Imagine the following scenario: At church this Sunday, while reviewing the list of announcements and upcoming events for your church, your pastor adds, “Oh, and don’t forget: on Sundays we have our regular target practice. Make sure to bring your guns. Make sure to bring your pieces to church.”
Absurd, right? Not so. It used to be the American way. For example, a 1631 law in Virginia required citizens to own firearms, to engage in practice with them, and to do so publicly on holy days. It demanded that the people “bring their pieces to the church.” Somewhere along the line we have lost this mindset. Today the ideas of church and arms are assumed to be at odds, as if loving your neighbor has nothing to do with the preservation and defense of life and property.
But the idea of Christian society and an armed, skilled populace actually have deep historical roots. Alfred the Great codified the laws of England in the 9th Century, often resorting to biblical law in order to do so (where he departed from biblical law, the integrity of his famous law code is quite poor). Alfred applied the Deuteronomic laws of kings that forbad a standing army (Deut. 17), and as a result developed a national defense based on militia:
“By the Saxon laws, every freeman of an age capable of bearing arms, and not incapacitated by any bodily infirmity, was in case of a foreign invasion, internal insurrection, or other emergency, obliged to join the army.…”1
This required and encouraged an armed citizenry:
“Every landholder was obliged to keep armor and weapons according to his rank and possessions; these he might neither sell, lend, nor pledge, nor even alienate from his heirs. In order to instruct them in the use of arms, they had their stated times for performing their military exercise; and once in a year, usually in the spring, there was a general review of arms, throughout each county.2
Imagine! Imagine the government poking its nose in every year not to register and license weapons for possible future confiscation, but to ensure that each house indeed possessed weapons. Imagine that instead of imposing fees for licensing schemes, the government levied fines for not owning a firearm. This was the case in Massachusetts in 1644.
The state required that “every freeman or other inhabitant of this colony provide for himself and each under him able bear arms a sufficient musket and other serviceable piece” as well as “two pounds of powder and ten pounds of bullets.”3 Those who neglected this duty could receive fines up to ten shillings (for laborers, roughly a day’s wages).
In 1623, Virginia statute forbade anyone to travel unless they were “well armed,” and required that all men working in fields likewise be armed.4
Laws from 1631 repeated the same requirements and added to them: all able men should bear arms and engage in practice with their arms. The law specifically required “All men that are fitting to bear arms,” and to “bring their pieces to the church upon pain of every offence.” ((William Hening, The Statutes at Large, 174.)) (Equally shocking to most modern evangelicals is the fine for not obeying these laws: landowners who did not so arm their laborers and workers were required “to pay 2 lbs. of tobacco,” and this fine in tobacco was “to be disposed by the church-wardens, who shall levy it by distress.…” ((William Hening, The Statutes at Large, 174.))
Imagine that: the government desiring, commanding that every able citizen own weapons and be skilled in using them! And to do so on “holy days” and at Church.5 (It’s even more unbelievable that the government assumed all men were going to church every Sunday. Perhaps we could increase their numbers if we could reinstate target practice fellowship.)
The legacy of arms and freedom as Christian virtues continued into American Revolution. The Lutheran pastor John Peter Muhlenberg is perhaps the most famous of the “fighting parsons.” He answered George Washington’s personal call to raise troops using his own pulpit and Ecclesiastes 3 to do so. Other ministers of the gospel were well known to preach with loaded guns in the pulpit with them. Pennsylvania preacher John Elder provides a great example: “Commissioned a captain by the Pennsylvania government, he led a company of rangers and was accustomed to preach with his loaded musket across the pulpit.”6
Likewise, Rev. Thomas Allen, a later collaborator in writing the Massachusetts State Constitution, himself fired the first shot at the Battle of Bennington. In the context of the War for Independence, ministers saw guns as tools of liberty and defense against tyranny.
Read the rest of the article at American Vision.
- Francis Grose, Military Antiquities Respecting a History of the British Army, from the Conquest to the Present Time, 2 vol. (London: Egerton and Kearsley, 1801), 1:1 [↩]
- Francis Grose, Military Antiquities, 1:2. [↩]
- William Brigham, ed., The Compact with the Charter and Laws of the Colony of New Plymouth (Boston: Dutton and Wentworth, 1836), 31. [↩]
- William Hening, The Statutes at Large: Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia from the First Session of the Legislature in 1619, (New York, 1823), 173–174; I have modernized the English taken from this work. [↩]
- William Hening, The Statutes at Large, 174–175. [↩]
- Louis B. Wright, “The Westward Advance of the Atlantic Frontier,” The Huntingdon Library Quarterly 11/3 (May 1948): 271 [↩]