The History of Protestant Theocracy in Early American History
(This is part of a growing series: Children of a Lesser God– Dominionism and Christian Nationalism Heresy Exposed )
The history of Dominionism and theocracy in the Evangelical Church is very complex with subtle forces pushing at the stream of Christian consciousness and theology just an inch at a time. Todays theocratic leanings of the Religious Right would not be the first attempt at Christian theocracy even in the Protestant Church. The deepest roots of Dominionism and Christian Nationalism are from the theocracy during the peak of Catholic hegemony frequently called the Dark Ages. Surprisingly theocracy didn’t end with the Reformation, it was continued by some Protestants for over 180 years. The bitter legacy pf theocracy remains today seared across the backs of the Europeans, and all churches Protestant and Catholic have been in decline for ages especially in Europe. Theocracy’s greatest legacy and the horrible pain it brings is always centuries of intractable alienation from the Church and tragically God himself.
The history of Dominionism and Christian Nationalism contains a lot of names here you’ve never heard, and it would be easy to skip past, but I urge you to read on. Like a game of Jenga the tower is wobbly because the foundation is poor, and these nameless and forgotten people had a huge influence in its poor construction. It will only take a couple of blocks to make the tower fall. Their impact and legacy are far more well-known than their names, and many are interconnected in fascinating ways. You, the church and your faith have been far more impacted by the influence of these unknown Dominionists and Christian Nationalists than you realize.
Theocracy in the Dark Ages and Beyond
From more than eight centuries the Catholic Church utterly controlled life, culture and government over most of Europe under a bicameral theocracy often referred to as “Christendom” (a mix of words Christian and Kingdom). The Catholic Church at its peak exerted power in concerted hegemony with feudal Lords and Kings. Compliance by Kings and Lords to the Pope was enforced by the threat of ex-communication which always put the victims at grave eternal and political peril. The church used these leaders it held in sway to force compliance to cultural and social principles, and ensure the safe passage of “tithes” sent to Rome. They also gained the armies of the feudal Lords as needed, since “conversion” and salvation of this era were primarily done at the end of a sword. The feudal Lords received in return political support of the church which ensured the easier subjugation of their peasants, after all a Lord could punish on this earth but the Church could extend any punishment for all eternity. Church officials and Inquisitors could excommunicate or burn as a witch anyone who threated their or a feudal lord’s power. It was a classic carrot and stick approach to maintain a tyrannical social order under a co-managed theocracy. In the Medieval era national and Christian identity were inseparable and a nation itself must be “Christian” for a people to be. For the Catholics theocracy was weakened by the Reformation, but it didn’t really end until the Napoleonic wars ended the Inquisition in the early 1800s under the growing influence of the new “freedom of religion” of the young United States.
Protestants themselves continued to practice theocracy long after Martin Luther learned to use a hammer in 1517, but instead of using Kings and Lords they used judges and magistrates exerting power through the judiciary. Catholic inspired theocracy thrived in Protestantism in new forms for a surprising 180 more years. The the most notable early examples are Calvin’s Geneva, the new Church of England, and the early American colonies. John Calvin ruled Geneva under a Theocratic state, which at times was disastrous, bringing enduring shame to his name.
The early Church of England forced church attendance under the British laws of Recusancy, where people who didn’t attend church could be arrested and have their property confiscated. There were also instances where Catholics were executed but its difficult to sort out if this was just because of their religion or they were truly seditious, but it was a dangerous precedent. King Charles I as leader of the Church of England actively battled Parliament to hinder Puritan efforts to reform the Church of England. Four Puritan leaders were flogged, imprisoned or and tortured so many Puritans fearing further persecution fled for Holland and America and specifically Massachusetts. The Puritans eventually took control of England, and eventually executed Charles I, but England wouldn’t regain religious or political stability until the death of Puritan despot Oliver Cromwell in 1660. The ensuing peace, new religious tolerance and restoration of the Monarchy quickly ended the fear and reduced Puritan migration to America.
Puritan Theocracy in the Massachusetts Colony
Hypocritically, the very Puritans who fled persecution in England from 1630-1640 freely persecuted other Protestants in America. They however were not the only Protestant group to do so, nor was Massachusetts the only colony to have a state church. However the early Puritan’s forced religious and social compliance with reign of terror through stocks, branding, public shaming, expulsion, stoning and hanging under the belief that God would punish them all if they tolerated “sin”. The uncompromising colony government chased Rev. Roger Williams into the woods at night in 1636 during a blizzard, which to their surprise he miraculously survived, due in large part by help he received from Native Americans. Many of the people Puritans zealously executed were other Protestants like three Quakers hung during 1659-61 for simply not being Puritans. In addition to religious dissenters and adulterers, the Massachusetts Bay colony had executed over 37 people as “witches”, and even more for adultery. But it was the Salem Witch Trials in 1692 where hundreds were arrested, 25 people were murdered (19 were hanged, 1 was suffocated under stones, and 5 died in brutal confinement).
Its important to know the Salem Witch trials were not due to the madness of a frenzied and sudden mob (although there were peaks like 1692), these were a consistent 50 year effort by theocratic Puritan government to purify the community of sin, by punishing and even executing people as witches, adulterers and heretics, who in reality were often people they simply didn’t like or who’s property they desired.
Many people have tried to excuse the blood lust of the Puritans by saying their actions were normal for their times. But the English King was shocked enough by the execution of other Protestants (among other things) to revoke the charter of the Massachusetts Colony (athough Civil War in England would delay the process). The number of people executed by the Puritans were also shocking when you consider how sparsely populated Massachusetts at this time, Boston had an estimated population of only 2000-7000 people and Salem itself was town of only 350-600 people during the Puritan era. There is no way to paint the murderous puritan blood lust as something common for the time, their crimes shocked both the colonies, England and even Europe. (Hanging Between Heaven and Earth: Capital Crimes, Execution Preaching, and Theology in Early New England; Scott D. Seay, 2009.)
The investigative journalism (the first of its kind in history) and the resulting public outrage ended effectively ended Puritanism and theocracy in America. As historian George Burr noted, “the Salem witchcraft trial was the rock on which theocracy shattered.”
Roger Williams Addresses Puritan Tyranny & Heresy
Theologian Roger Williams fled the Puritans for his life by walking 55 miles in blizzard to cross into what would become Rhode Island. He soon argued from his new colony in Providence that the only way to protect the Church from self-harm was to separate religious and government institutions. His plea for freedom of religion was purely theological, and not societal nor even primarily political. Rev. Williams plead that true repentance could never be found at the end of a sword, and any effort to force religious or social conformity would corrupt any church that undertook it.
Roger Williams ideals of “freedom of religion” and an independent judiciary found their way into the US Constitution, so in some ways Roger Williams was the last figure of the Protestant Reformation and the first in American political thought. To the writers of the Constitution, religious theocratic tyranny and shocking murders at Salem the resulted from it was on their minds as much as British taxes. But most importantly Rev. Roger Williams biblical teachings inspired Pastors and church leaders to remain publicly neutral on political matters, a tradition that continued for 230 years.
This is Part 1 of a 4 Part series on the History of Dominionism, Christian Nationalism, and Theocracy in America.