By Patrick Blanchfield
“But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”– Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History
“The truth about the world, he said, is that anything is possible. Had you not seen it all from birth and thereby bled it of its strangeness, it would appear to you for what it is, a hat trick in a medicine show, a fevered dream, a trance bepopulate with chimeras having neither analogue nor precedent, an itinerant carnival, a migratory tentshow whose ultimate destination after many a pitch in many a mudded field is unspeakable and calamitous beyond reckoning.”- Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian
Speaking at a San Francisco fundraising event in April of 2008, then-Senator Barack Obama ignited a firestorm of criticism by saying the following about middle-American Rust Belt attitudes towards faith, foreigners, and firearms:
“You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton Administration, and the Bush Administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”
Obama’s remarks, captured on tape, immediately provoked criticism from across the political spectrum. His opponent in the Democratic Primaries, Hillary Clinton, then also a Senator, described his comments as “elitist and out-of-touch”; a spokesman for the leading Republican candidate, John McCain, blasted Obama as displaying “an elitism and condescension toward hard-working Americans that is nothing short of breathtaking.” A year later, from an altogether different corner entirely, the reconstituted Southern Rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd released an album entitled God and Guns. Striking a very different chord than Skynyrd’s 1974 single “Saturday Night Special” (‘Got a barrel that’s blue and cold / Ain’t no good for nothin’ / But put a man six feet in a hole’) God and Guns’s title track didn’t hold back: “God and guns / Keep us strong / That’s what this country / Was founded on / Well we might as well give up and run / If we let them take our God and guns.”
Setting aside both its lyrical merits and ideological upshot, of all responses to Obama’s remarks, Skynyrd’s song had the distinction of being perhaps the most honest – and, as a matter of simple description, the most analytically accurate. For the bare fact of the matter is that whatever you may think of God, or of guns, American history would be unrecognizable without the influence of both. God and machine, ever-in-tandem, producing a nation “strong” not just in the narrow sense of being powerful, but also in the etymological sense of resolute violence, of an abiding legacy of wreckage unparalleled by any other nation on Earth.
This essay is an attempt to sound that legacy, to trace the consistent themes and surprising reversals in the relationship between religion and guns in the North American continent. It is not an attempt to judge that history – God and guns have been levied to render more than enough judgments already. Because to the extent to which the colonization of the Americas was an enterprise founded upon genocidal violence and the wholesale exploitation of natural resources, both religiously sanctioned, guns have formed an inextricable part of the American story. Likewise, insofar as America is a nation where various religious and ethnic groups have arrived carrying raw memories of historical conflicts with them, those tensions have played out, time and again, on new shores, with new weapons. Finally, since America has also been the birthplace of three centuries of new religious movements, guns have at once been used to persecute and to protect from persecution, real and imagined.
Overall, surveying the religious history of guns in what would become America, and then in America itself, we confront two truths no less hard for their banality.
First: As material objects, firearms show loyalty to neither complexion nor creed; they circulate with little regard to the self-defined boundaries of peoples or their professions of faith. Guns can be sold or bought, traded or stolen, given as gifts or looted from corpses – and they were, all of these things, time and again, sometimes in the name of belief, other times, despite it.
In the mid-1600s, numerous Puritan communities in New England damned those who traded weapons with Native Americans, but this did not prevent many of their guns from winding up in Native American hands regardless. Meanwhile, savvy businessmen from the Netherlands had few scruples about arming thousands of Native American warriors even as official Dutch colonial authorities engaged in brutal massacres of so-called ‘friendly’ tribes. A century later, Catholic Frenchmen and Anglican Britishers saw little cognitive dissonance in sanctimoniously bemoaning the savage violence of Godless heathens, who must be converted, while also arming various peoples to fight and die unbaptized in proxy wars for them – conflicts that were at once about Old World creeds and New World territory. A zeal to convert may fire the energies of the pious, and their beliefs may take hold among new peoples, but the profit motive burns even hotter, and ideas do not change hands or travel with as predictable speed or dependable results as do guns and lead.
Second: despite an abiding human tendency toward magical thinking, bullets, balls, and shot are colorblind when it comes to perforating skin; they are ecumenical when it comes to claiming souls. Nemattanew, a leader among the Powhatan and advisor to Chief Wahunsenacawh, claimed imperviousness to the bullets of the Englishmen at Jamestown, and may well have believed it; as he lay dying, he begged the British field-hands who had shot him to bury him secretly and not reveal the true circumstances of his death to his people. Some devout early Mormons also believed their Temple Garments would ward off bullets, and lamented that Joseph Smith hadn’t been wearing his on the night he was shot to death, but even Brigham Young found such speculation dubious and distasteful. Later, as the pacifistic Ghost Dance religious movement spread from the Northern Paiute to the Lakota, and took on a moral martial tinge, Chief Matȟó Wanáȟtake, known to Whites as Kicking Bear, preached that Ghost Shirts would serve as bullet-deflecting armor for his followers, but such sacred raiment proved no match for the US 7th Cavalry’s Hotchkiss M1875 Mountain Guns, which tore through hundreds of men, women, and children at Wounded Knee. Today, Kicking Bear’s own rifle, an elegantly decorated Winchester 1873 lever-action repeater, one of two weapon models frequently memorialized as “The Gun That Won The West” (the other being Colt’s so-called “Peacemaker”) is on display in the Smithsonian. During the Civil War, both Federal and Confederate soldiers took heart from stories of “Bullet-Puller” breast-pocket Bibles, and some even invested prophetic significance in the verses where Minié balls came to rest. Meanwhile, more jaded veterans observed that in chaotic flurries of volley fire, hardtack rations and decks of playing cards worked just as well, and just as arbitrarily, as New Testaments. Although the inhabitants of this continent have frequently taken refuge in the idea of faith-based exceptionalism from gunfire, material physics trumps metaphysics every time, and countless graves, marked and forgotten, testify to this in a mute yet irrefutable sermon.
Before beginning our survey, a caveat: the scope and ambition of even this most cursory of efforts is broad to the point of absurdity. A book could be written on the role of guns in the history of any one of the major religious traditions that came to America from Europe; sources permitting, a whole series of volumes could be penned about the significance of guns for Native American peoples; other books still could be composed about guns in the history of African-American churches or differing attitudes towards guns among contemporary believers, and more. Moreover, any such projects would be marked by near-insurmountable obstacles (missing archives, deliberately falsified records, lost testimonies, and the like), riven with technicalities that would frustrate specialists in religion and military history alike, and, given the state of contemporary debates over both guns and religion, inevitably produce a result that would be politically fraught, controversial, and suspect.
And yet the sheer absurdity of a short survey history of guns and religion in America is itself clarifying. Because what, on the one hand, could be simpler than the brute encounter between metal and flesh, a bullet meeting a body, tearing through it, and ending a life? Gazing point-blank down the barrel of a gun, it does not matter whether the weapon in question is a hand-gonne or matchlock or snaplock or wheelock or snaphaunce or doglock or miquelet or flintlock or caliver or rifled musket or derringer or revolver or polymer semiautomatic or AR-15. And a corpse is a corpse whether the person who once animated it was snuffed out in the name of faith or works or the Latin Rite or the White Race or the Lost Cause or the Glorious Future or Divine Providence itself. And yet, on the other hand, when we realize that, since the moment when the Old World first collided with the New, the number of shots fired and bodies dropped for all these reasons and more is overwhelmingly beyond our capacity to calculate, that entire peoples have been ground to dust beneath our feet, or thrown overboard at gunpoint into the dark seas off our shores, all forgotten and lost, then what in the American experience – not just in this survey – is not absurd? The best we can do is glimpse what we can, survey where we may, and beat our wings against the storm blowing us ever forward.
Into the Breech
Tracking the history of firearms from their genesis to their arrival on the New World’s shores and across the continent’s interior follows the arc of an ever-Westward explosion: history as ballistics. The murky peregrinations of the earliest gunpowder-based weapons from China through Central Asia and the Middle East are beyond the scope of our present inquiry, but it is significant that some of their very first recorded deployments in Europe occurred on the Iberian Peninsula in the 1300s. The military technologies and crusaderly zeal literally and metaphorically forged in the crucible of the Reconquista accompanied the first adventurers to the Americas. Columbus brought shipboard cannon and various rudimentary small arms with him on his voyages; the conquistadors who followed brought infantry trained in the use of the arquebus, a primitive long-gun that required the lighting of a wick to discharge.
It is commonly assumed that firearms were the most potent weapons in the Spanish arsenal, but this is not, strictly speaking, the case. Toledo-steel bladed weapons boasted a durability and sharpness unlikely anything Native Americans had encountered – as Columbus wrote of the Taíno: “They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance.” Of course, the Taíno and other Arawak peoples of the Caribbean would soon be disabused of this ignorance: woodcuts of Spaniards dismembering recalcitrant Native Americans accurately represent the devastating power of these weapons. Arquebuses, on the other hand, were woefully inaccurate, easily broken, hazardous to operate, and clumsy and slow to reload. Yet it would be wrong to underestimate the multisensory psychological impact of the smoke and thunder of these primitive firearms on those who had never seen them, or the terror of witnessing a comrade fall, miraculously struck down from a distance that no bow, spear, or atlatl could reach. Not for nothing did Columbus, in sailing away from Haiti, order his men to destroy the beached wreckage of the Santa Maria with a canon. The message to the non-Europeans ashore was clear: much like the Spanish had arrived from afar, they could strike from a distance, and land, like their artillery, without warning, and with devastation beyond imagining.
And, of course, they did. Firearms played an indispensable role in the campaigns of Cortés, Pizarro, Belalcázar, and other Spanish conquerors and explorers who toppled kingdoms and exterminated peoples for a slurry of motives that mixed god, gold, and glory in equal measure. Although the personal religiosity of these men is an open question, by the time the Spanish Colonial apparatus had more fully established itself, and moved from reliance on dubious adventurers to bureaucrats and prelates, the inextricability of Church and military administrations had been fully cemented. Profiling Father Junipero Serra (1713-1784), the Spanish Franciscan who oversaw the institution of a sophisticated infrastructure of Missions in what is now California, historian George Tinker acknowledges Serra’s best intentions while documenting their embeddedness within a system of brutal repression. For Tinker, Serra’s legacy includes:
“…forced conversions of native peoples to Christianity and the enforcement of those conversions by imprisonment; physical violence in the form of corporal punishment; the imposition of slave labor conditions on Indian converts for the support of the missions and accompanying military presidios; a living environment that was akin to a concentration camp and cycles of famine and constant poor nourishment that were both unprecedented among these native peoples [and] an extraordinary death rate among converts.”
While the contemporary Catholic Church, which beatified Serra in 1989, has sought to contextualize his actions by appealing to his understanding of Native Americans as “children” who required corporal punishment as a means of education, and to explain away the failures of his planned communities, built with forced labor, as misguided agricultural “experimentation,” controversy remains, particularly in the run-up to Pope Francis’s canonization of Serra during his visit to the United States. Bracketing the political debates over the meaning of Serra’s canonization today, reading historical accounts, it is impossible to overlook two things. First, Serra relied on soldiers to force members of the Acjachemen (Juaneño), Payomkowishum (Luiseño), and other peoples to attend mass at gunpoint, and to capture, imprison, and punish those who recanted their conversation and tried to flee the missions and return to their homes. Second, Serra literally integrated the ceremonial brandishing and discharge of muskets into liturgical services. Despite Pope Francis’s efforts to separate Serra’s activities from the Spanish colonialist enterprise (“[Serra] sought to defend the dignity of the native community, to protect it from those who had mistreated and abused it,” says Francis), the reality remains that, not just in the missionary administration, but also in the Mass itself, the Cross and Gun were no opposed – in fact, quite the opposite.
Colonialist Spanish Catholics in the Caribbean and Southwest were not the only people that saw its conquest of North America through divinely-ordained crosshairs, nor even the only one that celebrated the presence of arms in its churches. Northern European Protestants of multiple persuasions saw in the depopulation of the continent by disease – a contagion that some epidemiologists estimate to have easily killed some 20 million people in North America alone – not tragic happenstance, but a Special Dispensation of Providence, a divinely vouchsafed territorial inheritance. As William W. Cook has compellingly documented, Biblical typologies offered a larder of go-to proof-texts to support the Protestant settler agenda: America was a kind of Second Garden, the site of a rebooted Covenant; etcetera. Of course, the facts that disease hadn’t done away with all the continent’s heathen inhabitants was not incompatible with this Covenantal vision. Those Native Americans who would not be traded with or evangelized could be liquidated. The Thirty-Nine Articles of the Anglican Church expressly acknowledged a right to bear weapons, and the Jamestown settlers armed themselves with muskets accordingly. As conflicts with Powhattan Confederacy tribes escalated, flare-ups were interpreted as divine retribution for sinfulness (including the sin of teaching several Native American individuals how to shoot) and colonists vigorously atoned for these shortcomings through increasingly brutal bloodletting, both directly and by pitting tribes against one another.
Further north, Congregationalist Puritans added to the trope of Covenantal inheritance with imagery from Exodus: their escape from sectarian conflict in Europe mirrored the flight of the Hebrews from Egypt. Already an insular group accustomed to persecution, this self-identification came easily, as did correlative typologies. Sermon after sermon cast Native American peoples as Amalekites, the mortal enemies of the Israelites, who mercilessly attacked them without provocation in Exodus 17:8 and whom God Himself ordered Saul to eradicate entirely (1 Samuel 15:3). In practice, then, this meant that the “City upon a Hill” of Matthew 5:14 bled into the “Church Militant” of Ephesians 6:12 to produce something more closely resembling a fortress. The Puritan preoccupation with the threat of Native American attacks reached its apogee on the Sabbath: in communities from Massachusetts Bay to New Hampshire to Maine, men from each household were required to attend services armed and were fined if they did not; in some localities, Sentinels were set around the perimeter of meeting halls with wicks for their matchlocks kept constantly lit. Any trading of weapons with Native Americans was strictly forbidden and non-Puritan merchants who engaged in the practice were routinely expelled from Puritan strongholds. These attitudes were maintained even during periods of peace and alliance with local tribes, but fierce Native American backlash to colonial expansion, particularly after King Philip’s War (1675-1678), escalated the brutality on all sides. After British Colonial authorities encouraged colonists to shoot Native Americans for scalp bounties, Solomon Stoddard (1643-1729), Pastor of the Congregationalists in Northampton and grandfather to American theologian Jonathan Edwards, wrote to Massachusetts Governor Joseph Dudley requesting financial support to train dogs to help in such hunts: “They [the Indians] act like wolves and are to be dealt with all as wolves.” In their role as shepherds to their flocks, Puritan elders like Stoddard and Cotton Mather (1663-1728) saw wolfish threats everywhere in the woods around them: Mather viewed Catholics as “ravenous howling wolves” and enjoined his flock to “Wound them that they shall not be able to Arise.” Of course, the Puritan community’s vigilance towards outside threats could just as easily turn inwards on itself.
When an accidental misfire killed a Connecticut Puritan during a militia drill in Windsor in 1657, the man holding the musket in question was charged with murder “by misadventure” and fined – only to later see the charge voided and fee restored when a woman, Lydia Gilbert, was judged to have been the witch responsible for the event. Gilbert was sentenced to die, and although her precise fate is unknown, in the near certainty she was executed she was most likely not shot, but hanged.
By the eighteenth century, as the Colonies expanded and then became a fledging nation, certain trends grew more visible. On the one hand, increasing conflicts with Native Americans brought about by frontier expansion crystalized a loose but nonetheless very real pan-settler identification that bridged sectarian divisions within Christianity in the name of collective armament against non-Christian threats. Although militias mustered from within existing communities, and thus represented their demographics in sectarian terms, participation in militias was nonetheless increasingly seen as a fundamental duty of all Christian men broadly speaking, and an indispensable feature of any ‘Commonwealth.’ In his The Art of War Lawful and Necessary for a Christian People (1773), Congregationalist minister and later President of Yale Ezra Stiles (1727-1795) expanded upon a sermon delivered “To a Company of Youth, Voluntarily Engaged in Acquiring the Use of Arms” to argue that rigorous training in firearms was incumbent upon all youth: “Now then, in imitation of king David, we may say, let the children of New-England learn the use of the firelock, lest their brave commanders fall by the art of her enemies, on her pleasant mountains, in some future day; when, like David, too late to save our brave leaders, we bade teach the use of fire-arms, and art of war.” The advent of the Revolutionary War, which was promulgated from pulpits across denominational lines, further advanced this vision of a broadly Christian Commonwealth armed and vigorously militarized under divine blessing.
The increasing emphasis on bearing arms in the service of the Commonwealth coexisted uneasily with the inherently centrifugal tendencies of American Protestantism and inevitable friction between schismatic groups. This tension frequently translated into suspicion and contempt toward minority sects who did or did not arm themselves in ways the majority deemed appropriate. The pacifism of The Society of Friends, for example, was viewed by many as parasitic upon the sacrifices of frontiersmen and militia, and regularly condemned as unmanly or insincere – it was “lazy or Cowardly,” a “pretence of Conscience” put on as a “Masque” by “pious sheep.” But contrary to contemporary mythification, this pacifism was not, in fact, uniform: some Quakers carried guns, engaged in the arms trade, and, in one notable incident, mobilized into a rural militia of their own to protest their treatment by other Christians – including urban Quakers.
Although the violence associated with the First Great Awakening was largely rhetorical (involving fiery sermons, fits of fervor, and the like), that which accompanied the Second was quite real. Part of this was simply a function of the fact that, insofar as the phenomenon was particularly active on the frontier, and not in more established and staid New England urban centers, guns were omnipresent as a matter of course: John Wesley’s Explanatory Notes granted the legitimacy of lethal force in defense of person and property, and Methodist Circuit Riders, who had to face “ruffians,” hostile Native Americans, and hungry wildlife on their travels, carried pistols and long-guns. Another factor was that the Second Great Awakening mobilized constituencies, many of whom already had eminently legitimate reasons to arm themselves, by fostering a rhetoric of strident religious militancy. Moses “Father” Dickson (1824-1901), a free-born African-American who would go on to become a Pastor in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, spent years in St. Louis organizing a well-armed militia of black abolitionists that named itself “The Knights of Liberty” and planned a march on Atlanta (he later abandoned these plans and encouraged the Knights to enlist in the Union Army instead.) Given that the issue of slavery had been a powder-keg ready to detonate since the nation’s founding, the Second Great Awakening’s emphasis on the purgation of sins, radical action, and apocalyptic expectations laid the groundwork for many to literally take up arms to eradicate it (and also, in the South, to defend it). As pro-slavery Missouri Ruffians and Free-Stater abolitionists (including the religiously zealous John Brown) squared off in “Bleeding Kansas,” the abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1837) became quite taken with the innovative Sharps Model 1853 rifle. As a New York newspaper reported:
“He believed that the Sharps Rifle was a truly moral agency, and that there was more moral power in one of those instruments, so far as the slaveholders of Kansas were concerned, than in a hundred Bibles. You might just as well… read the Bible to Buffaloes as to those fellows who follow [pro-slavery Missouri Senator David] Atchison and [Missouri Attorney General David] Stringfellow; but they have a supreme respect for the logic that is embodied in Sharp’s rifle.”
The Sharps weapon promptly took on the moniker “Beecher’s Bible,” and Beecher and others Northern abolitionists shipped the rifles westward by the crate. When outright war did come, countless Americans both on and off the battlefield saw the conflict in religious terms; Union chaplains were issued swords and pistols as part of their kit, and Confederate chaplains included figures like the Baptist Isaac Taylor Tichenor (1825-1902) who rallied the Seventeenth Alabama at Shiloh with his sharpshooting, where “with the coolness and intrepidity of a veteran killing with his rifle a colonel, a major, and four privates.” Tichenor’s conduct earned him a reprimand and led to his resignation, but many other “Fighting Chaplains” on both sides who took up arms with their flocks gained celebrity, not censure.
In the Nineteenth Century another durable theme becomes clearly and persistently visible: the almost organic link between millennial expectations, the experience of persecution, and the acquisition of arms. The example of Mormonism is illustrative. As a minority sect whose doctrines were deemed scandalous by their neighbors, the first Mormons suffered intense and violent persecution in Illinois and Missouri. In response, they armed themselves heavily. Joseph Smith’s bodyguard, Orrin Porter Rockwell (1815-1878), was a particularly colorful figure and is surrounded by rich legend. Baptized into the Church on the day of its founding, Rockwell supposedly carried nearly a dozen guns on his person and was declared to be mystically immune from bullets by Smith himself. Rockwell developed such a reputation as a marksman that despite being jailed on suspicion of involvement in the attempted assassination of anti-Mormon Missouri Governor Lilburn Boggs in 1842, he walked away unindicted, thanks not only to an excellent defense and insufficient evidence, but also to his frank statement: “I’ve never shot at anybody. If I shoot, they get shot. He’s still alive, isn’t he?” On a group level, as the Mormons moved ever westward, the Church devoted immense energy to cultivating both a martial culture and infrastructure. As historian Harry Gibson has documented, this entailed more than just training a highly regimented militia, the Nauvoo Legion, and hosting dances for youth where the price of entry was cleaning a firearm. The Church also began to stockpile weapons as a collective property, including not just small arms but also cannons, importing guns from Europe as needed. Once in Utah – the territory theologically granted to it in the Doctrine and Covenants – the Church oversaw efforts to build armories and a sophisticated arsenal where workers on an assembly line could produce revolvers supposedly indistinguishable from the Colts from which they were copied. The Church also directed expeditions to find mines for bullet lead and to locate the chemicals necessary to produce its own gunpowder (although this latter effort ran into some complications when a Swiss chemist hired for the purpose also began distilling alcohol and had to be fired). In these efforts, the Church was aided by the expertise of a series of talented gunsmiths, including Jonathan Browning (1805-1879), an ingenious inventor whose guns, made largely in Illinois, bore a signature stamp that read: “Holiness to the Lord – Our Preservation.” After the Church’s conflicts with Washington de-escalated and Utah gained statehood, the need for Mormons to arm themselves diminished. Still, Browning’s grandson, John Moses Browning (1855-1926), went on to become arguably the most brilliant firearms designer of the twentieth century, and several models of his design are still in active use with the US military. The very arms-making savvy rooted in a history of resistance to governmental authority came full circle, put to work in supporting it.
Faith in Arms
Although the Mormons are in many ways unique, their example offers in précis the image of a cycle that by now should be familiar: a minority religious group claims a place in the American landscape as its right, covenantally inherited or otherwise granted by its doctrines. In the face of persecution from the outside, the group takes up arms to protect itself until it is granted the recognition and security it feels it is due.
At times, this persecution can be all too real. When Nativist arson attacks on Irish churches and homes reached an apogee in the Elections of 1844, the first Archbishop of New York, John “Dagger” Hughes (1797-1864), instructed the Ancient Order of Hibernians to station 3,000 armed civilians around the Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral. He then frankly informed the city’s Mayor that any of those men would turn New York into a “Second Moscow” if the Nativists didn’t back down. They did, but scores of dead Irish in Pennsylvania and elsewhere were not as fortunate, in no small likelihood because they lacked protectors as influential, organized, and intimidating as Hughes and his well-armed affiliates. Likewise, as Charles E. Cobb has amply chronicled, the commonly invoked image of the Civil Rights Movement as exclusively nonviolent in both its tactics and its religious sensibilities is, in multiple senses, a whitewash. As centers of black community life, churches were (and remain) prime targets for racist attacks, and in these circumstances, black Christians have not confined their use of Biblical typologies to Christ as passive Suffering Servant nor to Moses as Deliverer: they have also embraced the image of Divine retribution smashing Pharaoh’s armies. Indeed, although it does not fit the predominant contemporary media frame, history clearly reveals that African-Americans have indeed historically self-organized and armed themselves with guns to defended themselves and their churches throughout the South and elsewhere. One group of well-armed and disciplined self-defense activists, founded in 1965, was known as the “Deacons for Defense and Justice.” As Cobb writes:
“The precise reason for that choice of name is unclear. Some of the founding members may have actually been church deacons. When asked, [former Mississippi Director of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE)] Dave Dennis noted, “A number of these men were church-going folk, so people may have just begun calling them ‘the Deacons’” as a result. [Activist Frederick Douglass Kirkpatrick], who later in his life launched a folk-singing career, wrote and recorded “The Deacons,” a song in which he offers a more calculated explanation: ‘Let’s call ourselves the Deacons and never have no fear / They will think we are from the church / Which has never done much / And gee, to our surprise it really worked.”
Unless one is operating from a position of hypocrisy or a profound lack of empathy, it is impossible to begrudge these efforts at self-defense, or to deny their effectiveness when successful. For some groups, the exercise of their First Amendment right to Free Exercise has only been secured and maintained by their exercise of the Second Amendment Right to bear arms. Some may not like to admit this, but it is true.
But there is a corollary to this truth, one that some might also prefer to avoid admitting. The experience of persecution against which believers may arm themselves does not have to be real to move them to violence. Theology and temperament exist in a complicated, hard-to-disentangle relationship, and the worldview that their interaction can produce may have little rapport with reality: lashing out in aggression can be perceived as acting in self-defense, and experiencing oneself as a threatened or aggrieved minority is not incompatible with actually being in a statistically and politically dominant majority. In fact, just the opposite: Elizabeth Castelli has compellingly documented how nearly two millennia of theological preoccupation with themes of martyrdom and persecution can not just co-exist with cultural dominance by the Church, but in fact license some Christians to persecute others even as they see themselves as aggrieved and threatened victims. Likewise, as scholars like Kelly Baker have decisively demonstrated, the Klansmen who lynched blacks and damned Catholics were not a minority group – their worldview was recognizably contiguous with mainstream white Protestantism, and their was little daylight between their commitment to virile chauvinist Nationalism and “moderate” whites who pooh-poohed violence as gauche but nonetheless agreed with their outlook in toto. Contemporary American neo-Nazis and Aryan Nations extremists are animated by religious beliefs that can range from from Christian Identity to pseudo-Norse Neo-Paganism to nothing at all, but guns are as central to their communities and practices as is the conviction that “Diversity is Code for White Genocide.”
And here is another corollary truth that is yet more uncomfortable: even when a group is in a minority, and even if their experience of persecution does have some basis in reality, the quintessentially American impulse to arm oneself can produce the very response it is intended to avoid. In the twentieth century, various new religious movements have come under scrutiny from the media and the Federal Government for “stockpiling” weapons. At first blush, this always seems ominous – what are these people hoarding weapons for? When their community practices offend predominant mores, suspicion only intensifies, and if their beliefs have anything in the way of a millennial character, another question immediately arises: is the group in question a violent “cult” stocking up on weapons not just to wait for the apocalypse, but to actively precipitate it? As we should by now recognize, however, these questions reveal an ignorance of traditions that date back to the first religious settlers in the Americas. Insular communities with antinomian practices that rely on weapons for subsistence and as a psychological buttress against fears of the outside world are nothing new. And even if the communities in question aren’t using the guns to hunt, the subsistence motive still obtains: guns retain value as investments, and can be traded for liquid cash on our nation’s largely unregulated secondary market – for those communities who wish to live cash-only, or otherwise off the grid, investing in guns makes perfect sense. But the IRS and the ATF are not sympathetic to these motivations, nor is 24-7 cable news, and although the analogy is imprecise, the blunt fact is that while in 1896 Mormons could trade some of their practices and productively re-channel their militarism in exchange for recognition from the Federal Government, the seventy-six charred bodies recovered from the siege of the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas almost exactly a hundred years later testify to how much the times have changed.
And here is one last truth, perhaps the most uncomfortable of all. Even when groups are in a minority, and there is no question of their historical victimization, the acquisition and use of arms draws upon a history that can exceed the intentions of those involved. For all his political influence in Israel, there is something fundamentally American about the figure of Meir Kahane (1932-1990), the Brooklyn-born founder of the Jewish Defense League, who advocated that American Jews embrace gun ownership with the famous catchphrase, “For every Jew, a .22.” Kahane was assassinated in a Manhattan Marriott in 1990, shot through the neck at close range. His killer was an Egyptian-born US citizen disguised as an Orthodox Jew; the gun he carried, a chrome .357 Ruger, was 100% Made-in-the-USA. Twenty-five years after his death, Kahane’s influence lives on. In a January 2015 Op-Ed entitled “Bring Your Gun to Synagogue,” a St. Louis attorney notes that he regularly brings his Glock 19 with him to shul, and he is not afraid to use it: “If, Heaven forbid, a Muslim or other anti-Semite were to enter the sanctuary and begin making threats, I’m confident the event would end rapidly – preferably peacefully, as just brandishing my weapon can defuse a situation. But if I had to engage to protect the congregation, I am confident I am prepared and trained to do so.” Note the writer’s elision of an entire identity into a persecutory orientation: “a Muslim or other anti-Semite.” Like Cotton Mather, like so many quintessentially pious Americans who advocated carrying guns into their places of worship, Kahane, whom the author praises, would also regularly lump together threats from the outside as Amalekites, the undifferentiated typologically malevolent Other whose obliteration was an imperative duty to God.
Storm from Paradise
John Milton Chivington (1821-1894) was a former Methodist pastor, seminary director, and Sunday School teacher who deferred an offer of a military chaplaincy in favor of active combat duty during the Civil War’s Western Campaigns; despite numerous red flags of unfitness for duty, by 1864 he had risen to command a force of Colorado militia. On November 29th of that year, Chivington led a group of some 700 soldiers against a group of peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho near Sand Creek. Most of the Native American men had gone hunting, leaving behind mainly elderly people, women, and children. Some of Chivington’s men refused to participate in what followed, noting that the Native Americans were there in accordance with a treaty, that most had already voluntary disarmed themselves, and that they were camped beneath a fluttering American flag besides. But Chivington would have none of it. “Damn any man who sympathizes with Indians! I have come to kill Indians, and believe it is right and honorable to use any means under God’s heaven to kill Indians.”
The means under God’s heaven at Chivington’s disposal were sabers, revolvers, and breech-loading rifles. The blades were mostly put to use finishing off the wounded and collecting trophies: scalps, fetuses, genitals. The pistols were accurate, but only so far: the heavy six-shot cap and ball Colts his men carried had smooth barrels that lowered accuracy at range. They were adequate once the troops moved in, likely for killing the thirty or forty women who had taken refuge in a hole, for shooting the six-year-old girl the women had sent out carrying a white flag, for dispatching point-blank the five-year-old a pair of Cavalrymen found hiding beneath some sand and whom they dragged out by her arms. For the Native Americans who tried to flee, rifles were necessary. But the motley assortment of Sharps, Springfields, and Austrian models the soldiers carried were not always properly sighted in, and many of the men were drunk besides, and so they made a game of it. A Cavalryman who was there later testified about one such scene.
“There was one little child, probably three years old, just big enough to walk through the sand. The Indians had gone ahead, and this little child was behind, following after them. The little fellow was perfectly naked, travelling in the sand. I saw one man get off his horse at a distance of about seventy-five yards and draw up his rifle and fire. He missed the child. Another man came up and said, ‘Let me try the son of a bitch. I can hit him.’ He got down off his horse, kneeled down, and fired at the little child, but he missed him. A third man came up, and made a similar remark, and fired, and the little fellow dropped.”
Chivington initially reported the massacre as a hard-won military triumph; for a time, contemporary media reproduced and celebrated this account. Eventually, enough dissents surfaced for a Congressional Committee to conduct an investigation and label him a murderer. Apart from that ignomy, Chivington faced no actual charges. Twenty years after the massacre, when a group of former pioneers invited “The Fighting Parson” to an event commemorating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the settling of Colorado, his message to them was simple: “I stand by Sand Creek.” The crowd responded by giving the Reverend Colonel Chivington an ovation. Several years before his death, the State named a town after him.
And this, ultimately, is the blunt truth of our Nation: although rivers of ink have been spilled in stipulating distinctions between missionary and heathen, between Elect and Damned, between Church and State, between mainstream faiths and dangerous cults, these distinctions all wash away, time and again, in an unending torrent of blood. And while our evergreen proclamations of equality and enfranchisement have been consistently flawed and aspirational at best, and grotesquely hypocritical at worst, when it comes to emancipating lethality, in giving butchery free reign over man, woman, and child, our track record as a democracy has been perfect and absolute. In America, Death is the most enfranchised and pious citizen of all.
Part II of “God and Guns” by Patrick Blanchfield can be found here.
Patrick Blanchfield holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from Emory University and is a graduate of the Emory University Psychoanalytic Institute. He writes about US culture, guns, and politics at carteblanchfield.com.