Monday, January 1, 2018

The Failure of the Holy Experiment

In my last post, I looked at William Penn's attempt to establish a colony based on the teachings of Christ, which he called his Holy Experiment. For the sake of thoroughness, I did want to point out that, despite the overall Christian character of the Pennsylvania colony, slavery was permitted. (Later on, the Quakers became one of the first Christian groups to oppose slavery.) Nevertheless, Penn's colony was very enlightened regarding fair treatment of the Indians as well as granting religious freedom. William Penn's descendants continued to be proprietors of Pennsylvania after his death, and the Provincial Assembly was composed mostly of pacifist Quakers until the time of the Revolution. So why did the experiment fail?

By establishing religious freedom, as demonstrated in the Charter of Privileges of 1701, Penn created a haven for persecuted, non-resistant religious groups such as the Amish, the Mennonites, and the Moravians, in addition to his fellow Quakers. However, the freedoms and opportunities offered by Pennsylvania also attracted larger numbers of other groups--including many German Lutherans, Irish Catholics, and Scottish Presbyterians--who had no qualms with fighting. Nevertheless, Pennsylvania was open to all these settlers, unlike more restrictive colonies that did not tolerate residents who did not conform to the official church of the colony. Consequently, the Pennsylvania that had been founded on the principles of toleration and non-resistance had become the home of many people who were not inclined to be either tolerant or non-resistant.

In the spring of 1776, after fighting had already broken out between Britain and the colonies, the Quaker-led Assembly of Pennsylvania was still opposed to breaking with the mother country. In fact, the anti-war Quakers were victorious in an election in May of that year, keeping their majority in the legislature. However, this result was not acceptable to many non-Quaker agitators who vehemently supported armed insurrection against British authority. Therefore, since democratic methods had not secured the desired outcome, these radicals completely circumvented the lawful governing body of Pennsylvania.  Individuals who supported independence had formed extralegal organizations, such as the Committees of Correspondence, to foment opposition to Britain. With support from the Continental Congress, these committees usurped governmental power in Pennsylvania, calling for a state constitutional convention to create a pro-rebel state government. Having lost all authority to this coup, the Assembly disbanded. Ironically, it was the magnanimity of William Penn in allowing people who didn't share his Biblical convictions to settle in his colony that paved the way for these same people and their descendants to wrest control of his Holy Experiment from the peaceful Quakers. I believe the Pennsylvania that was founded by William Penn might be the closest example in history of a truly Christian state, but it failed because an earthly state that is governed according to Christian principles cannot endure in such a condition. Either (1) the rulers will be corrupted by power and depart from following Jesus, or (2) the rulers will maintain their convictions but get shoved out of power by people who do not share their principles--which is exactly what happened in Pennsylvania. The Quakers were pacifists, so they would be violating their beliefs if they fought to retain their power. (Of course, groups like the Anabaptists believed that Christians had no business being in government in the first place.)

During the colonial period, Britain allowed German and other foreign settlers to come to Pennsylvania on the condition that they swore loyalty to the British crown. The non-resistant churches were opposed to swearing oaths, since the practice had been forbidden by Jesus (Matthew 5:33-37). However, grateful for the chance to escape the persecution they faced in Europe, these churches affirmed their loyalty to the king--as long as this loyalty didn't conflict with the teachings of their King, Jesus. The non-resistant Christians largely lived in peace--until the revolutionaries took control of the Pennsylvania government. One of the first actions of the new government was to require the following oath from all Pennsylvania residents.

“I, [name], do swear (or affirm) that I renounce and refuse all allegiance to George III, king of Great Britain, his heirs and successors; and that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania as a free and independent State, and that I will not at any time, do or cause to be done any matter or thing that will be prejudicial, or injurious to the freedom and independence thereof; declared by Congress, and also, that I will discover and make known to some justice of the peace of said State all treasons or traitorous conspiracies which I now know or hereafter shall know to be formed against this or any of the United States of America.”

Perhaps the rebels felt they were being generous by allowing the option to "affirm" rather than "swear." Regardless, for the non-resistant Christians, affirmation of this oath was still impossible. They said they were going to be loyal to the king, so they were loyal to the king. In other words, their yes meant yes and their no meant no. This was not the case for most of the other professing Christian foreigners who had settled in the Quaker colony, who had outright sworn loyalty to the British crown and then turned around and swore loyalty to rebelling Pennsylvania. Even without the issue of competing loyalty oaths, the New Testament makes it clear, most notably in Romans 13, that believers are to obey the government, which has been granted its authority by God. The only exception is if the government tries to compel its citizens to violate Scripture. Having studied the history of the period, it is my personal view that the British rule of the American colonies was not the great tyranny that the revolutionaries made it out to be, but this is the topic for another essay. For the sake of argument, let's say that all the colonial complaints were valid, and the British government was horribly oppressive. Even in this situation, the non-resistant Christians would still honor the government, seeing how the New Testament lacks an exception that allows believers to disobey the authorities if they are unjust.

Sadly, these Scriptural considerations were not a concern for the professing Christians who were actively engaged in overthrowing British rule, not to mention the teachings of Jesus that tell His followers to love their enemies (Matthew 5:43-48). And if they weren't worried about violating the Bible, then others couldn't be worried about it either. In addition to enacting the above oath, the Pennsylvania revolutionaries imposed strict penalties for those who refused to take it, which included bans on buying and selling property, voting or holding office, possessing weapons, or even travelling away from one's local area. This persecution was instigated by the same folks who were claiming to fight for "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." And if some of these restrictions sound familiar to you, you're not alone; many of the non-resistant Christians in Pennsylvania found their predicament far too similar to those who refused to take the mark of the beast in Revelation 13.

Unsurprisingly, the revolutionary Pennsylvania government initiated conscription to support the insurrection, and just as unsurprisingly the non-resistant churches refused to comply. As a result, the Christians who were just trying to follow Jesus saw even more hardships, ranging from jail time to exile to confiscation of property. For example, there would be families where the husband was thrown in prison and the wife and children would be left in a house stripped off all possessions, including the stoves that would be the only source of heat in the coming winter. In a few extreme cases, there were even executions of people who opposed the war, including an old Quaker man. Just to reiterate, most, if not all, of the individuals who were responsible for these heinous acts would have professed Christianity, but they persecuted those Christians who were trying to conform their lives to the principles of Christ's kingdom.

After the revolutionaries succeeded in defeating the British, the persecution against the non-resistant Christians gradually died down, and some repayments were made for confiscated property. However, a very dangerous pattern had been established, where Christians who are opposed to violence would be persecuted whenever the U.S. was fighting a war. For instance, during World War I, a number of Hutterites (an Anabaptist group that practices communal living) were drafted and essentially tortured for refusing to cooperate with the military in any way. On one occasion, two Hutterite brothers were left in a cold, damp prison cell in their underclothes (because they would not wear a uniform) long enough that they contracted pneumonia and died. (The story of these Hutterite brothers, Joseph and Michael Hofer, can be read here: The Martyrs of Alcatraz.)

"It's a good thing you live in a country where many people have died to defend your freedom not to fight." I have lost count of the number of times I have heard statements similar to this one when I attempt to explain why, based on my understanding of what Jesus taught, I believe followers of Christ should not be involved in war or any other type of violence. It is true that, in the present day, the United States and many other countries recognize conscientious objectors. However, this present reality follows a long history of suffering by believers who refuse to fight for the kingdoms of this world, including good ol' "Christian" America. In conclusion, is it the right course of action for today's Christians to combat our culture's growing ungodliness by attempting to restore the country to its "Christian" foundation? I would say no, because no such Christian foundation exists. Penn's Holy Experiment was established on much nobler principles than the United States, where one of the strongest motivations for independence was a bunch of hot-headed colonists who didn't want to pay their taxes. Yet, Penn's vision failed because of the actions of people who were being disobedient to several Biblical teachings. Instead of repeating Penn's well-intentioned mistake--diluting the kingdom of God by mixing it with an earthly government--let our spiritual efforts be focused on calling souls to the only kingdom that will endure forever.


Dr. Roland M. Baumann, The Pennsylvania Revolution, 1989.

K. D. Keane, Persecution of Christians During the American Revolution, 2015.

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