A Theocracy is Born: The Miracle in Newman's Barn

How strangers acquire not just the power but the right to make rules others must obey is a central preoccupation of political philosophers. Grand theories of legitimacy spring from the brows of such giants as Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke and Hegel. It is rare that we get a ground’s eye view of the how these institutions take root.

But we have such a view in New Haven, where colonists first purchased a vast tract of land in a deal that rivals the Dutch purchase of Manhattan, and thereafter set about to create a government. The record is scant, but real enough. It comes in the form of notes taken after a meeting in a barn. Read on for an account of theocracy in New Haven.

On June 4, 1639 some 54 men met in Robert Newman’s barn, believed to be located in the vicinity of what is now Temple Street between Elm and Grove Streets, to decide how to govern the land only recently purchased from native Americans.

The meeting at Newman’s barn addressed six questions put to it by one of the colony’s leaders, Theophilus Eaton. When all six questions had been answered, the colony was well on the way to becoming a theocracy.

Question one was simple: Did the Scripture, the Old and New Testament, provide a perfect rule for the governance of all things? All present answered "yes."

The next question asked whether all present would agree to be bound by such rules, which all present agreed were perfect, as Scripture offered. All agreed to be so bound.

The third question asked whether those at the meeting wanted to "be admitted into chur[ch] fellow[ship] according to Christ as soone [as] God shall fitt [cq] them thereunto." Again, all agreed. All were to become members of the church.

Next, the group considered whether to form a government according to Scripture at the very meeting they were all attending. All agreed. The miracle of legitimacy was about to take place, right there in Newman’s barn.

The fifth issue provoked some minor debate, but carried nonetheless. Should all colony officials be required to be members of the church? In the end, all agreed. Theophilus’s brother Sam, a pastor, argued against any representative form of government, seeming to assert that all God-fearing men should keep power in their own hands. Another vote was taken, and all agreed on a representative form. The gathering agreed to publish a list of potential church members so that those who had a complaint about admission of a member might make.

The last question asked for the selection of twelve men who would then choose seven from among themselves to serve as leaders of the new church-state. Again all agreed, but, paradoxically, the record reflects that only 11 men were selected: Theophilus Eaton, John Davenport, Robert Newman, Matthew Gilbert, Richard Malbon, Nathaniel Turner, Eze. Cheeuers, Thomas Fugill, John Ponderson, William Andrewes, and Jer. Dixon.

One of these worthies, the record does not reflect whom, expressed remorse over having charged a member of the Pequanack tribe too much for a meal. "[H]e confessed with grief and declared that having been smitten in heart and troubled with grief and declared that he restored such a part of the price back again with confession of his sin to the party as he thought himself bound to do," the record of the meeting reflects. There appears to be no discussion of whether purchasing the vast expanse of land from local Indians little more than coats, tools and promises of future cooperation amounted to a fair price.

The document was reduced to writing and placed over the names of the 54 attendees. An additional 48 men later signed the document.

I was struck reading this document by its rude resemblance to an Occupy Assembly on the Green. Strangers me in an open space and were required to learn to live together. They did so in a by putting questions to one another, then debating how to answer the questions, then deciding which answered suited them. Out of this agreement, a discernable set of principles arose which governed their lives together.

The big difference between the Colonists and the Occupiers, of course, is that the Colonists claimed ownership of all the land they could see. The Occupiers, by contrast, don’t own even the ground upon which they sleep. Nearly 400 years later, that ground is still owned by those claiming be descendants of the group that met in Newman’s barn.

Also listed under: Who Owns New Haven's Green?


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