Politics and the Church – Building a Free Nation [Part 18]

The laws against blasphemy and profanity based on the Third Commandment continued beyond the Founding Era.  During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries several states passed laws based on the Third Commandment: Connecticut in 1784; New Hampshire in 1791; Vermont in 1791; Virginia in 1792; Pennsylvania in 1794; Maine in 1821; Tennessee in 1834; Massachusetts in 1835; and New York in 1836.  In 1824 the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania (in a decision subsequently invoked authoritatively and endorsed by the U.S. Supreme Court) reaffirmed that the civil laws against blasphemy were derived from divine law: “The true principles of natural religion are part of the common law; the essential principles of revealed religion are part of the common law; so that a person vilifying, subverting or ridiculing them may be prosecuted at common law.” (Updegraph v. Commonwealth,11 Serg. & Rawle 393, 401 [Penn.1824], 1824 WL 2393 [Pa.]).

     The court then noted that its State’s laws against blasphemy had been drawn up by James Wilson, a signer of the Constitution and original Justice on the U.S. Supreme Court: “The late Judge Wilson, of the Supreme Court of the United States, Professor of Law in the College in Philadelphia, was appointed in 1791, unanimously by the House of Representatives of this State to ‘revise and digest the laws of this commonwealth…’  He had just risen from his seat in the Convention which formed the Constitution of the United States; and it is well known that for our present form of government we are greatly indebted to his exertions and influence.  With his fresh recollection of both constitutions, in his course of Lectures (3d vol. of his works, pg. 112), he states that profaneness and blasphemy are offenses punishable by fine and imprisonment, and that Christianity is part of the common law.  It is vain to object that the law is obsolete; this is not so; it has seldom been called into operation because this, like some other offenses, has been rare.  It has been retained in our recollection of laws now in force, made by the direction of the legislature, and it has not been a dead letter.” (Id. at 403).

     Thus, the Third Commandment remains part of American law.

     The Fourth Commandment…”Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.”…was also enacted into law.  Examples of the early implementation of the Fourth Commandment into law are seen in the Virginia laws of 1610; the New Haven laws of 1653; the New Hampshire laws of 1680; the Pennsylvania laws of 1682; the Pennsylvania laws of 1705; the South Carolina laws of 1712; the North Carolina laws of 1741; and the Connecticut laws of 1751.  The Fourth Commandment clearly shaped and influenced American law. In 1775 and throughout the American Revolution, Commander-in-Chief George Washington issued military orders directing that the Sabbath be observed.  His order of May 2, 1778, at Valley Forge was typical: “The Commander in Chief directs that divine service be performed every Sunday at 11 o’clock in those brigades to which there are chaplains; those which have none to attend the places of worship nearest to them.  It is expected that officers of all ranks will by their attendance set an example to their men.” (General Orders, Head-Quarters, Valley Forge, Saturday, May 2, 1778, in 9 Writings of George Washington 342 [Fitzpatrick, ed.,1934]).  The Fourth Commandment is still found today in many laws throughout the country.

     In the Federal Era and well beyond, states continued to enact and reenact Sabbath laws.  In fact, the States went to impressive lengths to uphold the Sabbath.  For example, in 1787, Vermont enacted a ten-part law to preserve the Sabbath.  In 1791 Massachusetts enacted an eleven-part law. (Of the Observance of the Lord’s Day and the Prevention and Punishment of Immorality [passed November 4, 1835], in The Revised Statutes of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, pgs. 385-386 [1836]).  In 1792 Virginia enacted an extensive eight-part law, which was written by Thomas Jefferson and sponsored by James Madison. (An Act for the Effectual Suppression of Vice and Punishing the Disturbers of Religious Worship and Sabbath Breakers [passed December 26, 1792] in The Revised Code of the Laws of Virginia, pgs. 554-556 [1819]).  In 1799, New Hampshire enacted a fourteen-point law.  In 1821, Maine enacted a thirteen-point law.

     The Sabbath day has been recognized in the US Constitution under Article 1, Section 7, Paragraph 2, which states, in part, “If any Bill shall not be returned by the President within ten days (Sundays excepted) after it shall have been presented to him, the Same shall be Law…”.  The Missouri Supreme Court observed the following: “It is provided that if the Governor does not return a bill within 10 days (Sundays excepted), it shall become law without his signature.  Can any impartial mind deny that our laws contained recognition of the Lord’s Day as a day exempted by law from all worldly pursuits?  The framers of the Constitution, then, recognized Sunday as a day to be observed, acting themselves under a law which exacted a compulsive observance of it.  The Supreme Court ruled that Sunday closing laws are Constitutional. (McGowan v. Maryland, 366 U.S. 420 [1961]).  These laws originate from the Fourth Commandment as the Pennsylvania Supreme court stated: “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy; six days shalt thou labor and do all thy work; but the seventh day in the Sabbath of the Lord thy God.  In it thou shall not do any work.”  This divine pronouncement became part of the Common Law inherited by the thirteen American colonies and by the sovereign States of the American union. (i.e., Bertera’s Hopewell Foodland, Inc. v. Masters, 236 A.2d 197, 200-2001 [Pa. 1967]).

     Many states have recognized the Sabbath as influencing in their civil process laws.  For example, a 1830 New York law declared that “Civil process cannot, by statute, be executed on Sunday, and a service of such a process on Sunday is utterly void and subjects the officer to damages.”  Similar laws may be found in Pennsylvania in 1862; Pennsylvania in 1705; Vermont in 1787; Connecticut in 1796; and New Jersey in 1798.

     The Fourth Commandment clearly shaped and influenced American law.  I have provided only a few examples.  The Fourth Commandment is still found today in many laws throughout the country.

     Next week I will detour somewhat…coming back to the Fifth Commandment in the week following.  Some may wonder about what inspired me to start writing about ‘Politics and the Church’.  I know that there are some who believe that politics should be divorced from the church and never the two should meet.  However, in my research I came across situations where divorce is just not possible.  We have today a political system that is based less on Godly principles and more on ‘feel good, what will get me votes principles’.  As I hope I have shown over the years this nation was founded on Biblical principles and our initial laws were so based.  Today, many have found comfort in setting those principles aside and following ‘man-made’ statutes which makes life more convenient and less demanding.  Next week I will bring to light a story that I discovered that I found very disturbing and difficult to believe was taking place in the United States.  It’s an example of what can happen when man feels superior to God in establishing life’s living standards.

-Bob Munsey

“If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all.”  (Isaiah 7:9)

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