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An Arkie’s Faith: Indians, Outlaws, Marshals, and the Hangin’ Judge

By Richie Lawry

The warm evening sun shone on the towering and picturesque Roark Bluff. The Buffalo River rushed past the bluff, one of the most iconic and photographed places along the river. In an open grassy field at Steel Creek Campground, I was one of the over one thousand people gathered, waiting for the concert. The band, National Park Radio, would be playing a free outdoor show in this beautiful location for the fourth consecutive year.

National Park Radio is a modern folk band from Harrison, Arkansas, known for its hopeful, heartfelt lyrics with themes about life, love, and difficult choices, all while echoing the enduring beauty of the band’s deep-seated roots in the Ozark Mountains. I first heard them when they headlined the 2018 Lum and Abner Days Festival. I became a big fan of National Park Radio and its music and made plans months ahead to attend the 2019 Steel Creek concert.

During the concert, the band introduced broadcast journalist, educator, and documentary filmmaker Larry Foley. National Park Radio was supplying music for Foley’s latest project, a documentary on Judge Isaac Parker. This September, Foley released the documentary, “Indians, Outlaws, Marshals, and the Hangin’ Judge.” I was excited to order my copy. Foley describes the film as “the colorful story of Indian removal, crime, capital punishment and an infamous federal judge who sentenced scores of felons to ‘hang by the neck until you are dead.’”

Foley continued, “this is the story of how desperadoes — depending on your interpretation of history — were either tamed or tortured by a man some historians call a megalomaniac, while others choose to believe the judge was nothing more than a civil servant doing his job. This included the judge himself, who once said, “People have said to me, ‘you are the judge who has hung so many men,’ and I always answer: ‘it is not I who has hung them. I never hung a man. It is the law.’” Foley also said that Parker’s lawmen were said to have been as mean and deadly as the fugitives they captured and shackled in a dungeon known as “Hell on the Border,” in sight of the nooses that would often be their ultimate fate.

After the Civil War, outlaws made their way into the Indian Nations bordering Fort Smith, Arkansas. They terrorized the Indians and overwhelmed the capabilities of area law enforcement. By the 1870s, the Indian Territory had become known as a terrible place, where outlaws thought the laws did not apply to them, and terror reigned.  On March 18, 1875, President Grant nominated Isaac Parker as the judge for the Western District of Arkansas. Over the next 21 years, Judge Parker tried 13,490 cases. In more than 8,500 of these cases, the defendant either pleaded guilty or was convicted at trial. Parker sentenced 160 people to death, with 79 being executed on the gallows at Fort Smith. He became known as the Hangin’ Judge.

Judge Parker was actually against capital punishment. In an 1896 interview, he stated, “I favor the abolition of capital punishment, too. Provided that there is a certainty of punishment, whatever that punishment may be. In the uncertainty of punishment following crime lies the weakness of our ‘halting crime.’” He added, “I have ever had the single aim of justice in view. ‘Do equal and exact justice,’ is my motto, and I have often said to the grand jury, ‘Permit no innocent man to be punished, but let no guilty man escape.’”

Just like the United States has laws and penalties, so does the Kingdom of God. In 1 John 3:4 (GNT), the Bible says, “Whoever sins is guilty of breaking God’s law, because sin is a breaking of the law.” And in Romans 3:23 (NKJV), we read, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” All of us have broken God’s law. The Bible makes it clear that the penalty for breaking the law is death. Romans 6:23 (NKJV) tells us that, “the wages of sin is death.”

The sobering truth is that it takes only one sin for the death penalty to be imposed.  God warned Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden before they ever sinned, “you must not eat the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. If you do, you will certainly die.” Genesis 2:17 (NIRV) The death penalty falls immediately on anyone who sins. This is terrible news because “all have sinned.” Does this make God a “hangin’ judge?”

The Bible makes it clear that God doesn’t want us to suffer the penalty for our sins. In 2 Peter 3:9 (NASB), we read, “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.” And we read in John 3:16 (KJV), probably the most famous verse in the Bible, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

Gentle Reader, although the wages of sin is indeed death, Romans 6:23 (NKJV) gives us the rest of the story, “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” God isn’t the hangin’ judge. He sent his Son to be our Savior. In Romans 10:9 (NLT), we read this beautiful promise, “If you openly declare that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” There is no reason to fear the hangin’ judge. “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” 1 John 1:9 (NKJV)

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