Politics and the Church – Building a Free Nation [Part 17]

This week we will at least start on an outline of the Third Commandment.  The reason I am focusing so much on the Ten Commandments is because they played such a major role in the foundation of this nation and its laws.  As I have studied the Ten Commandments, I am yet to find one, if obeyed, that would have made this a less desirable nation to live in.  Our Founders had faith in God and believed His Word would make this a great nation. When man threw in his ‘opinion’ things somewhat changed but the founding principles based on God’s Word were at least the place to start.  As you will see in today’s and future commentaries, our founders took the Ten Commandments very seriously.

     The Third Commandment relates to not taking God’s name in vain.  The Third Commandment was adopted by Virginia in 1610 (“That no man blaspheme God’s holy name upon the pain of death”) and by Connecticut in 1639 (“If any person shall blaspheme the name of God the Father, Son, or Holy Ghost…he shall be put to death”). (Colonial Origins pg. 316; The Code of 1650, pgs. 28-29) A 1921 case from the Supreme Court of Maine stated: “To curse God means to scoff at God; to use profanely insolent and reproachful language against him.  This is one form of blasphemy under the authority of standard lexicographers.  To continually reproach God, His Creation, government, final judgment of the world, Jesus Christ, the Holy Ghost, or the Holy Scriptures as contained in the canonical books of the Old and New Testament, under the same authorities, is to charge Him and Them with fault, to rebuke, to censure, to upbraid, doing the same with scornful insolence, with disdain, with contemptuousness in act or speech.  This is another form of blasphemy.  But as particularly applicable, perhaps to the present case, it is blasphemy to expose any of these enumerated Beings or Scriptures to contempt and ridicule.  To have done any of these things is blasphemy under the statute.  Typical of these orders, as well as at common law,  it was not necessary for the state to prove that the respondent did them all.” (State v. Mockus, 113 A. 39, 42…Me. 1921).  This legal talk may be a bit difficult to understand, but it does show that the law and the courts took God and the Scriptures quite seriously.

     Other colonies passed similar laws: Massachusetts in 1641; Connecticut in 1642; New Hampshire in 1680; Pennsylvania in 1682 and again in 1700 and 1741; South Carolina in 1695; and North Carolina in 1741.  Additionally, the Florida Supreme Court in 1944 stated: “This court has never defined the legal meaning of the word ‘profanity’ so far as this writer has been able to discover, but a number of other courts of last resort have done so, and practically all of them, following pretty closely the dictionary meaning, define it as the use of words importing ‘an imprecation of Divine vengeance,’ of ‘implying Divine condemnation,’ or words denoting ‘irreverence of God and holy things,’ —blasphemous.  These decisions doubtless hark back to the third Commandment of the Decalogue: ‘Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.'” (Cason v. Baskin, 20 So.2d 243, 247 Fla. 1944).

     Commander-in-Chief George Washington issued numerous military orders during the American Revolution that first prohibited swearing and then ordered an attendance on Divine worship, thus relating the prohibition against profanity to a religious duty.  Typical of these orders, on July 4, 1775, Washington declared: “The General most earnestly requires and expects a due observance of those articles of war established for the government of the army which forbid profane cursing, swearing, and drunkenness; and in like manner requires and expects of all officers and soldiers not engaged on actual duty, a punctual attendance on Divine Service to implore the blessings of Heaven upon the means used for our safety and defense.” (General Orders, Head-Quarters, Cambridge, July 4, 1775, from The Writings of George Washington, John C. Fitzpatrick, ed. Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1931).  Washington began issuing such orders to his troops as early as 1756 during the French and Indian War and continued in practice throughout the American Revolution issuing similar orders in 1776, 1777, 1778 and other years. (The Writings of George Washington [Jared Sparks, ed., Boston: Ferdinand Andrews 1836 from his ‘Orderly Book’ an undated order issued between June 25 and August 4, 1756]; also see General Orders, Head-Quarters, New York, August 3, 1776, in Writings of George Washington [Fitzpatrick, ed., 1932].  I cannot help but wonder how Washington would have responded to some of the ‘woke’ politicians and military officers who today thumb their noses at religion and mention of God in the military?

     The Third Commandment also affected the history of American Jurisprudence.  Judge Zephaniah Swift, author of the first legal text published in America, explained why civil authorities enforced the Third Commandment’s prohibition against blasphemy and profane swearing: “Crimes of this description are not punishable by the civil arm merely because they are against religion. Bold and presumptuous must be he who would attempt to wrest the thunder of heaven from the hand of God and direct the bolts of vengeance where to fall.  The Supreme Deity is capable of maintaining the dignity of His moral government and avenging the violations of His holy laws.  His omniscient mind estimates every act by the standard of perfect truth and His impartial justice inflicts punishments that are accurately proportioned to the crimes.  But Short-sighted mortals cannot search the heart and punish according to the intent.  They can only judge by overt acts and punish them as they respect the peace and happiness of civil society.  Thus the rule to estimate all crimes against civil law and is the standard of all human punishments.  It is on this ground only that civil tribunals are authorized to punish offences against religion.” (Zephaniah Swift, A System of the Laws of the State of Connecticut, pg.320 [1976]).

     The laws impacted by the Third Commandment did not stop here, and next week we will continue with its impact during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  The church simply cannot divorce itself from politics because it may be uncomfortable for some.  We are looking at centuries of church involvement in the establishment and operation of this nation.

-Bob Munsey

“Do I say these things as a mere man?  Or does not the law say the same also?”  1 Corinthians 9:8

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