Haskell County Monument

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First Amendment Advocate, Vol. 7, No. 1   September 2006

The Newsletter of the Oklahoma Chapter of Americans United

Oklahoma's Monument to American Theocracy

By Dr. Bruce Prescott

The combined effect of engraving both the Mayflower Compact and the Ten Commandments on the same monument, as was done at the courthouse in Haskell County Oklahoma, 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 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 that same year.

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.

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 and the colony excluded persons from other denominations and faiths from citizenship.  Sometimes banishing them.

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.

For example, 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.

As bad as it was for Baptists, it was worse for Quakers.  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.

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.

Persecution of 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. 






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