Attached to Paper Session
Today, the Colt name is synonymous with technological innovation and American mythology – specifically, the circumstances by which the Western U.S. was “won” and “tamed.” Samuel Colt’s revolvers helped create the American cowboy myth, further burnishing the ethos of the country’s gun culture. Much of this was thanks to his wife Elizabeth’s work after his death in 1862, as she actively shaped how Sam was remembered through stone memorials, charitable foundations, and literary works. Most notably, this included building a grand gothic church near his Hartford, Connecticut factories in 1866, the Church of the Good Shepherd. It was a curious way to memorialize a man who few would consider religious. While the church is certainly noteworthy for how it incorporates gun iconography into its exterior (including intertwining with crosses), inside, astute visitors will notice that the Colt Memorial Window depicts Joseph of the biblical book, Genesis. In the window, Joseph is shown dispensing grain in his position as pharaoh’s right-hand official, fulfilling the claim of Genesis 50:20, God had his hand on Joseph, guiding him through many trials into a position of power to “…accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”[i] Especially informed onlookers will realize that Joseph resembles Sam Colt. It is quite a statement by Elizabeth – that the deceased Sam was like the ancient patriarch, saving lives as a part of God’s grand plan. It certainly fit her effort to paint Sam Colt as a Protestant American hero, and in so doing she not only baptized the products of Colt’s Patent Fire Arms Manufacturing Company, but also laid the groundwork for the “God and Guns” culture of the twentieth century that views Christianity and gun ownership as not only as inseparable, but intrinsic to what it means to be a true American.
There is no shortage of works on Samuel Colt and his gun manufacturing empire, and yet none of them devote any significant space to discussing the Church of the Good Shepherd, let alone reflecting upon what role it played in recasting Sam Colt as a good Protestant. If historians mention the church at all, they typically provide a very brief overview, quickly passing over the remarkable decision to include gun iconography on the church’s façade and cast Sam as Joseph.[ii]
One retrospective that does devote a bit more focus on the church asks the question, “What was the point?” of injecting gun imagery on the façade of a church. But, its cautious answer is unhelpful, merely suggesting the question was beside the point, since “the revolver’s role in bringing the light of Christian civilization to the dark corners of the earth was rarely questioned by the generation that colonized the American West, opened Japan and Asia to trade, and explored the interior of Africa.”[iii] Left unsaid is that perhaps it was memorials such as Elizabeth’s that helped create a culture that accepted the sacredness of Colt’s guns. After all, she had the church built in the 1860s, and it was the next generation that perpetuated a militant Christian imperialism as part of the natural order.
This paper fills a void in scholarship by analyzing the Church of the Good Shepherd – specifically, its great Memorial Window, and arguing that Elizabeth’s choice to memorialize Sam as the biblical figure of Joseph was a profound attempt to shape the memory and legacy of Sam. Elizabeth’s choice created a Sam Colt who was not only innovative, but also pious, generous, wise, and the chief provider for the entire region. Questions this paper asks, include: What role did things like the Church of the Good Shepherd play in shaping this culture? After Sam died, what role did Elizabeth’s actions play in sacralizing the Colt Revolver, particularly as it became embedded in the twentieth century mythology of Western conquest? And finally, what other symbolic representation of firearms as sacred can we discover, hidden away in plain sight in American towns and villages, each in their own small way, helping to make firearms part of the sacred identity of American citizenship?
Clearly, Elizabeth Colt was focused on taking control of the memory of Sam and ensuring he was remembered as she wanted, as a good Protestant businessman. For example, as death neared, she claimed she found him reading the Bible and that he told her, “of his trust in God’s love and mercy; of his striving to do right… of his forgiveness of all who had injured him…” [iv] And maybe, that is all this amounts to – a proud, bereaved widow trying to make sure subsequent generations of Americans remembered her husband as a pious, successful entrepreneur. However, Sam Colt did not just manufacture any product; he was not just any successful entrepreneur. He built a powerful company whose products became synonymous with “winning the West,” Manifest Destiny, cowboy culture, and rugged masculinity. Today, these products have achieved cult-like, religious status. For some, they even function as an object of worship, intersecting with other key components of their identity, including patriotism, religion, and gender, combining into a powerful culture of “God and Guns.”
[i] Genesis 50:20, New International Version.
[ii] Ellsworth S. Grant, *The Colt Armory: A History of Colt’s Manufacturing Company, Inc.* (Lincoln, Rhode Island: Mowbray Publishing, 1995), 62-63; Ellsworth S. Grant, *The Colt Legacy: The Colt Armory in Hartford, 1855-1980* (Providence, Rhode Island: Mowbray Publishing, 1982), 48-49.
[iii] William Hosley, *Colt: The Making of an American Legend* (Amherst, Massachusetts: University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1996), 200–205.
[iv] Rohan, *Yankee Arms Maker*, 293.
Abstract for Online Program Book (maximum 150 words)
Samuel Colt’s revolvers helped create what we now call American gun culture, thanks in large part to his wife Elizabeth’s work after his death in 1862. She actively shaped how Sam was remembered through stone memorials, charitable foundations, and literary works. Most notably, this included building a grand gothic church near his Hartford, Connecticut factories in 1866. While the church is certainly noteworthy for how it incorporates gun iconography into its exterior (including intertwining with crosses), inside, its Memorial Window depicts Joseph of the biblical book, Genesis, complete with a face that resembles Sam Colt. This window reflects Elizabeth’s effort to paint Sam as a Protestant American hero, baptizing the products of Colt’s Patent Fire Arms Manufacturing Company, and laying the groundwork for the “God and Guns” culture that views Christianity and gun ownership as not only as inseparable, but intrinsic to what it means to be a “true” American.