. Shelton Smith, Robert T. Handy, and Lefferts A. Loetscher, American Christianity:  An Historical Interpretation With Representative Documents, Vol. 1 1607-1820 (New York:  Charles Scribners, 1960), p. 92.  Sixty-one of the passengers aboard the Mayflower were "strangers" picked up around London by the merchant adventurers.  Only forty-one of the passengers came from the Leyden church.  The "mutinous speeches" were statements by the strangers "That when they came a shore they would use their own libertie; for none had power to command them."  After signing the "Compact" or covenant, "they mette and consulted of lawes and orders, both for their civill and military Govermente, as the necessity of their condition did require, still adding thereunto as urgent occasion in severall times, and as cases did require."]

The colony also excluded persons from other sects and faiths:

[James Ernst described the religious atmosphere of Plymouth Plantation:  "Although the Pilgrims were more tolerant than the Boston Puritans, they were nevertheless a persecuting church.  With all civil governments of their day, they assumed the right to determine the religious beliefs of their colonists.  Mr. Oldham, 'a mad jack in his mood' was forced out of the colony.  And the sniveling minister, John Lyford, a 'canting hypocrite,' so the Pilgrims said, was banished for attempting to reform the Pilgrim church.  Thomas Morton of Merry Mount who scandalized the Pilgrims by setting 'up a Maypole, drinking and dancing about it for many days together,' was silenced by God's people.  When a third of the colonists desired to celebrate Christmas Day, 1621, 'in the streets, openly with such ungodliness as pitching a bar and playing ball,' they were suppressed with the grim New England humor that they might do it out of sight.  Mr. Bradford was pleased to note that since then they did not play ball, 'at least openly.'

The Pilgrim Fathers allowed neither religious liberty nor separation of church and state.  Nor did Barrow and Brown, their predecessors.  Everywhere the reformed churches became the national or state churches."  Ernst, p. 74.  See also Smith, Handy and Loetscher, pp. 82-185.]

Historically, as Massachusetts was colonized, the center of power and the most important settlements developed at Salem and Boston around the Massachusetts Bay.  Under their system of law and jurisprudence, Baptists, Quakers and other religious dissenters were severely persecuted:

[In the summer of 1651, John Clarke, John Crandall, and Obadiah Holmes -- all members of the Baptist Church at Newport, Rhode Island -- were arrested and imprisoned for holding an unauthorized worship service in the home of a blind Baptist named William Witter who lived at Lynn, Massachusetts outside Boston.  They were sentenced to be fined or whipped.  Fines for Clarke and Crandall were paid by friends.  Holmes refused to let friends pay his fine and was publicly whipped on the streets of Boston on September 6, 1651.  In 1653, Henry Dunster, the first president of Harvard University, refused to have his fourth child baptized as an infant and proclaimed that only believers should be baptized.  He was forced to resign from his position and banished from Cambridge, Massachusetts.  In 1663, John Myles moved an entire Baptist congregation from Wales to escape the religious persecutions authorized by England's 1662 Act of Uniformity.  They first settled in Massachusetts, but by 1667 the authorities forced the congregation to move to the frontier in Rhode Island.  

The persecutions that began when the Colony was founded were not temporary and limited to the earliest stages of settlement.  Nearly a century later, Baptists were still suffering persecution in Massachusetts.   Early Baptist historian, Isaac Backus, told the story of an elderly widow named Esther White, who lived in Raynham and was a member of the Baptist church that Backus pastored in Middleborough, Massachusetts.  She refused to pay a tax to support the minister of the established Congregational church in Raynham on the grounds that she was a dissenter from that church and had become a Baptist.  The town of Raynham refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of her church and put her in jail.    Though she could have paid the tax and been released at any time, she remained in jail for thirteen months.   City leaders finally became so embarrassed that they released her from the charge.  Others paid a steeper price.  Baptists founded a church in Ashfield, Massachusetts (then known as Huntstown) in 1761.  1763 the town's Congregationalists hired a minister, built a meeting house, and taxed the Baptists to help pay for it.  Pastor Ebenezer Smith and his congregation refused to pay the religious tax.  The town then seized the Baptists' land -- some of the best in the town -- complete with cemetery, apple orchard and houses.  The land was auctioned to their Congregational neighbors for a pittance of its value.    A total of 398 acres was seized, including ten acres from Ebenezer Smith and twenty acres from his father, Chileab Smith.]

Some Quakers, among them Mary Dyer, defied orders of banishment and were executed:

[William Robinson, Marmaduke Stephenson, and William Leddra are listed among the Quaker martyrs in Massachusetts.  The last Quaker martyr in Massachusetts, Mary Dyer, was hanged in the Boston Common on June 1, 1660.  All died in defiance of a law banning Quakers from Massachusetts Bay Colony.  A statue of Mary Dyer now stands in front of the State Capitol in Massachusetts as a constant reminder of the Colony's shameful legacy of religious intolerance.

Before resorting to executions, Ahlstrom records other ways that the authorities dealt with Quakers, "In July 1656 the ship Swallow anchored in Boston Harbor.  It became known quickly that on board were two Quaker women, Mary Fisher and Ann Austin, who had shipped from Barbados.  The authorities moved swiftly.  The women were kept on ship while their belongings were searched and more than one hundred books confiscated.  Although there was as yet no law against Quakers in Massachusetts, the two were hurried off to jail, stripped of all their clothing, and inspected for tokens of witchcraft.  After five weeks, the captain of the Swallow was placed under a £100 bond to carry them back to Barbados."]

Theocratic governance of Massachusetts began with the signing of the Mayflower Compact.  Those who signed the Compact covenanted to "enact, constitute and frame such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions, and offices, from time to time as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the colony."  In their eyes, the most "just and equal laws" were those that God gave Moses.  In simplest terms, they were covenanting to live together under biblical law as summarized by the Ten Commandments.  In practice, all of the commandments were enforced, including the first four commandments regarding worship.

In my opinion, a monument to the Mayflower Compact -- all by itself, without the addition of a Ten Commandments monument -- could be perceived to be endorsing the democratic theocracy that the Compact inaugurated.

Whether the monument actually endorses theocracy or merely commemorates a historical event in the colonizing of America requires an examination of the setting and context in which it is placed.

Tomorrow I will examine the question, "Does engraving both the Mayflower Compact and the Ten Commandments on the same monument send a strong signal that a Christian democratic theocracy is being endorsed?"

I divided my response to this question into two parts.  I'll post information about the role of the Ten Commandments in the Massachusetts Bay Colony vs. Roger Williams tomorrow.

by Mainstream Baptist on Fri May 05, 2006 at 09:29:57 AM EST
This is a fascinating history and I appreciate your posting it. I wish it were required reading in all history classes.

by Joan Bokaer on Fri May 05, 2006 at 08:02:21 PM EST

Your website is what should be required reading for contemporary history classes.

by Mainstream Baptist on Sat May 06, 2006 at 10:56:09 PM EST

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