Armed Church Security in Colonial America

In my recent review of Clayton Cramer’s book, Lock, Stock, and Barrel: The Origins of American Gun Culture, I noted that the armed church security that I have just begun examining is not new.

Of course, like gun culture itself, church security has changed dramatically over the years. In Colonial America, Cramer shows, church security was often mandated by law in connection with militia service.

Hence, a 1619 statute in the Virginia colony not only required church attendance, but also that “all suche as beare armes shall bring their pieces, swords, pouder and shotte” with them, under penalty of a 3 shilling fine (p. 2). This was phrased in 1623 to require that “all men that are fittinge to beare arms, shall bring their pieces to the church,” a requirement that Cramer says was restated in a 1738 statute (p. 2).

This approach was not limited to the southern colonies. An account of the Plymouth Colony from 1627 by Issack de Rasieres from New Netherlands tells of a “Sabbath-day procession up the hill to worship, every man armed and marching three abreast” (p. 18). This reality is captured in George H. Bougton’s famous 1867 painting, “Pilgrims Going to Church.”

“Pilgrims Going to Church,” George H. Boughton, 1867

In the mid-17th century, church gun carrying was mandated by law in Plymouth: “It is enacted That every Towneship within this Government do carry a competent number of pieces fixd and compleate with powder shott and swords every Lord’s day to the meetings — one of a house from the first of September to the middle of November, except their be some just & lawfull impedyment” (p. 6). In 1643, Connecticut required church attendees to “bring a musket, pystoll or some peece, with powder and shott to e[a]ch meeting” (p. 9).

These early militia requirements to keep and bear arms were primarily in defense against attacks by native Indians. By the 18th century, however, a new threat had arisen: slave rebellions. Hence, a 1743 statute in South Carolina “required ‘every white male’ to carry a gun and at least six rounds of ammunition for it to church. Other provisions required church-wardens, deacons, or elders to check each man coming in to make sure that he was armed. The stated purpose of this severe gun control measure — requiring everyone to be armed at church — was ‘for the better security of this Province against the insurrections and other wicked attempts of Negroes and other Slaves'” (pp. 14-15).

Cramer notes that a 1770 statute in Georgia appears to be so similar that it was either borrowed from South Carolina or had some other common source (p. 15).

The laws governing and the practice of armed church security in 21st century America are very different from Colonial America. But as we consider the best ways to ensure the safety and security of houses of worship today, it is good to keep in mind how and why people addressed this challenge previously.



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