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No, it doesn't mean "government by priests"
and Anarcho-Theocracy

Was America Ever a Theocracy?

Evidence from Original Sources is here.

Additional sources here.

Here is an exchange from an AOL "Separation of Church and State" message board. Notice that the Secular Humanist contends that America was never a Theocracy. This is desperate fantasy. But he must claim so because Theocratic government -- a nation "under God" --  was never repudiated by the Founding Fathers.

In article <19990119111333.01043.00000596@ng-fx1.aol.com>, edarr1776@aol.com (EDarr1776) writes:

>Kevin said:  >>The states were theocracies.<<
>Take a deep breath, Kevin.  The states were NEVER theocracies, even under
>their royal charters.

Sounds like an invitation to quibble over words. Naturally, I accept. ;-)

Here are some sources which indicate that the colonies under their royal charters were theocracies. I challenge Ed to post ONE serious historian who says that the colonies were NOT theocracies.

In a subsequent post I will show that the colonies were theocracies after Independence was declared and the royal charters were no longer in force.

Perry Miller is probably the most well-respected authority on America's Colonial history. He writes in the Dictionary of American History, James Truslow Adams, ed., 2nd rev. ed., NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1951, vol. 5, p. 260:

Theocracy in New England is the term usually applied to the political regime set up by the founders of Massachusetts Bay and New Haven colonies. It is a correct description to the extent that the leaders deliberately intended to create a "Bible Commonwealth," a society where the fundamental law would be the revealed Word of God, and God regarded as the supreme legislator. Thus John Winthrop announced the program before the settlement, "For the worke wee haue in hand, it is by a mutuall consent . . . to seeke out a place of Cohabitation and Consorteshipp vnder a due forme of Government both ciuill and ecciesiasticall," the "due forme" being that enacted in the Bible. John Cotton later argued that the New England colonies, having a clear field before them, were duty-bound to erect a "Theocracy . . . as the best forme of government in the commonwealth, as well as in the Church." Consequently the political theory assumed that the colonies were based upon the Bible and that all specific laws must be required to show Biblical warrant.

In a still more fundamental sense, the governments of the two colonies were true theocracies in that all society was held to be ordained by God as a check upon the impulses of depraved human nature, and therefore that all politics should ideally be directed to the ends prescribed by God. Hence, John Winthrop explained in 1645, after men have entered a body politic they thereafter have freedom not to do what is good in their own eyes, but only that "which is good, just and honest," only that, in other words, which God demands. The purpose of the state was universally agreed among the first settlers to be the enforcement, by all possible external means, of the observance of God's laws on the part of every member of the society.

On the other hand, the term "theocracy" is a misnomer if it is taken, as it often is, to mean that the ministers directly ruled the colonies. It was well recognized that the Bible defined a distinct sphere for the civil government, and the secular authorities in both colonies were jealous of any clerical invasion of their province. The ministers did indeed possess great influence; in doubtful cases or at times of crisis their opinion was asked, though it was not always followed exactly as they desired.

For Further reading: [Perry Miller, Orthodoxy in Massachusetts; Perry Miller and Thomas H. Johnson, The Puritans.]



Infopedia Online
English trading company that evolved into a theocracy, organized in 1628 as the Governor and Company of the Massachusetts Bay in New England.
The New England Separatists and Puritans came to the New World in order to worship in their own way, without interference from the Church of England. The first group to reach New England were the Separatists called the Pilgrim Fathers (q.v.) , who in 1620 founded the Plymouth Colony. The colony, with its church, was absorbed eventually by the more powerful Massachusetts Bay Colony, which was founded in 1629 by Puritans.
The churches of the Puritans were organized as separate congregations, each bound together by a covenant taken by its members; the name of the Puritans' organized church was derived from this emphasis on congregationalism. Religion was the focal point of social and political life in New England. Until 1691 the Massachusetts Bay Colony was a theocracy, in which church attendance was compulsory, and church membership a qualification for voting and holding office.


George Bancroft, History of the United States
Vol.1, p.230
THE concession of the Massachusetts charter seemed to the Puritans like a summons from Heaven, inviting them to America.
p.243 - p.244
The [colonial] government was still more careful to protect the privileges of the colony from "episcopal and malignant practices," against which they had been cautioned from England. For that purpose, at the general court convened in May after "the corn was set," an oath of fidelity was offered to the freemen, binding them "to be obedient and conformable to the laws and constitutions of this commonwealth, to advance its peace, and not to suffer any attempt at making any change or alteration of the government contrary to its laws." One hundred and eighteen of "the commonalty" took this oath; the few who refused were never "betrusted with any public charge or command." The old officers were again continued in office without change, but "the commons" asserted their right of annually adding or removing members from the bench of magistrates. And a law of still greater moment, pregnant with evil and with good, at the same time narrowed the elective franchise: "To the end this body of the commons may be preserved of honest and good men, it was ordered and agreed that, for the time to come, no man shall be admitted to the freedom of this body politic but such as are members of some of the churches within the limits of the same." Thus the polity became a theocracy; God himself was to govern his people; and the "saints by calling," whose names an immutable decree had registered from eternity as the objects of divine love, whose election had been visibly manifested by their conscious experience of religion in the heart, whose union was confirmed by the most solemn compact formed with Heaven and one another around the memorials of a crucified Redeemer, were, by the fundamental law of the colony, constituted the oracle of the divine will.
Vol.1, p.249-50
WHILE the state was thus connecting by the closest bonds the energy of its faith with its form of government, Roger Williams, after remaining two years or a little more in Plymouth, accepted a second invitation to Salem. The ministers in the bay and of Lynn used to meet once a fortnight at each other's houses, to debate some question of moment; at this, in November, 1633, Skelton and Williams took some exception, for fear the custom might grow into a presbytery or a superintendency, to the prejudice of the church's liberties; but such a purpose was disclaimed, and all were clear that no church or person can have power over another church. Not long afterward, in January, 1634, complaints were made against Williams for a paper which he had written at Plymouth, to prove that a grant of land in New England from an English king could not be perfect except the grantees "compounded with the natives." The opinion sounded like treason against the charter of the colony; Williams was willing that the offensive manuscript should be burned; and so explained its purport that the court, applauding his temper, declared "the matters not so evil as at first they seemed."

Yet his generosity and forbearance did not allay a jealousy of his radical opposition to the established system of theocracy, which he condemned, because it plucked up the roots of civil society and brought all the strifes of the state into the garden and paradise of the church. The government avoided an explicit rupture with the church of England; Williams would hold no communion with it on account of its intolerance; "for," said he, "the doctrine of persecution for cause of conscience is most evidently and lamentably contrary to the doctrine of Jesus Christ." The magistrates insisted on the presence of every man at public worship; Williams reprobated the law; the worst statute in the English code was that which did but enforce attendance upon the parish church. To compel men to unite with those of a different creed he regarded as an open violation of their natural rights; to drag to public worship the irreligious and the unwilling seemed only like requiring hypocrisy.
William Jackman, History of the American Nation, Vol. 9, p. 2636
And this brings us to the consideration of another characteristic of the early days—the moral sentiment which prevailed in the formative era, and entered into the struggle for independence, and the religious force always present in its inception and throughout its progress. In that epoch, the Ten Commandments had a place in politics, as well as in daily life. Call the early New England system a "theocracy" if you will; yet, in the discussions of public affairs, in the choosing of officials, in the deliberations of the town meeting, morals and religions were in their politics and they heeded not the sneer that they were infusing politics into their religion. What though, seeing less clearly by the dim lights of their age, they sometimes became fanatics and persecutors, were they not right in teaching and practicing that the principles of religion and morality should govern men in the discharge of their duties as citizens, as well as otherwise?


The following bibliographic entries are from:

A Guide to the Study of the United States of America:
Representative Books Reflecting the Development of American Life and Thought

Prepared under the Direction of Roy P. Basler
By Donald H. Mugridge and Blanche P. McCrum

3182. Ellis, George E. The Puritan age and rule in the Colony of the Massachusetts Bay, 1629–1685. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1888. 576 p. 1–12030 F67.E47

The author states in his preface that his aim in this remarkably extensive work is to set forth "the motives of estrangement and grievance which prompted the exile of the Puritans to this Bay, and the grounds on which they proceeded to exercise their severe and arbitrary rule here. The points to be chiefly emphasized in this historic exposition are these: the relations of the Puritans, as Nonconformists, to the Church of England at the period of its reformation and reconstruction in the transition from the Papacy to Protestantism; the peculiar estimate of and way of using the Bible, characteristic of the Puritans under the critical circumstances of the time which had substituted the Book for the authority of the Papal and the Prelatical Church; their finding in that book the pattern and basis for a wholly novel form of government in civil and religious affairs, with an equally novel condition of citizenship; their attempt at legislation and administration on theocratic principles; and the discomfiture of their scheme as involving injustice, oppression, and intolerance." The story is carried to the loss of the colony charter, when Puritan rule ceased to be absolute and a royal governor was appointed. While the author displays a sympathetic understanding of many of the problems of the Puritans, he regularly maintains a scholarly objectivity towards his subject. The book is based on an extensive knowledge of the primary and secondary printed and manuscript materials available at that time. Subsequent scholarship has modified some points, and raised some new issues, but Ellis' study remains basically sound, as well as the most inclusive study, and nearly the only one which puts its main emphasis on the matters which the Puritans themselves regarded as primary.

3197. Winslow, Ola Elizabeth. Master Roger Williams, a biography. New York, Macmillan, 1957. 328 p. 57–10016 F82.W692
Includes bibliography.

Williams (ca. 1603–1683), the vigorous opponent of the Massachusetts theocracy and the founder of Rhode Island, is discussed as a writer in Chapter I on Literature (nos. 84–89).

5399. Niebuhr, Helmut Richard. The Kingdom of God in America. Chicago, Willett, Clark, 1937. xvii, 215 p. 37–28492 BT94.N5
"Notes": p. 199–210.

Dr. H. Richard Niebuhr and his brother, Dr. Reinhold Niebuhr, are prominent representatives of the neo-orthodox movement in modern American theology. The theme of these historical and interpretative lectures is that the dominant idea of [p.755] Protestantism in America has always been the kingdom of God, but this has had three successive meanings. In the Puritan theocracy and no less in the other Protestant sects of the colonial settlements, the kingdom of God meant the absolute sovereignty of God. During the Great Awakening and later evangelical revivals, it meant the reign of Christ.

5417. Winslow, Ola Elizabeth. Meetinghouse Hill, 1630–1783. New York, Macmillan, 1952. 344 p. illus. 52–11102 BR530.W5

A social picture of religion in colonial New England, with the meetinghouse on the hilltop "in sharp focus." The writer's purpose, carried out with balance and charm, is, "by recalling typical procedures in relation to various aspects of community life, to suggest attitudes which [the meetinghouse] helped to establish and patterns of group action which it helped to make habitual." She has based her interpretation on town and church records, sermons, diaries, letters, and other memorials of the theocratic New England of the 17th and 18th centuries. Her narrative incorporates many well-chosen quotations. Of the five books, the first, "Bound Up Together in a Little Bundle of Life," describes, mostly by means of particular instances, the establishment of congregation, meetinghouse, and village. Book 2, "Zion is Not a City of Fools" (Cotton Mather), is on the learning and the sermons of the clergy. Book 3, "Noises about the Temple," describes "Where to Set," how to sing, etc. Book 4 deals with the "Rule of the 'Lord Brethren,'" the government and authority of the congregation. Book 5, "Powder in the Meeting-house," illustrates the close association of the New England pulpit with the cause of liberty.

1735. Van Dusen, Albert E. Connecticut. New York, Random House [1961] 470 p. 61–6263 F94.V3
Bibliographical references included in "Notes" (p. 421–461).

A general history written by the State historian at the request of the State Library Committee. Surveying a period of 325 years, it begins with the persecution of the Puritans in England and the emigration of Thomas Hooker and his followers to the New World and concludes with the economic and industrial expansion occurring after World War II. The arrangement is chronological, and the treatment balances political, economic, and social aspects. The author traces the strong spirit of self-reliance and independence that characterized the founding of the theocratic colonies along the Connecticut River and that is manifest in the political behavior of the modern State [sic]. A generous selection of contemporary illustrations accompanies the text.

1988. Burlingame, Roger. The American Conscience. New York, Knopf, 1957. 420 p. 56–5782 E169.1.B938
Bibliography: p. 407–420.

The author's premise is that American moral attitudes differed from those of our European ancestors because of a set of special determinants which include isolation, the movement of the frontier, and the natural wealth encountered in the march across the continent. These combined with various secondary determinants to produce the "peculiar American compulsion to assign moral values to every historical event, economic theory, or social trend." The author begins with the rise and fall of theocracy in New England and follows with discussions of the Enlightenment in the United States, the "Great Awakening," "manifest destiny," abolition, the struggle for land, and frontier morality. The last chapter, "Our Most Wanton Orgy," focuses on the shrill nativism, corruption, and contempt for law of the 1920's.


Commentary Magazine,
The American Jewish Committee, February 1995, p.10
The fact is that Kiryas Joel is indeed a "theocratic municipality," ruled with an iron hand by the grand rabbi, somewhat reminiscent of the Puritan theocracy in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 17th century. His dictates are law on all matters of importance and dissent is not taken lightly, not only concerning religious observance, but also on such matters as who may marry whom, who may buy property, and who may run for public office. Television, radio, and the sale of English-language newspapers are forbidden in Kiryas Joel.


A Second Mencken Chrestomathy
Selected, Revised, and Annotated by H. L. Mencken 
Edited by Terry Teachout 
Alfred A. Knopf • 1995 • 491 pages • $30 

Whenever a state is strong it is intolerant of dissent, when it is strong enough it puts down dissent with relentless violence. Here one state is as bad as another, or, at all events, potentially as bad. The Puritan theocracy of early New England hanged dissenters as gaily as they are now being hanged by the atheistic Union of Soviet Republics; the Prussian, Russian, Austrian, French, and English monarchies were as alert against heresy as the militaristic-capitalistic bloc which now runs Italy or the plutocracy which runs Pennsylvania, California, and Massachusetts. [1927]

From a review by Sheldon Richman
The Freeman: Ideas on Liberty, September 1995, Vol. 45, No. 9


William Penn—America's First Great Champion for Liberty and Peace 
by Jim Powell
The Freeman: Ideas on Liberty, October 1995, Vol. 45, No. 10

Penn's practices contrasted dramatically with other early colonies, especially Puritan New England which was a vicious theocracy. The Puritans despised liberty. They made political dissent a crime. They whipped, tarred, and hanged Quakers. The Puritans stole what they could from the Indians. 
[Mr. Powell is editor of Laissez-Faire Books and Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. He has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Barron's, American Heritage, and more than three dozen other publications.]

Notice that earlier writers correctly associate Puritans with liberty and Republican forms of government. The Puritans came to America in search of liberty. It was ecclesiocentrism, not Puritanism, which gave Theocracy a bad name. Many writers who hate clergy lash out against God and Theocracy, when God through His Prophets and His Son condemned ecclesiocentrism as vigorously as any contemporary libertarian. More so, in fact. A clergy-free Theocracy is possible only for those who will distinguish Theocracy from clericalism.


ENGEL v. VITALE, 370 U.S. 421 (1962) is the famous US Supreme Court case which removed corporate prayer from public schools. We read this at page 427, note 9

For a description of some of the laws enacted by early theocratic governments in New England, see Parrington, Main Currents in American Thought (1930), Vol. 1, pp. 5-50; Whipple, Our Ancient Liberties (1927), pp. 63-78; Wertenbaker, The Puritan Oligarchy (1947).


Clearly, early America was theocratic, or was at least attempting to be.

Obviously there are many different definitions of "theocracy," but Ed didn't say that; he simply asserted that the colonies were not theocracies (and as usual, provided not a whit of evidence).


Kevin C.

And they shall beat their swords into plowshares
and sit under their Vine & Fig Tree.
Micah 4:1-7


If a "theocracy" is where God makes the rules, then America was (or was dedicated to progress along the path of being) a benevolent, clergy-free theocracy after 1776. The Declaration of Independence declared that it was: "with a firm reliance on the Protection of Divine Providence." The thinking of philosophers like Locke was embodied in the Declaration: "the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God" reflected the belief that America was bound to obey God's will. That "God rules" America was clearly stated by every agency and branch of government on state and federal levels. As the Supreme Court in Holy Trinity put it, "there is a single voice making this affirmation."

The real question is one of consistency: Is America being consistent with its theocratic claims? The national motto is "In God We Trust."

Thus the question is not whether America is a theocratic nation.

The question is whether we are consistent, or apostate.

An interesting bit of trivia: perhaps the last municipal body in America
to make official claims to being theocratic:

Infopedia Online.
city, Lake Co., extreme NE Illinois, on Lake Michigan; inc. 1902.
Manufactures include processed food and printed materials.
A large nuclear power plant is here, and Illinois Beach State Park is nearby.
The community, founded as the headquarters of the Christian Catholic Church by John Alexander Dowie in 1901, is named for the biblical Zion, a hill in Jerusalem. It had a theocratic government until 1935.
Pop. (1980) 17,861; (1990) 19,775.

"Extreme" indeed.

Kevin C.

And they shall beat their swords into plowshares
and sit under their Vine & Fig Tree.
Micah 4:1-7

The Christmas Conspiracy


Vine & Fig Tree

Paradigm Shift


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